The Adams Family Correspondence
edited by L.H. Butterfield
Harvard, The Belknap Press, Vol. I, 424, Vol. II, 490 pp., $17.50 the set
The first two volumes of the Adams Family Correspondence introduce what is to be called Series II in the publication of The Adams Papers, now in progress. When finally complete, Series II will contain about twenty volumes, giving us the letters exchanged between members of the Adams family up to 1889. The first two volumes cover the years 1761 to 1778, and they inevitably focus on John and Abigail Adams whose letters form the bulk of these volumes.
In dealing with such a mass of material any editorial arrangement chosen would necessarily fall far short of perfection. The editor-in-chief, Mr. L. H. Butterfield, decided, he tells us in the introduction, “to present the family correspondence as a unit in itself.” He gives excellent reasons for this plan, and perhaps a better would not have been possible. But the result is sometimes disappointing. Inevitably one’s interests in these letters centers on John Adams, one of the most curiously attractive among early American figures. Certainly it is both amusing and instructive to read the warm and charming little postscripts to his four small children in his letters to Abigail, or the urgent directions to her for securing a supply of proper fertilizer for his farm. Certainly Abigail’s circumstantial account of the effects of innoculation on their children during Boston’s smallpox epidemic of 1776 provides a vivid picture of colonial life, and on occasion she gives us a sketch of the temper of the populace during the revolutionary years that suggests Hawthorne. In July 31, 1777, she describes to her husband how seriously the Boston females resented profiteering by the merchants:
You must know that there is a great Scarcity of Sugar and Coffe, articles which the Female part of the State are very loth to give up, especially whilst they consider the Scarcity had been occasioned by the merchants having secreted a large Quantity …. It was rumourd that an eminent, wealthy, stingy Merchant (who is a Batchelor) had a Hogshead of Coffe in his Store which he refused to sell to the committee under 6 shillings per pound. A Number of Females some say a hundred, some say more assembled with a cart and trucks, marchd down to the Ware House and demanded the keys, which he refused to deliver, upon which one of them seazd him by his Neck and tossed him into the cart. Upon his finding no Quarter he delivered the keys, when they tipd, up the car and dischargd him by his Neck and tossed him Hoisted out the Coffe themselves, put it into the trucks and drove off.
It was reported he had a spanking among them….
Abigail is, on the whole, a more vivid letter writer than her husband, and passages like this one are not infrequent. However, when one compares these two volumes with the two volumes of The Adams-Jefferson Letters, edited by Lester J. Cappon in 1959, one feels a certain thinness. The major Adamses were public, not private, figures, and …