WHILE John and Abigail were tilting merrily at each other, the days were hastening on, and the first great climax of American history was drawing near. We must turn to our histories for the account of those June days in Philadelphia, when "the child Independence" was making his magical growth to manhood; when it was coming to be finally realized that "the country was not only ripe for independence, but was in danger of becoming rotten for want of it"; when the notable Committee of Five was appointed, charged with the duty of preparing a Declaration of the Independence of the thirteen colonies. Everyone knows their names: Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson. Everyone knows that Jefferson wrote the Declaration; yet Adams, it was said, stood forth as "the Atlas of Independence," bearing on his shoulders the main burden of the tremendous decision.
We must read of it in his own words of solemn rejoicing:
"Yesterday, the greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting colony 'that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, and as such they have, and of right ought to have, full power to make war, conclude peace, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which other States may rightfully do.' You will see, in a few days, a Declaration setting forth the causes which have impelled us to this mighty revolution, and the reasons which will justify it in the sight of God and man. A plan of confederation will be taken up in a few days. . . .
"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.
"You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means. And that posterity will triumph in that day's transaction, even although we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not."
We celebrate the Fourth of July, the day upon which the form of the Declaration of Independence was agreed to, instead of the second, when it was determined upon by Congress. It matters little; these words of John Adams' shine like a halo round our Independence Day. May it ever be solemnized as he would have it, "from this time forward forevermore."
We can fancy the feelings of the faithful and loving wife as she read these words, which no American can ever read unmoved. We can see the tears rise to her bright dark eyes, tears of love and pride and trust unspeakable. We can see her gathering the children around her, Abby and John, Charles and even little Tommy, and reading the letter out to them in faltering but exultant tones. Yes, and we can see young John's head flung up, see his dark eyes, so like his mother's, brighten responsive, see, almost, the high beating of his answering heart. It was their great moment; we are glad to share in it, even a little.
Yet Abigail's reply is sober and discreet, like herself. She writes:
"By yesterday's post I received two letters dated 3d and 4th of July, and though your letters never fail to give me pleasure, be the subject what it will, yet it was greatly heightened by the prospect of the future happiness and glory of our country. Nor am I a little gratified when I reflect that a person so nearly connected with me has had the honor of being a principal actor in laying a foundation for its future greatness.
"May the foundation of our new Constitution be Justice, Truth, Righteousness! Like the wise man's house, may it be founded upon these rocks, and then neither storm nor tempests will overthrow it!"
And again on the 21st:
"Last Thursday, after hearing a very good sermon, I went with the multitude into King Street [Boston] to hear the Proclamation for Independence read and proclaimed. Some field-pieces with the train were brought there. The troops appeared under arms, and all the inhabitants assembled there (the small-pox prevented many thousands from the country), when Colonel Crafts read from the balcony of the State House the proclamation. Great attention was given to every word. As soon as he ended, the cry from the balcony was, 'God save our American States,' and then three cheers which rent the air. The bells rang, the privateers fired, the forts and batteries, the cannon were discharged, the platoons followed, and every face appeared joyful. Mr. Bowdoin then gave a sentiment, 'Stability and perpetuity to American independence.' After dinner, the King's Arms were taken down from the State House, and every vestige of him from every place in which it appeared, and burnt in King Street. Thus ends royal authority in this State. And all the people shall say Amen."
Meantime a foe appeared far more terrible than any who wore a red coat, though he bore the same color; a foe whose little scarlet flag still carries terror to the heart, shorn as he is today of half his power.
The letters of this year are full of allusion to the small-pox; in fact, a fearful epidemic was raging. Mr. Adams writes in June:
"The small-pox! the small-pox! what shall we do with it? I could almost wish that an inoculating hospital was opened in every town in New England. It is some small consolation that the scoundrel savages have taken a large dose of it. They plundered the baggage and stripped off the clothes of our men who had the small-pox out full upon them at the Cedars."
Vaccination was not yet, but careful people were hastening to be inoculated, all the country over. Mrs. Adams took all the children into Boston for this purpose, and a miserable time they had of it. Her eyes were much affected, and for some days she could not write. Mr. Adams, receiving no letters, on July 20th grew anxious:
"This has been a dull day to me. I waited the arrival of the post with much solicitude and impatience, but his arrival made me more solicitous still. 'To be left at the Post Office,' in your handwriting on the back of a few lines from the Dr. was all that I could learn of you and my little folks. If you were too busy to write, I hoped that some kind hand would have been found to let me know something about you. Do my friends think that I have been a politician so long as to have lost all feeling? Do they suppose I have forgotten my wife and children? Or are they so panic-struck with the loss of Canada as to be afraid to correspond with me? Or have they forgotten that you have a husband, and your children a father? What have I done, or omitted to do, that I should be thus forgotten and neglected in the most tender and affecting scene of my life? Don't mistake me. I don't blame you. Your time and thoughts must have been wholly taken up with your own and your family's situation and necessities; but twenty other persons might have informed me.
"I suppose that you intended to have run slyly through the small-pox with the family, without letting me know it, and then have sent me an account that you were all well. This might be a kind intention, and if the design had succeeded, would have made me very joyous. But the secret is out, and I am left to conjecture. But as the faculty have this distemper so much under command, I will flatter myself with the hope and expectation of soon hearing of your recovery."
A few days later he writes:
"How are you all this morning? Sick, weak, faint, in pain, or pretty well recovered? By this time, you are well acquainted with the small-pox. Pray, how do you like it?"
He had been inoculated himself, and knew all about it. He longed to send some comforting thing to his beloved, and fixed upon a canister of green tea, for which she had sometimes sighed, though she would not buy it. He sent the tea by a friend, Mr. Garry, "an old bachelor, and what is worse a politician." I must add, "what is worse still, an absent-minded person!" for he carried the tea to Mrs. Samuel Adams, who received it with great delight. Meantime, John Adams was flattering himself that his Abigail, amidst all her fatigues and distresses, was having "the poor relief of a dish of good tea." Mr. Garry returned to Philadelphia and Mr. Adams, meeting him, asked without a misgiving, "You delivered the tea?"
"Yes, to Mr. Samuel Adams' lady."
Poor John! he was so vexed that he ordered another canister and sent it by a surer hand. He bids his wife "send a card to Mrs. S. A., and let her know that the canister was intended for you, and she may send it you, if she chooses, as it was charged to me. It is amazingly dear; nothing less than forty shillings, lawful money, a pound."
Meantime Abigail was writing:
"The herbs you mention I never received. I was upon a visit to Mrs. S. Adams about a week after Mr. Garry returned, when she entertained me with a very fine dish of green tea. The scarcity of the article made me ask her where she got it. She replied that her sweetheart sent it to her by Mr. Garry. I said nothing, but thought my sweetheart might have been equally kind, considering the disease I was visited with, and that it was recommended as a bracer. A little after, you mentioned a couple of bundles sent. I supposed one of them might contain the article, but found they were letters. How Mr. Garry should make such a mistake I know not. I shall take the liberty of sending for what is left of it, though I suppose it is half gone, as it was very freely used. If you had mentioned a single word of it in your letter, I should have immediately found out the mistake."
Moral: Don't send "surprises" unless you are sure of the hand by which they are sent.
There are no letters between October, 1776, and January, 1777, which means that John Adams had a happy visit at home with his dear ones. A winter, too, of tremendous excitement, of breathless waiting for mails and despatches. We can see Mr. Adams in his arm chair, one January day, trying to read—let us say Xenophon! he would be good reading in those days—one eye on the book, the other out of window: Madam Abigail opposite, with Abby beside her, both at their tambour work.
"Isn't it time he was here?" says Mr. Adams for the tenth time; and he gets up and starts on parasangs of his own up and down the room. Madam Abigail probably suggests patience, after the manner of women, but she looks out of window just as often as he does.
At last! at last comes the clatter of hoofs. The post-rider (only nine years old, and he has ridden all the way from Boston!) is here. The gate clicks, and Master Johnny's legs come flying up the path. He is waving a paper over his head; I don't know who gets to the door first, but I seem to see the Head of the Family tearing the despatch open in unstatesmanlike haste.
On Christmas night, he reads, General Washington crossed the Delaware above Trenton, amid ice and snow, storm and tempest. He surprised the British camp, captured a thousand Hessians and carried them off with him to Pennsylvania.
Glory! glory! Stay! there is more. On the second of January, he was once more face to face with the British at Trenton, surrounded by them; they had him fast. "I have the old fox penned!" chuckles Cornwallis; "I'll bag him in the morning!"
But morning showed a row of empty earthworks, and the fox and his cubs well on their way to Princeton, where they fell upon another body of British, routed them in twenty minutes, and carried off three hundred of them, with much ammunition and arms, whereof they, to wit, fox and cubs, stood grievously in need.
This was the gist of the despatch; I do not pretend to give its wording. But fancy the effect of it, however worded, on the quiet Braintree household! John and Charles and even little Tommy, dancing up and down in their flapped waistcoats, shouting and huzzaing; Abby, very likely, shedding tears of happiness over her tambour frame; Father John striding up and down the room again, but now in different mood, probably declaiming lines from Horace in a voice that will not allow itself to tremble; Mother Abigail trying still to be Portia, and to pretend that she knows one end of the needle from the other. A pleasant picture indeed; and—who knows? Possibly not so far from the truth.
All the harder was it, amid all these great happenings, for Mr. Adams to mount and ride, leaving his dear ones to face the winter without him; but mount he must, and did.
He writes on his way back to Philadelphia:
"Present my affection in the tenderest manner to my little deserving daughter and my amiable sons. It was cruel parting this morning. My heart was most deeply affected, although I had the presence of mind to appear composed. May God Almighty's providence protect you, my dear, and all our little ones. My good genius, my guardian angel, whispers me that we shall see happier days, and that I shall live to enjoy the felicities of domestic life with her whom my heart esteems above all earthly blessings."
The war began to press heavily on New England housekeepers. Prices went steadily up, and the necessaries of life became hard to procure. Abigail writes in April, of 1777: "Indian corn at five shillings; rye, eleven and twelve shillings, but scarcely any to be had even at that price; beef, eight pence; veal, sixpence and eightpence; butter, one and sixpence; mutton, none; lamb, none; pork, none; cotton-wool, none; mean sugar, four pounds per hundred; molasses, none; New England rum, eight shillings per gallon; coffee, two and sixpence per pound; chocolate, three shillings."
She tells at the same time a curious story, of five Tories being carted out of town under the direction of "Joice junior," for refusing to take the paper money of the new Republic. "Joice junior" was a name which might be assumed by any patriot who wished to redress a grievance. He wore a horrible mask, and in this case "was mounted on horseback, with a red coat, a white wig, and a drawn sword, with drum and fife following. A concourse of people to the amount of five hundred followed. They proceeded as far as Roxbury, when he ordered the cart to be tipped up, then told them if they were ever caught in town again it should be at the expense of their lives. He then ordered his gang to return, which they did immediately without any disturbance."
In July, it is the women who take matters into their own hands.
"You must know," writes Abigail, "that there is a great scarcity of sugar and coffee, articles which the female part of the State is very loath to give up, especially whilst they consider the scarcity occasioned by the merchants having secreted a large quantity. There had been much rout and noise in the town for several weeks. Some stores had been opened by a number of people, and the coffee and sugar carried into the market and dealt out by pounds. It was rumored that an eminent, wealthy, stingy merchant (who is a bachelor) had a hogshead of coffee in his store, which he refused to sell to the committee under six shillings per pound. A number of females, some say a hundred, some say more, assembled with a cart and trucks, marched down to the warehouse, and demanded the keys, which he refused to deliver. Upon which one of them seized him by his neck, and tossed him into the cart. Upon his finding no quarter, he delivered the keys, when they tipped up the cart and discharged him; then opened the warehouse, hoisted out the coffee themselves, put it into the trucks, and drove off.
"It was reported that he had personal chastisement among them; but this, I believe, was not true. A large concourse of men stood amazed, silent spectators of the whole transaction."
This delighted John. "You have made me merry," he writes, "with the female frolic with the miser. But I hope the females will leave off their attachment to coffee. I assure you the best families in this place have left off, in a great measure, the use of West India goods. We must bring ourselves to live upon the produce of our own country. What would I give for some of your cider? Milk has become the breakfast of many of the wealthiest and genteelest families here."
In August a report was spread that Howe's fleet was off Cape Ann. Boston took the alarm, and all was confusion, people packing up and carting out of town their household goods, military stores, in fact everything that was portable. Abigail writes:
"Not less than a thousand teams were employed on Friday and Saturday; and, to their shame be it told, not a small trunk would they carry under eight dollars, and many of them, I am told, asked a hundred dollars a load; for carting a hogshead of molasses eight miles, thirty dollars. O human nature! or rather O inhuman nature! what art thou? The report of the fleet's being seen off Cape Ann Friday night gave me the alarm and though pretty weak, I set about packing up my things, and on Saturday removed a load.
"When I looked around me and beheld the bounties of Heaven so liberally bestowed, in fine fields of corn, grass, flax, and English grain, and thought it might soon become a prey to these merciless ravagers, our habitations laid waste, and if our flight preserved our lives, we must return to barren fields, empty barns, and desolate habitations, if any we find (perhaps not where to lay our heads), my heart was too full to bear the weight of affliction which I thought just ready to overtake us, and my body too weak almost to bear the shock, unsupported by my better half.
"But, thanks be to Heaven, we are at present relieved from our fears respecting ourselves. I now feel anxious for your safety, but hope prudence will direct to a proper care and attention to yourselves. May this second attempt of Howe's prove his utter ruin. May destruction overtake him as a whirlwind."
John's reply to this letter is characteristic.
"I think I have sometimes observed to you in conversation, that upon examining the biography of illustrious men, you will generally find some female about them, in the relation of mother or wife or sister, to whose instigation a great part of their merit is to be ascribed. You will find a curious example of this in the case of Aspasia, the wife of Pericles. She was a woman of the greatest beauty and the first genius. She taught him, it is said, his refined maxims of policy, his lofty imperial eloquence, nay, even composed the speeches on which so great a share of his reputation was founded. . . .
"I wish some of our great men had such wives. By the account in your last letter, it seems the women in Boston begin to think themselves able to serve their country. What a pity it is that our Generals in the northern districts had not Aspasias to their wives!
"I believe the two Howes have not very great women for wives. If they had, we should suffer more from their exertions than we do. This is our good fortune. A woman of good sense would not let her husband spend five weeks at sea in such a season of the year. A smart wife would have put Howe in possession of Philadelphia a long time ago."
A week later he writes:
"If Howe is gone to Charleston, you will have a little quiet, and enjoy your corn, and rye, and flax, and hay and other good things, until another summer. But what shall we do for sugar and wine and rum? Why truly, I believe we must leave them off. Loaf sugar is only four dollars a pound here, and brown only a dollar for the meanest sort, and ten shillings for that a little better. Everybody here is leaving off loaf sugar, and most are laying aside brown."
Still the prices rose and rose. On August 29th, John quotes:
"Prices current. Four pounds a week for board, besides finding your own washing, shaving, candles, liquors, pipes, tobacco, wood, etc. Thirty shillings a week for a servant. It ought to be thirty shillings for a gentleman and four pounds for the servant, because he generally eats twice as much and makes twice as much trouble. Shoes, five dollars a pair. Salt, twenty-seven dollars a bushel. Butter, ten shillings a pound. Punch, twenty shillings a bowl. All the old women and young children are gone down to the Jersey shore to make salt. Salt water is boiling all round the coast, and I hope it will increase. For it is nothing but heedlessness and shiftlessness that prevents us from making salt enough for a supply. But necessity will bring us to it. As to sugar, molasses, rum, etc., we must leave them off. Whiskey is used here instead of rum, and I don't see but it is just as good. Of this the wheat and rye countries can easily distill enough for the use of the country. If I could get cider I would be content."
In September he describes at length the making of molasses out of corn-stalks. "Scarcely a town or parish within forty miles of us but what has several mills at work; and had the experiment been made a month sooner many thousand barrels would have been made. No less than eighty have been made in the small town of Manchester. It answers very well to distill, and may be boiled down to sugar. Thus you see," he adds, "we go from step to step in our improvements. We can live much better than we deserve within ourselves. Why should we borrow foreign luxuries? Why should we wish to bring ruin upon ourselves? I feel as contented when I have breakfasted upon milk as ever I did with Hyson or Souchong. Coffee and sugar I use only as a rarity. There are none of these things but I could totally renounce. My dear friend knows that I could always conform to times and circumstances. As yet I know nothing of hardships. My children have never cried for bread nor been destitute of clothing. Nor have the poor and needy gone empty from my door, whenever it was in my power to assist them."
Though the patriot ladies were ready enough to do without Hyson or Souchong they none the less greatly desired a cheering cup of something, and managed to get it without tax or expense. We read of tea made from ribwort, from sage, from thoroughwort, from strawberry and currant leaves. "Hyperion tea," called by a good patriot, "very delicate and most excellent," was made from raspberry leaves; "Liberty tea" from the four-leaved loose-strife. So there was great boiling and steeping going on, and every housewife who had a garden patch, or who was near enough the woods and fields to go out "yarb-gathering," could be sure of a "dish of tay," without thought of King George or his myrmidons.
There was a great harvest, in this year 1777; once more Mother Nature proclaimed herself on the side of Independence. The valleys lay so thick with corn that they did laugh and sing. Most of the able-bodied men being in the field (for the war was now in full swing) there were not enough hands to gather in the crops. Abigail fears that "if it is necessary to make any more drafts upon us, the women must reap the harvests"; and adds, "I am willing to do my part. I believe I could gather corn, and husk it; but I should make a poor figure at digging potatoes."
Indeed, most of the harvesting that autumn was done by women, aided by old men and young boys. Delicate ladies, sturdy farmers' wives and daughters, they worked side by side: and we read that "towards the end of August, at the Forks of Brandywine, girls were harnessing the ploughs, and preparing fallows for the seed, on the very fields where, a twelve month from that date, a costly crop of human life was reaped."
The reader of this little book, holding it in his right hand, should hold in his left a history of the United States and should have an atlas "handy by."
Far and wide the war spread: campaign followed campaign: New York, White Plains, Crown Point: our affair is not with them, but with our faithful married lovers, still separated by the long leagues that lie between Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. I must, however, describe briefly what happened in and near Philadelphia, where John Adams and his brother Congressmen were sitting. All through the spring and summer Washington had been harrying the British with varying fortunes. On August 24th, he entered Philadelphia with his army: four regiments of light horse, writes John Adams, four grand divisions of infantry, and the artillery with the matrosses. "They marched twelve deep, and yet took up above two hours in passing by." Washington led the march, and beside him rode the young Marquis de Lafayette, newly arrived; a lad of nineteen, who had left his young wife and his brilliant circle, to lay his sword at the feet of the American Republic.
This "dress-parade" was not a magnificent one. The soldiers' boots were worn through; their clothes were ragged, and of every hue and style. The least badly dressed among them, we are told, were those who wore the hunting shirt of brown linen. But the brown faces above the shirts were strong and keen, and alight with purpose and resolve; their horses were in prime condition: the green boughs they wore lent a touch of color; there was even a hint of splendor where the Stars and Stripes, newly assembled, fluttered on the breeze. "Fine and warlike troops," Lafayette pronounced them, "commanded by officers of zeal and courage." John Adams writes in sober exultation to Portia:
"The army, upon an accurate inspection of it, I find to be extremely well armed, pretty well clothed, and tolerably disciplined. . . . There is such a mixture of the sublime and the beautiful together with the useful in military discipline, that I wonder every officer we have is not charmed with it." Mr. Adams, after watching the parade, is convinced that he, in military life, should be a decisive disciplinarian. "I am convinced there is no other effective way of indulging benevolence, humanity, and the tender social passions in the army. There is no other way of preserving the health and spirits of the men. There is no other way of making them active and skilful in war; no other way of guarding an army against destruction by surprises; and no other method of giving them confidence in one another, of making them stand by one another in the hour of battle. Discipline in an army is like the laws of civil society."
Dark days followed. Howe had landed with fresh troops of highly trained soldiers, bent on taking Philadelphia and driving out the Rebel Congress. On September eleventh, Mr. Adams writes:
"The moments are critical here. We know not but the next will bring us an account of a general engagement begun, and when once begun, we know not how it will end, for the battle is not always to the strong. . . . But if it should be the will of Heaven that our army should be defeated, our artillery lost, our best generals killed, and Philadelphia fall in Mr. Howe's hands, still America is not conquered."
Three days later Brandywine was lost and won; then came the fatal night of Paoli, when Anthony Wayne first measured swords with Cornwallis, and found his own the shorter: and on September 26th, the British army entered Philadelphia.
"Don't be anxious about me," John Adams had written on the 14th, "nor about our great and sacred cause. It is the cause of truth and will prevail."
On the 19th, Congress, yielding to the inevitable, removed to Yorktown and there continued its work. Mr. Adams, describing the removal briefly, says, "I shall avoid everything like history, and make no reflections." I hasten to follow his example and return to Braintree.
On October 25th, 1777, Abigail writes:
"The joyful news of the surrender (at Saratoga) of General Burgoyne and all his army, to our victorious troops, prompted me to take a ride this afternoon with my daughter to town, to join, tomorrow, with my friends in thanksgiving and praise to the Supreme Being who hath so remarkably delivered our enemies into our hands. And, hearing that an express is to go off tomorrow morning, I have retired to write you a few lines. I have received no letters from you since you left Philadelphia, by the post, and but one by any private hand. I have written you once before this. Do not fail of writing by the return of this express, and direct your letters to the care of my uncle, who has been a kind and faithful hand to me through the whole season, and a constant attendant upon the post-office."
The leagues were to stretch yet farther between Portia and her dearest friend. A month after this, Mr. Adams asked and obtained leave of Congress to visit his family, mounted his horse, and rode joyfully home to Braintree. We can well imagine the rejoicings that greeted his return; but they were short-lived. He had barely reached home when word came that he was appointed ambassador to France, and that the frigate Boston was being prepared to carry him thither as soon as possible.
Here was a thunderbolt indeed! Weary and worn after four years of incessant labor, John Adams had longed almost passionately for the joys and comforts of home life and family affection. He weighed the matter well: the probability of capture on the high seas, of imprisonment or execution in England: the needs of his family, which he had been forced to neglect these four years past. "My children were growing up without my care in their education, and all my emoluments as a member of Congress for four years had not been sufficient to pay a laboring man upon my farm. . . . On the other hand, my country was in deep distress and in great danger. Her dearest interests would be involved in the relations she might form with foreign nations. My own plan of these relations had been deliberately formed and fully communicated to Congress nearly two years before. The confidence of my country was committed to me without my solicitation. My wife, who had always encouraged and animated me in all antecedent dangers and perplexities, did not fail me on this occasion. But she discovered an inclination to bear me company, with all our children. This proposal, however, she was soon convinced, was too hazardous and imprudent."
Help from France was imperative. Franklin was already there, but greatly needing stronger support.
There was no real question of John Adams' decision: it was soon made, his faithful Portia acquiescing without a murmur. She even agreed to Johnny's going with his father—or proposed it, we know not which; and preparations were made for the departure. Fortunately, the frigate took longer to prepare than the trunks; it was not till February that all was ready, and the final parting came. Had it been known that even while he was embarking a treaty was being signed in Paris between France and America, this parting might have been delayed.
Mr. Adams' diary gives us glimpses of the voyage, which was a stormy one and threatened other dangers beside. They fell in with some British ships, and one of them gave chase.
"When the night approached, the wind died away, and we were left rolling and pitching in a calm, with our guns all out, our courses drawn up and every way prepared for battle; the officers and men appeared in good spirits and Captain Tucker said his orders were to carry me to France, and to take any prizes that might fall in his way; he thought it his duty, therefore, to avoid fighting, especially with an unequal force, if he could, but if he could not avoid an engagement he would give them something that should make them remember him. I said, and did all in my power, to encourage the officers and men to fight them to the last extremity. My motives were more urgent than theirs; for it will easily be believed that it would have been more eligible for me to be killed on board the Boston, or sunk to the bottom in her, than to be taken prisoner. I sat in the cabin, at the windows in the stern, and saw the enemy gaining upon us very fast, she appearing to have a breeze of wind, while we had none. Our powder, cartridges, and balls, were placed by the guns, and everything ready to begin the action. Although it was calm on the surface of the sea, where we lay, the heavens had been gradually overspread with black clouds, and the wind began to spring up. Our ship began to move. The night came on, and it was soon dark. We lost sight of our enemy, who did not appear to me very ardent to overtake us. But the wind increased to a hurricane."
The hurricane proved a terrible one. The diary tells us:
"It would be fruitless to attempt a description of what I saw, heard, and felt, during these three days and nights. To describe the ocean, the waves, the winds; the ship, her motions, rollings, wringings, and agonies; the sailors, their countenances, language, and behavior, is impossible. No man could keep upon his legs and nothing could be kept in its place; an universal wreck of everything in all parts of the ship, chests, casks, bottles, etc. No place or person was dry. On one of these nights, a thunderbolt struck three men upon deck, and wounded one of them a little by a scorch upon his shoulder; it also struck our maintop-mast. . . .
"It is a great satisfaction to me, however, to recollect that I was myself perfectly calm, during the whole. I found, by the opinion of the people aboard, and of the captain himself, that we were in danger, and of this I was certain also, from my own observation: but I thought myself in the way of my duty, and I did not repent of my voyage. I confess I often regretted that I had brought my son. I was not so clear that it was my duty to expose him as myself, but I had been led to it by the child's inclination, and by the advice of all my friends. My Johnny's behavior gave me a satisfaction that I cannot express; fully sensible of our danger, he was constantly endeavoring to bear it with a manly patience, very attentive to me, and his thoughts constantly running in a serious strain."
A few days later came a yet more thrilling event. The log of the Boston says:
"Saw a ship to the south-east standing to the westward. Asked the favor of the Hon. John Adams to chase, which was immediately granted. Made sail and gave chase. At 3 p. m. came up with the chase, gave her a gun and she returned me three, one shot of which carried away my mizzen yard. She immediately struck. Out boat. Got the prisoners on board. She proved the ship Martha from London, bound to New York. I ordered a prize-master on board, intending to send her to France, but on consulting Mr. Adams, he thought most advisable to send her to America."
Thus Commodore Tucker, commander of the Boston, brief and business-like. Mr. Adams notes that "she was a letter of marque, with fourteen guns. She fired upon us, and one of her shot went through our mizzen yard. I happened to be upon the quarter deck, and in the direction from the ship to the yard, so that the ball went directly over my head. We, upon this, turned our broadside, which the instant she saw she struck. Captain Tucker very prudently ordered his officers not to fire."
"I happened to be upon the quarter deck!" Mr. Adams, what were you doing on the quarter deck? You certainly had no business there during a battle. Log and diary are equally discreet, but in his later years Commodore Tucker used to tell the story of that hour; how on discovering the enemy's ship, "neither he nor Mr. Adams could resist the temptation to engage, although against the dictates of prudent duty. Tucker, however, stipulated that Mr. Adams should remain in the lower part of the ship, as a place of safety. But no sooner had the battle commenced, than he was seen on deck, with a musket in his hands, fighting as a common marine. The Commodore peremptorily ordered him below; but called instantly away, it was not until considerable time had elapsed, that he discovered this public minister still at his post, intently engaged in firing upon the enemy. Advancing, he exclaimed, 'Why are you here, sir? I am commanded by the Continental Congress to carry you in safety to Europe, and I will do it;' and, seizing him in his arms, forcibly carried him from the scene of danger."
I trust Master Johnny was safe in his cabin while all this was going on: be very sure that Portia was never told of it, or at least not till long afterward. She, poor lady, was meantime cheering herself as well as she could; visiting the French fleet, just arrived in Boston Harbor, and entertaining some of its officers, who, she thought, were being neglected in Boston town.
"Generals Heath and Hancock have done their part, but very few, if any, private families have any acquaintance with them. Perhaps I feel more anxious to have them distinguished, on account of the near and dear connections I have among them. It would gratify me much, if I had it in my power, to entertain every officer in the fleet."
This letter was written (I think) on a tired or discouraged day, for in it we actually find Portia reproaching her John, a strange thing indeed. His first letter had been all too short for her anxious heart.
"In the very few lines I have received from you, not the least mention is made that you have ever received a line from me. I have not been so parsimonious as my friend,—perhaps I am not so prudent; but I cannot take my pen, with my heart overflowing, and not give utterance to some of the abundance which is in it. Could you, after a thousand fears and anxieties, long expectation, and painful suspense, be satisfied with my telling you that I was well, that I wished you were with me, that my daughter sent her duty, that I had ordered some articles for you, which I hoped would arrive, etc., etc.? By Heaven, if you could, you have changed hearts with some frozen Laplander, or made a voyage to a region that has chilled every drop of your blood; but I will restrain a pen already, I fear, too rash, nor shall it tell you how much I have suffered from this appearance of—inattention."
She adds that the articles sent by Captain Tucker have "arrived safe, and will be of great service to me. Our money is very little better than blank paper. It takes forty dollars to purchase a barrel of cider; fifty pounds lawful for a hundred of sugar, and fifty dollars for a hundred of flour; four dollars per day for a laborer, and find him, which will amount to four more. You will see, by bills drawn before the date of this, that I had taken the method which I was happy in finding you had directed me to. I shall draw for the rest as I find my situation requires. No article that can be named, foreign or domestic, but what costs more than double in hard money what it once sold for."
Poor Portia! poor John! Some of the letters she longed for were taken by the enemy and thrown overboard. John was writing constantly, and Portia's complaining letter was not a consoling one to receive in "Europe, the dullest place in the world," as he calls it. On December 2d, 1778, he writes:
"For Heaven's sake, my dear, don't indulge a thought that it is possible for me to neglect or forget all that is dear to me in this world. It is impossible for me to write as I did in America. What should I write? It is not safe to write anything that one is not willing should go into all the newspapers of the world. I know not by whom to write. I never know what conveyance is safe. . . . I know nothing of many vessels that go from the sea-ports, and if I knew of all, there are some that I should not trust. Notwithstanding all this, I have written to you not much less than fifty letters. I am astonished that you have received no more. But almost every vessel has been taken. . . . God knows I don't spend my time in idleness, or in gazing at curiosities. I never wrote more letters, however empty they may have been. But by what I hear, they have been all, or nearly all, taken or sunk. My friends complain that they have not received letters from me. I may as well complain. I have received scarcely any letters from America. I have written three where I have received one."
On Sunday evening, December 27th, Abigail writes a letter that makes our hearts ache with her.
"How lonely are my days! how solitary are my nights! secluded from all society but my two little boys and my domestics. By the mountains of snow which surround me, I could almost fancy myself in Greenland. We have had four of the coldest days I ever knew, and they were followed by the severest snow-storm I ever remember. The wind, blowing like a hurricane for fifteen or twenty hours, rendered it impossible for man or beast to live abroad, and has blocked up the roads so that they are impassable. A week ago I parted with my daughter, at the request of our Plymouth friends, to spend a month with them; so that I am solitary indeed.
"Can the best of friends recollect that for fourteen years past I have not spent a whole winter alone?
Some part of the dismal season has heretofore been mitigated and softened by the social converse and participation of the friend of my youth.
"How insupportable the idea that three thousand miles and the vast ocean now divide us! but divide only our persons, for the heart of my friend is in the bosom of his partner. More than half a score of years has so riveted it there, that the fabric which contains it must crumble into dust ere the particles can be separated; for
In one fate, our hearts, our fortunes,
And our beings blend.
"I cannot describe to you how much I was affected the other day with a Scotch song, which was sung to me by a young lady in order to divert a melancholy hour; but it had quite a different effect, and the native simplicity of it had all the power of a well-wrought tragedy. When I could conquer my sensibility I begged the song, and Master Charles has learned it, and consoles his mamma by singing it to her. I will inclose it to you. It has beauties in it to me which an indifferent person would not feel, perhaps.
His very foot has music in 't,
As he comes up the stairs.
"How oft has my heart danced to the sound of that music!
And shall I see his face again?
And shall I hear him speak
"Gracious Heaven! hear and answer my daily petition, by banishing all my grief.
"I am sometimes quite discouraged from writing. So many vessels are taken that there is little chance of a letter's reaching your hands. That I meet with so few returns is a circumstance that lies heavy at my heart. If this finds its way to you, it will go by the Alliance. By her I have written before. She has not yet sailed, and I love to amuse myself with my pen, and pour out some of the tender sentiments of a heart overflowing with affection, not for the eye of a cruel enemy, who, no doubt, would ridicule every humane and social sentiment, long ago grown callous to the finer sensibilities, but for the sympathetic heart that beats in unison with
John replies to this:
"Dr. J. is transcribing your Scotch song, which is a charming one. Oh, my leaping heart!
"I must not write a word to you about politics, because you are a woman.
"What an offense have I committed! A woman!
"I shall soon make it up. I think women better than men, in general, and I know that you can keep a secret as well as any man whatever. But the world don't know this. Therefore if I were to write my sentiments to you, and the letter should be caught and hitched into a newspaper, the world would say I was not to be trusted with a secret."
To us, it need be no secret that there were divisions in the American Legation at Paris. Franklin was at odds with his colleagues, who seem to have been more hindrance than help to him. Moreover, Congress, in the excitement of the treaty, forgot, for a time, all about John Adams and his mission. In short, he came too late for the fair, found no orders, and little to do, save talk with the old philosopher and the Comte de Vergennes. Now and then the diary gives us a sidelight on Franklin.
"Dr. Franklin, upon my saying the other day that I fancied he did not exercise so much as he was wont, answered, 'Yes, I walk a league every day in my chamber; I walk quick, and for an hour, so that I go a league; I make a point of religion of it.' I replied, 'That as the commandment, "thou shalt not kill," forbids a man to kill himself as well as his neighbor, it was manifestly a breach of the sixth commandment not to exercise; so that he might easily prove it to be a religious point.'"
John Adams could not be idle. "I cannot eat pensions and sinecures," he writes: "they would stick in my throat." He was in no mood to follow Franklin's advice and wait quietly for further orders. There was nothing for him to do, and he would go home in the first available ship. Accordingly, on June 17th, 1779, he sailed on the Sensible, with son John beside him, and that episode was closed.
All this time the war was going on and prices were rising. Abigail "blushes" while giving John the prices current: "All butcher's meat from a dollar to eight shillings per pound; corn twenty-five dollars, rye thirty, per bushel; flour fifty pounds per hundred; potatoes ten dollars per bushel; butter twelve shillings a pound, cheese eight; sugar twelve shillings a pound; molasses twelve dollars per gallon; labor six and eight dollars a day; a common cow from sixty to seventy pounds; and all English goods in proportion."
By March, labor was eight dollars per day, with twelve dollars in prospect; goods of all kinds at such a price that Abigail hardly dares mention it.
"Linens are sold at twenty dollars per yard; the most ordinary sort of calicoes at thirty and forty; broadcloths at forty pounds per yard; West India goods full as high; molasses at twenty dollars per gallon; sugar four dollars per pound, bohea tea at forty dollars; and our own produce in proportion; butcher's meat at six and eight shillings per pound; board at fifty and sixty dollars per week." She adds:
"In contemplation of my situation, I am sometimes thrown into an agony of distress. Distance, dangers, and oh, I cannot name all the fears which sometimes oppress me, and harrow up my soul. Yet must the common lot of man one day take place, whether we dwell in our own native land or are far distant from it. That we rest under the shadow of the Almighty is the consolation to which I resort, and find that comfort which the world cannot give. If He sees best to give me back my friend, or to preserve my life to him, it will be so."
She little thought that even while she wrote, her friend was spreading his wings—or rather, the broad white wings of the frigate Sensible, for his homeward flight.