The Book of Abigail and John

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2002-09-27
  • Publisher: Northeastern Univ Pr

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The lives of this remarkable couple unfold alongside events of the Revolutionary War era, a time in which John left his family for prolonged periods to serve his colony and country. Their engaging exchanges follow John's career from provincial lawyer and farmer in Braintree, Massachusetts, to delegate to the Continental Congresses in Philadelphia, to diplomatic success in Europe. John reveals himself as an ambitious, determined, and self-doubting statesman with a trusting, deeply affectionate character and an earthy sense of humor. Abigail's lively and captivating letters show the trials of an intelligent, strong, and resourceful woman who managed the family's farm and business affairs and reared the pair's four children during her husband's long absences. Her missives to John are filled with outspoken remarks on politics, public figures, and world-shaking events. An independent thinker and advocate of equal rights for women, she urged him in one spirited letter to "Remember the Ladies" in framing the new government. Abigail also vividly documents domestic life in eighteenth-century America, providing enlightening details on health problems, childbirth, education, women's activities, the difficulties of travel, and the impact of wartime inflation. The 226 letters contained in this volume are supplemented with a few to third parties and a sampling of diary entries. Altogether, the words and thoughts of these warm, if occasionally fallible, human beings richly convey the experience of the Revolutionary generation in a most personal and authentic way.

Author Biography

L.H. Butterfield and Marc Friedlaender, as editor in chief and editor, respectively, were long identified with the publication of The Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Mary-Jo Kline was Associate Editor of The Adams Papers. David McCullough is the author of the best-selling John Adams and the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Truman.

Table of Contents

Foreword xi
Introduction 1(2)
Abigail and John
The Letters
Centennial and Bicentennial Versions
Note to the Reader and Acknowledgments
October 1762--July 1774
August 1774--May 1776
June 1776--October 1777
November 1777--July 1780
August 1780--September 1782
October 1782--August 1784
Index 399


OCTOBER 1762 ~ JULY 1774

Now Letter-Writing is, to me, the most agreable Amusement:

and Writing to you the most entertaining and

Agreable of all Letter-Writing. - John Adams

And - then Sir if you please you may take me.

- Abigail Smith

John Adams' first known reference to the girl who became his wife and made a place for herself in history beside him is in his Diary during the summer of 1759. "Polly and Nabby are Wits," he wrote of Mary and Abigail, the seventeen- and fourteen-year-old daughters of the Reverend William Smith of Weymouth. He pronounced them wanting in the "Tenderness" and "fondness" of another girl, Hannah Quincy, and questioned whether wit was ever compatible with the sisterly, wifely, and motherly graces he admired in Hannah.

He spoke with feeling because he had recently and reluctantly broken off an attachment to Hannah or, rather, had had it broken off for him by an accidental interruption that had dispelled Hannah's wiles, brought him to his senses, and saved him from a marriage that "might have depressed me to absolute Poverty and obscurity, to the End of my Life." So he firmly gave up Hannah, though his Diary shows that he cast many longing glances back in her direction.

Perhaps it was his amiable and versatile friend Richard Cranch who introduced Adams to the family at the Weymouth parsonage. Here was a circle of young people who were at least as fond of reading and writing and fun as they were of Parson Smith's not particularly distinguished Sunday sermons and Thursday lectures. By 1761 Richard Cranch was courting Polly ("Aurelia" in the following letter). They were married late the next year and settled in the Germantown section of Braintree (now part of Quincy), where there were other young people with congenial tastes. By this time John Adams and Abigail Smith were exchanging letters in a style betraying no hint of their Puritan descent or Calvinist upbringing.

Miss Adorable Octr. 4th. 1762.

By the same Token that the Bearer hereof satt up with you last night I hereby order you to give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O'Clock as he shall please to Demand and charge them to my Account: This Order, or Requisition call it which you will is in Consideration of a similar order Upon Aurelia for the like favour, and I presume I have good Right to draw upon you for the Kisses as I have given two or three Millions at least, when one has been received, and of Consequence the Account between us is immensely in favour of yours, John Adams

Dear Madam Braintree Feby. 14th. 1763

Accidents are often more Friendly to us, than our own Prudence.-I intended to have been at Weymouth Yesterday, but a storm prevented.-Cruel, Yet perhaps blessed storm!-Cruel for detaining me from so much friendly, social Company, and perhaps blessed to you, or me or both, for keeping me at my Distance . For every experimental Phylosopher knows, that the steel and the Magnet or the Glass and feather will not fly together with more Celerity, than somebody And somebody, when brought within the striking Distance-and, Itches, Aches, Agues, and Repentance might be the Consequences of a Contact in present Circumstances. Even the Divines pronounce casuistically, I hear, "unfit to be touched these three Weeks."

I mount this moment for that noisy, dirty Town of Boston, where Parade, Pomp, Nonsense, Frippery, Folly, Foppery, Luxury, Polliticks, and the soul-Confounding Wrangles of the Law will give me the Higher Relish for Spirit, Taste and Sense, at Weymouth, next Sunday.

My Duty, w[h]ere owing! My Love to Mr. Cranch And Lady, tell them I love them, I love them better than any Mortals who have no other Title to my Love than Friendship gives, and that I hope he is in perfect Health and she in all the Qualms that necessarily attend Pregnancy, and in all other Respects very happy.

Your-(all the rest is inexpressible) John Adams

My Friend Weymouth August th 11 1763

If I was sure your absence to day was occasioned, by what it generally is, either to wait upon Company, or promote some good work, I freely confess my Mind would be much more at ease than at present it is. Yet this uneasiness does not arise from any apprehension of Slight or neglect, but a fear least you are indisposed, for that you said should be your only hindrance.

Humanity obliges us to be affected with the distresses and Miserys of our fellow creatures. Friendship is a band yet stronger, which causes us to [fee]l with greater tenderness the afflictions of our Friends.

And there is a tye more binding than Humanity, and stronger than Friendship, which makes us anxious for the happiness and welfare of those to whom it binds us. It makes their Misfortunes, Sorrows and afflictions, our own. Unite these, and there is a threefold cord-by this cord I am not ashamed to own myself bound, nor do I [believe] that you are wholly free from it. Judg[e you then] for your Diana has she not this day [had sufficien]t cause for pain and anxiety of mind?

She bids me [tell] you that Seneca, for the sake of his Paulina was careful and tender of his health. The health and happiness of Seneca she says was not dearer to his Paulina, than that of Lysander to his Diana.

The Fabrick often wants repairing and if we neglect it the Deity will not long inhabit it, yet after all our care and solisitude to preserve it, it is a tottering Building, and often reminds us that it will finally fall.

Adieu may this find you in better health than I fear it will, and happy as your Diana wishes you.

Accept this hasty Scrawl warm from the Heart of Your Sincere


My dear Diana Saturday morning Aug. 1763

Germantown is at a great Distance from Weymouth Meeting-House, you know; The No. of Yards indeed is not so prodigious, but the Rowing and Walking that lyes between is a great Discouragement to a weary Traveller. Could my Horse have helped me to Weymouth, Braintree would not have held me, last Night.-I lay, in the well known Chamber, and dreamed, I saw a Lady, tripping it over the Hills, on Weymouth shore, and Spreading Light and Beauty and Glory, all around her. At first I thought it was Aurora, with her fair Complexion, her Crimson Blushes and her million Charms and Graces. But I soon found it was Diana, a Lady infinitely dearer to me and more charming.-Should Diana make her Appearance every morning instead of Aurora, I should not sleep as I do, but should be all awake and admiring by four, at latest.-You may be sure I was mortifyed when I found, I had only been dreaming. The Impression however of this dream awaked me thoroughly, and since I had lost my Diana, I enjoy'd the Opportunity of viewing and admiring Miss Aurora. She's a sweet Girl, upon my Word. Her breath is wholesome as the sweetly blowing Spices of Arabia, and therefore next to her fairer sister Diana, the Properest Physician, for your drooping J. Adams

Weymouth Sepbr. th 12 1763

You was pleas'd to say that the receipt of a letter from your Diana always gave you pleasure. Whether this was designed for a complement, (a commodity I acknowledg that you very seldom deal in) or as a real truth, you best know. Yet if I was to judge of a certain persons Heart, by what upon the like occasion passess through a cabinet of my own, I should be apt to suspect it as a truth. And why may I not? when I have often been tempted to believe; that they were both cast in the same mould, only with this difference, that yours was made, with a harder mettle, and therefore is less liable to an impression. Whether they have both an eaquil quantity of Steel, I have not yet been able to discover, but do not imagine they are either of them deficient. Supposing only this difference, I do not see, why the same cause may not produce the same Effect in both, tho perhaps not eaquil in degree.

But after all, notwithstanding we are told that the giver is more blessed than the receiver I must confess that I am not of so generous a disposition, in this case, as to give without wishing for a return.

Have you heard the News? that two Apparitions were seen one evening this week hovering about this house, which very much resembled you and a Cousin of yours. How it should ever enter into the head of an Apparition to assume a form like yours, I cannot devise. When I was told of it I could scarcly believe it, yet I could not declare the contrary, for I did not see it, and therefore had not that demonstration which generally convinces me, that you are not a Ghost.

The original design of this letter was to tell you, that I would next week be your fellow traveler provided I shall not be any encumberance to you, for I have too much pride to be a clog to any body. You are to determine that point. For your- A. Smith

P S Pappa says he should be very much obliged to Your Cousin if he would preach for him tomorrow and if not to morrow next Sunday. Please to present my complements to him and tell him by complying with this request he will oblige many others besides my pappa, and especially his Humble Servant, A. Smith

In 1761 John Adams had inherited from his father a saltbox cottage at the foot of Penn's Hill, with the arable, orchard, and wood land that went with it. And before long he also found himself advancing well enough in his law practice to think practically about marriage. By 1763 he was formally recognized by the Smiths as Abigail's husband-to-be. Fixing a time for their wedding was complicated by an outbreak of smallpox in Boston early in 1764. As a lawyer, Adams had to travel the court circuits, and so it seemed wise for him to be inoculated before establishing a household of his own. This procedure, which, with its preliminaries and sequels, required a month or more, probably deferred the wedding from spring till fall.

Variolous inoculation (to use its technical name), which infected a patient with a light case of smallpox under carefully controlled conditions to avoid the greater danger of taking the disease "in the natural way," had been introduced in Boston (and America) by Dr. Zabdiel Boylston-an uncle of John Adams' mother-in 1721. The practice had "raised an horrid Clamour" then and did so in later epidemics until after the turn of the century, when William Jenner's discovery of vaccination (infection with a milder but immunizing disease, the cowpox) entirely replaced it.

By 1764 inoculation was widely recognized as much less risky than natural infection, but distrust of physicians' motives (how mercenary were they?) persisted, as did concern about contagion from persons undergoing inoculation and from the "hospitals" (often simply quarantined private houses) where they gathered. Provincial and local authorities therefore prohibited the practice unless there were serious outbreaks and then tried to confine it to a few isolated sites. But in the spring of 1764 the town of Boston became "one great hospital." John Adams' letters to his fiancée furnish full and vivid details on the preparatory treatment, the actual procedure of inoculation, and the course of the disease under good professional oversight.

In the letter immediately following, "My Unkle" can hardly be other than Abigail's uncle (and cousin) who bore the only-in-New-England name of Cotton Tufts. A distinguished physician of Weymouth, he is sometimes referred to as just "the Dr." or as "Dr. Trusty," because he carried messages between the courting couple. He underwent inoculation just ahead of John Adams. In later years he often served the Adamses as adviser and agent in their business affairs.

Sir Weymouth April 7. 1764

How do you now? For my part, I feel much easier than I did an hour ago, My Unkle haveing given me a more particuliar, and favorable account of the Small pox, or rather the operation of the preparation, than I have had before. He speaks greatly in favor of Dr. Perkins who has not, as he has heard lost one patient. He has had since he has been in Town frequent opportunities of visiting in the families where the Doctor practises, and he is full in the persuasion that he understands the Distemper, full as well if not better than any physician in Town, and knows better what to do in case of any dificulty. He allows his patients greater liberty with regard to their Diet, than several other physicians. Some of them (Dr. Lord for one) forbid their patients a mouthful of Bread. My unkle says they are all agreed that tis best to abstain from Butter, and Salt-And most of them from meat.

I hope you will have reason to be well satisfied with the Dr., and advise you to follow his prescriptions as nigh as you find your Health will permit. I send by my unkle some balm. Let me know certainly what Day you design to go to Town, Pappa Says Tom shall go that Day and bring your Horse back.

Keep your Spirits up, and I make no doubt you will do well eno'. Shall I come and see you before you go. No I wont, for I want not again, to experience what I this morning felt, when you left Your

A. Smith

Saturday Evening Eight O'Clock My dear Diana [7 April 1764]

For many Years past, I have not felt more serenely than I do this Evening. My Head is clear, and my Heart is at ease. Business of every Kind, I have banished from my Thoughts. My Boom is prepared for a Seven Days' Retirement, and my Plan is digested for 4 or 5 Weeks. My Brother retreats with me, to our preparatory Hospital, and is determined to keep me Company, through the Small Pox. Your Unkle, by his agreable Account of the Dr. and your Brother, their Strength, their Spirits, and their happy Prospects, but especially, by the Favour he left me from you, has contributed very much to the Felicity of my present Frame of Mind. For, I assure you Sincerely, that, (as Nothing which I before expected from the Distemper gave me more Concern, than the Thought of a six Weeks Separation from my Diana) my Departure from your House this Morning made an Impression upon me that was severely painfull. I thought I left you, in Tears and Anxiety-And was very glad to hear by your Letter, that your Fears were abated.


Excerpted from The Book of ABIGAIL AND JOHN Copyright © 1975 by Massachusetts Historical Society
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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