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Adams at Home

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 their personalities seem a little ill-at-ease off the platform. Who but John Adams could have dreamed of modeling a letter of courtship to Abigail on Euphues? It begins:


Love sweetens Life, and Life sometimes destroys Love. Beauty is desirable and Deformity detestible; Therefore Beauty is not Deformity nor Deformity, Beauty. Hope springs eternal in the human Breast, I hope to be happier next Fall than I am at present, and this Hope make me happyer now than I should be without it. I am at Braintree but I wish I were at Weymouth!… This summer I shall like Weymouth better than Braintree but something prompts me to believe I shall like Braintree next Winter better than Weymouth.

The comparative poverty of effect made by these volumes arises from the fact that they are all, literally, family letters, so that the important political side of Adams’s life receives a scant showing. The letters cover the years during which Adams was a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The last is writen to Abigail from “On Board the Frigate Boston” that was to carry him and his son John Quincy to Paris to join the American commission. The years are, therefore, crucial ones, marking Adams’s transition from a colonial to a national statesman, but this is only obscurely visible in this selection from the correspondence.

As an example of what I mean, consider the two letters Adams wrote from Philadelphia on July 24, 1775. One of these to his wife is included in Vol. I, p. 255. It is a hurried duty letter, the substance of which is wholly contained in the first sentence:

My Dear,

It is now almost three Months since I left you, in every part of which my Anxiety about you and the Children, as well as our Country, has been extreme.

A decent note—but of no interest to anybody except Abigail, to whom it conveyed the information that although he was heavily burdened with work he was thinking of her whenever he could. It is included in the Family Correspondence because it is just that—family. But the second letter (quoted below in part) to James Warren, written on the same day, is excluded because it is not family. Adams in the first sentence is speaking of John Dickinson, the wealthy delegate to the Congress from Pennsylvania, whom he suspected of vaccillation in the American cause:

A certain great fortune and piddling genius whose fame has been trumpeted so loudly, has given a silly cast to our whole doings. We are between hawk and buzzard. We ought to have had in our hands, a month ago, the whole legislative, executive, and judicial of the whole continent, and have completely modelled a constitution; to have raised a naval power and opened all our ports wide; to have arrested every friend of government on the continent, and held them as hostages for the poor victims in Boston; and then opened the door as wide as possible for peace and reconciliation. After this, they might have petitioned, negotiated, addressed, etc., if they would.

As a revelation of the rapid progress of Adams’s republican views at this time, this letter to Warren seems as significant as any Adams appears to have written during the year. In the spring of 1775 he had published his “Novanglus” papers (barely alluded to in the Family Correspondence) in the Boston Gazette in which he had advanced the view that while Parliament might be the supreme power in England she had no relation whatever with the colonies; except when she acted in her imperial capacity to regulate the commerce of the empire as a whole. Somewhat surprisingly, Adams said: “We submit to this cheerfully.” And he went on to argue that since the real tie of empire (which he envisaged as an association of equals) was the Crown, the King should take the titles King of Massachusetts, King of Rhode Island, and so on. The last of the “Novanglus” papers appeared on April 17, 1775. The development or reversal that had occurred in three months seems astonishing, and one is inclined to feel short-changed at being given Adams’s empty little note to his wife, written on July 24, but not the highly significant letter to Warren.

One understands that this letter will appear elsewhere in a future volume of The Adams Papers, and Mr. Butterfield provides a descriptive reference to the Warren letter in a footnote. Nevertheless, the overall effect of this plan of selection and arrangement is sometimes one of concentrated triviality. If a reader were to depend largely on these volumes, without reference to other sources, for an impression of John Adams’s mind and personality, he would be given an extremely abridged and misleading version.

Perhaps no President has been so consistently plagued through history by a distorted public image created, in part at least, by his political enemies. The years Adams spent in Europe seem to have had a radical effect on his sensibility. His philosophy of government had already been formulated, largely by his study of the English political philosophers John Harrington and Bolingbroke, before he went abroad. But his experience at Versailles and the Court of St. James not only altered Adams’s manner; it gave a remarkably monarchical cast to the vocabulary in which he expressed his sturdily republican ideas. When he came home to preside over the Senate as the first Vice-President of the new government, he found a crowd of anti-Federalist senators and representatives eagerly waiting for him to drop some political hairpins. Adams’s irascible, stubborn, and charmingly vain temperament being what it was, he immediately threw a whole carton on the floor of the Senate. William Maclay, the rather malicious Senator from Pennsylvania, recorded Adams’s speech to the Senate on the President’s title in the pages of his Journal with great glee:

Gentlemen, I must tell you that it is you and the President that have the making of titles. Suppose the President to have the appointment of Mr. Jefferson to the Court of France. Mr. Jefferson is, in virtue of that appointment, the most illustrious, the most powerful, and what not. But the President must be himself something that includes all the dignities of the diplomatic corps and something greater still. What will the common people of foreign countries say, what will the sailors and the soldiers say, “George Washington. President of the United States”? They will despise him to all eternity.

Adams fervently believed in a powerful Executive. He would have abhorred nothing more than states’ rights. It is paradoxical that the Republicans, out of whom the Democratic party eventually evolved, should have come in the long course of time to adopt so much of Adams’s wisdom. They hated him at the time—partly because he had the talent of couching his philosophy in a terminology they found repellent. “What is the resemblance of a president to a monarch?” he asked:

It is the resemblance of Mount Vernon to the Andes; of the Tiber at Washington to the Ganges or Mississippi. A president has the executive power only, and that under severe restrictions; and as I am too old to court popularity, I will venture to say, in my opinion, very pernicious restrictions; restrictions that will destroy this constitution before its time.

As with all the Federalists, democracy was an impolite word in Adams’s ear, but only because it connoted mob rule. On seeing a grease spot on her newly painted wall, just over the settee, Martha Washington is reported to have cried out that none but a filthy democrat would have been capable of such a thing. Adams put it with deeper insight and in a higher style:

We curse religiously the memory of Mary [Tudor], for burning good men in Smithfield, when, if England had then been democratical, she would have burned many more…

Honestly or dishonestly misinterpreting Adams’s writings, his enemies placed him at the head of a party, in William Maclay’s words, “that cared for nothing else but a translation of the diadem and sceptre from London to Boston, New York, or Philadelphia; or, in other words, the creation of a new monarchy in America, and to form niches for themselves in the temple of royalty.” As late as 1814 John Taylor of Carolina published a book of nearly 600 pages attacking Adams’s monarchical—or rather, in this case, aristocratical—philosophy of government.

This is not the place to discuss Adams’s theory of tri-partite government, or the beautifully liberal meaning he brought to his favorite doctrine of a natural aristocracy. He himself understood perfectly the nature of his enemies’ incomprehension of all he believed in. “Jefferson and Rush were for liberty and straight hair,” he wrote. “I thought that curled hair was as republican as straight.” Today the nature and extent of Adams’s contribution to the dignity and stability of the American government is generally understood, and the strength of his own presidency appreciated. But the image of “His Rotundity” created by his enemies—pompous, ambitious, and royalist—lingers, however faintly.

The Adams who is presented in the first two volumes of the Adams Correspondence seems to have very little relation with the figure whom Jefferson was to describe to Madison as “Always honest, often great, but sometimes absolutely mad.” The man who emerges from these comparatively early letters is blunt, simple, plain, and every inch a republican patriot. Common sense, practicality, family affection, reasonableness, and total dedication to country and public service are his notes. He appears to be so little monarchical in his sentiments that when he hears the Declaration of Independence proclaimed in Boston on July 21, 1776, he writes to Abigail: “After dinner the king’s arms were taken down from the State House and every vestige of him from every place in which it appeard and burnt in King Street. Thus ends Royall Authority in this State, and all the people shall say Amen.” There is no indication in these letters of the interesting qualifications Adams would bring to his Amen.

Though much of the complexity and interest of Adams’s mind is obscured because of the principles on which these letters have been selected, the honest John Adams of Braintree and Boston that they present is doubtless a more essential component of the total man than the figure we encounter in Maclay’s Journal. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to regret the absence from these pages of that Adams who would write in a letter many years later:

Standing in the lobby of the house of Lords, surrounded by a hundred of the first people in the kingdom, Sir Francis Molineux, the gentleman usher of the black rod, appeared suddenly in the room, with his long staff, and roared out with a very loud voice—“Where is Mr. Adams, Lord Mansfield’s friend!” I frankly avowed myself Lord Mansfield’s friend, and was politely conducted by Sir Francis to my place.

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