Abigail Adams and Her Times

by Laura E. Richards

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XI - Vexatious Honors

Chapter XI - Vexatious Honors from Abigail Adams and Her Times

WHILE the Adamses were still in England, the Constitution of the United States had been framed; had been signed, September 17th, 1787, by George Washington, as president of the convention charged with its preparation, and ratified by a majority of the States. Now, a few months after their return, the first Presidential election took place, and John Adams, after nominating George Washington for President, found himself by general consent elected Vice-President. He took the new honor quietly and seriously, as he took everything; nor is it likely that Mrs. Adams was unduly elated by it. They made little change in their sober way of life. We are told that "the town of Hartford could think of no gift so appropriate for John Adams on his way to be inaugurated Vice-President as a roll of cloth from its own looms. All true patriots heard with joy that . . . when the American Fabius stood forth to take the oath of office he was clad from head to foot in garments whose material was the product of the soil." But by the time John Adams was inaugurated President, he had advanced so far that he went to the ceremony in a coach and six, followed by a procession of coaches and four.

New York was then the seat of government, and it was near New York that Mr. Adams established his family. There were to be no more long separations, no weary leagues stretching between Portia and her dearest friend. Both of them longed for Braintree, the home of their hearts, but since both could not be there, neither would be. A suitable home was found at Richmond Hill, then a lovely country place, a mile and a half from New York, and here some pleasant months were passed. Mrs. Adams thus describes Richmond Hill to her sister:

"The house in which we reside is situated upon a hill, the avenue to which is interspersed with forest trees, under which a shrubbery rather too luxuriant and wild has taken shelter, owing to its having been deprived by death, some years since, of its original proprietor, who kept it in perfect order. In front of the house, the noble Hudson rolls his majestic waves, bearing upon his bosom innumerable small vessels, which are constantly forwarding the rich products of the neighboring soil to the busy hand of a more extensive commerce. Beyond the Hudson rises to our view the fertile country of the Jerseys, covered with a golden harvest, and pouring forth plenty like the cornucopiae of Ceres. On the right hand, an extensive plain presents us with a view of fields covered with verdure, and pastures full of cattle. On the left, the city opens upon us, intercepted only by clumps of trees, and some rising ground, which serves to heighten the beauty of the scene, by appearing to conceal a part. In the background is a large flower-garden, enclosed with a hedge and some very handsome trees. On one side of it, a grove of pines and oaks fit for contemplation. . . . If my days of fancy and romance were not past, I could find here an ample field for indulgence; yet, amidst these delightful scenes of nature, my heart pants for the society of my dear relatives and friends who are too far removed from me. . . ."

She was not long to enjoy the beauties of Richmond Hill. In 1790, the seat of government was transferred to Philadelphia, and thither the faithful pair journeyed. The change was a most uncomfortable, even a dangerous one for Mrs. Adams,[234] who had barely recovered from a serious illness. Soon after her arrival (November 21, 1790), she writes to her daughter from her new abode:

"Bush Hill, as it is called, though by the way there remains neither bush nor shrub upon it, and very few trees, except the pine grove behind it,—yet Bush Hill is a very beautiful place. But the grand and sublime I left at Richmond Hill. The cultivation in sight and prospect are superior, but the Schuylkill is not more like the Hudson, than I to Hercules. The house is better finished within; but, when you come to compare the conveniences for storeroom, kitchen, closets, etc., there is nothing like it in the whole house. As chance governs many actions of my life, when we arrived in the city, we proceeded to the house. By accident, the vessel with our furniture had arrived the day before, and Briesler was taking in the first load into a house all green-painted, the workmen there with their brushes in hand. This was cold comfort in a house, where I suppose no fire had been kindled for several years, except in a back kitchen; but, as I expected many things of this kind, I was not disappointed nor discomfited. As no wood nor fodder had been provided before-hand, we could only turn about, and go to the City Tavern for the night.

"The next morning was pleasant, and I ventured to come up and take possession; but what confusion! Boxes, barrels, chairs, tables, trunks, etc.; every thing to be arranged, and few hands to accomplish it, for Briesler was obliged to be at the vessel. The first object was to get fires; the next to get up beds; but the cold, damp rooms, the new paint, etc., proved almost too much for me. On Friday we arrived here, and late on Saturday evening we got our furniture in. On Sunday, Thomas was laid up with rheumatism; on Monday, I was obliged to give Louisa an emetic; on Tuesday, Mrs. Briesler was taken with her old pain in her stomach; and, to complete the whole, on Thursday, Polly was seized with a violent pleuritic fever. She has been twice bled, a blister upon her side, and has not been out of bed since, only as she is taken up to have her bed made. And every day, the stormy ones excepted, from eleven until three, the house is filled with ladies and gentlemen. As all this is no more nor worse than I expected, I bear it without repining, and feel thankful that I have weathered it out without a relapse, though some days I have not been able to sit up. . . .

"I have not yet begun to return visits, as the ladies expect to find me at home, and I have not[236] been in a state of health to do it; nor am I yet in a very eligible state to receive their visits. I, however, endeavored to have one room decent to receive them, which, with my own chamber, is as much as I can boast of at present being in tolerable order. The difficulty of getting workmen, Mr. Hamilton pleads as an excuse for the house not being ready. Mrs. Lear was in to see me yesterday, and assures me that I am much better off than Mrs. Washington will be when she arrives, for that their house is not likely to be completed this year. And, when all is done, it will not be Broadway. If New York wanted any revenge for the removal, the citizens might be glutted if they would come here, where every article has become almost double in price, and where it is not possible for Congress, and the appendages, to be half so well accommodated for a long time. One would suppose that the people thought Mexico was before them, and that Congress were the possessors."

This was indeed an ominous beginning of the winter. A week later Thomas, Mrs. Adams' third son, was taken very ill with rheumatic fever, the natural result of moving into a damp, unfinished house in November.

"It seems," writes the poor lady, "as if sickness followed me wherever I go . . . I had a great misfortune happen to my best trunk of clothes. The vessel sprunk a leak, and my trunk got wet a foot high, by which means I have several gowns spoiled; and the one you worked is the most damaged, and a black satin;—the blessed effects of tumbling about the world."

A month later, things were scarcely better.

"I would tell you that I had an ague in my face, and a violent toothache, which has prevented my writing to you all day; but I am determined to brave it out this evening, and enquire how you do. Without further complaint, I have become so tender, from keeping so much in a warm chamber, that, as soon as I set my feet out, I am sure to come home with some new pain or ache."

Philadelphia was gay that winter: a "constellation of beauties" was sparkling in the social firmament. Mrs. Adams cannot say enough about "the dazzling Mrs. Bingham," who "has certainly given laws to the ladies here, in fashion and elegance: their manners and appearance are superior to what I have seen." She adds: "I should spend a very dissipated winter, if I were to accept one-half the invitations I receive, particularly to the routs, or tea and cards. Even Saturday evening is not excepted, and I refused an invitation of that kind for this evening. I have been to one assembly. The dancing was very good; the company of the best kind. The President and Madam, the Vice-President and Madam, Ministers of State, and their Madams, etc.; but the room despicable; the etiquette,—it was difficult to say where it was to be found."

She is writing to Mrs. Smith, the beloved daughter whom she missed daily and hourly. In this same letter (January 8th 1791) we catch a glimpse of the Vice-President which would have astonished his fellow-workers in Congress. Little John Smith was visiting his grandparents at this time. "As to John," says Grandmother Abigail, "we grow every day fonder of him. He has spent an hour this afternoon in driving his grandpapa round the room with a willow stick."

I shall never again see a portrait of John Adams, dignified and portly, in powder and pigtail, without calling up this pleasant companion picture of the grandfather capering about the room to the whistling of a willow switch.

The following letters, written by Mr. Adams while on a visit to Quincy, show him in his most delightful aspect.

"You apologize for the length of your letters,] and I ought to excuse the shortness and emptiness of mine. Yours give me more entertainment than all the speeches I hear. There are more good thoughts, fine strokes, and mother wit in them than I hear in the whole week. An ounce of mother wit is worth a pound of clergy; and I rejoice that one of my children, at least, has an abundance of not only mother wit, but his mother's wit. It is one of the most amiable and striking traits in his composition. It appeared in all its glory and severity in 'Barneveldt.'

"If the rogue has any family pride, it is all derived from the same source. His Pa renounces and abjures every trace of it. He has curiosity to know his descent and comfort in the knowledge that his ancestors, on both sides, for several generations, have been innocent. But no pride in this. Pomp, splendor, office, title, power, riches are the sources of pride, but even these are not excuse for pride. The virtues and talents of ancestors should be considered as examples and solemn trusts and produce meekness, modesty, and humility, lest they should not be imitated and equalled. Mortification and humiliation can be the only legitimate feelings of a mind conscious that it falls short of its ancestors in merit. I must stop."

"You say so many handsome things to me, respecting my letters, that you ought to fear making me vain; since, however we may appreciate the encomiums of the world, the praises of those whom we love and esteem are more dangerous, because we are led to believe them the most sincere. . . .

"Prince Edward sailed last Saturday. He sent his aides to visit the Lieutenant-Governor, but would not go himself. He dined with Mrs. Hancock, and was visited by many gentlemen in town. He went to the assembly with Mr. Russell, and danced with Mrs. Russell. He went to visit the college, but I did not hear that he had any curiosity to see Bunker Hill. He related an anecdote at the table of the English consul. As he was coming from Quebec, he stopped at an inn, where an elderly countryman desired to see him. After some bowing, etc., the countryman said: 'I hear you are King George's son.' 'They tell me so,' said the prince. 'And, pray how do you like this country?' 'Why, very well,' replied his highness. 'And how do you think your father liked to lose it?' 'Why, not half so well as I should like to live in it,' replied the prince, which answer pleased the countryman. I hear he took notice of all the French refugees, and offered any of them a passage with him to the West Indies. His stay here was very short, and it was best it should be so."

One has pleasant glimpses of George Washington, in Mrs. Adams' letters. One day she dined with him and Mrs. Washington and found him "more than usually social. . . . He asked very affectionately after you and the children, and at table picked the sugar-plums from a cake, and requested me to take them for master John."

The custom of sending bonbons to the children dates back to Colonial times, when any social entertainment was apt to be followed by what was pleasantly called "Cold Party." The day after, the hostess would send a judicious assortment of leftover delicacies to such neighbors as had been unable to join the party. In my own childhood, my mother's going to a dinner party was always an occasion of excitement, because of wonderful bonbons that we children would receive the next day; pieces of red or white sugar candy, in elaborate wrappings of gilt paper, tinsel and gauze: I do not see the like today.

Philadelphia society was certainly brilliant in those days. The Duke of Rochefoucauld-Liancourt was deeply impressed by it, and wrote in his book of Travels:

"The profusion and luxury of Philadelphia on great days, at the tables of the wealthy, in their equipages, and the dresses of their wives and daughters, are, as I have observed, extreme. I have seen balls on the President's birthday where the splendor of the rooms, and the variety and richness of the dresses did not suffer in comparison with Europe; and it must be acknowledged that the beauty of the American ladies has the advantage in the comparison. The young women of Philadelphia are accomplished in different degrees, but beauty is general with them. They want the ease and fashion of Frenchwomen; but the brilliancy of their complexion is infinitely superior. Even when they grow old they are still handsome; and it would be no exaggeration to say in the numerous assemblies of Philadelphia it is impossible to meet with what is called a plain woman. As for the young men, they for the most part seem to belong to another species."

What were these rich and various dresses? We have chapter and verse for some of them. One lady wore at a certain ball "a plain celestial-blue satin, with a white satin petticoat. On the neck was worn a very large Italian gauze handkerchief, with border stripes of satin. The head-dress was a pouf of gauze, in the form of a globe, the creneaux or headpiece of which was composed of white satin, having a double wing in large plaits, and trimmed with a wreath of artificial roses, falling from the left at the top to the right at the bottom, in front, and the reverse behind. The hair was dressed all over in detached curls, four of which, in two ranks, fell on each side of the neck, and were relieved behind by a floating chignon."

The gentleman who led this gorgeous costume and its wearer through "Sir Roger de Coverley" was doubtless dressed in more sober fashion. One of these republican exquisites thus describes his own costume, possibly at the same ball: "I was dressed in a light French blue coat, with a high collar, broad lappels, and large gilt buttons, a double-breasted Marseilles vest, Nankeen-colored cassimere breeches, with white silk stockings, shining pumps, and full ruffles on my breast and at my wrists, together with a ponderous white cravat, with a pudding in it, as we then called it; and I was considered the best dressed gentleman in the room."

The winter of 1790-91 was one of extremes. The Adamses burned forty cords of wood in four months. On the 17th and 18th of March, Mrs. Adams dined with all the windows open, put out the fires, and "ate ice to cool her; the glasses at 80." On the 20th, it snowed all day, the snow followed by a keen northwester and frost. In bad weather it was difficult for the dwellers at Bush Hill to stir from their abode.

"We are only two miles from town, yet have I been more of a prisoner this winter than I ever was in my life. The road from hence to the pavement is one mile and a half, the soil a brick clay, so that, when there has been heavy rain, or a thaw, you must wallow to the city through a bed of mortar without a bottom, the horses sinking to their knees. If it becomes cold, then the holes and the roughness are intolerable."

The next published letter of Mrs. Adams is dated Quincy, 11 February, 1793. It is to Mrs. Smith, and is largely concerned with political issues which today have lost their poignancy. She has much to say of the "artifices and lies of the Jacobins," meaning the anti-Federalist party, which was opposed to Washington and Adams. It is strange indeed to read today that "the President has been openly abused in the National Gazette,—abused for his levees as an ape of royalty; Mrs. Washington abused for her drawing-rooms; their celebration of birth-days sneered at; himself insulted because he[245] has not come forward and exerted his influence in favor of a further compensation to the army. They even tell him that a greater misfortune cannot befall a people than for their President to have no competitor; that it infuses into him a supercilious spirit, renders him self-important, and creates an idea that one man only is competent to govern. They compare him to a hyena and a crocodile; charge him with duplicity and deception. The President has not been accustomed to such language, and his feelings will be wounded, I presume."

I presume they were. Nobody likes to be called a hyena and a crocodile, and Pater Patriae could not fail to be sensible of a lack of propriety in the epithets.

It was all natural enough, perhaps. These were the days of the French Revolution, and all the world was heaving with the throes of that tremendous convulsion. We were fortunate to get nothing worse than a little recrimination, which did no lasting harm. We are ignorant of the names of those who called Washington hyena and crocodile, and we have no curiosity on the subject.

Neither President nor Vice-President had much comfort in their second term. The political pot was seething furiously; men were burning their fingers,[246] and crying out with pain of the burning. "Envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness" ran rife in the Republic where brotherly love should rule in peace. Six months before the end of his second term, Washington announced his resolve to retire from public service; a resolve not to be shaken by any entreaties. By this time the country, which had stood united through the first Presidential election, and divided only on the minor issue (the choice of a Vice-President), in the second was definitely split into two factions: Federalists and Democratic-Republicans faced each other in ardent strife. As I have said before, I am not writing a history: suffice it to say that John Adams, as Federalist candidate, was elected President, his rival, Thomas Jefferson, becoming Vice-President.

Mrs. Adams' letter to her husband on the day of his inauguration, February 8th, 1797, has become a classic, and is in every way worthy of her.

"The sun is dressed in brightest beams,
To give thy honors to the day.

"And may it prove an auspicious prelude to each ensuing season. You have this day to declare yourself head of a nation. 'And now, O Lord, my God, thou hast made thy servant ruler over the people. Give unto him an understanding heart, that he may know how to go out and come in before this great people; that he may discern between good and bad. For who is able to judge this thy so great a people?' were the words of a royal sovereign; and not less applicable to him who is invested with the chief magistracy of a nation, though he wear not a crown, nor the robes of royalty.

"My thoughts and my meditations are with you, though personally absent; and my petitions to Heaven are, that 'the things which make for peace may not be hidden from your eyes.' My feelings are not those of pride or ostentation, upon the occasion. They are solemnized by a sense of the obligations, the important trusts, and numerous duties connected with it. That you may be enabled to discharge them with honor to yourself, with justice and impartiality to your country, and with satisfaction to this great people, shall be the daily prayer of your

"A. A."

Philadelphia was still the seat of government, the new city of Washington not being yet ready for occupation. There are few published letters of this period; the cares and calls of society were heavy upon Mrs. Adams. She had never fully recovered[248] from the illness of 1790, and was subject to recurrent attacks of fever. She spent as much of her time as was possible at Quincy, the name now given to that part of Braintree where they lived. When in Philadelphia, and later in Washington, she performed the duties of her high office carefully, thoroughly, with her own stately dignity, but I doubt if she ever enjoyed them. She writes to her friend, Mrs. James Warren, on March 4th, 1797:

"For your congratulations upon a late important event accept my acknowledgments. Considering it as the voluntary and unsolicited gift of a free and enlightened people, it is a precious and valuable deposit and calls for every exertion of the head and every virtue of the heart to do justice to so sacred a trust. Yet, however pure the intentions or upright the conduct, offences will come,

High stations tumult but not bliss create. "As to a crown, my dear Madam, I will not deny that there is one which I aspire after, and in a country where envy can never enter to plant thorns beneath it. The fashion of this world passeth away—I would hope that I have not lived in vain, but have learnt how to estimate and what value to place upon the fleeting and transitory enjoyment of it. I shall[249] esteem myself peculiarly fortunate, if, at the close of my public life, I can retire esteemed, beloved and equally respected with my predecessor."

Mr. Adams' feelings are expressed in the following words, written to his wife the day after the election.

"Your dearest friend never had a more trying day than yesterday. A solemn scene it was indeed, and it was made more affecting to me by the presence of the General, whose countenance was as serene and unclouded as the day. He seemed to me to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him say, 'Ay! I am fairly out, and you are fairly in! See which of us will be happiest.' When the ceremony was over, he came and made me a visit, and cordially congratulated me, and wished my administration might be happy, successful and honorable."

There were thorns enough in the presidential "crown," for both Mr. and Mrs. Adams. The storm, instead of abating, rose higher and higher. There was danger of war with France: a danger only averted by the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to power, as First Consul of France. Consequent upon these troubles came the Alien and Sedition Acts, which brought endless vexation of spirit for President Adams and for everyone else concerned in them. The details of the struggle may not be given here: suffice it to say that through four tempestuous years the old statesman fought gallantly and steadfastly for the political principles which were dearer to him than life itself, but fought in vain. The tide had set against him, and in November, 1800, he had the intense mortification of seeing his colleague, his former friend and present rival, Thomas Jefferson, elected President in his place.

This was bitter indeed to the stout patriot who had given his whole life to the service of his country. Conscious of his absolute integrity ("He is vain and irritable," said Jefferson himself, "but disinterested as the being who made him!"), and his unfailing devotion, John Adams could not but resent the slight put upon him; nor, strive as she might, could his faithful Portia help resenting it for him. She writes to her son Thomas (November 13th, 1800):

"Well, my dear son, South Carolina has behaved as your father always said she would. The consequence to us, personally, is, that we retire from public life. For myself and family, I have few regrets. At my age, and with my bodily infirmities, I shall be happier at Quincy. Neither my habits, nor my education, or inclinations have led me to an expensive style of living, so that on that score I have little to mourn over. If I did not rise with dignity, I can at least fall with ease, which is the more difficult task. I wish your father's circumstances were not so limited and circumscribed, as they must be, because he cannot indulge himself in those improvements upon his farm, which his inclination leads him to, and which would serve to amuse him, and contribute to his health. I feel not any resentment against those who are coming into power, and only wish the future administration of the government may be as productive of the peace, happiness, and prosperity of the nation, as the two former ones have been. I leave to time the unfolding of a drama. I leave to posterity to reflect upon the times past; and I leave them characters to contemplate. My own intention is to return to Quincy as soon as I conveniently can; I presume in the month of January."

It was at this trying time that the seat of government was transferred to Washington. What the President's wife thought of the move is apparent from the following letters to her daughter:

"I arrived here on Sunday last, and without meeting with any accident worth noticing, except losing ourselves when we left Baltimore, and going eight or nine miles on the Frederick road, by which means we were obliged to go the other eight through woods, where we wandered two hours without finding a guide, or the path. Fortunately, a straggling black came up with us, and we engaged him as a guide, to extricate us out of our difficulty; but woods are all you see, from Baltimore until you reach the city, which is only so in name. Here and there is a small cot, without a glass window, interspersed amongst the forests, through which you travel miles without seeing any human being. In the city there are buildings enough, if they were compact and finished, to accommodate Congress and those attached to it; but as they are, and scattered as they are, I see no great comfort for them. The river, which runs up to Alexandria, is in full view of my window, and I see the vessels as they pass and repass. The house is upon a grand and superb scale, requiring about thirty servants to attend and keep the apartments in proper order, and perform the ordinary business of the house and stables; an establishment very well proportioned to the President's salary. The lighting the apartments, from the kitchen to parlors and chambers, is a tax indeed; and the fires we are obliged to keep to secure us from daily agues is another very cheering comfort. To assist us in this great castle, and render less attendance necessary, bells are wholly wanting, not one single one being hung through the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain. This is so great an inconvenience, that I know not what to do, or how to do. The ladies from Georgetown and in the city have many of them visited me. Yesterday I returned fifteen visits,—but such a place as Georgetown appears,—why, our Milton is beautiful. But no comparisons;—if they will put me up some bells, and let me have wood enough to keep fires, I design to be pleased. I could content myself almost anywhere three months; but, surrounded with forests, can you believe that wood is not to be had, because people cannot be found to cut and cart it! Briesler entered into a contract with a man to supply him with wood. A small part, a few cords only, has he been able to get. Most of that was expended to dry the walls of the house before we came in, and yesterday the man told him it was impossible for him to procure it to be cut and carted. He has had recourse to coals; but we cannot get grates made and set. We have, indeed, come into a new country.

"You must keep all this to yourself, and, when asked how I like it, say that I write you the situation is beautiful, which is true. The house is made habitable, but there is not a single apartment finished, and all withinside, except the plastering, has been done since Briesler came. We have not the least fence, yard, or other convenience, without, and the great unfinished audience-room I make a drying-room of, to hang up the clothes in. The principal stairs are not up, and will not be this winter. Six chambers are made comfortable; two are occupied by the President and Mr. Shaw; two lower rooms, one for a common parlor, and one for a levee-room. Up stairs there is the oval room, which is designed for the drawing-room, and has the crimson furniture in it. It is a very handsome room now; but when completed, it will be beautiful. If the twelve years, in which this place has been considered as the future seat of government, had been improved, as they would have been if in New England, very many of the present inconveniences would have been removed. It is a beautiful spot, capable of every improvement, and, the more I view it, the more I am delighted with it."

"27 November, 1800.
"I received your letter by Mr. Pintard. Two articles we are much distressed for; the one is bells,[255] but the more important one is wood. Yet you cannot see wood for trees. No arrangement has been made, but by promises never performed, to supply the new-comers with fuel. Of the promises Briesler has received his full share. He had procured nine cords of wood; between six and seven of that was kindly burnt up to dry the walls of the house, which ought to have been done by the commissioners, but which, if left to them, would have remained undone to this day. Congress poured in, but shiver, shiver. No woodcutters nor carters to be had at any rate. We are now indebted to a Pennsylvania waggon to bring us, through the first clerk in the Treasury office, one cord and a half of wood, which is all we have for this house, where twelve fires are constantly required, and where, we are told, the roads will soon be so bad that it cannot be drawn. Briesler procured two hundred bushels of coals or we must have suffered. This is the situation of almost every person. The public officers have sent to Philadelphia for woodcutters and waggons.

"You will read in the answer of the House to the President's Speech a full and explicit approbation of the Administration; a coöperation with him equal to his utmost expectations; this passed without an amendment or any debate or squabble, and has just now been delivered by the House in a body. The vessel which has my clothes and other matters is not arrived. The ladies are impatient for a drawing-room; I have no looking-glasses but dwarfs for this house; nor a twentieth part lamps enough to light it. Many things were stolen, many more broken, by the removal; amongst the number, my tea china is more than half missing. Georgetown affords nothing. My rooms are very pleasant and warm whilst the doors of the hall are closed.

"You can scarce believe that here in this wilderness city, I should find my time so occupied as it is. My visitors, some of them, come three and four miles. The return of one of them is the work of one day; most of the ladies reside in Georgetown or in scattered parts of the city at two and three miles distance. Mrs. Otis, my nearest neighbor, is at lodgings almost half a mile from me; Mrs. Senator Otis, two miles.

"We have all been very well as yet; if we can by any means get wood, we shall not let our fires go out, but it is at a price indeed; from four dollars it has risen to nine. Some say it will fall, but there must be more industry than is to be found here to bring half enough to the market for the consumption of the inhabitants.

"With kind remembrance to all friends,

"I am your truly affectionate mother,
"A. A."

John Cotton Smith, Member of Congress from Connecticut, adds these details:

"One wing of the Capitol only had been erected, which with the President's House, a mile distant from it, both constructed with white sandstone, were striking objects in dismal contrast with the scene around them. Instead of recognizing the avenues and streets, pourtrayed on the plan of the city, not one was visible, unless we except a road with two buildings on each side of it, called the New Jersey Avenue. The Pennsylvania, leading, as laid down on paper, from the Capitol to the Presidential Mansion, was then nearly the whole distance a deep morass, covered with alder bushes, which were cut through the width of the intended avenue the then ensuing winter. . . . The roads in every direction were muddy and unimproved; a sidewalk was attempted in one instance by a covering formed of the chips of the stones which had been hewed from the Capitol. It extended but a little way, and was of little value, for in dry weather the sharp fragments cut our shoes, and in wet weather covered them with white mortar."

Mrs. Adams was to have only four months of this disturbed existence. The climate of Washington, the general discomfort added to anxiety and distress of mind, made her ill, and she left the city before Mr. Adams did. During her short stay, however, she won the admiration of all by the dignity, grace and judgment with which she filled a most difficult position. She never lost her cheerfulness. "I am a mortal enemy," she said, "to anything but a cheerful countenance and a merry heart, which Solomon tells us, does good like a medicine." So in those dark days, when the tide of abuse and calumny raged around her beloved husband, she was more than ever the lamp that lighted and the fire that warmed him. Whatever was said of him—and one fancies that "hyena" and "crocodile" were mild epithets compared with those showered on the brave old statesman,—no one had anything but praise for Mrs. Adams. On January 1st, 1801, was held the first New Year's reception at the White House. She received the guests with her own calm grace and dignity. No one would have guessed that the house was half finished, the principal stairs still lacking, her china stolen and her husband defeated; she was mistress, not only of the White House, but of the situation.

The closing days of the winter must have been painful to both Mr. and Mrs. Adams. They longed for the end, for the permanent return to "calm, happy Braintree," and before March came, Mrs. Adams was already there, ready to receive her dearest friend. One of Mr. Adams' last acts was the appointment of John Marshall as chief-justice of the supreme court; for this alone, he would deserve the lasting gratitude of the American people. He could not meet Jefferson, whom he had once loved, with whom he had toiled, suffered, triumphed, by whom he was now defeated. On March 3rd, 1801, he labored far into the night, signing commissions, arranging papers in his own methodical way, closing, as it were, his accounts with a nation which he could not but think ungrateful. Early on the morning of the 4th, while the city was still wrapped in slumber, he entered his carriage and left Washington forever.


Return to the Abigail Adams and Her Times Summary Return to the Laura E. Richards Library

© 2022 AmericanLiterature.com