Abigail Adams and Her Times

by Laura E. Richards

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Chapter V - After Lexington

ON October 28th, Mr. Adams set out on his return homeward. The Diary reads:

"Took our departure, in a very great rain, from the happy, the peaceful, the elegant, the hospitable, and polite city of Philadelphia. It is not very likely that I shall ever see this part of the world again, but I shall ever retain a most grateful, pleasing sense of the many civilities I have received in it, and shall think myself happy to have an opportunity of returning them."

John Adams was to see a good deal more of Philadelphia; but he spent this winter of 1774-5 at home with Portia and the four children, happily, so far as home life went, but beset by anxieties and tasks. He was immediately elected into the Provincial Congress; besides this, he was writing weekly letters, signed "Novanglus," for the Boston Gazette, important letters answering those of "Massachusettensis" in Draper's paper, which "were conducted with a subtlety of art and address wonderfully calculated to keep up the spirits of their party, to depress ours, to spread intimidation, and to make proselytes among those whose principles and judgment give way to their fears; and these compose at least one-third of mankind." Mr. Adams notes soberly that "in New England, they [his own letters] had the effect of an antidote to the poison of Massachusettensis, and," he adds, "the battle of Lexington, on the 19th of April, changed the instruments of warfare from the pen to the sword."

Abigail, naturally, has nothing to say about Lexington and Concord; how should she? Her John was at home with her, and she kept no diary. But John might have given us a word about Paul Revere and the rising of the countryside, about the gathering of the minute-men on that green over which "the smoke of the battle still seems to hang": might have mentioned at least that toy pistol of Major Pitcairn's—a pretty thing, gold and mother-of-pearl, given him by admiring friends—which we are told fired the actual first shot of the Revolution, provoking that other which was "heard round the world": he might have told—as his son, long years after when he was President of the United States, loved to tell—how, the day after the battle, the minute-men came,[90] and took Mrs. Adams' pewter spoons to melt them into bullets: but no!

"A few days after this event," he says, "I rode to Cambridge, where I saw General Ward, General Heath, General Joseph Warren, and the New England army. There was great confusion and much distress. Artillery, arms, clothing were wanting, and a sufficient supply of provisions not easily obtained. Neither the officers nor men, however, wanted spirits or resolution. I rode from thence to Lexington, and along the scene of action for many miles, and inquired of the inhabitants the circumstances. These were not calculated to diminish my ardor in the cause; they, on the contrary, convinced me that the die was cast, the Rubicon passed, and, as Lord Mansfield expressed it in Parliament, if we did not defend ourselves, they would kill us. On my return home, I was seized with a fever, attended with alarming symptoms; but the time was come to repair to Philadelphia to Congress, which was to meet on the fifth of May. I was determined to go as far as I could, and instead of venturing on horseback, as I had intended, I got into a sulky, attended by a servant on horseback, and proceeded on the journey."

This was an anxious journey for Mr. Adams, knowing as he did, that he was leaving his beloved family exposed to many and grave dangers. Parliament had, in February, 1775, declared the Colony of Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion, and things went from bad to worse in Boston. The following letter gives the full measure of his anxiety:

"Mr. Eliot, of Fairfield, is this moment arrived, on his way to Boston. He read us a letter from the Dr., his father, dated yesterday sennight, being Sunday. The Dr.'s description of the melancholy of the town is enough to melt a stone. The trials of that unhappy and devoted people are likely to be severe indeed. God grant that the furnace of affliction may refine them. God grant that they may be relieved from their present distress.

"It is arrogance and presumption, in human sagacity, to pretend to penetrate far into the designs of Heaven. The most perfect reverence and resignation becomes us, but I cannot help depending upon this, that the present dreadful calamity of that beloved town is intended to bind the colonies together in more indissoluble bonds, and to animate their exertions at this great crisis in the affairs of mankind. It has this effect in a most remarkable degree, as far as I have yet seen or heard. It will plead with all America with more irresistible persuasion than angels trumpet-tongued.

"In a cause which interests the whole globe, at a time when my friends and country are in such keen distress, I am scarcely ever interrupted in the least degree by apprehensions for my personal safety. I am often concerned for you and our dear babes, surrounded, as you are, by people who are too timorous and too much susceptible of alarms. Many fears and jealousies and imaginary dangers will be suggested to you, but I hope you will not be impressed by them. In case of real danger, of which you cannot fail to have previous intimations, fly to the woods with our children. Give my tenderest love to them, and to all."

"Fly to the woods with our children"! The words tell only too plainly how terrible was the danger the writer apprehended. The woods were—or at any moment might be—full of prowling savages, from whom no mercy could be expected; yet John Adams would choose to run this risk rather than others that threatened, or seemed to threaten, his dear ones. One feels through all the years the thrill of his anxiety.

"For the space of twelve months," says John Quincy Adams, "my mother with her infant children dwelt liable every hour of the day and night to be butchered in cold blood or taken into Boston as hostages by any foraging or marauding detachment of men like that actually sent forth on the 19th of April to capture John Hancock and Samuel Adams, on their way to attend the Continental Congress at Philadelphia. My father was separated from his family on his way to attend the same congress, and then my mother and her children lived in unintermitted danger of being consumed with them all in a conflagration kindled by a torch in the same hands which on the 17th of June lighted the fires of Charlestown."

Abigail, in Braintree, no longer "calm and happy," laments over the sufferings of her friends and former neighbors.

"5 May, 1775.
"The distresses of the inhabitants of Boston are beyond the power of language to describe; there are but very few who are permitted to come out in a day; they delay giving passes, make them wait from hour to hour, and their counsels are not two hours alike. One day, they shall come out with their effects; the next day, merchandise is not effects. One day, their household furniture is to come out; the next, only wearing apparel; the next, Pharaoh's heart is hardened, and he refuseth to hearken to them, and will not let the people go. May their deliverance be wrought out for them, as it was for the children of Israel. I do not mean by miracles, but by the interposition of Heaven in their favor. They have taken a list of all those who they suppose were concerned in watching the tea, and every other person whom they call obnoxious, and they and their effects are to suffer destruction.

"Yours, Portia."

"24 May, 1775.
"I suppose you have had a formidable account of the alarm we had last Sunday morning. When I rose, about six o'clock, I was told that the drums had been some time beating, and that three alarm guns were fired; that Weymouth bell had been ringing, and Mr. Weld's was then ringing. I immediately sent off an express to know the occasion, and found the whole town in confusion. Three sloops and one cutter had come out and dropped anchor just below Great Hill. It was difficult to tell their designs; some supposed they were coming to Germantown, others to Weymouth; people, women, children, from the iron-works, came flocking down this way; every woman and child driven off from below my father's; my father's family flying. The Dr. is in great distress, as you may well imagine, for my aunt had her bed thrown into a cart, into which she got herself, and ordered the boy to drive her to Bridgewater, which he did. The report was to them that three hundred British had landed, and were upon their march up into town. The alarm flew like lightning, and men from all parts came flocking down, till two thousand were collected. But it seems their expedition was to Grape Island for Levett's hay. There it was impossible to reach them for want of boats; but the sight of so many people, and the firing at them, prevented their getting more than three tons of hay, though they had carted much more down to the water. At last a lighter was mustered, and a sloop from Hingham, which had six port-holes. Our men eagerly jumped on board, and put off for the Island. As soon as they perceived it, they decamped. Our people landed upon the island, and in an instant set fire to the hay, which, with the barn, was soon consumed,—about eighty tons, it is said. We expect soon to be in continual alarms, till something decisive takes place. . . . Our house has been, upon this alarm,[96] in the same scene of confusion that it was upon the former. Soldiers coming in for a lodging, for breakfast, for supper, for drink, etc. Sometimes refugees from Boston, tired and fatigued, seek an asylum for a day, a night, a week. You can hardly imagine how we live; yet,—

To the houseless child of want,
Our doors are open still;
And though our portions are but scant,
We give them with good will.

"My best wishes attend you, both for your health and happiness, and that you may be directed into the wisest and best measures for our safety and the security of our posterity. I wish you were nearer to us; we know not what a day will bring forth, nor what distress one hour may throw us into. Hitherto, I have been able to maintain a calmness and presence of mind, and hope I shall, let the exigency of the time be what it will. . . ."

"Weymouth, 15 June, 1775.
"I sat down to write to you on Monday, but really could not compose myself sufficiently; the anxiety I suffered from not hearing one syllable from you for more than five weeks, and the new distress arising from the arrival of recruits, agitated[97] me more than I have been since the never-to-be-forgotten 14th of April. I have been much revived by receiving two letters from you last night. . . .

"We cannot but consider the great distance you are from us as a very great misfortune, when our critical situation renders it necessary to hear from you every week, and will be more and more so, as difficulties arise. We now expect our seacoast ravaged; perhaps the very next letter I write will inform you that I am driven away from our yet quiet cottage. Necessity will oblige Gage to take some desperate steps. We are told for truth that he is now eight thousand strong. We live in continual expectations of alarms. Courage I know we have in abundance; conduct I hope we shall not want; but powder,—where shall we get a sufficient supply? I wish we may not fail there. Every town is filled with the distressed inhabitants of Boston. Our house[14] among others is deserted, and by this time, like enough, made use of as a barrack. . . .

"I have a request to make of you; something like the barrel of sand, I suppose you will think it, but really of much more importance to me. It is, that you would send out Mr. Bass, and purchase me a[98] bundle of pins and put them in your trunk for me. The cry for pins is so great that what I used to buy for seven shillings and sixpence are now twenty shillings, and not to be had for that. A bundle contains six thousand, for which I used to give a dollar; but if you can procure them for fifty shillings, or three pounds (ten dollars), pray let me have them.

"I am, with the tenderest regard,
"Your Portia."

On June 17th, John Adams writes:

"I can now inform you that the Congress have made choice of the modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous and brave George Washington, Esquire, to be General of the American army, and that he is to repair, as soon as possible, to the camp before Boston. This announcement will have a great effect in cementing and securing the union of these colonies. The continent is really in earnest, in defending the country. They have voted ten companies of riflemen to be sent from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, to join the army before Boston. These are an excellent species of light infantry. They use a peculiar kind of musket, called a rifle. It has circular or—(word effaced in manuscript) grooves within the barrel, and carries a ball with great exactness to great distances. They are the most accurate marksmen in the world. . . .

"America is a great, unwieldy body. Its progress must be slow. It is like a large fleet sailing under convoy. The fleetest sailors must wait for the dullest and slowest. Like a coach and six, the swiftest horses must be slackened, and the slowest quickened, that all may keep an even pace. . . ."

Mr. Adams little thought that even while he wrote, the cannon were roaring on Bunker Hill, and that on its slopes,

In their ragged regimentals
Stood the old Continentals,
Yielding not,
When the grenadiers were lunging,
And like hail fell the plunging

Abigail Adams heard the cannon, and taking her seven-year-old Johnny with her, mounted Penn's Hill, at the foot of which the house stood. Standing there, mother and son saw with terror the smoke of burning Charlestown, listened with beating hearts to the beating drums and roaring cannon. The boy never forgot that hour. Long after he would tell of it, and of his mother's deep distress on hearing of the death of Warren.

The news of Bunker Hill reached Philadelphia on June 22d: on the 27th, John Adams writes:

"This moment received two letters from you. Courage, my dear. We shall be supported in life or comforted in death. I rejoice that my countrymen behaved so bravely, though not so skilfully conducted as I could wish. I hope this defeat will be remedied by the new modeling of the army.

"My love everywhere."

This brief letter crossed one from Abigail, dated June 25th.

"I hear that General Howe said that the battle upon the Plains of Abram was but a bauble to this. When we consider all the circumstances attending this action, we stand astonished that our people were not all cut off. They had but one hundred feet intrenched, the number who were engaged did not exceed eight hundred, and they with not half ammunition enough; the reinforcement not able to get to them seasonably. The tide was up, and high, so that their floating batteries came upon each side of the causeway, and their row-galleys kept a continual fire. Added to this, the fire from Copp's Hill, and from the ships; the town in flames, all around them, and the heat from the flames so intense as scarcely to be borne; the day one of the hottest we have had this season, and the wind blowing the smoke in their faces,—only figure to yourself all these circumstances, and then consider that we do not count sixty men lost. My heart overflows at the recollection.

"We live in continual expectation of hostilities. Scarcely a day that does not produce some; but, like good Nehemiah, having made our prayer unto God, and set the people with their swords, their spears, and their bows, we will say unto them, 'Be ye not afraid of them; remember the Lord, who is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives and your houses.'

"I have just received yours of the 17th of June, in seven days only; every line from that far country is precious. . . . O North, may the groans and cries of the injured and oppressed harrow up thy soul!"

While she wrote, Washington was on the march. He reached Watertown on July 2d, and on the 3d, standing under the tree which still (1917) marks the spot, he took command of the Continental Army.

On July 5th, she writes:

"I should have been more particular, but I thought you knew everything that passed here. The present state of the inhabitants of Boston is that of the most abject slaves, under the most cruel and despotic tyrants. Among many instances I could mention, let me relate one. Upon the 17th of June, printed handbills were posted up at the corners of the streets, and upon houses, forbidding any inhabitants to go upon their houses, or upon any eminence, on pain of death; the inhabitants dared not to look out of their houses, nor to be heard or seen to ask a question. Our prisoners were brought over to the Long Wharf, and there lay all night, without any care of their wounds, or any resting-place but the pavements, until the next day, when they exchanged it for the jail, since which we hear they are civilly treated. Their living cannot be good, as they can have no fresh provisions; their beef, we hear, is all gone, and their wounded men die very fast, so that they have a report that the bullets were poisoned. Fish they cannot have, they have rendered it so difficult to procure; and the admiral is such a villain as to oblige every fishing schooner to pay a dollar every time it goes out. The money that has been paid for passes is incredible. Some have given ten, twenty, thirty, and forty dollars, to get out with a small proportion of their things. It is reported and believed that they have taken up a number of persons and committed them to jail, we know not for what in particular. Master Lovell is confined in the dungeon; a son of Mr. Edes is in jail, and one Wiburt, a ship-carpenter, is now upon trial for his life. God alone knows to what length these wretches will go, and will, I hope, restrain their malice.

"I would not have you distressed about me. Danger, they say, makes people valiant. Hitherto I have been distressed, but not dismayed. I have felt for my country and her sons. I have bled with them and for them. Not all the havoc and devastation they have made has wounded me like the death of Warren. We want him in the Senate; we want him in his profession; we want him in the field. We mourn for the citizen, the senator, the physician, and the warrior. May we have others raised up in his room. . . .

"I hope we shall not now have famine added to war. Grain, grain is what we want here. Meat we have enough, and to spare. Pray don't let Bass forget my pins. Hardwick has applied to me for Mr. Bass to get him a hundred of needles, number six, to carry on his stocking weaving. We shall very soon have no coffee, nor sugar, nor pepper, here; but whortleberries and milk we are not obliged to commerce for. . . . Good night. With thought of thee do I close my eyes. Angels guard and protect thee; and may a safe return ere long bless thy

Dr. Lovell, who was "confined in the dungeon," was the Boston schoolmaster, a worthy man, and a stout patriot. The story is told that on the morning of the 19th of April, 1775, sitting at his desk in the schoolroom, he saw Earl Percy march by with his troops, on the way to Lexington. The master closed his book.

"War's begun, school's done!" he said. "Deponite libros."

On the 16th, Abigail writes again:

"The appointment of the generals Washington and Lee gives universal satisfaction. The people have the highest opinion of Lee's abilities, but you know the continuation of the popular breath depends much upon favorable events. I had the pleasure of seeing both the generals and their aids-de-camp soon after their arrival, and of being personally made known to them. . . .

"I was struck with General Washington. You had prepared me to entertain a favorable opinion of him, but I thought the half was not told me. Dignity with ease and complacency, the gentleman[105] and the soldier, look agreeably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feature of his face. These lines of Dryden instantly occurred to me:—

Mark his majestic fabric; he's a temple
Sacred by birth, and built by hands divine;
His soul's the deity that lodges there,
Nor is the pile unworthy of the god.

"General Lee looks like a careless, hardy veteran, and by his appearance brought to my mind his namesake, Charles the Twelfth, of Sweden. The elegance of his pen far exceeds that of his person. . . .

"As to intelligence from Boston, it is but very seldom we are able to collect anything that may be relied on; and to report the vague flying rumors would be endless. I heard yesterday, by one Mr. Roulstone, a goldsmith, who got out in a fishing schooner, that their distress increased upon them fast. Their beef is all spent; their malt and cider all gone. All the fresh provisions they can procure they are obliged to give to the sick and wounded. Thirteen of our men who were in jail, and were wounded at the battle of Charlestown, were dead. No man dared now to be seen talking to his friend in the street. They were obliged to be within, every evening, at ten o'clock, according to martial law; nor could any inhabitants walk any street in town after that time, without a pass from Gage. . . .

"Every article in the West India way is very scarce and dear. In six weeks we shall not be able to purchase any article of the kind. I wish you would let Bass get me one pound of pepper and two yards of black calamanco for shoes. I cannot wear leather, if I go barefoot. Bass may make a fine profit if he lays in a stock for himself. You can hardly imagine how much we want many common small articles which are not manufactured amongst ourselves; but we will have them in time; not one pin to be purchased for love or money. I wish you would convey me a thousand by any friend traveling this way. It is very provoking to have such a plenty so near us, but, Tantalus-like, not to be able to touch. I should have been glad to have laid in a small stock of the West India articles, but I cannot get one copper; no person thinks of paying anything, and I do not choose to run in debt. I endeavor to live in the most frugal manner possible, but I am many times distressed."

"This is the 25th of July. Gage has not made any attempt to march out since the battle of Charlestown. Our army is restless, and wish to be doing something to rid themselves and the land of the vermin and locusts which infest it. Since I wrote you last, the companies stationed upon the coast, both in this town, Weymouth, and Hingham, were ordered to Nantasket, to reap and bring off the grain, which they accomplished, all except a field or two which was not ripe; and having whaleboats, they undertook to go to the Lighthouse and set fire to it, which they effected in open day, and in fair sight of several men-of-war. Upon their return, came down upon them eight barges, one cutter, and one schooner, all in battle-array, and poured whole broadsides upon them; but our men all reached the shore, and not one life lost, two only slightly wounded in their legs. They marched up a hill, and drew into order in hopes the marines would land; but they chose rather to return without a land engagement, though 'tis thought they will burn the town down as soon as our forces leave it. I had this account from Captain Vinton, who with his company, were there. These little skirmishes seem trifling, but they serve to inure our men, and harden them to danger. I hear the rebels are very wroth at the destruction of the Lighthouse.

"There has been an offer from Gage to send the poor of Boston to Salem, by water, but not complied with on our part; they returned for answer, they would receive them upon the lines. Dr. Tufts saw a letter from Deacon Newall, in which he mentions the death of John Cotton; he says it is very sickly in town. Every fishing vessel is now obliged to enter and clear out, as though she was going a foreign voyage. No inhabitant is suffered to partake, but obliged to wait till the army is supplied, and then, if one [fish] remains, they are allowed to purchase it. An order has been given out in town that no person shall be seen to wipe his face with a white handkerchief. The reason I hear is, that it is a signal of mutiny. General Burgoyne lives in Mr. Sam Quincy's house. A lady, who lived opposite, says she saw raw meat cut and hacked upon her mahogany tables, and her superb damask curtains and cushions exposed to the rain, as if they were of no value. . . ."

Up to this time, Mrs. Adams had only the sorrows of her neighbors to chronicle, but now her own turn was come. A violent epidemic of dysentery broke out in the surrounding country, and "calm, happy Braintree" was calm no longer. One after another of the family sickened; one of the servants first, Isaac, ("there was no resting-place in the house, for his terrible groans!") Mrs. Adams herself was the next, and she was sorely tempted to send for her husband, who was then but a few days on his journey back to Philadelphia.

"I suffered greatly between my inclination to have you return, and my fear of sending lest you should be a partaker of the common calamity.". . . "Our little Tommy was the next, and he lies very ill now. . . . Our house is a hospital in every part; and what with my own weakness and distress of mind for my family, I have been unhappy enough. And such is the distress of the neighborhood that I can scarcely find a well person to assist in looking after the sick. . . . So sickly and so mortal a time the oldest man does not remember. . . . As to politics, I know nothing about them. The distresses of my own family are so great that I have not thought of them. . . ."

One of the maids died; the others recovered, though Tommy, who had been a "hearty, hale, corn-fed boy," was now "entirely stripped of the hardy, robust countenance, as well as of all the flesh he had, save what remains for to keep his bones together." In October, Abigail's mother, after visiting a soldier home from the army on sick leave, was stricken by the pestilence and died. This was a heavy blow, and the daughter's heart cried out[110] to her absent mate. "Have pity on me, O thou my beloved, for the hand of God presseth me sore."

The letter which begins thus would move any heart even at this distance of time: to John Adams, it brought deep distress. The loving husband and father would fain take horse and ride post haste to Braintree; the steadfast patriot must remain at his post. All he could do was to write her frequently and as cheerfully as might be.

"I will never," he assures her on December third, "come here again without you, if I can persuade you to come with me. Whom God has joined together ought not to be put asunder so long, with their own consent. We will bring master Johnny with us; you and he shall have the small-pox here, and we will be as happy as Mr. Hancock and his lady. Thank Abby and John for their letters, and kiss Charles and Tom for me. John writes like a hero, glowing with ardor for his country and burning with indignation against her enemies. . . ."

Now and then, but rarely, he tried to amuse her with a story.

"A few days ago, in company with Dr. Zubly, somebody said there was nobody on our side but the Almighty. The Doctor, who is a native of Switzerland, and speaks but broken English, quickly replied, 'Dat is enough! Dat is enough!' And turning to me says he, 'It puts me in mind of a fellow who once said, "The Catholics have on their side the Pope, and the King of France, and the King of Spain, and the King of Sardinia, and the King of Poland, and the Emperor of Germany, etc., etc., etc.: but as to these poor devils the Protestants, they have nothing on their side but God Almighty."'"


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