6AHMP: Who was the Most Romantic Founding Father?
What a better thing to talk about during the month of February than the subject of love. Who, might you ask, is the most romantic Founding Father? I believe that I have the answer. Of course, I should actually phrase the question: Which Founding Father wrote the most romantic love letters? After all, we cannot interview them or observe them with the objects of their affection. What we have to answer that question is the writings that remain available to us.
Unfortunately, the hunt for the author of the most romantic love letters is also hampered by a custom of time in which they lived. Although we live in an age where public figures, be it a President, academy award winner, or the celeb of the moment on Youtube, are willing, if not exceedingly interested, in baring their souls for profit or greater notoriety, the same could not be said for those in the political realm of the late 1700’s. Martha Washington burned letters that she exchanged with her husband, George, after his death. Thomas Jefferson did the same after the death of his wife, Martha. Samuel Adams was well known for regularly burning his personal correspondence, and then flamboyantly throwing the ashes out the window, so as to assure the personal safety of his friends. Consequently, we have limited access to the personal writings of the Founders.
But don’t despair. There was one such couple who not only wrote to each other frequently, and exchanged words of a highly romantic nature, but their writings have survived for us to review to this day. In fact, the letters exchanged between John Adams and his wife, Abigail, are almost legendary. Their correspondence also gives us a unique window into all aspects of their lives. Unlike the Madisons, who were seldom separated, John and Abigail spent many years living apart from one another.
The Adams’ courtship lasted several years due to the time John spent advocating for his clients across the route of the court circuits. They were also separated for a six-week forced quarantine after John was inoculated against small pox. Many of the letters of that time referenced the need to “smoke” the letters. It was believed at that time that holding a letter over smoke would prevent the transmission of the disease from the writer to the recipient. After their marriage, John once again journeyed away from home to take part in the Continental Congress. He was separated from Abigail for lengthy periods of time between 1774 until 1777.
In 1778, John Adams was appointed by the Continental Congress, along with Arthur Lee and Benjamin Franklin, to negotiate an alliance with France. He was taken aback when he found that Franklin had already negotiated the terms with France prior to his arrival. However, he remained in the country from February of 1778 until the summer months of 1779. He was sent home after he alienated himself from Franklin, and it was Franklin who was appointed to remain as the sole representative in France because of his popularity with both the French citizens and officials alike. He soon returned to Paris (without first discussing the matter with Abigail) to await the opportunity to negotiate the end of the American Revolution. It was during that period, he was partially responsible for not only negotiating a treaty of amity and commerce with the Netherlands, but recognition of the United States by the Netherlands, as well as a substantial loan which greatly assisted the fledgling United States. It should be noted that he traveled to Netherlands without the knowledge that his commission was revoked by the Congress because he had insulted the French Foreign Minister and been continually remained at odds with Franklin. For much of this time, Abigail not only raised their two children, but managed the family farm, the household staff, and tenants on the Adams’ property as well.
Adams once again rose from his political ashes when he, Abigail, and their two children relocated to Europe from 1784 until 1788 while John served as the United States Minister to the Court of St. James. The house where the family lived in Grosvenor Square in London from 1785 until 1788 still stands to this day.
You might assume that they would also have lived together during John’s time as Vice-President and President. However, Abigail spent portions of that time in the family home in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Needless to say all of the time that they spent apart encouraged John and Abigail to correspond with one another. They left behind more than 1000 letters that included their concerns about day-to-day matters, opinions, humorous stories about themselves and others, advice to each other on all matters, views about politics and other political figures, and, best of all, their feelings of love for one another.
Although John was well known for lashing out at political foes and colleagues alike, and repeatedly damaged his political career because of his inability to hold his tongue, he was particularly adept at penning romantic prose to his beloved Abigail. He often referred to her as “Diana” after the Roman goddess of the moon. In other letters he referred to her as “Dear Adorable” or “Miss Adorable.” He sometimes referred to himself as the Spartan hero “Lysander.”
The first written exchange we have between them, although undated, already notes John’s intention to marry the seventeen year old Abigail. The letter was as follows: “Dr. Miss Jemima…I have taken the best Advice, on the subject of your Billet, and I find you cannot compell me to pay unless I refuse Marriage; which I never did, and never will, but on the Contrary am ready to have you at any Time. Yours, Jonathan…I hope Jemima’s Conscience has as good a Memory as mine.”
The second preserved letter, written on October 4, 1762, was even saucier: “Miss Adorable…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.”
Another quite romantic letter was written by Adams on February 14, 1763 while he was kept apart from his beloved Abigail due to his small pox inoculation. The letter was as follows:
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.
Your — (all the rest is inexpressible)
Braintree Feby. 14th. 1763”
After a lengthy separation, Adams wrote to Abigail on September 20, 1764: “Oh my dear Girl, I thank Heaven that another Fortnight will restore you to me — after so long a separation. My soul and Body have both been thrown into Disorder, by your Absence, and a Month of two more would make me the most insufferable Cynick, in the World.
I see nothing but Faults, Follies, Frailties and Defects in any Body, lately. People have lost all their good Properties or I my justice, or Discernment. But you who have always softened and warmed my Heart, shall restore my Benevolence as well as my Health and Tranquility of mind.
You shall polish and refine my sentiments of Life and Manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured Particles in my Composition, and form me to that happy Temper, that can reconcile a quick Discernment with a perfect Candour.
Believe me, now & ever yr. faithful
And what of Abigail’s letters to John? Although she never received a formal education, her love of reading gave her a considerable vocabulary. She unabashedly shared her well thought out opinions on all subjects with her beloved. Although she was not an educated and trained attorney, as was her husband, Abigail was equally adept at writing prose from the heart. Abigail Adams began many of her letters with the phrase, “my dearest friend.” Initially, she adopted the pseudonym of Diana given to her by the one whom she cherished, but after the birth of her first child, she began to refer to herself as “Portia” who was the wife of “Brutus” – a famous Roman political figure.
During their separation in the spring of 1764, Abigail wrote to John on April 12th:
“My Dearest Friend
Here am I all alone, in my Chamber, a mere Nun I assure you, after professing myself thus will it not be out of Character to confess that my thoughts are often employ’d about Lysander, “out of the abundance of the Heart, the mouth speaketh,” and why Not the Mind thinketh.
Received the pacquet you so generously bestowed upon me. To say I Fasted after such an entertainment, would be wronging my Conscience and wounding Truth. How kind is it in you, thus by frequent tokens of remembrance to alleviate the pangs of absence, by this I am convinced that I am often in your Thoughts, which is a satisfaction to me, notwithstanding you tell me that you sometimes view the dark side of your Diana, and there no doubt you discover many Spots which I rather wish were erased, than conceal’d from you. Do not judge by this, that your opinion is an indifferent thing to me, (were it so, I should look forward with a heavey Heart,) but it is far otherways, for I had rather stand fair there, and be thought well of by Lysander than by the greater part of the World besides. I would fain hope that those faults which you discover, proceed more, from a wrong Head, than a bad Heart. E’er long May I be connected with a Friend from whose Example I may form a more faultless conduct, and whose benevolent mind will lead him to pardon, what he cannot amend.
The Nest of Letters which you so undervalue, were to me a much more welcome present than a Nest of Baskets, tho every stran of those had been gold and silver. I do not estimate everything according to the price the world set upon it, but according to the value it is of to me, thus that which was cheapest to you I look upon as highly valuable.
You ask whether you shall send a History of the whole voyage, characters, visits, conversations &c. &c. It is the very thing that I designd this Evening to have requested of you, but you have prevented my asking, by kindly offering it. You will greatly oblige me by it, and it will be no small amusement to me in my State of Seperation. Among the many who will visit, I expect Arpasia will be one, I want her character drawn by your pen (Aurelia says she appears most agreable in her Letters). I know you are a critical observer, and your judgment of people generally plases me. Sometimes you know, I think you too severe, and that you do not make quite so many allowances as Humane Nature requires, but perhaps this may be oweing to my unacquainedness with the World. Your Business Naturly leads you to a nearer inspection of Mankind, and to see the corruptions of the Heart, which [I] believe you often find desperately wicked and deceitful.
Me thinks I have abundance to say to you. What is next? O that I should have been extreemly glad to have seen you to Day.
Last Fast Day, if you remember, we spent together, and why might we not this? Why I can tell you, we might, if we had been together, have been led into temptation. I dont mean to commit any Evil, unless setting up late, and thereby injuring our Health, may be called so. To that I could have submitted without much remorse of Conscience, that would have had but little weight with me, had you not bid me adieu, the last time I saw you. The reflexion of what I that forenoon endured, has been ever since sufficient to deter me from wishing to see you again, till you can come and go, as you formerly used to…”
Abigail ended that letter with the following poem:
“ ‘O Ye immortal powers! that guard the just
Watch round his Head, and soften the Disease
Banish all Sorrow from his Mind
Becalm his Soul with pleasing thoughts
And shew Mankind that virtue is your care.’
Thus for Lysander prays his A Smith”
You might wonder if John and Abigail’s strong emotional attachment to one another diminished over time? The answer is an emphatic “no.”
Let’s consider the following exchange. On April 11, 1776, Abigail wrote to John:
I take my pen and write just as I can get time, my Letters will be a strange Mixture. I really am cumberd about many things and scarcly know which way to turn my-self. I miss my partner, and find myself uneaquil to the cares which fall upon me; I find it necessary to be the directress of our Husbandery and farming. Hands are so scarce, that I have not been able to procure one, and add to this that Isaac has been sick with a fever this fortnight, not able to strick a Stroke and a Multiplicity of farming Business pouring in upon Us.
In this Dilemma I have taken Belcher into pay, and must secure him for the Season, as I know not what better course to stear. I hope in time to have the Reputation of being as good a Farmeress as my partner has of being a good Statesmen. — To ask you any thing about your return would I suppose be asking a Question you cannot answer.”
After passing along information about activities of the British and Colonists alike, as well as political news of which she thought her husband might take interest in, Abigail ended the letter as follows:
“Write me how you do this winter. I want to say many things I must omit, it is not fit to wake the Soul by tender strokes of art, or to Ruminate upon happiness we might enjoy, least absence become intolerable.
I wish you would burn all my Letters.”
On April 28, 1776, John’s response to Abigail included the following exerpts:
… It gives me Concern to think of the many Cares you must have upon your Mind. Am glad you have taken [Belcher] into Pay, and that Isaac is well before now I hope.
Your Reputation, as a Farmer, or any Thing else you undertake I dare answer for ….Your Partners Character as a Statesman is much more problematical.
As to my Return, I have not a Thought of it. Journeys of such a Length are tedious, and expensive both of Time and Money neither of which are my own. I hope to spend the next Christmas, where I did the last, and after that I hope to be relieved for by that Time I shall have taken a pretty good Trick att Helm whether the Vessell has been well steer’d or not. But if My Countrymen should insist upon my serving them another Year, they must let me bring my whole Family with me. Indeed I could keep House here, with my Partner, four children and two servants, as cheap as I maintain my self here with two Horses and a servant at Lodgings…
Is there no Way for two friendly Souls, to converse together, altho the Bodies are 400 Miles off?—Yes by Letter.—But I want a better Communication. I want to hear you think, or to see your Thoughts.
The Conclusion of your Letter makes my Heart throb, more than a Cannonade would. You bid me burn your Letters. But I must forget you first.”
It seems that we now have the answer as to why John chose not to burn their correspondence after Abigail’s death.
The couple’s last known letters to one another came as John’s term as President came to a close. Both letters were focused on the politics of the day, but continued to contain affection for one another.
On February 16, 1801, John wrote to Abigail from the nation’s captiol: “The Election will be decided this day in favour of Mr. Jefferson as it is given out by good Authority.
The Burden upon me in nominating Judges and Consuls and other officers, in delivering over the furniture, in the ordinary Business at the Close of a Session, and in preparing for my Journey of 500 miles through the mire, is and will be very heavy. My time will be all taken up. I pray you to continue to write me. My Anxiety for you is a very distressing addition to all my other Labours.
Our Bishop gave us a good discourse yesterday and every body enquired after you. I was able to tell them you had arrived on fryday night at Baltimore. I Sleep the better for having the Shutters open: and all goes on well. I pray God to bless and preserve you.”
On February 21, 1801, Abigail wrote to John at the conclusion of her trip to Philadephia. Her letter began:
“My dear Sir
I write you once more from this city. The River is impassable, and has prevented my sitting out. We hope however that the Rain may clear it. I sent Townsend of to day; I have heard some of the democratic rejoicing such as Ringing Bells and fireing cannon. What an inconsistancy said a Lady to me to day, the Bells of Christ Church ringing peals of rejoicing for an Infidel President!” At the end, she concluded her letter: “Adieu my dear Friend. I wish you well through the remainder of your political journey. I want to see the list of judges.”
The writings of John and Abigail Adams remind us of the humanity of our Founding Fathers. While some hold them out to be almost god like, others portray them as flawed figures whose opinions should be dismissed. Yet, the letters exchanged between John and Abigail allows us to see them for the unique and interesting individuals who they were. They were also human beings whose decisions were led by their principles. In 1782, Abigail Adams was asked if she would have objected to John’s departure to Europe had she known how long they would be separated. Her response? “I feel a pleasure in being able to sacrifice my selfish passions to the general good” How different might our country be if we all could follow her example?
As always, remain motivated, vigilant, and engaged in the political process.
Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.
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