Abigail Adams and Her Times

by Laura E. Richards

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Chapter III - The Boston Massacre

Chapter III - The Boston Massacre from Abigail Adams and Her Times

IT was not a gay wedding, this of Abigail Smith and John Adams. They were married quietly by good Parson Smith, and then, hand in hand, walked across the fields to the little lean-to farmhouse where they were to find so much happiness and to live through such difficult times. It seems unlikely that Abigail enjoyed the pretty Colonial custom of "coming out Bride," of which we read in old diaries and letters. On the first Sunday after the wedding it was customary for the bride and groom, "whether old or young, gentle or simple," to go to church in the very best finery they could muster. If they were well-to-do, they kept this up for the four Sundays of the honeymoon, sometimes—oh, un-Puritan extravagance!—in a new gown and suit each time! "They usually arrived a bit late, in order to have their full meed of attention; and proceeded slowly, arm in arm, down the broad aisle to seats of honor, in the hushed attention of the entire congregation. . . . At a certain point in the services, usually after the singing of the second hymn, the happy couple, in agonies of shyness and pride, rose to their feet, and turned slowly twice or thrice around before the eyes of the whole delighted assembly, thus displaying to the full every detail of their attire."[9]

This would not have suited either Abigail or John Adams. Their tastes were simple, their minds set on far other things than clothes. Mrs. Adams was always neat and trim in her dress, never extravagant or ostentatious. Whether in the little Braintree farmhouse, at the Court of St. James, or as Lady of the White House, she was always the same—simple, modest, dignified: an example and an inspiration to all around her.

The first ten years of her married life were passed happily and quietly, partly in Braintree, partly in Boston, whither Mr. Adams' increasing law practice often called him. Four children were born to her, a daughter named for herself, and three sons, John Quincy, Charles and Thomas.

Mrs. Adams kept no diary; it is to her husband's that we naturally turn for records of these ten[42] years of happy family life. Alas! he has nothing to say about them. He was living his home life; it never occurred to him to write about it. His diary is concerned with public and professional affairs, and with them alone.

It was not till forced apart by the pressure of public duties and private service, that these two loving hearts needed any other expression than the spoken word of affection, cheer and sympathy. It is to the breaking up of their happy home life that we owe the Familiar Letters which are of such priceless value to all students of American history, to all lovers of high and noble thought.

But we have not come to the separation yet; we must consider these ten silent years, and fill in the picture as best we may.

Here is a sketch, boldly drawn by John Adams himself, writing in his old age to a friend, which brings the time before us as nothing else can. He is describing a scene in the Council Chamber in the old Town House, in February, 1761.

"In this chamber, round a great fire, were seated five judges, with Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson at their head as Chief Justice, all arrayed in their new, fresh, rich robes of scarlet English broadcloth; in their large cambric bands and immense judicial wigs. . . . In this chamber were seated at a long table all the barristers at law of Boston, and of the neighboring county of Middlesex in gowns, bands, and tie wigs. They were not seated on ivory chairs, but their dress was more solemn and pompous than that of the Roman Senate, when the Gauls broke in upon them. . . .

"Samuel Quincy and John Adams had been admitted barristers at that term. John was the youngest; he should be painted looking like a short, thick archbishop of Canterbury, seated at the table with a pen in his hand, lost in admiration.

"But Otis was a flame of fire, with . . . a torrent of impetuous eloquence, he hurried away everything before him. . . . Then and there the child Independence was born."

The year 1763 is usually regarded as the beginning of the American Revolution, since it was in that year that George III and his ministers determined to raise a revenue from the colonies. These matters belong rather to history than to biography, but we must briefly note the most striking events of this important time. In 1761 were issued the Writs of Assistance, which empowered Government officials to enter and search the houses of citizens for possible contraband goods. In 1765 came the Stamp[44] Act, imposing war-taxes on the Colonies, and struck cold on the hearts of the colonists. Franklin, seldom stirred out of his philosophic calm, cried aloud on hearing of it, "The sun of liberty is set!" For John Adams, it was the call to action, and from it dates his entrance into the field of politics. He was a selectman of Braintree at this time: "he prepared at home a draft of instructions, and carried them with him to the meeting. They were accepted by the town without a dissenting voice, and being published in Draper's paper, from a copy furnished to the printer at his request, were adopted by forty other towns of the province, as instructions to their respective representatives. Passages from them were also adopted in the instructions from the town of Boston to their representatives, which were drawn up by Samuel Adams."

Immediately after the Boston town meeting, John Adams was asked to appear as counsel for the town before the governor and council, "in support of the memorial of the town, praying that the courts of law in the province" (closed by order of the governor, because the stamps had not been delivered) might be opened.

Singularly enough, on the same evening, possibly at the same hour, when the people of Boston were thus showing their trust and confidence in him, Mr. Adams was recording in his diary the doubts and fears which beset him at the prospect opened before him by the Stamp Act and its consequences.

"The bar seem to me to behave like a flock of shot pigeons; they seem to be stopped; the net seems to be thrown over them, and they have scarcely courage left to flounce and to flutter. So sudden an interruption in my career is very unfortunate for me. I was but just getting into my gears, just getting under sail, and an embargo is laid upon the ship. Thirty years of my life are passed in preparation for business; I have had poverty to struggle with, envy and jealousy and malice of enemies to encounter, no friends, or but few, to assist me; so that I have groped in dark obscurity, till of late, and had but just become known and gained a small degree of reputation, when this execrable project was set on foot for my ruin as well as that of America in general, and of Great Britain."

On receiving the invitation from Boston next day, he marveled.

"When I recollect my own reflections and speculations yesterday, a part of which were committed to writing last night, and may be seen under December 18th, and compare them with the proceedings of Boston yesterday, of which the foregoing letter informed me, I cannot but wonder, and call to mind Lord Bacon's observation about secret invisible laws of nature, and communications and influences between places that are not discovered by sense.

"But I am now under all obligations of interest and ambition, as well as honor, gratitude and duty, to exert the utmost of my abilities in this important cause. How shall it be conducted?"

As we all know, the Stamp Act was repealed in March, 1776, and we find no more doubts or fears in John Adams' diary. Henceforth he belonged to his country. So did the diary! From now on it is chiefly a record of public affairs. This was natural, but one does wish he had said a little more about his home and family. Only now and then do we find an entry of this kind:

"A duller day than last Monday, when the Province was in a rapture for the repeal of the Stamp Act, I do not remember to have passed. My wife, who had long depended on going to Boston, and my little babe, were both very ill, of an whooping cough. Myself under obligation to attend the superior court at Plymouth the next day, and therefore unable to go to Boston, and the town of Braintree insensible to the common joy!"

Or we read: "Set off with my wife for Salem; stopped half an hour at Boston, crossed the ferry, and at three o'clock arrived at Hill's, the tavern in Malden, the sign of the Rising Eagle, at the brook near Mr. Emerson's meeting-house, five miles from Norwood's: where, namely, at Hill's, we dined. Here we fell in company with Kent and Sewall. We all oated at Martin's, where we found the new sheriff of Essex, Colonel Saltonstall. We all rode into town together. Arrived at my dear brother Cranch's about eight, and drank tea, and are all very happy. Sat and heard the ladies talk about ribbon, catgut, and Paris net, ridinghoods, cloth, silk and lace. Brother Cranch came home, and a very happy evening we had."

Mr. Cranch was the gentleman in marrying whom Mary Smith had "chosen the good part." The brothers-in-law were warm friends and there were many pleasant family meetings.

"April 8th. Mounted my horse, in a very rainy morning, for Barnstable, leaving my dear brother Cranch and his family at my house. Arrived at Dr. Tufts', where I found a fine wild goose on the spit, and cranberries stewing in the skillet for dinner. Tufts, as soon as he heard that Cranch was at Braintree, determined to go over and bring him and wife[48] and child over, to dine upon wild goose, and cranberry sauce."

In the spring of 1768, Mr. Adams moved into Boston with his wife and children. It was the first of several moves, which he thus records in his diary four years later:

"In April, 1768, I removed to Boston, to the white house in Brattle Square. In the spring, 1769, I removed to Cole Lane, to Mr. Fayerweather's house. In 1770, I removed to another house in Brattle Square, where Dr. Cooper now lives; in 1771, I removed from Boston to Braintree, in the month of April, where I have lived to this time. I hope I shall not have occasion to remove so often for four years and a half to come."

In 1768, John Adams went on circuit as usual. Returning, he found the town full of troops. They had landed "about one o'clock at noon, October the first, under cover of the ship's cannon, without molestation; and, having effected it, marched into the Common with muskets charged, bayonets fixed, drums beating, fifes playing, etc., making, with the train of artillery, upward of seven hundred men."[10]

The diary continues: "Through the whole succeeding Fall and Winter, a regiment was exercised[49] by Major Small, in Brattle Square, directly in front of my house. The spirit-stirring drum and the ear-piercing fife aroused me and my family early enough every morning, and the indignation they excited, though somewhat soothed, was not allayed by the sweet songs, violins and flutes, of the serenading Sons of Liberty under my windows in the evening. In this way and a thousand others, I had sufficient intimations that the hopes and confidence of the people were placed in me as one of their friends; and I was determined that, so far as depended on me, they should not be disappointed; and that if I could render them no positive assistance at least I would never take any part against them.

"My daily reflections for two years, at the sight of these soldiers before my door, were serious enough. Their very appearance in Boston was a strong proof to me, that the determination in Great Britain to subjugate us was too deep and inveterate ever to be altered by us; for every thing we could do was misrepresented, and nothing we could say was credited. On the other hand, I had read enough in history to be well aware of the errors to which the public opinions of the people were liable in times of great heat and danger, as well as of the extravagances of which the populace of cities were capable[50] when artfully excited to passion, and even when justly provoked by oppression. . . .

"The danger I was in appeared in full view before me; and I very deliberately, and, indeed, very solemnly, determined at all events to adhere to my principles in favor of my native country, which, indeed, was all the country I knew, or which had been known by my father, grandfather, or great grandfather; but, on the other hand, I never would deceive the people, nor conceal from them any essential truth, nor, especially, make myself subservient to any of their crimes, follies, or eccentricities. These rules, to the utmost of my capacity and power, I have invariably and religiously observed to this day."

The drummings and fifings were to have more serious results than the disturbing of good citizens' slumbers. The presence of the troops in Boston proved a constant and growing irritation to the citizens, already exasperated by repeated aggressions. The soldiers saw no reason why they should be polite to the people, the people saw every reason why they should be rude to the soldiers. There were constant wrangles and jangles, growing more and more frequent, more and more violent, till at length, on[51] the night of March 5th, 1770, the seething pot boiled over. John Adams writes:

"The evening of the fifth of March I spent at Mr. Henderson Inches' house, at the south end of Boston, in company with a club with whom I had been associated for several years. About nine o'clock we were alarmed with the ringing of bells, and, supposing it to be the signal of fire, we snatched our hats and cloaks, broke up the club, and went out to assist in quenching the fire, or aiding our friends who might be in danger. In the street we were informed that the British soldiers had fired on the inhabitants, killed some and wounded others, near the town-house. A crowd of people was flowing down the street to the scene of action. When we arrived, we saw nothing but some field-pieces placed before the south door of the town-house, and some engineers and grenadiers drawn up to protect them. . . . Having surveyed round the town house, and seeing all quiet, I walked down Boylston Alley into Brattle Square, where a company or two of regular soldiers were drawn up in front of Dr. Cooper's old church, with their muskets all shouldered, and their bayonets all fixed. I had no other way to proceed but along the whole front in a very narrow space which they had left for passengers. Pursuing my way, without taking the least notice of them, or they of me, any more than if they had been marble statues, I went directly home to Cole Lane."

What had happened was the Boston Massacre, which is vividly described by John Quincy Adams, at that time a child of two years.

It was nine o'clock of a moonlight night, he tells us, and there had been a light fall of snow on the icy streets. A single sentry was pacing slowly up and down before the door of the custom house in King Street. From his beat he could hear shouts and tumult in the neighboring streets; Boston did not go to bed at curfew these days. Parties of citizens had met parties of soldiers, and exchanged uncomplimentary remarks, with shouts and threats on either side. Probably the sentry thought little of this: it went on every night, more or less. Presently, however, round the corner came a barber's boy, and began to "slang" the sentry himself. This was another matter, and he responded in kind. The dispute ran high; other boys came running, and with them men, angry men who had had their fill of British insolence. The sentry, who for his part had had quite enough of "rebel impudence," called for support, and out came a corporal and six men (or twelve—the accounts vary) under the direction of Captain Preston, and ranged themselves in a semi-circle in front of his post. Instantly, as if by magic, the soldiers were surrounded by "forty or fifty of the lower order of town's people, who had been roving the streets armed with billets of wood. . . . What begins with jeering and profanity not seldom ends in some shape or other of deepest tragedy. Forty or fifty of the coarsest people of a small trading town and eight hirelings of an ordinary British regiment can scarcely be imagined as types of any solid principle or exalted sentiment, and yet at the bottom lay the root of bitterness which soon afterwards yielded such abundant fruit. This was the first protest against the application of force to the settlement of a question of right."

We all know the outcome. Seven of the soldiers, "either under orders or without orders," fired: five men fell mortally wounded: six others were wounded less seriously. Each musket was loaded with two balls and every ball took effect. "So fatal a precision of aim, indicating not a little malignity, though it seems never to have attracted notice, is one of the most singular circumstances attending the affray. No wonder, then, that peaceable citizens of a town, until now inexperienced in events of the kind, should, in their horror of the spectacle, have called the act a massacre, and have demanded, in tones the most absolute, the instantaneous removal of the cause. The armed hand, which had done this deed, was that of England. It was not that of a friend or guardian. The drops of blood then shed in Boston were like the dragon's teeth of ancient fable—the seeds, from which sprung up the multitudes who would recognize no arbitration but the deadly one of the battle-field."

There can have been little sleep that night for either Mr. or Mrs. Adams. The latter was in delicate health. The roll of the drums, the shouts of "Town-born, turn out, turn out!" the tramp of soldiers, as company after company was hurried to the scene of action, must have been terrifying enough. Still the tumult grew, till at length Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson, with great difficulty making himself heard from the balcony of the town house (now known as the Old State House) pledged his word to the citizens that justice should be done, and prevailed upon the commander of the troops to withdraw them to their barracks.

This quieted the tumult, but still a crowd of anxious citizens—not the rioters, but the sober patriots who realized the gravity of the crisis—besieged the closed doors behind which Governor and Commander and justices of the peace were in council. All night they waited, watchful, silent: at three in the morning, it was announced that Captain Preston had surrendered himself and was committed to prison; then, and not till then, Boston went to bed.

The rest of the story must be told by John Adams himself.

"The next morning, I think it was, sitting in my office, near the steps of the town-house stairs, Mr. Forrest came in, who was then called the Irish Infant. I had some acquaintance with him. With tears streaming from his eyes, he said, 'I am come with a very solemn message from a very unfortunate man, Captain Preston, in prison. He wishes for counsel, and can get none. I have waited on Mr. Quincy, who says he will engage, if you will give him your assistance; without it, he positively will not. Even Mr. Auchmuty declines, unless you will engage.' I had no hesitation in answering that counsel ought to be the very last thing that an accused person should want in a free country; that the bar ought, in my opinion, to be independent and impartial, at all times and in every circumstance, and that persons whose lives were at stake ought to have the counsel they preferred. But he must be sensible this would be as important a cause as was ever[56] tried in any court or country of the world; and that every lawyer must hold himself responsible not only to his country, but to the highest and most infallible of all tribunals, for the part he should act. He must, therefore, expect from me no art or address, no sophistry or prevarication, in such a cause, nor any thing more than fact, evidence, and law would justify. 'Captain Preston,' he said, 'requested and desired no more; and that he had such an opinion from all he had heard from all parties of me, that he could cheerfully trust his life with me upon those principles.' 'And,' said Forrest, 'as God Almighty is my judge, I believe him an innocent man.' I replied, 'That must be ascertained by his trial, and if he thinks he cannot have a fair trial of that issue without my assistance, without hesitation, he shall have it.'

"Upon this, Forrest offered me a single guinea as a retaining fee, and I readily accepted it. From first to last I never said a word about fees, in any of those cases, and I should have said nothing about them here, if calumnies and insinuations had not been propagated that I was tempted by great fees and enormous sums of money. Before or after the trial, Preston sent me ten guineas, and at the trial of the soldiers afterwards, eight guineas more, which were all the fees I ever received or were offered to me, and I should not have said anything on the subject to my clients if they had never offered me anything. This was all the pecuniary reward I ever had for fourteen or fifteen days' labor in the most exhausting and fatiguing causes I ever tried, for hazarding a popularity very general and very hardly earned, and for incurring a clamor, popular suspicions and prejudices, which are not yet worn out, and never will be forgotten as long as the history of this period is read.

"It was immediately bruited abroad that I had engaged for Preston and the soldiers, and occasioned a great clamor, which the friends of the government delighted to hear, and slily and secretly fomented with all their art."

Their arts were of little avail. While the trial (which lasted through a whole term) was still in progress, an election came on for a representative of Boston, in the town meeting, and the people, eager to show their confidence in John Adams, elected him by a large majority.

"I had never been at a Boston town meeting, and was not at this, until messengers were sent to me to inform me that I was chosen. I went down to Faneuil Hall, and in a few words expressive of my[58] sense of the difficulty and danger of the times, of the importance of the trust, and of my own insufficiency to fulfill the expectations of the people, I accepted the choice. Many congratulations were offered, which I received civilly, but they gave no joy to me. I considered the step as a devotion of my family to ruin, and myself to death; for I could scarce perceive a possibility that I should ever go through the thorns and leap all the precipices before me and escape with my life.

"At this time I had more business at the bar than any man in the Province. My health was feeble. I was throwing away as bright prospects as any man ever had before him, and I had devoted myself to endless labor and anxiety, if not to infamy and to death, and that for nothing, except what indeed was and ought to be all in all, a sense of duty. In the evening, I expressed to Mrs. Adams all my apprehensions. That excellent lady, who has always encouraged me, burst into a flood of tears, but said she was very sensible of all the danger to her and to our children, as well as to me, but she thought I had done as I ought; she was very willing to share in all that was to come, and to place her trust in Providence."

These apprehensions were unfounded. Thanks to Adams' eloquence, Preston was acquitted, and so great was the public confidence in his advocate that not a murmur of dissent was heard, nor was his popularity in any degree lessened.

John Adams seldom condescends to anecdote, but he does tell us of "a labored controversy, between the House and the Governor, concerning these words: 'In General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same.' I mention this merely on account of an anecdote, which the friends of government circulated with diligence, of Governor Shirley, who then lived in retirement at his seat in Roxbury. Having read this dispute, in the public prints, he asked, 'Who has revived those old words? They were expunged during my administration.' He was answered, 'The Boston seat.' 'And who are the Boston seat?' 'Mr. Cushing, Mr. Hancock, Mr. Samuel Adams, and Mr. John Adams.' 'Mr. Cushing I knew, and Mr. Hancock I knew,' replied the old Governor, 'but where the devil this brace of Adamses came from, I know not.' This was archly circulated by the ministerialists, to impress the people with the obscurity of the original of the par nobile fratrum, as the friends of the country used, to call us, by way of retaliation."


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