Abigail Adams and Her Times

by Laura E. Richards

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Chapter II - Girlhood and Marriage

Chapter II - Girlhood and Marriage from Abigail Adams and Her Times

WE are told that Abigail Smith in her childhood and girlhood was "surrounded by people of learning and political sagacity." Who were some of these people? At home in Weymouth, there was her father, of course, "remarkably lively and animated in all his public performances," as we learn from his tombstone. Doubtless his company was stimulating to the bright little girl; perhaps he took her with him now and then on his trips to Boston or Hingham, when he went to preach or to buy "Flower"; and ministers and other godly folk often came to the parsonage. But probably at her grandparents' home she saw even more people of learning and political sagacity. The Quincy clan itself made a goodly fellowship of cultivated men and women. The Hancocks lived near by. John Hancock was a boy of seven when Abigail was born. In the year 1755, when she was eleven, he was a lad of eighteen; had graduated the year before from Harvard College and had already begun a brilliant mercantile career. John was handsome and always fond of good clothes and gay colors. We have no description of his youthful costumes, but we know that one day in later life he wore "a red velvet cap within which was one of fine linen, the last turned up two or three inches over the lower edge of the velvet. He also wore a blue damask gown lined with velvet, a white stock, a white satin embroidered waistcoat, black satin small-clothes, white silk stockings and red morocco slippers."

Roxbury was not far off, and here lived the Warrens, warm friends of the Quincys. Joseph Warren was three years younger than Abigail; they may have played together in the Quincy gardens. We may fancy them, the little maid in bib and apron, mitts and kerchief; the little lad in flapped coat, knee-breeches, and waist-coat reaching to his knees; both have buckled shoes. Abby's hair is rolled smoothly back over a cushion, Pompadour-fashion, and tied behind with a ribbon; Joseph's worn in much the same way, but without the cushion.

There was another young man named John, who may have made calls either of ceremony or of friendship at the Quincy mansion. John Adams was a year behind John Hancock in college, having graduated in this very year 1755, which I have chosen for a survey of my heroine's surroundings. He came of good New England stock, his father being a substantial farmer, and for many years a selectman of the town of Braintree. The Adamses were never rich, yet we are told that there had been a silver spoon in the family for four generations.

"In the year 1791, Miss Hannah Adams, the historian, in writing to John Adams, made reference to the 'humble obscurity' of their common origin. Her correspondent, in reply, while acknowledging the kinship, went on energetically to remark that, could he 'ever suppose that family pride were any way excusable, [he] should think a descent from a line of virtuous, independent New England farmers for a hundred and sixty years was a better foundation for it than a descent through royal or noble scoundrels ever since the flood.'"[6]

When young John was sixteen, his father offered him the choice of following the family pursuit of farming, and inheriting his share of the family estate, worth some thirteen hundred pounds, or of having a "learned education" for all his inheritance. There was no question of John Adams' choice; he went to Harvard, as we have seen, and was one of the four best scholars in college at the time.

Shortly after receiving his degree, he became the teacher of the grammar school in the town of Worcester. This must have been a doleful change from his college life, with its gay and stimulating companionship, but he entered on the new work manfully, if not enthusiastically, and prospered in it.

Why do my thoughts so cluster round this year 1755? Why not take 1754, when Abigail was ten years old, or 1764, when she was twenty? Well, I shall have plenty to say about 1764, for that was the year—but never mind! The truth is, 1755 was a remarkable year, "a year never to be forgotten in America,"[7] a year made memorable by the cruel expulsion of the French from Nova Scotia, by the destruction of General Braddock's army, by the unfortunate attempt of Sir William Johnson against Crown Point. These were incidents in the so-called French and Indian War, a war in some respects more dreadful than any other up to that of the present day; a war specially momentous for all Americans, since it was to pay the debts then contracted that Great Britain levied on the American Colonies (which had voluntarily spent vast sums[28] and suffered untold hardships in this war), the taxes which brought about the American Revolution.

So much from the historical point of view; but for myself, I must confess that two events, one actual and terrible, the other conjectural and delightful, fixed 1755 at an early age in my mind.

That was the year when Lisbon town
Saw the earth open and gulp her down. I must have been a very small child when I proudly owned the Little Green Geography Book. There has been no other geography book like it; it was small, and square, and apple-green; it had many and wonderful pictures. Among these pictures, three impressed me most deeply: one of the Maelstrom, where a large vessel was going down over the edge of a terrifying circle like a round Niagara Falls; another of Peruvian Indians pulling up plants by the roots, and collecting quicksilver by the quart, it would appear. The third, and by far the most thrilling and terrifying, was of the Lisbon Earthquake. The ground was opening in every direction in long horrid chasms, and into these chasms were falling churches, houses, men, in dreadful confusion. This picture and that of the Maelstrom had a strange fascination for me; I was forever poring over them, when I should have been learning about the exports of Russia, of which to this day I can give little account.

And then—but every one of my readers knows that

'Twas on the terrible Earthquake Day
That the Deacon finished the One Hoss Shay.
So it really is not surprising that 1755 
is an annus mirabilis to me.

It is interesting to find that the earthquake came over seas to this country, and created considerable disturbance, though no serious damage was done. November the first was Lisbon's day of doom; it was the eighteenth before the internal commotion reached Massachusetts.

Parson Smith alludes to it with characteristic brevity: "A great and terrible earthquake happened."

Six words! We can fancy Mrs. Smith rushing to his study, crying out that the chimneys were falling, that Neighbor Wibird's great elm was down; daughter Mary bringing the news that the "Chaney Teapot had fallen from the dresser and was in a hundred pieces."

This, I say, we are at liberty to fancy, but Parson Smith will not help us. His next entry is: "Married David Bicknell to Jerusha Vinsen. Lent the Dr. a pail of hair."

(No; I don't believe it was his wig; it was probably cattle hair, to use with mortar; but he does not say.)

John Adams is kinder to us. His diary begins thus:

"We had a very severe shock of an earthquake. It continued near four minutes. I then was at my father's in Braintree, and awoke out of my sleep in the midst of it. The house seemed to rock and reel and crack, as if it would fall in ruins about us. Chimneys were shattered by it within one mile of my father's house."

John Adams' diary is as different from that of his future father-in-law as cheese from chalk. No abbreviations here; no dry statistics of birth, death, marriage, as if they were of no human interest. He pours out his rolling periods with evident enjoyment. His son, who edits the diary, says:

"These are loose fragments of journal in the hand-writing of John Adams upon scraps of paper scarcely legible, from 18 November, 1755, to 20 November, 1761. They were effusions of mind, committed from time to time to paper, probably without the design of preserving them; self-examinations at once severe and stimulative; reflections upon others, sometimes, not less severe upon his friends; thoughts such as occur to all, some of which no other than an unsullied soul would commit to writing, mingled with conceptions at once comprehensive and profound."

The future President was already deeply interested in public affairs; his ardent patriotism was already forecasting the future of his beloved country. Shortly before the beginning of the Diary, he writes to his friend and kinsman, Nathan Webb:

"All that part of creation which lies within our observation, is liable to change. Even mighty states and kingdoms are not exempt. . . . Soon after the Reformation, a few people came over into this new world for conscience's sake. Perhaps this apparently trivial incident may transfer the great seat of empire into America. It looks likely to me; for if we can remove the turbulent Gallicks, our people, according to the exactest computation, will in another century become more numerous than England itself. Should this be the case, since we have, I may say, all the naval stores of the nation in our hands, it will be easy to obtain the mastery of the seas; and then the united force of all Europe will not be able to subdue us. The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us. Divide et impera. Keep us distinct colonies, and then, some great men in each colony desiring the monarchy of the whole, they will destroy each others' influence and keep the country in equilibrio.

"Be not surprised that I am turned politician. This whole town is immersed in politics. The interests of nations, and all the dira of war, make the subject of every conversation. I sit and hear, and after having been led through a maze of sage observations, I sometimes retire, and by laying things together, form some reflections pleasing to myself. The produce of one of these reveries you have read above. . . .

"Friendship, I take it, is one of the distinguishing glories of man; and the creature that is insensible of its charms, though he may wear the shape of man, is unworthy of the character. In this, perhaps, we bear a nearer resemblance to unembodied intelligences than in anything else. From this I expect to receive the chief happiness of my future life; and am sorry that fortune has thrown me at such a distance from those of my friends who have the highest place in my affections. But thus it is, and I must submit. But I hope ere long to return, and live in[33] that familiarity that has from earliest infancy subsisted between yourself and affectionate friend,

"John Adams."
We shall see about this. Friendship played an important part in John Adams' life; but it was not to form the chief happiness of his life.

He did not enjoy teaching; witness another letter to Nathan Webb.

"The situation of the town is quite pleasant, and the inhabitants, as far as I have had opportunity to know their character, are a sociable, generous, and hospitable people; but the school is indeed a school of affliction. A large number of little runtlings, just capable of lisping A B C, and troubling the master. But Dr. Savil tells me, for my comfort, 'by cultivating and pruning these tender plants in the garden of Worcester, I shall make some of them plants of renown and cedars of Lebanon.' However this be, I am certain that keeping this school any length of time, would make a base weed and ignoble shrub of me."

Yet at times he realized the value of his work. We read in the diary of 1756:

"I sometimes in my sprightly moments consider myself, in my great chair at school, as some dictator at the head of a commonwealth. In this little state I can discover all the great geniuses, all the surprising actions and revolutions of the great world, in miniature. I have several renowned generals but three feet high, and several deep projecting politicians in petticoats. I have others catching and dissecting flies, accumulating remarkable pebbles, cockle-shells, etc., with as ardent curiosity as any virtuoso in the Royal Society. Some rattle and thunder out A B C, with as much fire and impetuosity as Alexander fought, and very often sit down and cry as heartily upon being outspelt, as Cæsar did, when at Alexander's sepulchre he reflected that the Macedonian hero had conquered the world before his age. At one table sits Mr. Insipid, foppling and fluttering, spinning his whirligig, or playing with his fingers, as gaily and wittily as any Frenchified cox-comb brandishes his cane or rattles his snuff-box. At another, sits the polemical divine, plodding and wrangling in his mind about 'Adam's fall, in which we sinned all,' as his Primer has it. In short, my little school, like the great world, is made up of kings, politicians, divines, L.D.'s, fops, buffoons, fiddlers, sycophants, fools, coxcombs, chimney-sweepers, and every other character drawn in history, or seen in the world. Is it not, then, the highest pleasure, my friend, to preside in this little world, to bestow the proper applause upon virtuous and generous actions, to blame and punish every vicious and contracted trick, to wear out of the tender mind everything that is mean and little, and fire the newborn soul with a noble ardor, and emulation?"

Out of school hours, John Adams was studying law with all possible diligence. By 1758 he was able to give up teaching, and was admitted to practise at the Massachusetts bar. His ability was recognized at once. A few years later, Governor Barnard, wishing to attach this promising young lawyer to the royal party, offered him the office of advocate-general in the Admiralty Court, which was considered a sure step to the highest honors of the bench.

This was the young man who, in 1764, came knocking at the door of Parson Smith of Weymouth, asking the hand of his daughter Abigail in marriage; to whom she writes on April 20th:

"I hope you smoke your letters well, before you deliver them. Mamma is so fearful lest I should catch the distemper, that she hardly ever thinks the letters are sufficiently purified. Did you never rob a bird's nest? Do you remember how the poor bird would fly round and round, fearful to come nigh, yet not know how to leave the place? Just so they say I hover round Tom, whilst he is smoking my letters.

"But heyday, Mr. What's your name, who taught you to threaten so violently? 'A character besides that of a critic, in which if I never did, I always hereafter shall fear you.' Thou canst not prove a villain, impossible,—I, therefore, still insist upon it, that I neither do nor can fear thee. For my part, I know not that there is any pleasure in being feared; but, if there is, I hope you will be so generous as to fear your Diana, that she may at least be made sensible of the pleasure. Mr. Ayers will bring you this letter and the bag. Do not repine,—it is filled with balm.

"Here is love, respects, good wishes, regards—a whole wagon load of them, sent you from all the good folks in the neighborhood.

"Tomorrow makes the fourteenth day. How many more are to come? I dare not trust myself with the thought. Adieu. Let me hear from you by Mr. Ayers, and excuse this very bad writing; if you had mended my pen it would have been better. Once more, Adieu. Gold and silver have I none, but such as I have give I unto thee,—which is the affectionate regard of your

"A. S."

We know little of the preliminary steps in the courtship. The young lawyer, riding his circuit, naturally passed through Weymouth, perhaps rode directly by the house of Parson Smith. The parson doubtless knew the elder Adams, would naturally offer civility and hospitality to his son; a man of parts himself, he would quickly perceive the intelligence and character of the young lawyer. But the Family at Large was mightily disturbed. Lawyers were looked askance at in those days; the law was a new profession, probably a dangerous, possibly an iniquitous one. Quincys, Nortons, Tynes, all shook their heads emphatically. The whole parish followed suit. What! Abigail, with her wit, beauty, gentle blood and breeding, marry "one of the dishonest tribe of lawyers," the son of a small country farmer? Perish the thought!

The elder sister Mary had been married the year before to Richard Cranch. This was thought a wholly suitable match. Parson Smith preached a wedding sermon, taking for his text, "And Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her," and everybody was pleased. But no one, except the contracting parties and the Parson, seems to have approved of Abigail's marrying John Adams. This, however, troubled none of the three overmuch. It is true that John had to do his courting without assistance from his future "in-laws." He must tie his horse to a tree and find his Abigail as he could: no one even offered him a courting-stick, that "hollow stick about an inch in diameter and six or eight feet long, fitted with mouth and ear pieces"[8] through which some lovers, seated on either side of the great fireplace, had to carry on their courtship in the presence of the whole family.

Possibly John Adams might have declined this privilege even had it been offered. He has nothing to say about his courtship, but thus soberly and gravely he writes of his marriage.

"Here it may be proper to recollect something which makes an article of great importance in the life of every man. I was of an amorous disposition, and, very early, from ten or eleven years of age, was very fond of the society of females. I had my favorites among the young women, and spent many of my evenings in their company; and this disposition, although controlled for seven years after my entrance into college, returned and engaged me too much till I was married.

"I shall draw no characters, nor give any enumeration of my youthful flames. It would be considered as no compliment to the dead or the living. This, I will say:—they were all modest and virtuous girls, and always maintained their character through life. No virgin or matron ever had cause to blush at the sight of me, or to regret her acquaintance with me. . . .

"I passed the summer of 1764 in attending courts and pursuing my studies, with some amusement on my little farm, to which I was frequently making additions, until the fall, when, on the 25th day of October, I was married to Miss Smith, second daughter of the Rev. William Smith, minister of Weymouth, granddaughter of the Honorable John Quincy, of Braintree, a connection which has been the source of all my felicity, although a sense of duty, which forced me away from her and my children for so many years, produced all the griefs of my heart, and all that I esteem real afflictions in life."

So they were married, and the parson conveyed a gentle reproof to his family and parishioners by preaching a sermon from Luke vii:33: "For John came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and ye say, 'He hath a devil.'"


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