Abigail Adams and Her Times

by Laura E. Richards

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Chapter I - Begins at the Beginning

SEVENTEEN HUNDRED AND FORTY-FOUR! George the Second on the throne of England, "snuffy old drone from the German hive"; Charles Edward Stuart ("bonnie Prince Charlie") making ready for his great coup which, the next year, was to cast down said George from the throne and set Charles Edward thereupon as "rightful, lawful prince—for wha'll be king but Charlie?", and which ended in Culloden and the final downfall and dispersion of the Scottish Stuarts. In France, Louis XV., Lord of Misrule, shepherding his people toward the Abyss with what skill was in him; at war with England, at war with Hungary; Frederick of Prussia alone standing by him. In Europe, generally, a seething condition which is not our immediate concern. In America, seething[2] also: discontent, indignation, rising higher and higher under British imposition (not British either, being the work of Britain's German ruler, not of her people!), yet quelled for the moment by war with France.

I am not writing a history; far from it. I am merely throwing on the screen, in the fashion of today, a few scenes to make a background for my little pen-picture-play. What is really our immediate concern is that on November eleventh of this same year, 1744, was born to the wife of the Reverend William Smith of Weymouth, Massachusetts, a daughter, baptized Abigail.

Parson Smith was a notable figure of the times; not a great man, but one of character, intelligence and cultivation. He married a daughter of Colonel John Quincy, so my heroine was a cousin—I cannot tell in what precise degree—to Dorothy Q. of poetic-pictorial fame; cousin, too, (her grandmother having been a Norton) to half Boston, the cultivated and scholarly half.

Parson Smith kept a diary, as dry a document as I have often read. He had no time to spare, and his brief entries are abbreviated down to the finest possible point. For example, we read that

"By my Gd I am as'd and Ev. am as'd at my S[3] and do now ys D Sol prom By Thy God never to T. to s. ag."

This is puzzling at first sight; but the practiced reader will, after some study, make out that the good Parson, writing for himself alone, was really saying,

"By my God I am assured and Even am assured at my Strength, and do now this Day Solemnly promise By Thy God never to Tempt to sin again."

Even this is somewhat cryptic, but we are glad of the assurance, the more that we find the poor gentleman still troubled in spirit a week later.

"Lord g't me S to res the e. so prej'd to me. Lord I am ashamed of it and resolve to s. e. T. by thy S."

Which being interpreted is: "Lord, grant me Strength to resist the evil so prejudicial to me. Lord, I am ashamed of it and resolve to shun evil Temptation by thy Strength."

What the temptation was, we may not know. Possibly he was inclined to extravagance in certain matters of personal dignity and adornment: we read of his paying fifteen pounds "for my wig"; and again, "At Boston. Paid Mr. Oliver for a cut whigg £10.00." But this is nothing. Parson Smith came of "kent folk," and may have had private[4] means beside the salary of eight hundred dollars. Do we not read that Samuel Adams' barber's bill "for three months, shaving and dressing," was £175, paid by the Colony of Massachusetts?

Necessary expenses were also heavy. "Dec. 4th, 1749. Paid Brother Smith for a Barrel of Flower £15.11.3." But on the other hand, he sold his horse to Mr. Jackson for £200.

1751 was an eventful year. On April 23d we read,

"Weymouth Meeting House took fire about half an hour after 10 o'clock at night and burnt to the ground in abt 2 hours."

This is all Parson Smith has to say about it, but the Boston Post-Boy of April 29th tells us that:

"Last Tuesday Night the old Meeting-house in Weymouth was burnt to the Ground: and three Barrels of Gunpowder, the Town-Stock, being in the Loft, blew up with a great noise. 'Tis uncertain by what Means the Fire happen'd."

Paul Torrey, the town poet, says of it:

Our powder stock, kept under lock,
With flints and bullets were
By dismal blast soon swiftly cast
Into the open air.
The poem hints at incendiaries.

I'm satisfied they do reside
Somewhere within the town:
Therefore, no doubt, you'll find them out,
By searching up and down.

On trial them we will condemn,
The sentence we will give:
Them execute without dispute,
Not being fit to live.

This was a heavy blow to minister and congregation, in fact to the whole community; for the meeting-house was the centre and core of the village life.

Meeting-house: (Cotton Mather found "no just ground in Scripture to apply such a trope as 'church' to a home for public assembly.") Sabbath, or more often Lord's Day: these are the Puritan names, which happily we have not yet wholly lost. The early meeting-houses were very small; that of Haverhill was only twenty-six feet long and twenty wide. They were oftenest set on a hilltop, partly as a landmark, partly as a lookout in case of prowling Indians. The building or "raising" of a meeting-house was a great event in the community. Every citizen was obliged by law to share in the work or the expense. Every man must give a certain amount of "nayles." Contributions were levied for lumber, for labor of horses and men, and for "Rhum and Cacks" to regale the workers. "When the Medford people built their second meeting-house, they provided for the workmen and bystanders, five barrels of rum, one barrel of good brown sugar, a box of fine lemons, and two loaves of sugar. As a natural consequence, two-thirds of the frame fell, and many were injured. In Northampton, in 1738, ten gallons of rum were bought for £8 'to raise the meeting-house'—and the village doctor got '£3 for setting his bone Jonathan Strong, and £3 10s. for setting Ebenezer Burt's thy' which had somehow through the rum or the raising, both gotten broken."[1] Finally it was realized that rum and "raising" did not go well together, and the workmen had to wait till night for their liquor.

Once up, the meeting-house became the centre of village life. On the green outside stood the stocks, the whipping-post, the pillory, the cage. We are told that the first man to occupy the Boston stocks was the carpenter who made them, his charge for the lumber used being considered over high. The pillory was much frequented by Quakers and other non-orthodox persons. Here, too, were horse-blocks, and rows of stepping-stones for muddy days. The Concord horse-block was a fine one; it was[7] erected by the women of the town, each housewife giving a pound of butter toward the expense. On the walls and door of the meeting-house were nailed grinning heads of wolf and bear, killed partly for safety, possibly more for the reward: fifteen shillings for a live wolf, ten for a dead one. We are not told what was done with the live wolves. A man in Newbury killed seven wolves in one year; but that is nothing. We learn from the history of Roxbury that in 1725, in one week in September, twenty bears were killed within two miles of Boston! Wolves were far more dreaded than bears, and save in this one remarkable instance, far more abundant. In 1723, Ipswich was so beset by wolves that children could not go to meeting or to school without a grown attendant.

In the early days, the meeting-house was unpainted; paint would have been thought a sinful extravagance. The eighteenth century, however, brought laxer ideas; brought also cheaper paint, and the result was a sudden access of gayety. Pomfret, Connecticut, painted its meeting-house bright yellow. Instantly Windham, near by, voted that its meeting-house be "colored something like the Pomfret meeting-house." Killingly, in turn, gave orders that "the cullering of the body of our meeting-house should be like the Pomfret meeting-house, and the Roff shal be cullered Read." But Brooklyn carried off the palm, with a combination of orange, chocolate and white, which must have been startling even in 1762, and which would surely have sent Cotton Mather into convulsions, had he been alive to see.

Wolves' heads outside the meeting-house; inside, the village powder magazine! It was the safest place, because there was never any fire in the meeting-house. Sometimes in the steeple, sometimes under the roof-beams, there the "powder-closite" was. If a thunder-storm came on during service, the congregation ran out, and waited under the trees till it was over.

Few meeting-houses boasted a bell. The shrill toot of a horn, the clear blast of a conch-shell, or the roll of a drum, gave the signal for prayer, and brought the villagers hurrying from their doors and across the green to the meeting-house. In East Hadley, the man who "blew the cunk" received three dollars a year for his services. The drummer was better paid, receiving fourteen shillings of the town's money.

This digression on meeting-houses (drawn from Mrs. Alice Morse Earle's delightful "Sabbath in[9] Puritan New England") may be pardoned if it gives some idea of the disaster so briefly recorded by Parson Smith. Neither parson nor parishioners were one whit discouraged, however. On May 16th, it is true, they kept a "Fast, to bewail the burning of our Meeting House": but on August 7th we read: "Began to raise Weymouth Meeting House, 3 days and half about it." And on September 1st: "Met in our New Meeting House. I p(reache)d."

What heroic labor, what depth and height of earnest purpose, what self-denial and sacrifice, these eight brief words represent, we may well imagine, but Parson Smith gives us no help. The thing was done: there was no more to say.

About this time, we begin to find ominous entries in the diary, following one another in quick and grievous succession. On the same page that records (August 15th) "P'd £15 for my wig," we read, "Mr. Benjamin Bicknells Child Died of the throat Distemper." Two days later: "Mr. Pettee's Daughter Died of the Throat D. aged 5. Paid £4 for a hat for my Son."

Every day through the rest of the year they were dying, the little children, of what we may suppose was diphtheria, or some kindred affection. It was a dreadful time. On November 21st we read:

"Fast Day at Mr. Bayleys Parish on account of the throat Distemper prevailing there. Mr. Colton p'd from 2 Jer. 30 'In vain have I smitten yr c(hildre)n ye rec'd no Correction.'"

There had been a similar epidemic in 1735-6. In twelve months, nine hundred and eighty-four died of the distemper, by far the greater part under ten years of age—"the woful effects of Original Sin," remarks a pious writer of the time.

All this time little Abigail Smith has been waiting patiently in her cradle; now her turn has come. Remarkable woman as she was, perhaps the most striking fact in her life was that she lived. Why or how any Puritan baby survived its tribulations, one hardly knows; that is, any baby born in winter, and late November is winter in New England. Within a few days of its birth, the baby was taken to the meeting-house to be baptized; the meeting-house, unwarmed, as we have seen, from year's end to year's end, the wolf Cold waiting to receive the poor lamb, with jaws opened wider than those that grinned on the outer walls of the building. This expedition often completed the baby's earthly career. "Of Judge Sewall's fourteen children but three survived him, a majority dying in infancy; and of fifteen children of his friend Cotton Mather, but two survived[11] their father."[2] We are not actually told that the christening expedition killed them, but we may infer it in many cases.

The baby slept in a hooded cradle; before going to his christening, he must be carried upstairs, with silver and gold in his hand, and "scarlet laid on his head to keep him from harm." If he had fits or rickets, he was largely dosed with snail-water. To make the "admirable and most famous Snail-water" you must "take a peck of garden Shel Snails, wash them well in Small Beer, and put them in an oven till they have done making a Noise, then take them out and wipe them well from the green froth that is upon them, and bruise them shels and all in a Stone Mortar, then take a Quart of Earthworms, scower them with salt, slit them, and—"[3] but perhaps you do not wish to make Snail-water, even the most admirable and famous; and after all, we have no reason to think that Abigail Smith had rickets, though she was a delicate child. She was not thought strong enough to go to school; possibly in any case it might not have been thought necessary for her. The education of woman was little thought of in those days; indeed, she herself says in one of her[12] letters that it was fashionable to ridicule female learning. In another letter, written the year before her death, she says:

"My early education did not partake of the abundant opportunities which the present days offer, and which even our common country schools now afford. I never was sent to any school. I was always sick. Female education, in the best families, went no further than writing and arithmetic; in some few and rare instances, music and dancing."

How, then, did Abigail get her education? Easily enough; school was not necessary for her. She loved books, and there were plenty of them, not only in Parson Smith's study, but in the home of her grandfather, Colonel John Quincy, then living at Mount Wollaston, not far from Weymouth. A great part of her childhood was spent with her grandparents, and to her grandmother Quincy, in particular, she always felt that she owed a great deal.

"I have not forgotten," she writes to her own daughter in 1795, "the excellent lessons which I received from my grandmother, at a very early period of life. I frequently think they made a more durable impression upon my mind than those which I received from my own parents. Whether it was owing to the happy method of mixing instruction and amusement together, or from an inflexible adherence to certain principles, the utility of which I could not but see and approve when a child, I know not; but maturer years have rendered them oracles of wisdom to me. I love and revere her memory; her lively, cheerful disposition animated all around her, whilst she edified all by her unaffected piety. This tribute is due to the memory of those virtues the sweet remembrance of which will flourish, though she has long slept with her ancestors."

We can fancy the child sitting by the delightful grandmother, imbibing instruction and amusement, working the while at her sampler, or setting delicate stitches in a shirt for father or grandfather. Girls do not make the family shirts nowadays; but I know one dear lady who at seven years old was set down at her grandmother's side to cut and make a shirt for her grandfather, taking every stitch herself. We can see Abigail, too, browsing among Colonel Quincy's bookshelves; reading Shakespeare and Dryden and Pope and Prior; the Spectator, too, and all the history she could lay her hands on, and perhaps the novels of Mr. Richardson, Mr. Fielding, Mr. Smollett, three young men who were making a great stir in those days. She wrote letters, too, in[14] the fashion of the time; endless letters to girl friends in Weymouth or Boston, "hifalutin" in language, but full of good sense and good feeling. We elders are always sighing, "Give us, ah! give us but yesterday!" and I cannot help deploring the decay of letter-writing. Says Charles Francis Adams, in the admirable Memoir with which he prefaces his collection of the letters of John and Abigail Adams:

"Perhaps there is no species of exercise, in early life, more productive of results useful to the mind, than that of writing letters. Over and above the mechanical facility of constructing sentences, which no teaching will afford so well, the interest with which the object is commonly pursued gives an extraordinary impulse to the intellect. This is promoted in a degree proportionate to the scarcity of temporary and local subjects for discussion. Where there is little gossip, the want of it must be supplied from books. The love of literature springs up where the weeds of scandal take no root. The young ladies of Massachusetts, in the last century, were certainly readers, even though only self-taught; and their taste was not for the feeble and nerveless sentiment, or the frantic passion, which comes from the novels and romances in the circulating library of our day, but was derived from the deepest wells of English literature. The poets and moralists of the mother country furnished to these inquiring minds their ample stores, and they were used to an extent which it is at least doubtful if the more pretending and elaborate instruction of the present generation would equal."

However this may be, (and I believe every word of it myself!) we must all be thankful that Abby Smith formed the letter-writing habit early in life; if she had not, we might have lacked one of the most vivid pictures of life in Revolutionary times. Her girlhood letters (those at least to her girl friends) were signed "Diana," and were addressed to Myra, Aspasia, Calliope, Aurelia. Later, in writing to her faithful friend, lover and husband, "Portia" was the name she chose, a name that suited her well. Here is a letter, written in her girlhood, to her friend, Mrs. Lincoln:

"Weymouth, 5 October, 1761.

"My Dear Friend,
"Does not my friend think me a stupid girl, when she has kindly offered to correspond with me, that I should be so senseless as not to accept the offer? Senseless and stupid I would confess myself, and that to the greatest degree, if I did not foresee the many advantages I shall receive from corresponding with a lady of your known prudence and understanding.

"I gratefully accept your offer; although I may be charged with vanity in pretending to entertain you with my scrawls; yet I know your generosity is such, that, like a kind parent, you will bury in oblivion all my imperfections. I do not aim at entertaining. I write merely for the instruction and edification which I shall receive, provided you honor me with your correspondence. . . .

"You bid me tell one of my sparks (I think that was the word) to bring me to see you. Why! I believe you think they are as plenty as herrings, when, alas! there is as great a scarcity of them as there is of justice, honesty, prudence and many other virtues. I've no pretensions to one. Wealth, wealth is the only thing that is looked after now. 'Tis said Plato thought, if Virtue would appear to the world, all mankind would be enamoured with her, but now interest governs the world, and men neglect the golden mean.

"But, to be sober, I should really rejoice to come and see you, but if I wait till I get a (what did you call 'em?) I fear you'll be blind with age.

"I can say, in the length of this epistle, I've made the golden rule mine. Pray, my friend, do not let it be long before you write to your ever affectionate

"A. S."

One feels sure that Abigail was a good child, as well as a bright one. She was not an infant prodigy, one is glad to think; parents and grandparents were too sensible to play tricks with her mind or her soul. One sighs to read of the "pious and ingenious Jane Turell," a Puritan child who could relate many stories out of the Scriptures before she was two years old. "Before she was four years old, she could say the greater part of the Assembly's Catechism, many of the Psalms, read distinctly, and make pertinent remarks on many things she read. She asked many astonishing questions about divine mysteries." It is comforting to know that Jane liked green apples; her father, at the end of a pious letter adjures her "as she loves him not to eat them," but it shows that after all she was a human child.

We do not know much about the diet of Puritan children. Parson Smith was a good farmer, killed his own pork and beef, planted apple trees, made cider, etc. We may suppose that Abigail had plenty[18] of good fish and flesh, with a "sallet" now and then, and corn, squash, and pumpkins at her desire. "Pompions," the latter were often called, while "squash" were variously known as squantersquash, askutasquash, isquoukersquash, all Indian variants of the one name which we clip into a monosyllable. Wheat did not grow well in the Colonies; oaten and rye meal was chiefly used in combination with the universal corn. They had hasty pudding, boiled in a bag, or fried: "sukquttahhash," and jonne-cake, or journey cake, which we have changed by the insertion of an h till it appears as if "Johnny" had either invented or owned it. Parched corn (our pop-corn), a favorite food of the Indians, was also highly appreciated by the Colonists. They were amazed at first sight of it: Governor Winthrop explains carefully how, on being parched, the corn turns entirely inside out, and is white and floury within. Sometimes they made it into "No-cake," which is, we are told, "Indian corn, parched in the hot ashes, the ashes being sifted from it; it is afterwards beaten to powder and put into a long leatherne bag, trussed like a knapsacke, out of which they take thrice three spoonfuls a day." This was considered wonderfully sustaining food; it was mixed, before eating, with snow in winter, with water in summer.

The pumpkins were made into "pyes," cakes, bread, sauce.

We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon, If it were not for pumpkins we should be undone. Potatoes were brought over from England as early as 1636, but were not grown till some time later. People were still afraid of them: some thought that "if a man eat them every day he could not live beyond seven years." Some again fancied the balls were the edible portion, and "did not much desire them." Nor were the recipes for cooking them specially inviting. "The Accomplisht Cook" much in use about the year 1700 says that potatoes must be "boiled and blanched; seasoned with nutmeg and cinnamon and pepper; mixed with eringo roots, dates, lemon, and whole mace; covered with butter, sugar, and grape verjuice, made with pastry; then iced with rosewater and sugar, and yclept a 'Secret Pye.'"[4]

Let us hope that Mrs. Smith, a Quincy born, knew better than to torture and overwhelm a worthy vegetable! We know little of this good lady, but we may suppose that she was a notable housewife, since her daughter in later life showed such skill in all household arts. We shall see by and by how Abigail baked and brewed, spun and wove, clothed and fed and cared for her family, often with little or no assistance. We may fancy her now, trotting about after Mother Smith at Weymouth or Grandmother Quincy at Wollaston, her bright eyes noting everything, her quick fingers mastering all the arts of preserving, candying, distilling. There was a passion for such work among the New England women in those days.

"They made preserves and conserves, marmalets and quiddonies, hypocras and household wines, usquebarbs and cordials. They candied fruits and made syrups. They preserved everything that would bear preserving. I have seen old-time receipts for preserving quinces, 'respasse,' pippins, 'apricocks,' plums, 'damsins,' peaches, oranges, lemons, artichokes; green walnuts, elecampane roots, eringo roots, grapes, barberries, cherries; receipts for syrup of clove gillyflower, wormwood, mint, aniseed, clove, elder, lemons, marigold, citron, hyssop, liquorice; receipts for conserves of roses, violets, borage flowers, rosemary, betony, sage, mint, lavender, marjoram, and 'piony'; rules for candying fruit, berries, and flowers, for poppy water, cordial, cherry water, lemon water, thyme water, Angelica water, Aqua Mirabilis, Aqua Celestis, clary water, mint water."[5]

Good living was cheap in Abigail's childhood. An English traveler, visiting Boston in 1740, writes thus: "Their poultry of all sorts are as fine as can be desired, and they have plenty of fine fish of various kinds, all of which are very cheap. Take the butchers' meat all together, in every season of the year, I believe it is about twopence per pound sterling; the best beef and mutton, lamb and veal are often sold for sixpence per pound of New England money, which is some small matter more than one penny sterling.

"Poultry in their season are exceeding cheap. As good a turkey may be bought for about two shillings sterling as we can buy in London for six or seven, and as fine a goose for tenpence as would cost three shillings and sixpence or four shillings in London. The cheapest of all the several kinds of poultry are a sort of wild pigeon, which are in season the latter end of June, and so continue until September. They are large, and finer than those we have in London, and are sold here for eighteenpence a dozen, and sometimes for half of that.

"Fish, too, is exceedingly cheap. They sell a fine fresh cod that will weigh a dozen pounds or more, just taken out of the sea, for about twopence sterling. They have smelts, too, which they sell as cheap as sprats are in London. Salmon, too, they have in great plenty, and these they sell for about a shilling apiece, which will weigh fourteen or fifteen pounds."

Shad, strange to say, was profoundly despised. In Puritan times they were fed to the hogs; in 1733 they sold two for a penny, and it was not at all "the thing" to eat them—or at least to be seen eating them! A story is told of a family in Hadley, Massachusetts, who were about to dine on a shad; and who, hearing a knock at the door, delayed opening it till shad and platter had been hustled out of sight.

"They have venison very plenty. They will sell as fine a haunch for half a crown as would cost full thirty shillings in England. Bread is much cheaper than we have in England, but is not near so good. Butter is very fine, and cheaper than ever I bought any in London; the best is sold all summer for threepence a pound. But as for cheese, it is neither cheap nor good."

And milk was one penny a quart!

But we shall see great changes before we finish our story. These were the years of plenty, of the fat kine and the full ears of corn. Eat your fill, Abigail! drink your milk while it is a penny a quart; the lean years are coming, when you will pinch and scrape and use all your wit and ability to feed and clothe your family, and will look back with a sigh on these full years of your childhood.


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