Abigail Adams and Her Times

by Laura E. Richards

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Chapter IX - Mr. Adams Abroad

IN August, 1779, Mr. Adams returned, and all was joy; but again the joy was short-lived. There seemed really no end to the trials of these two loving hearts. In November, Mr. Adams was again ordered to France on public service, and sailed in November. This time he took not only John but little Charles with him, and Abigail's heart was doubly desolate. "Dearest of Friends,—My habitation, how desolate it looks! my table, I sit down to it, but cannot swallow my food! Oh, why was I born with so much sensibility, and why, possessing it, have I so often been called to struggle with it? I wish to see you again. Were I sure you would not be gone, I could not withstand the temptation of coming to town, though my heart would suffer over again the cruel torture of separation.

"What a cordial to my dejected spirits were the few lines last night received! And does your heart forebode that we shall again be happy? My hopes and fears rise alternately. I cannot resign more than I do, unless life itself were called for. My dear sons, I cannot think of them without a tear. Little do they know the feelings of a mother's heart. May they be good and useful as their father! Then they will in some measure reward the anxiety of a mother. My tenderest love to them. Remember me also to Mr. Thaxter, whose civilities and kindness I shall miss.

"God Almighty bless and protect my dearest friend, and, in his own time, restore him to the affectionate bosom of

It was all the more lonely for Mrs. Adams that the winter was a severe one: "the sublimest winter" she ever saw. In December and January there fell the highest snow known in forty years; all through January and February, the Bay was frozen over, so that no vessel could pass through for a month. "We had neither snow, rain, nor the least thaw. It has been remarkably healthy, and we have lived along very comfortably, though many people have suffered greatly for food."

In the long winter days, how eagerly Mrs. Adams must have watched for the incoming mails! I do not know what were the postal arrangements of Braintree; very likely there were none. In Boston, the Post Office was opened every Monday morning from the middle of March to the middle of September, "at 7 of the clock, to deliver out all letters that do come by the post till twelve o'clock; from twelve to two o'clock, being dinner-time, no office kept; and from two o'clock in the afternoon to six o'clock the office will be open to take in all letters to go by the Southern and Western post."

A single letter cost one shilling to send; this rate held to the middle of the nineteenth century. Beside letters, the faithful Portia sent to her John all the papers and news-letters she could lay hands on.

Boston by this time had several newspapers. The first of these, appearing as early as 1704, was the Boston News-Letter, "Published by Authority." For some time this little sheet held the field alone; but in 1721 appeared the Boston Gazette, and the New England Courant. In both these, James Franklin, Benjamin's elder brother, had a hand; indeed, the Courant was his own paper, started when he was discharged from the staff of the Gazette. He seems to have been a quarrelsome fellow, was twice arraigned for contempt, and once imprisoned. Benjamin, then a boy of sixteen, astute from his cradle, contributed by stealth to the Courant more or less; but slipped away to Philadelphia without getting into trouble.

These papers, doubtless, Portia sent regularly to her John, who received them as often as Fate or the enemy allowed.

Now and then Mrs. Adams took her chaise and went into town to make some visits in Boston or Cambridge.

"Present my compliments to Mr. Dana," she writes. "Tell him I have called upon his lady, and we enjoyed an afternoon of sweet communion. I find she would not be averse to taking a voyage, should he be continued abroad. She groans most bitterly, and is irreconcilable to his absence. I am a mere philosopher to her. I am inured, but not hardened, to the painful portion. Shall I live to see it otherwise?"

This was written in July, 1780. We may fancy Madam Abigail setting out on this expedition, stately and demure in hoop petticoat and high-heeled shoes. We cannot be sure whether she wore a Leghorn hat or a calash. Here I pause for a moment; I remember a calash, in my childhood. It was made of thin green silk, shirred on pieces of rattan or whalebone, placed two or three inches apart. These were drawn together at the back by a cape, and thus, bent into hoop-shape, could be drawn so far over the face as to cover it entirely. The "bashful bonnet," the thing was called; certainly, no headdress ever was uglier, but it must have been "matchless for the complexion," as Madam Patti says of a certain well-known soap.

On the whole, knowing what the calash looked like, I should prefer to think that Madam Abigail wore a Leghorn hat over her fine dark hair. Leghorns were costly. I have heard of their costing twenty-five or even fifty dollars: but they lasted for years and years. It was not till some years after this that American women began to make their own bonnet straw. It became the rage, both here and in England, and women vied with each other in the amount and quality of their "straw-work." Hats and bonnets were not enough; women wore "straw-coats" or paillasses; these were made of "sarcenet, calico, or linen, and ornamented profusely with straw." A writer in the European Magazine exclaims:

"Straw! straw! everything is ornamented in straw, from the cap to the shoe-buckles; Ceres is the favorite, not only of the female but the male[186] part of the fashionable world, for the gentlemen's waistcoats are ribbed with straw."

Here is a long digression; let us hope that Mrs. Dana gave Mrs. Adams a good dish of tea and that she went home refreshed.

There are but few letters of 1780: probably many were lost. In October Mrs. Adams again quotes the current prices, for which her husband frequently asks.

"You tell me to send you prices current. I will aim at it. Corn is now thirty pounds, rye twenty-seven, per bushel. Flour from a hundred and forty to a hundred and thirty per hundred. Beef, eight dollars per pound; mutton, nine; lamb, six, seven, and eight. Butter, twelve dollars per pound; cheese, ten. Sheep's wool, thirty dollars per pound; flax, twenty. West India articles: sugar, from a hundred and seventy to two hundred pounds per hundred; molasses, forty-eight dollars per gallon; tea, ninety; coffee, twelve; cotton-wool, thirty per pound. Exchange from seventy to seventy-five for hard money. Bills at fifty. Money scarce; plenty of goods; enormous taxes."

And what were young John and Charles doing, far from home and mother? They were studying, and improving themselves in every proper way. In December, 1780, they were sent to Leyden, which Mr. Adams thinks "perhaps as learned a University as any in Europe." He notes in his diary of January, 1781, "John is transcribing a Greek Grammar . . . of his master's composition, and Charles a Latin one; John is also transcribing a treatise on Roman antiquities. . . . After dinner they went to the Rector Magnificus to be matriculated into the University; Charles was found to be too young, none under twelve years of age being admitted; John was admitted after making a declaration that he would do nothing against the laws of the university, city, or land."

I have to exercise stern self-control to keep from quoting too much from Mr. Adams' diary: after all, it is his wife's story that I am trying to tell. Yet—surely never were husband and wife more entirely one—I must indulge myself, and my readers, with his account of the Royal Family of France at supper. He did not admire Queen Marie Antoinette as much as Edmund Burke did, and does not scruple to say so.

"She was an object too sublime and beautiful for my dull pen to describe. I leave this enterprise to Mr. Burke. But, in his description, there is more of the orator than of the philosopher. Her dress[188] was every thing that art and wealth could make it. One of the maids of honor told me she had diamonds upon her person to the value of eighteen millions of livres; and I always thought her majesty much beholden to her dress. Mr. Burke saw her probably but once. I have seen her fifty times perhaps, and in all the varieties of her dresses. She had a fine complexion, indicating perfect health, and was a handsome woman in her face and figure. But I have seen beauties much superior, both in countenance and form, in France, England, and America."

He goes on to describe the spectacle of the grand couvert:

"I was selected, and summoned indeed, from all my company, and ordered to a seat close beside the royal family. The seats on both sides of the hall, arranged like the seats in a theatre, were all full of ladies of the first rank and fashion in the kingdom, and there was no room or place for me but in the midst of them. It was not easy to make room, for one more person. However, room was made, and I was situated between two ladies, with rows and ranks of ladies above and below me, and on the right hand and on the left, and ladies only. My dress was a decent French dress, becoming the station I held, but not to be compared with the gold, and diamonds, and embroidery, about me. I could neither speak, nor understand the language in a manner to support a conversation, but I had soon the satisfaction to find it was a silent meeting, and that nobody spoke a word, but the royal family, to each other, and they said very little. The eyes of all the assembly were turned upon me, and I felt sufficiently humble and mortified, for I was not a proper object for the criticisms of such a company. I found myself gazed at, as we in America used to gaze at the sachems who came to make speeches to us in Congress, but I thought it very hard if I could not command as much power of face as one of the chiefs of the Six Nations, and, therefore, determined that I would assume a cheerful countenance, enjoy the scene around me, and observe it as coolly as an astronomer contemplates the stars. . . . The king was the royal carver for himself and all his family. His majesty ate like a king, and made a royal supper of solid beef, and other things in proportion. The queen took a large spoonful of soup, and displayed her fine person and graceful manners, in alternately looking at the company in various parts of the hall, and ordering several kinds of seasoning to be brought to her, by which she fitted her supper to her taste. When this was accomplished, her majesty exhibited to the admiring spectators, the magnificent spectacle of a great queen swallowing her royal supper in a single spoonful all at once. This was all performed like perfect clock work; not a feature of her face, nor a motion of any part of her person, especially her arm and her hand, could be criticized as out of order. A little, and but a little, conversation seemed to pass among the royal personages of both sexes, but in so low a voice, that nothing could be understood by any of the audience.

"The officers about the king's person brought him many letters and papers, from time to time, while he was at table. He looked at these. Some of them he read, or seemed to read, and returned them to the same officers who brought them, or some others.

"These ceremonies and shows may be condemned by philosophy and ridiculed by comedy, with great reason. Yet the common sense of mankind has never adopted the rigid decrees of the former, nor ever sincerely laughed with the latter. Nor has the religion of nations, in any age, approved of the dogmas or the satires. On the contrary, it has always overborne them all, and carried its inventions of such exhibitions to a degree of sublimity[191] and pathos, which has frequently transported the greatest infidels out of themselves. Something of the kind every government and every religion has, and must have; and the business and duty of lawgivers and philosophers is to endeavor to prevent them from being carried too far."

Mr. Adams is full of anxieties:

"I am sorry to learn you have a sum of paper. How could you be so imprudent? You must be frugal, I assure you. Your children will be poorly off. I can but barely live in the manner that is indispensably demanded of me by everybody. Living is dear indeed here. My children will not be so well left by their father as he was by his. They will be infected with the examples and habits and tastes for expensive living without the means. He was not. My children shall never have the smallest soil of dishonor or disgrace brought upon them by their father, no, not to please ministers, kings, or nations. At the expense of a little of this, my children might perhaps ride at their ease through life, but dearly as I love them, they shall live in the service of their country, in her navy, her army, or even out of either in the extremest degree of poverty, before I will depart in the smallest iota from my sentiments of honor and delicacy; for I, even I, have sentiments of delicacy as exquisite as the proudest minister that ever served a monarch. They may not be exactly like those of some ministers. . . .

"General Washington has done me great honor and much public service by sending me authentic accounts of his own and General Greene's last great actions. They are in the way to negotiate peace. It lies wholly with them. No other ministers but they and their colleagues in the army can accomplish the great event.

"I am keeping house, but I want a housekeeper. What a fine affair it would be, if we could flit across the Atlantic as they say the angels do from planet to planet! I would dart to Penn's Hill and bring you over on my wings; but, alas, we must keep house separately for some time. But one thing I am determined on. If God should please to restore me once more to your fireside, I will never again leave it without your ladyship's company—no, not even to go to Congress to Philadelphia, and there I am determined to go, if I can make interest enough to get chosen, whenever I return. I would give a million sterling that you were here; and I could afford it as well as Great Britain can the thirty millions she must spend, the ensuing year, to complete her own ruin. Farewell, farewell."

I like to picture John Adams as he wrote those words: sitting erect at his desk, his chin up, his eyes flashing. So, I fancy, he may have looked, in his "decent French dress" in the crowd of court ladies, that evening at Versailles.

More and more as time went on, did the two friends long for each other. I say "friends," because it is their own word; most of the letters begin with it. Abigail writes:

"My dearest Friend,—The family are all retired to rest; the busy scenes of the day are over; a day which I wished to have devoted in a particular manner to my dearest friend; but company falling in prevented it, nor could I claim a moment until this silent watch of the night.

"Look (is there a dearer name than friend? Think of it for me), look to the date of this letter, and tell me what are the thoughts which arise in your mind. Do you not recollect that eighteen years have run their circuit since we pledged our mutual faith to each other, and the hymeneal torch was lighted at the altar of Love? Yet, yet it burns with unabating fervor. Old Ocean has not quenched it, nor old Time smothered it in this bosom. It cheers me in the lonely hour; it comforts me even in the gloom which sometimes possesses my mind."

She begs to be allowed to join him in Europe.

"I have repeatedly expressed my desire to make a part of your family. But 'Will you come and see me?' cannot be taken in that serious light I should choose to consider an invitation from those I love. I do not doubt but that you would be glad to see me, but I know you are apprehensive of dangers and fatigues. I know your situation may be unsettled, and it may be more permanent than I wish it. Only think how the words, 'three, four, and five years' absence,' sound! They sink into my heart with a weight I cannot express. Do you look like the miniature you sent? I cannot think so. But you have a better likeness, I am told. Is that designed for me? Gracious Heavens! restore to me the original, and I care not who has the shadow."

John was fully convinced that Portia would not like Paris, and that it would not agree with her or the children. "It would be most for the happiness of my family," he says, "and most for the honor of our country, that I should come home. I have, therefore, this day written to Congress a resignation of all my employments, and as soon as I shall receive their acceptance of it, I will embark for America, which will be in the spring or[195] beginning of summer. Our son is now on his journey from Petersburg, through Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, and if it please God he come safe, he shall come with me, and I pray we may all meet once more, you and I never to separate again."

It was about this time that "a person" asked Mrs. Adams, "If you had known that Mr. Adams should have remained so long abroad, would you have consented that he should have gone?"

"I recollected myself a moment," says Portia, "and then spoke the real dictates of my heart: 'If I had known, sir, that Mr. Adams could have effected what he has done, I would not only have submitted to the absence I have endured, painful as it has been, but I would not have opposed it, even though three years more should be added to the number (which Heaven avert!). I feel a pleasure in being able to sacrifice my selfish passions to the general good, and in imitating the example which has taught me to consider myself and family but as the small dust of the balance, when compared with the great community."

And now the long separation was to end. In December, 1782, Mr. Adams writes:

"Whether there should be peace or war, I shall come home in the summer. As soon as I shall receive[196] from Congress their acceptance of the resignation of all my employments, which I have transmitted many ways, I shall embark, and you may depend upon a good domestic husband for the remainder of my life, if it is the will of Heaven that I should once more meet you. My promises are not lightly made with anybody. I have never broken one made to you, and I will not begin at this time of life.

"My children, I hope, will once at length discover that they have a father who is not unmindful of their welfare. They have had too much reason to think themselves forgotten, although I know that an anxiety for their happiness has corroded me every day of my life.

"With a tenderness which words cannot express, I am theirs and yours forever."

The war was over; the child Independence had grown to full stature, and the Republic took her place among the nations. On the 21st of January, 1783, articles of peace were drawn up between Great Britain, France, and the United States.


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