The Road to Philadelphia
You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive
spectator....We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that
correspond with them.
In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on
horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north. A foot or more of
snow covered the landscape, the remnants of a Christmas storm that had blanketed
Massachusetts from one end of the province to the other. Beneath the snow, after
weeks of severe cold, the ground was frozen solid to a depth of two feet. Packed
ice in the road, ruts as hard as iron, made the going hazardous, and the riders,
mindful of the horses, kept at a walk.
Nothing about the harsh landscape differed from other winters. Nor was there
anything to distinguish the two riders, no signs of rank or title, no liveried
retinue bringing up the rear. It might have been any year and they could have
been anybody braving the weather for any number of reasons. Dressed as they were
in heavy cloaks, their hats pulled low against the wind, they were barely
distinguishable even from each other, except that the older, stouter of the two
did most of the talking.
He was John Adams of Braintree and he loved to talk. He was a known talker.
There were some, even among his admirers, who wished he talked less. He himself
wished he talked less, and he had particular regard for those, like General
Washington, who somehow managed great reserve under almost any circumstance.
John Adams was a lawyer and a farmer, a graduate of Harvard College, the husband
of Abigail Smith Adams, the father of four children. He was forty years old and
he was a revolutionary.
Dismounted, he stood five feet seven or eight inches tall about "middle size"
in that day and though verging on portly, he had a straight-up,
square-shouldered stance and was, in fact, surprisingly fit and solid. His hands
were the hands of a man accustomed to pruning his own trees, cutting his own
hay, and splitting his own firewood.
In such bitter cold of winter, the pink of his round, clean-shaven, very English
face would all but glow, and if he were hatless or without a wig, his high
forehead and thinning hairline made the whole of the face look rounder still.
The hair, light brown in color, was full about the ears. The chin was firm, the
nose sharp, almost birdlike. But it was the dark, perfectly arched brows and
keen blue eyes that gave the face its vitality. Years afterward, recalling this
juncture in his life, he would describe himself as looking rather like a short,
thick Archbishop of Canterbury.
As befitting a studious lawyer from Braintree, Adams was a "plain dressing" man.
His oft-stated pleasures were his family, his farm, his books and writing table,
a convivial pipe and cup of coffee (now that tea was no longer acceptable), or
preferably a glass of good Madeira.
In the warm seasons he relished long walks and time alone on horseback. Such
exercise, he believed, roused "the animal spirits" and "dispersed melancholy."
He loved the open meadows of home, the "old acquaintances" of rock ledges and
breezes from the sea. From his doorstep to the water's edge was approximately a
He was a man who cared deeply for his friends, who, with few exceptions, were to
be his friends for life, and in some instances despite severe strains. And to no
one was he more devoted than to his wife, Abigail. She was his "Dearest Friend,"
as he addressed her in letters his "best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend
in the world" while to her he was "the tenderest of husbands," her "good
John Adams was also, as many could attest, a great-hearted, persevering man of
uncommon ability and force. He had a brilliant mind. He was honest and everyone
knew it. Emphatically independent by nature, hardworking, frugal all traits
in the New England tradition he was anything but cold or laconic as
supposedly New Englanders were. He could be high-spirited and affectionate,
vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn; passionate, quick
to anger, and all-forgiving; generous and entertaining. He was blessed with
great courage and good humor, yet subject to spells of despair, and especially
when separated from his family or during periods of prolonged inactivity.
Ambitious to excel to make himself known he had nonetheless recognized at
an early stage that happiness came not from fame and fortune, "and all such
things," but from "an habitual contempt of them," as he wrote. He prized the
Roman ideal of honor, and in this, as in much else, he and Abigail were in
perfect accord. Fame without honor, in her view, would be "like a faint meteor
gliding through the sky, shedding only transient light."
As his family and friends knew, Adams was both a devout Christian and an
independent thinker, and he saw no conflict in that. He was hardheaded and a man
of "sensibility," a close observer of human folly as displayed in everyday life
and fired by an inexhaustible love of books and scholarly reflection. He read
Cicero, Tacitus, and others of his Roman heroes in Latin, and Plato and
Thucydides in the original Greek, which he considered the supreme language. But
in his need to fathom the "labyrinth" of human nature, as he said, he was drawn
to Shakespeare and Swift, and likely to carry Cervantes or a volume of English
poetry with him on his journeys. "You will never be alone with a poet in your
pocket," he would tell his son Johnny.
John Adams was not a man of the world. He enjoyed no social standing. He was an
awkward dancer and poor at cards. He never learned to flatter. He owned no ships
or glass factory as did Colonel Josiah Quincy, Braintree's leading citizen.
There was no money in his background, no Adams fortune or elegant Adams
homestead like the Boston mansion of John Hancock.
It was in the courtrooms of Massachusetts and on the printed page, principally
in the newspapers of Boston, that Adams had distinguished himself. Years of
riding the court circuit and his brilliance before the bar had brought him wide
recognition and respect. And of greater consequence in recent years had been his
spirited determination and eloquence in the cause of American rights and
That he relished the sharp conflict and theater of the courtroom, that he loved
the esteem that came with public life, no less than he loved "my farm, my family
and goose quill," there is no doubt, however frequently he protested to the
contrary. His desire for "distinction" was too great. Patriotism burned in him
like a blue flame. "I have a zeal at my heart for my country and her friends
which I cannot smother or conceal," he told Abigail, warning that it could mean
privation and unhappiness for his family unless regulated by cooler judgment
than his own.
In less than a year's time, as a delegate to the Continental Congress at
Philadelphia, he had emerged as one of the most "sensible and forcible" figures
in the whole patriot cause, the "Great and Common Cause," his influence
exceeding even that of his better-known kinsman, the ardent Boston patriot
He was a second cousin of Samuel Adams, but "possessed of another species of
character," as his Philadelphia friend Benjamin Rush would explain. "He saw the
whole of a subject at a glance, and...was equally fearless of men and of the
consequences of a bold assertion of his opinion....He was a stranger to
It had been John Adams, in the aftermath of Lexington and Concord, who rose in
the Congress to speak of the urgent need to save the New England army facing the
British at Boston and in the same speech called on Congress to put the Virginian
George Washington at the head of the army. That was now six months past. The
general had since established a command at Cambridge, and it was there that
Adams was headed. It was his third trip in a week to Cambridge, and the
beginning of a much longer undertaking by horseback. He would ride on to
Philadelphia, a journey of nearly 400 miles that he had made before, though
never in such punishing weather or at so perilous an hour for his country.
The man riding with him was Joseph Bass, a young shoemaker and Braintree
neighbor hired temporarily as servant and traveling companion.
The day was Wednesday, January 24, 1776. The temperature, according to records
kept by Adams's former professor of science at Harvard, John Winthrop, was in
the low twenties. At the least, the trip would take two weeks, given the
condition of the roads and Adams's reluctance to travel on the Sabbath.
To Abigail Adams, who had never been out of Massachusetts, the province of
Pennsylvania was "that far country," unimaginably distant, and their
separations, lasting months at a time, had become extremely difficult for her.
"Winter makes its approaches fast," she had written to John in November. "I hope
I shall not be obliged to spend it without my dearest friend....I have been like
a nun in a cloister ever since you went away."
He would never return to Philadelphia without her, he had vowed in a letter from
his lodgings there. But they each knew better, just as each understood the
importance of having Joseph Bass go with him. The young man was a tie with home,
a familiar home-face. Once Adams had resettled in Philadelphia, Bass would
return home with the horses, and bring also whatever could be found of the
"common small" necessities impossible to obtain now, with war at the doorstep.
Could Bass bring her a bundle of pins? Abigail had requested earlier, in the
bloody spring of 1775. She was entirely understanding of John's "arduous task."
Her determination that he play his part was quite as strong as his own. They
were of one and the same spirit. "You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see
you, an inactive spectator," she wrote at her kitchen table. "We have too many
high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them." Unlike the
delegates at Philadelphia, she and the children were confronted with the reality
of war every waking hour. For though British troops were bottled up in Boston,
the British fleet commanded the harbor and the sea and thus no town by the shore
was safe from attack. Those Braintree families who were able to leave had
already packed and moved inland, out of harm's way. Meanwhile, shortages of
sugar, coffee, pepper, shoes, and ordinary pins were worse than he had any idea.
"The cry for pins is so great that what we used to buy for 7 shillings and six
pence are now 20 shillings and not to be had for that." A bundle of pins
contained six thousand, she explained. These she could sell for hard money or
use for barter.
There had been a rush of excitement when the British sent an expedition to seize
hay and livestock on one of the islands offshore. "The alarm flew [like]
lightning," Abigail reported, "men from all parts came flocking down till 2,000
were collected." The crisis had passed, but not her state of nerves, with the
house so close to the road and the comings and goings of soldiers. They stopped
at her door for food and slept on her kitchen floor. Pewter spoons were melted
for bullets in her fireplace. "Sometimes refugees from Boston tired and
fatigued, seek an asylum for a day or night, a week," she wrote to John. "You
can hardly imagine how we live."
"Pray don't let Bass forget my pins," she reminded him again. "I endeavor to
live in the most frugal manner possible, but I am many times distressed."
The day of the battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, the thunder of the
bombardment had been terrifying, even at the distance of Braintree. Earlier, in
April, when news came of Lexington and Concord, John, who was at home at the
time, had saddled his horse and gone to see for himself, riding for miles along
the route of the British march, past burned-out houses and scenes of extreme
distress. He knew then what war meant, what the British meant, and warned
Abigail that in case of danger she and the children must "fly to the woods." But
she was as intent to see for herself as he, and with the bombardment at Bunker
Hill ringing in her ears, she had taken seven-year-old Johnny by the hand and
hurried up the road to the top of nearby Penn's Hill. From a granite outcropping
that breached the summit like the hump of a whale, they could see the smoke of
battle rising beyond Boston, ten miles up the bay.
It was the first all-out battle of the war. "How many have fallen we know not,"
she wrote that night. "The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we
cannot eat, drink, or sleep."
Their friend Joseph Warren had been killed at Bunker Hill, Abigail reported in
another letter. A handsome young physician and leading patriot allied with
Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, Warren had been one of the worthiest men of the
province. John had known him since the smallpox epidemic of 1764, when John had
gone to Boston to be inoculated. Now Joseph Warren was dead at age thirty-four,
shot through the face, his body horribly mutilated by British bayonets.
"My bursting heart must find vent at my pen," Abigail told her absent husband.
The route John Adams and his young companion would take to Philadelphia that
January of 1776 was the same as he had traveled to the First Continental
Congress in the summer of 1774. They would travel the Post Road west across
Massachusetts as far as Springfield on the Connecticut River, there cross by
ferry and swing south along the west bank, down the valley into Connecticut. At
Wethersfield they would leave the river for the road to New Haven, and from New
Haven on, along the Connecticut shore through Fairfield, Norwalk, Stamford,
Greenwich they would be riding the New York Post Road. At New York, horses
and riders would be ferried over the Hudson River to New Jersey, where they
would travel "as fine a road as ever trod," in the opinion of John Adams, whose
first official position in Braintree had been surveyor of roads. Three more
ferry crossings, at Hackensack, Newark, and New Brunswick, would put them on a
straightaway ride to the little college town of Princeton. Then came Trenton and
a final ferry crossing over the Delaware to Pennsylvania. In another twenty
miles they would be in sight of Philadelphia.
All told, they would pass through more than fifty towns in five provinces
some twenty towns in Massachusetts alone stopping several times a day to eat,
sleep, or tend the horses. With ice clogging the rivers, there was no estimating
how long delays might be at ferry crossings.
Making the journey in 1774, Adams had traveled in style, with the full
Massachusetts delegation, everyone in a state of high expectation. He had been a
different man then, torn between elation and despair over what might be expected
of him. It had been his first chance to see something of the world. His father
had lived his entire life in Braintree, and no Adams had ever taken part in
public life beyond Braintree. He himself had never set foot out of New England,
and many days he suffered intense torment over his ability to meet the demands
of the new role to be played. Politics did not come easily to him. He was too
independent by nature and his political experience amounted to less than a
year's service in the Massachusetts legislature. But was there anyone of
sufficient experience or ability to meet the demands of the moment?
"I wander alone, and ponder. I muse, I mope, I ruminate," he wrote in the
seclusion of his diary. "We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in
genius, education, in travel, fortune in everything. I feel unutterable
He must prepare for "a long journey indeed," he had told Abigail. "But if the
length of the journey was all, it would be no burden....Great things are wanted
to be done."
He had worried over how he might look in such company and what clothes to take.
I think it will be necessary to make me up a couple of pieces of new linen.
I am told they wash miserably at N[ew] York, the Jerseys, and Philadelphia,
too, in comparison of Boston, and am advised to carry a great deal of linen.
Whether to make me a suit of new clothes at Boston or to make them at
Philadelphia, and what to make I know not.
Still, the prospect of a gathering of such historic portent stirred him as
nothing ever had. "It is to be a school of political prophets I suppose a
nursery of American statesmen," he wrote to a friend, James Warren of Plymouth.
"May it thrive and prosper and flourish and from this fountain may there issue
streams, which shall gladden all the cities and towns in North America,
There had been a rousing send-off in Boston, on August 10, 1774, and in full
view of British troops. Samuel Adams, never a fancy dresser, had appeared in a
stunning new red coat, new wig, silver-buckled shoes, gold knee buckles, the
best silk hose, a spotless new cocked hat on his massive head, and carrying a
gold-headed cane, all gifts from the Sons of Liberty. It was thought that as
leader of the delegation he should look the part. In addition, they had provided
"a little purse" for expenses.
It had been a triumphal, leisurely journey of nearly three weeks, with welcoming
parties riding out to greet them at town after town. They were feted and
toasted, prayers were said, church bells rang. Silas Deane, a Connecticut
delegate who joined the procession, assured John Adams that the Congress was to
be the grandest, most important assembly ever held in America. At New Haven
"every bell was clanging," people were crowding at doors and windows "as if to
see a coronation."
In New York they were shown the sights City Hall, the college, and at Bowling
Green, at the foot of Broadway, the gilded equestrian statue of King George III,
which had yet to be pulled from its pedestal by an angry mob. The grand houses
and hospitality were such as Adams had never known, even if, as a
self-respecting New Englander, he thought New Yorkers lacking in decorum. "They
talk very loud, very fast, and altogether," he observed. "If they ask you a
question, before you can utter three words of your answer, they will break out
upon you again and talk away."
Truly he was seeing the large world, he assured Abigail in a letter from the
tavern at Princeton, a day's ride from Philadelphia. "Tomorrow we reach the
theater of action. God Almighty grant us wisdom and virtue sufficient for the
high trust that is devolved upon us."
But that had been nearly two years past. It had been high summer, green and
baking hot under summer skies, an entirely different time that now seemed far
past, so much had happened since. There had been no war then, no blood had been
spilled at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. Now fully twenty regiments of
red-coated British regulars occupied Boston under General William Howe. British
warships, some of 50 guns, lay at anchor in Boston Harbor, while American forces
outside the city had become perilously thin.
In the late summer and fall of 1775, the "bloody flux," epidemic dysentery, had
ripped through their ranks. Adams's youngest brother, Elihu, a captain of
militia, camped beside the Charles River at Cambridge, was stricken and died,
leaving a wife and three children. Nor was Braintree spared the violent
epidemic. For Abigail, then thirty years old, it had been the worst ordeal of
"Such is the distress of the neighborhood that I can scarcely find a well person
to assist me in looking after the sick...so mortal a time the oldest man does
not remember," she had lamented in a letter to John. "As to politics I know
nothing about them. I have wrote as much as I am able to, being very weak."
"Mrs. Randall has lost her daughter, Mrs. Bracket hers, Mr. Thomas Thayer his
wife," she reported. "I know of eight this week who have been buried in this
town." Parson Wibird was so ill he could scarcely take a step. "We have been
four sabbaths without any meeting." Their three-year-old Tommy was so wretchedly
sick that "[were] you to look upon him you would not know him." She was
constantly scrubbing the house with hot vinegar.
"Woe follows woe, one affliction treads upon the heel of another," she wrote.
Some families had lost three, four, and five children. Some families were
The strong clarity of her handwriting, the unhesitating flow of her pen across
the paper, line after line, seemed at odds with her circumstances. Rarely was a
word crossed out or changed. It was as if she knew exactly what was in her heart
and how she wished to express it as if the very act of writing, of forming
letters, in her distinctive angular fashion, keeping every line straight, would
somehow help maintain her balance, validate her own being in such times.
She had begun signing herself "Portia," after the long-suffering, virtuous wife
of the Roman statesman Brutus. If her "dearest friend" was to play the part of a
Roman hero, so would she.
Her mother lay mortally ill in neighboring Weymouth. When, on October 1, 1775,
her mother died, Abigail wrote to John, "You often expressed your anxiety over
me when you left me before, surrounded with terrors, but my trouble then was as
the small dust in the balance compared to what I have since endured."
In addition to tending her children, she was nursing a desperately ill servant
named Patty. The girl had become "the most shocking object my eyes ever
beheld...[and] continuously desirous of my being with her the little while she
expects to live." It was all Abigail could do to remain in the same house. When
Patty died on October 9, she "made the fourth corpse that was this day committed
to the ground."
Correspondence was maddeningly slow and unreliable. In late October she wrote to
say she had not had a line from John in a month and that in his last letter he
had made no mention of the six she had written to him. " 'Tis only in my night
visions that I know anything about you." Yet in that time he had written seven
letters to her, including one mourning the loss of her mother and asking for
news of "poor, distressed" Patty.
Heartsick, searching for an answer to why such evil should "befall a city and a
people," Abigail had pondered whether it could be God's punishment for the sin
At Cambridge the morning of the bitterly cold first day of the new year, 1776,
George Washington had raised the new Continental flag with thirteen stripes
before his headquarters and announced that the new army was now "entirely
continental." But for days afterward, their enlistments up, hundreds, thousands
of troops, New England militia, started for home. Replacements had to be found,
an immensely difficult and potentially perilous changing of the guard had to be
carried off, one army moving out, another moving in, all in the bitter winds and
snow of winter and in such fashion as the enemy would never know.
"It is not in the pages of history, perhaps, to furnish a case like ours,"
Washington informed John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. Hardly
5,000 colonial troops were fit for duty. Promises of men, muskets, powder, and
urgently needed supplies never materialized. Blankets and linen for bandages
were "greatly wanted." Firewood was in short supply. With smallpox spreading in
Boston, the British command had allowed pathetic columns of the ill-clad,
starving poor of Boston to come pouring out of town and into the American lines,
many of them sick, and all in desperate need of food and shelter.
"The reflection on my situation and that of this army produces many an unhappy
hour when all around me are wrapped in sleep," wrote Washington, who had never
before commanded anything larger than a regiment.
The night of January 8, Washington had ordered a brief American assault on
Charlestown, largely to keep the British guessing. Adams, at home at his desk
writing a letter, was brought to his feet by the sudden crash of the guns, "a
very hot fire" of artillery that lasted half an hour and lit the sky over
Braintree's north common. Whether American forces were on the attack or defense,
he could not tell. "But in either case, I rejoice," he wrote, taking up his pen
again, "for defeat appears to me preferable to total inaction."
As it was, Washington saw his situation to be so precarious that the only choice
was an all-out attack on Boston, and he wrote to tell Adams, "I am exceedingly
desirous of consulting you." As a former delegate to Philadelphia, Washington
understood the need to keep Congress informed. Earlier, concerned whether his
authority reached beyond Boston to the defense of New York, he had asked Adams
for an opinion, and Adams's reply had been characteristically unhesitating and
unambiguous: "Your commission constitutes you commander of all the forces...and
you are vested with full power and authority to act as you shall think for the
good and welfare of the service."
No one in Congress had impressed Adams more. On the day he had called on his
fellow delegates to put their colleague, "the gentleman from Virginia," in
command at Boston, Washington, out of modesty, had left the chamber, while a
look of mortification, as Adams would tell the story, filled the face of John
Hancock, who had hoped he would be chosen. Washington was virtuous, brave, and
in his new responsibilities, "one of the most important characters in the
world," Adams had informed Abigail. "The liberties of America depend upon him in
great degree." Later, when she met Washington at a Cambridge reception, Abigail
thought John had not said half enough in praise of him.
A council of war with the commander and his generals convened January 16 in the
parlor of the large house on Brattle Street, Cambridge, that served as
Washington's headquarters. With others of the Massachusetts congressional
delegation still at Philadelphia, Adams was the only member of Congress present
as Washington made the case for an attack on Boston, by sending his troops
across the frozen bay. But the generals flatly rejected the plan and it was put
Two days later, Adams was summoned again. Devastating news had arrived by
dispatch rider. An American assault on Quebec led by Colonels Richard Montgomery
and Benedict Arnold had failed. The "gallant Montgomery" was dead, "brave
Arnold" was wounded. It was a crushing moment for Washington and for John Adams.
Congress had ordered the invasion of Canada, the plan was Washington's own, and
the troops were mostly New Englanders.
As a young man, struggling over what to make of his life, Adams had often
pictured himself as a soldier. Only the previous spring, when Washington
appeared in Congress resplendent in the blue-and-buff uniform of a Virginia
militia officer, Adams had written to Abigail, "Oh that I was a soldier!" He was
reading military books. "Everybody must and will be a soldier," he told her. On
the morning Washington departed Philadelphia to assume command at Boston, he and
others of the Massachusetts delegation had traveled a short way with the general
and his entourage, to a rousing accompaniment of fifes and drums, Adams feeling
extremely sorry for himself for having to stay behind to tend what had become
the unglamorous labors of Congress. "I, poor creature, worn out with scribbling
for my bread and my liberty, low in spirits and weak in health, must leave
others to wear the laurels."
But such waves of self-pity came and went, as Abigail knew, and when in need of
sympathy, it was to her alone that he would appeal. He was not a man to back
down or give up, not one to do anything other than what he saw to be his duty.
What in another time and society might be taken as platitudes about public
service were to both John and Abigail Adams a lifelong creed. And in this
bleakest of hours, heading for Cambridge, and on to Philadelphia, Adams saw his
way clearer and with greater resolve than ever in his life. It was a road he had
been traveling for a long time.
At the center of Braintree, Massachusetts, and central to the town's way of
life, was the meetinghouse, the First Church, with its bell tower and graveyard
on the opposite side of the road. From the door of the house where John Adams
had said goodbye to wife and children that morning, to the church, was less than
a mile. Riding north out of town, he passed the snow-covered graveyard on the
left, the church on the right.
He had been born in the house immediately adjacent to his own, a nearly
duplicate farmer's cottage belonging to his father. He had been baptized in the
church where his father was a deacon, and he had every expectation that when his
time came he would go to his final rest in the same ground where his father and
mother lay, indeed where leaning headstones marked the graves of the Adams line
going back four generations. When he referred to himself as John Adams of
Braintree, it was not in a manner of speaking.
The first of the line, Henry Adams of Barton St. David in Somersetshire,
England, with his wife Edith Squire and nine children eight sons and a
daughter had arrived in Braintree in the year 1638, in the reign of King
Charles I, nearly a century before John Adams was born. They were part of the
great Puritan migration, Dissenters from the Church of England who, in the
decade following the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, crossed
the North Atlantic intent on making a new City of God, some twenty thousand
people, most of whom came as families. Only one, the seventh and youngest of
Henry Adams's eight sons remained in Braintree. He was Joseph, and he was
succeeded by a second Joseph one of Henry's eighty-nine grandchildren! who
married Hannah Bass, a granddaughter of John and Priscilla Alden, and they had
eleven children, of whom one was another John, born in 1691.
They were people who earned their daily bread by the work of their hands. The
men were all farmers who, through the long winters, in New England fashion,
worked at other trades for "hard money," which was always scarce. The first
Henry Adams and several of his descendants were maltsters, makers of malt from
barley for use in baking or brewing beer, a trade carried over from England. The
first John Adams, remembered as Deacon John, was a farmer and shoemaker, a man
of "sturdy, unostentatious demeanor," who, like his father, "played the part of
a solid citizen," as tithing man, constable, lieutenant in the militia,
selectman, and ultimately church deacon, taking his place on the deacon's bench
before the pulpit.
In 1734, in October, the golden time of year on the Massachusetts shore, Deacon
John Adams, at age forty-three, married Susanna Boylston of Brookline. She was
twenty-five, and from a family considered of higher social standing than that of
her husband. Nothing written in her own hand would survive no letters,
diaries, or legal papers with her signature nor any correspondence addressed
to her by any of her family, and so, since it is also known that letters were
frequently read aloud to her, there is reason to believe that Susanna Boylston
Adams was illiterate.
One year later, on October 19, 1735, by the Old Style calendar, their first
child, a son, was born and given his father's name. When England adopted the
Gregorian calendar in 1752, October 19 became October 30.
"What has preserved this race of Adamses in all their ramifications in such
numbers, health, peace, comfort, and mediocrity?" this firstborn son of Deacon
John would one day write to Benjamin Rush. "I believe it is religion, without
which they would have been rakes, fops, sots, gamblers, starved with hunger, or
frozen with cold, scalped by Indians, etc., etc., etc., been melted away and
disappeared...." In truth, he was extremely proud of his descent from "a line of
virtuous, independent New England farmers." That virtue and independence were
among the highest of mortal attainments, John Adams never doubted. The New
England farmer was his own man who owned his own land, a freeholder, and thus
the equal of anyone.
The Braintree of Adams's boyhood was a quiet village of scattered houses and
small neighboring farmsteads strung along the old coast road, the winding main
thoroughfare from Boston to Plymouth, just back from the very irregular south
shore of Massachusetts Bay. The setting was particularly picturesque, with
orchards, stone walls, meadows of salt hay, and broad marshlands through which
meandered numerous brooks and the Neponset River. From the shoreline the land
sloped gently upward to granite outcroppings and hills, including Penn's Hill,
the highest promontory, close by the Adams farm. Offshore the bay was dotted
with small islands, some wooded, some used for grazing sheep. Recalling his
childhood in later life, Adams wrote of the unparalleled bliss of roaming the
open fields and woodlands of the town, of exploring the creeks, hiking the
beaches, "of making and sailing boats...swimming, skating, flying kites and
shooting marbles, bat and ball, football...wrestling and sometimes boxing,"
shooting at crows and ducks, and "running about to quiltings and frolics and
dances among the boys and girls." The first fifteen years of his life, he said,
"went off like a fairytale."
The community numbered perhaps 2,000 people. There was one other meetinghouse
a much smaller, more recent Anglican church a schoolhouse, gristmill, village
store, blacksmith shop, granite quarry, a half dozen or more taverns and, in a
section called Germantown, Colonel Quincy's glass factory. With no newspaper in
town, news from Boston and the world beyond came from travelers on the coast
road, no communication moving faster than a horse and rider. But within the
community itself, news of nearly any kind, good or bad, traveled rapidly. People
saw each other at church, town meeting, in the mill, or at the taverns.
Independent as a Braintree farmer and his family may have been, they were not
The Adams homestead, the farmhouse at the foot of Penn's Hill where young John
was born and raised, was a five-room New England saltbox, the simplest, most
commonplace kind of dwelling. It had been built in 1681, and built strongly
around a massive brick chimney. Its timbers were of hand-hewn oak, its inner
walls of brick, these finished on the inside with lath and plaster and faced on
the exterior with pine clapboard. There were three rooms and two great
fireplaces at ground level, and two rooms above. A narrow stairway tucked
against the chimney, immediately inside the front door, led to the second floor.
The windows had twenty-four panes ("12-over-12") and wooden shutters. There were
outbuildings and a good-sized barn to the rear, fields and orchard, and through
a broad meadow flowed "beautiful, winding" Fresh Brook, as Adams affectionately
described it. The well, for household use, was just out the front door. And
though situated "as near as might be" to the road, the house was "fenced" by a
stone wall, as was the somewhat older companion house that stood forty paces
apart on the property, the house John and Abigail moved into after they were
married and from which he departed on the winter morning in 1776. The one major
difference between the two buildings was that the house of Adams's boyhood sat
at an angle to the road, while the other faced it squarely. Across the road, in
the direction of the sea, lay open fields.
In the dry spells of summer, dust from the road blew in the open windows of both
houses with every passing horse or wagon. From June to September, the heat in
the upstairs bedrooms could be murderous. In winter, even with logs blazing in
huge kitchen fireplaces, women wore heavy shawls and men sat in overcoats, while
upstairs any water left in the unheated rooms turned to ice.
In most of the essentials of daily life, as in their way of life, Adams's father
and mother lived no differently than had their fathers and mothers, or those who
preceded them. The furnishings Adams grew up with were of the plainest kind a
half dozen ordinary wooden chairs, a table, several beds, a looking glass or
two. There was a Bible, possibly a few other books on religious subjects. Three
silver spoons one large, two small counted prominently as family
valuables. Clothes and other personal possessions were modest and time-worn. As
one of the Adams line would write, "A hat would descend from father to son, and
for fifty years make its regular appearance at meeting."
Small as the house was, its occupancy was seldom limited to the immediate
family. Besides father and mother, three sons, and a hired girl, there was
nearly always an Adams or Boylston cousin, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or friend
staying the night. Men from town would stop in after dark to talk town business
or church matters with Deacon John.
With the short growing season, the severe winters and stony fields, the
immemorial uncertainties of farming, life was not easy and survival never taken
for granted. One learned early in New England about the battle of life. Father
and mother were hardworking and frugal of necessity, as well as by principle.
"Let frugality and industry be our virtues," John Adams advised Abigail
concerning the raising of their own children. "Fire them with ambition to be
useful," he wrote, echoing what had been learned at home.
About his mother, Adams would have comparatively little to say, beyond that he
loved her deeply she was his "honored and beloved mother" and that she was
a highly principled woman of strong will, strong temper, and exceptional energy,
all traits he shared though this he did not say. Of his father, however, he
could hardly say enough. There were scarcely words to express the depth of his
gratitude for the kindnesses his father had shown him, the admiration he felt
for his father's integrity. His father was "the honestest man" John Adams ever
knew. "In wisdom, piety, benevolence and charity in proportion to his education
and sphere of life, I have never known his superior," Adams would write long
afterward, by which time he had come to know the most prominent men of the age
on two sides of the Atlantic. His father was his idol. It was his father's
honesty, his father's independent spirit and love of country, Adams said, that
were his lifelong inspiration.
A good-looking, active boy, if small for his age, he was unusually sensitive to
criticism but also quickly responsive to praise, as well as being extremely
bright, which his father saw early, and decided he must go to Harvard to become
a minister. An elder brother of Deacon John, Joseph Adams, who graduated from
Harvard in 1710, had become a minister with a church in New Hampshire. Further,
Deacon John himself, for as little education as he had had, wrote in a clear
hand and had, as he said, "an admiration of learning."
Taught to read at home, the boy went first and happily to a dame school
lessons for a handful of children in the kitchen of a neighbor, with heavy
reliance on The New England Primer. ("He who ne'er learns his ABC, forever will
a blockhead be.") But later at the tiny local schoolhouse, subjected to a
lackluster "churl" of a teacher who paid him no attention, he lost all interest.
He cared not for books or study, and saw no sense in talk of college. He wished
only to be a farmer, he informed his father.
That being so, said Deacon John not unkindly, the boy could come along to the
creek with him and help cut thatch. Accordingly, as Adams would tell the story,
father and son set off the next morning and "with great humor" his father kept
him working through the day.
At night at home, he said, "Well, John, are you satisfied with being a
farmer?" Though the labor had been very hard and very muddy, I answered, "I
like it very well, sir."
"Aya, but I don't like it so well: so you will go back to school today." I
went but was not so happy as among the creek thatch.
Later, when he told his father it was his teacher he disliked, not the books,
and that he wished to go to another school, his father immediately took his side
and wasted no time with further talk. John was enrolled the next day in a
private school down the road where, kindly treated by a schoolmaster named
Joseph Marsh, he made a dramatic turn and began studying in earnest.
A small textbook edition of Cicero's Orations became one of his earliest,
proudest possessions, as he affirmed with the note "John Adams Book 1749/50"
written a half dozen times on the title page.
In little more than a year, at age fifteen, he was pronounced "fitted for
college," which meant Harvard, it being the only choice. Marsh, himself a
Harvard graduate, agreed to accompany John to Cambridge to appear for the usual
examination before the president and masters of the college. But on the
appointed morning Marsh pleaded ill and told John he must go alone. The boy was
thunderstruck, terrified; but picturing his father's grief and the
disappointment of both father and teacher, he "collected resolution enough to
proceed," and on his father's horse rode off down the road alone, suffering "a
very melancholy journey."
Writing years later, he remembered the day as grey and somber. Threatening
clouds hung over Cambridge, and for a fifteen-year-old farm boy to stand before
the grand monarchs of learning in their wigs and robes, with so much riding on
the outcome, was itself as severe a test as could be imagined. His tutor,
however, had assured him he was ready, which turned out to be so. He was
admitted to Harvard and granted a partial scholarship.
"I was as light when I came home, as I had been heavy when I went," Adams wrote.
It had long been an article of faith among the Adamses that land was the only
sound investment and, once purchased, was never to be sold. Only once is Deacon
John known to have made an exception to the rule, when he sold ten acres to help
send his son John to college.
The Harvard of John Adams's undergraduate days was an institution of four
red-brick buildings, a small chapel, a faculty of seven, and an enrollment of
approximately one hundred scholars. His own class of 1755, numbering
twenty-seven, was put under the tutorship of Joseph Mayhew, who taught Latin,
and for Adams the four years were a time out of time that passed all too
swiftly. When it was over and he abruptly found himself playing the part of
village schoolmaster in remote Worcester, he would write woefully to a college
friend, "Total and complete misery has succeeded so suddenly to total and
complete happiness, that all the philosophy I can muster can scarce support me
under the amazing shock."
He worked hard and did well at Harvard, and was attracted particularly to
mathematics and science, as taught by his favorite professor, John Winthrop, the
most distinguished member of the faculty and the leading American astronomer of
the time. Among Adams's cherished Harvard memories was of a crystal night when,
from the roof of Old Harvard Hall, he gazed through Professor Winthrop's
telescope at the satellites of Jupiter.
He enjoyed his classmates and made several close friends. To his surprise, he
also discovered a love of study and books such as he had never imagined. "I read
forever," he would remember happily, and as years passed, in an age when
educated men took particular pride in the breadth of their reading, he became
one of the most voracious readers of any. Having discovered books at Harvard, he
was seldom ever to be without one for the rest of his days.
He lived in the "lowermost northwest chamber" of Massachusetts Hall, sharing
quarters with Thomas Sparhawk, whose chief distinction at college appears to
have come from breaking windows, and Joseph Stockbridge, notable for his wealth
and his refusal to eat meat.
The regimen was strict and demanding, the day starting with morning prayers in
Holden Chapel at six and ending with evening prayers at five. The entire college
dined at Commons, on the ground floor of Old Harvard, each scholar bringing his
own knife and fork which, when the meal ended, would be wiped clean on the table
cloth. By most accounts, the food was wretched. Adams not only never complained,
but attributed his own and the overall good health of the others to the daily
fare beef, mutton, Indian pudding, salt fish on Saturday and an ever
abundant supply of hard cider. "I shall never forget, how refreshing and
salubrious we found it, hard as it often was." Indeed, for the rest of his life,
a morning "gill" of hard cider was to be John Adams's preferred drink before
"All scholars," it was stated in the college rules, were to "behave themselves
blamelessly, leading sober, righteous, and godly lives." There was to be no
"leaning" at prayers, no lying, blasphemy, fornication, drunkenness, or picking
locks. Once, the records show, Adams was fined three shillings, nine pence for
absence from college longer than the time allowed for vacation or by permission.
Otherwise, he had not a mark against him. As the dutiful son of Deacon John, he
appears neither to have succumbed to gambling, "riotous living," nor to
"wenching" in taverns on the road to Charlestown.
But the appeal of young women was exceedingly strong, for as an elderly John
Adams would one day write, he was "of an amorous disposition" and from as early
as ten or eleven years of age had been "very fond of the society of females."
Yet he kept himself in rein, he later insisted.
I had my favorites among the young women and spent many of my evenings in
their company and this disposition although controlled for seven years after
my entrance into college, returned and engaged me too much 'til I was
married. I shall draw no characters nor give any enumeration of my youthful
flames. It would be considered as no compliment to the dead or the living.
This I will say they were all modest and virtuous girls and always
maintained that character through life. No virgin or matron ever had cause
to blush at the sight of me, or to regret her acquaintance with me. No
father, brother, son, or friend ever had cause of grief or resentment for
any intercourse between me and any daughter, sister, mother or any other
relation of the female sex. My children may be assured that no illegitimate
brother or sister exists or ever existed.
A student's place in his class being determined on entrance to Harvard by the
"dignity of family," rather than alphabetically or by academic performance,
Adams was listed fourteenth of the twenty-five who received degrees, his
placement due to the fact that his mother was a Boylston and his father a
deacon. Otherwise, he would have been among the last on the list. At
commencement ceremonies, as one of the first three academically, he argued the
affirmative to the question "Is civil government absolutely necessary for men?"
It was to be a lifelong theme.
How close Adams came to becoming a minister he never exactly said, but most
likely it was not close at all. His mother, though a pious woman, thought him
unsuited for the life, for all that Deacon John wished it for him. Adams would
recall only that in his last years at Harvard, having joined a debating and
discussion club, he was told he had "some faculty" for public speaking and would
make a better lawyer than preacher, a prospect, he said, that he readily
understood and embraced. He knew from experience under his father's roof, when
"ecclesiastical councils" gathered there, the kind of contention that could
surround a preacher, whatever he might or might not say from the pulpit. "I saw
such a spirit of dogmatism and bigotry in clergy and laity, that if I should be
a priest I must take my side, and pronounce as positively as any of them, or
never get a parish, or getting it must soon leave it." He had no heart for such
a life and his father, he felt certain, would understand, his father being "a
man of so thoughtful and considerate a turn of mind," even if the profession of
law was not one generally held in high esteem.
He judged his father correctly, it seems, but to become a lawyer required that
he be taken into the office of a practicing attorney who would charge a fee,
which the young man himself would have to earn, and it was this necessity, with
his Harvard years ended, that led to the schoolmaster's desk at Worcester late
in the summer of 1755.
He made the sixty-mile journey from Braintree to Worcester by horseback in a
single day and, though untried and untrained as a teacher, immediately assumed
his new role in a one-room schoolhouse at the center of town. To compensate for
his obvious youth, he would explain to a friend, he had to maintain a stiff,
His small charges, both boys and girls numbering about a dozen, responded, he
found, as he had at their age, more to encouragement and praise than to scolding
or "thwacking." A teacher ought to be an encourager, Adams decided. "But we must
be cautious and sparing of our praise, lest it become too familiar." Yet for the
day-to-day routine of the classroom, he thought himself poorly suited and
dreamed of more glorious pursuits, almost anything other than what he was doing.
One student remembered Master Adams spending most of the day at his desk
absorbed in his own thoughts or busily writing sermons presumably. But Adams
did like the children and hugely enjoyed observing them:
I sometimes, in my sprightly moments, consider myself, in my great chair at
school, as some dictator at the head of a commonwealth. In this little state
I can discover all the great geniuses, all the surprising actions and
revolutions of the great world in miniature. I have several renowned
generals but three feet high, and several deep-projecting politicians in
petticoats. I have others catching and dissecting flies, accumulating
remarkable pebbles, cockleshells, etc., with as ardent curiosity as any
virtuoso in the Royal Society....At one table sits Mr. Insipid foppling and
fluttering, spinning his whirligig, or playing with his fingers as gaily and
wittily as any Frenchified coxcomb brandishes his cane and rattles his snuff
box. At another sits the polemical divine, plodding and wrangling in his
mind about Adam's fall in which we sinned, all as his primer has
He perceived life as a stirring drama like that of the theater, but with
significant differences, as he wrote to a classmate, Charles Cushing:
Upon common theaters, indeed, the applause of the audience is of more
importance to the actors than their own approbation. But upon the stage of
life, while conscience claps, let the world hiss! On the contrary if
conscience disapproves, the loudest applauses of the world are of little
He boarded with a local physician whose collection of medical books helped
satisfy his insatiable appetite for reading. For a time, interest in the law
seemed to fade and Adams thought of becoming a doctor. But after attending
several sessions of the local court, he felt himself "irresistibly impelled" to
the law. In the meantime, he was reading Milton, Virgil, Voltaire, Viscount
Bolingbroke's Letters on the Study and Use of History, and copying long extracts
in a literary commonplace book.
From his reading and from all he heard of the common talk in town, he found
himself meditating more and more about politics and history. It was the time of
the French and Indian War, when Americans had begun calling themselves Americans
rather than colonists. Excitement was high, animosity toward the French intense.
In one of his solitary "reveries," Adams poured out his thoughts in an amazing
letter for anyone so young to have written, and for all it foresaw and said
about him. Dated October 12, 1755, the letter was to another of his classmates
and his cousin Nathan Webb.
"All that part of Creation that lies within our observation is liable to
change," Adams began.
Even mighty states and kingdoms are not exempted. If we look into history,
we shall find some nations rising from contemptible beginnings and spreading
their influence, until the whole globe is subjected to their ways. When they
have reached the summit of grandeur, some minute and unsuspected cause
commonly affects their ruin, and the empire of the world is transferred to
some other place. Immortal Rome was at first but an insignificant village,
inhabited only by a few abandoned ruffians, but by degrees it rose to a
stupendous height, and excelled in arts and arms all the nations that
preceded it. But the demolition of Carthage (what one should think should
have established it in supreme dominion) by removing all danger, suffered it
to sink into debauchery, and made it at length an easy prey to Barbarians.
England immediately upon this began to increase (the particular and minute
cause of which I am not historian enough to trace) in power and
magnificence, and is now the greatest nation upon the globe.
Soon after the Reformation a few people came over into the new world for
conscience sake. Perhaps this (apparently) trivial incident may transfer the
great seat of empire into America. It looks likely to me. For if we can
remove the turbulent Gallics, our people according to exactest computations,
will in another century, become more numerous than England itself. Should
this be the case, since we have (I may say) all the naval stores of the
nation in our hands, it will be easy to obtain the mastery of the seas, and
then the united force of all Europe, will not be able to subdue us. The only
way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us. Divide et
impera. Keep us in distinct colonies, and then, some great men in each
colony, desiring the monarchy of the whole, they will destroy each others'
influence and keep the country in equilibrio.
Be not surprised that I am turned politician. The whole town is immersed in
At Harvard he had tried keeping a journal. In Worcester he began again in a
paper booklet no bigger than the palm of his hand, writing in a minute, almost
microscopic script, numbering the days down the left hand margin, his entries at
first given to spare, matter-of-fact notations on the weather and what little
passed for social events in his new life:
January 23 . Friday.
A fair and agreeable day. Kept school. Drank tea at Col. Chandler's, and
spent the evening at Major Gardiner's.
January 24. Saturday.
A very high west wind. Warm and cloudy. P.M. Warm and fair.
January 25. Sunday.
A cold weather. Heard friend Thayer preach two ingenious discourses from
Jeremy [Jeremiah] 10th, 6, and 7. Supped at Col. Chandler's.
Soon he was filling pages with observations like those on his small scholars and
on the arrival of spring, with frequently sensuous responses to nature to
"soft vernal showers," atmosphere full of "ravishing fragrance," air "soft and
Increasingly, however, the subject uppermost in mind was himself, as waves of
loneliness, feelings of abject discontent over his circumstances,
dissatisfaction with his own nature, seemed at times nearly to overwhelm him.
Something of the spirit of the old Puritan diarists took hold. By writing only
to himself, for himself, by dutifully reckoning day by day his moral assets and
liabilities, and particularly the liabilities, he could thus improve himself.
"Oh! that I could wear out of my mind every mean and base affectation, conquer
my natural pride and conceit."
Why was he constantly forming yet never executing good resolutions? Why was he
so absent-minded, so lazy, so prone to daydreaming his life away? He vowed to
read more seriously. He vowed to quit chewing tobacco.
On July 21, 1756, he wrote:
I am resolved to rise with the sun and to study Scriptures on Thursday,
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, and to study some Latin author the
other three mornings. Noons and nights I intend to read English authors....I
will rouse up my mind and fix my attention. I will stand collected within
myself and think upon what I read and what I see. I will strive with all my
soul to be something more than persons who have had less advantages than
But the next morning he slept until seven and a one-line entry the following
week read, "A very rainy day. Dreamed away the time."
There was so much he wanted to know and do, but life was passing him by. He was
twenty years old. "I have no books, no time, no friends. I must therefore be
contented to live and die an ignorant, obscure fellow."
That such spells of gloom were failings in themselves, he was painfully aware,
yet he was at a loss to know what to do about it. "I can as easily still the
fierce tempests or stop the rapid thunderbolt, as command the motions and
operations of my own mind," he lamented. Actual thunderstorms left him feeling
nervous and unstrung.
By turns he worried over never having any bright or original ideas, or being too
bright for his own good, too ready to show off and especially in the company of
the older men in the community who befriended him.
"Honesty, sincerity, and openness, I esteem essential marks of a good mind," he
concluded after one evening's gathering. He was therefore of the opinion that
men ought "to avow their opinions and defend them with boldness."
Vanity, he saw, was his chief failing. "Vanity, I am sensible, is my cardinal
vice and cardinal folly," he wrote, vowing to reform himself.
By "vanity" he did not mean he had an excessive pride in appearance. Adams was
never one to spend much time in front of a mirror. Rather, in the
eighteenth-century use of the word, he was berating himself for being overly
"A puffy, vain, conceited conversation never fails to bring a man into contempt,
although his natural endowments be ever so great, and his application and
industry ever so intense....[And] I must own myself to have been, to a very
heinous degree, guilty in this respect."
By late summer of 1756 Adams had made up his mind about the future. On August
21, he signed a contract with a young Worcester attorney, James Putnam, to study
"under his inspection" for two years. The day after, a Sunday, inspired by a
sermon he had heard and also, it would seem, by a feeling of relief that his
decision not to become a minister was at last resolved he wrote of the
"glorious shows" of nature and the intense sensation of pleasure they evoked.
Beholding the night sky, "the amazing concave of Heaven sprinkled and glittering
with stars," he was "thrown into a kind of transport" and knew such wonders to
be the gifts of God, expressions of God's love. But greatest of all, he wrote,
was the gift of an inquiring mind.
But all the provisions that He has [made] for the gratification of our
senses...are much inferior to the provision, the wonderful provision that He
has made for the gratification of our nobler powers of intelligence and
reason. He has given us reason to find out the truth, and the real design
and true end of our existence.
To a friend Adams wrote, "It will be hard work, but the more difficult and
dangerous the enterprise, a higher crown of laurel is bestowed on the
conqueror....But the point is now determined, and I shall have the liberty to
think for myself."
He changed lodgings, moving in with lawyer Putnam, and while continuing his
daytime duties at the Worcester schoolhouse, he read law at night moving fast
(too fast, he later thought) through Wood's four-volume Institute of the Laws of
England, Hawkins's Abridgment of Coke's Institutes, Salkeld's hefty Reports,
Coke's Entries, and Hawkins's massive two-volume Pleas of the Crown in a single
volume that weighed fully eight pounds. "Can you imagine any drier reading?" he
would one day write to Benjamin Rush, heavily underscoring the question.
Putnam's fee was $100, when Adams could "find it convenient."
With the war continuing, much the greatest excitement in Worcester was the
arrival of Lord Jeffrey Amherst and 4,000 of the King's troops on their way west
to Fort William Henry on Lake George. They camped on a nearby hill and for
several days and nights life in the town was transformed. Writing more than half
a century later, Adams could still warm to the memory.
The officers were very social, spent their evenings and took their suppers
with such of the inhabitants as were able to invite, and entertained us with
their music and their dances. Many of them were Scotchmen in their plaids
and their music was delightful. Even the bagpipe was not
"I then rejoiced that I was an Englishman, and gloried in the name of Britain,"
he would recall to a friend. How he might fare in the law was another matter. As
he wrote at the time, "I am not without apprehensions."
In the fall of 1758, his studies with Putnam completed, Adams returned to
Braintree to move in with his father and mother again after an absence of eight
years. "I am beginning life anew," he jubilantly informed a Harvard classmate.
He was busy catching up with old friends, busy with his share of the farm work
and preparing for admittance to the bar. For the first time, he was on his own
with his studies, and he bent to them with the spirit of independence and
intense determination that were to characterize much of his whole approach to
life. In his diary he wrote of chopping wood and translating Justinian, with
"I have read Gilbert's first section, of feuds, this evening but I am not a
master of it," he recorded October 5, referring to Sir Geoffrey Gilbert's
Treatise of Feudal Tenures. "Rose about sun rise. Unpitched a load of hay.
Translated two leaves more of Justinian...and am now reading over again
Gilbert's section of feudal tenures," he wrote the day following, October 6.
October 7: "Read in Gilbert...." October 9: "I must and will make that book
familiar to me." October 10: "Read in Gilbert. I read him slowly, but I gain
ideas and knowledge as I go along." October 12: "This small volume will take me
a fortnight, but I will be master of it."
Though full of opinions, he often found himself reluctant to express them. "I
was young, and then very bashful, however saucy I may have sometimes been
since," he would recall long afterward to Thomas Jefferson.
Feeling miserably unsure of himself, he attended court in Boston, where,
awestruck, he listened to the leading attorneys of the day, Jeremiah Gridley and
James Otis, argue cases. But, as he explained to a friend in Worcester, the
appeal of Boston was threefold.
I had the pleasure to sit and hear the greatest lawyers, orators, in short
the greatest men in America, haranguing at the bar, and on the bench. I had
the pleasure of spending my evenings with my Harvard friends in the joys of
serene, sedate conversation, and perhaps it is worth my while to add, I had
the pleasure of seeing a great many and of feeling some very [pretty]
On the morning he found his way through the crooked streets of Boston to
Jeremiah Gridley's office for the requisite interview for admission to the bar,
Gridley, much to Adams's surprise, gave him not a few cursory minutes but
several hours, questioning him closely on his reading. With a kindly, paternal
air, Gridley also counseled him to "pursue the study of the law itself, rather
than the gain of it," and not to marry early.
Adams was admitted to the bar in a ceremony before the Superior Court at Boston
on November 6, 1759, and in a matter of weeks, at age twenty-four, he had taken
his first case, which he lost.
In Braintree, as elsewhere in New England, much of town business was taken up
with the commonplace problem of keeping one man's livestock out of another man's
fields, and by long-standing custom most legal matters were handled by town
clerks and officials who, though without legal training, were thoroughly
schooled in procedure, knowing to the last detail all that was required for
writs and warrants, matters about which, for all his reading, Adams knew little.
The case Lambert v. Field involved two horses belonging to Luke Lambert, a
coarse, cocksure man whom Adams did not like. Lambert's horses had broken into
the enclosure of a neighbor, Joseph Field, and trampled some crops. When Lambert
crossed onto Field's land to retrieve them, Field called for him to stop, but
Lambert, as Adams noted, "waved his hat and screamed at the horses and drove
away, without tendering Field his damages."
As counsel for Field, the plaintiff, Adams felt confident in his understanding
of the principles of law involved, but worried that the writ he prepared was
"unclerklike" and thus he would fail. He had had no experience in preparing such
a document. His anguish was acute. He blamed Putnam for insufficient training.
He blamed his mother for insisting he take the case lest it be thought he was
incapable of drawing a writ. Nothing, he decided, would ever come easily to him.
"But it is my destiny to dig treasures with my own fingers," he wrote woefully.
To gather strength, he read aloud from Cicero's Orations. The "sweetness and
grandeur" of just the sounds of Cicero were sufficient reward, even if one
understood none of the meaning. "Besides...it exercises my lungs, raises my
spirits, opens my pores, quickens the circulation, and so contributes much to
The case was the talk of the village. Everybody knew everybody involved. The
justice of the peace, before whom Adams would appear, and the lawyer for Lambert
were father and son Colonel Josiah Quincy and young Samuel Quincy a
circumstance that obviously did not bode well for Adams and his client.
Just as he feared, Adams lost on a technicality. He had neglected to include the
words "the county in the direction to the constables of Braintree."
"Field's wrath waxed hot," he recorded, and his own misery was extreme. In his
first appearance as a lawyer he had been bested by a crude countryman like
Lambert. He had been made to look a fool in the eyes of the whole town, and the
humiliation and anger he felt appear to have affected the atmosphere at home.
The night following, a terrible family row broke out. Susanna Adams flew into a
rage over the fact that Deacon John, in answer to his own conscience and
feelings of responsibility as selectman, had brought a destitute young woman to
live in the crowded household, the town having no means to provide for her. How
was the girl to pay for her board, Susanna demanded of her husband, who
responded by asserting his right to govern in his own home. "I won't have the
town's poor brought here, stark naked for me to clothe for nothing," she
stormed. He should resign as selectman.
When the young woman, whose name was Judah, burst into tears and John's brother
Peter pointed this out, Adams told him to hold his tongue, which touched Peter
off and "all was breaking into flame." Adams was so shaken, he had to leave the
room and take up his Cicero again in order to compose himself.
His mother's uncontrolled responses, her "scolds, rages," were a grievous flaw,
he felt. He knew the sudden, uncontrollable rush of his own anger, almost to the
point of bursting. He must observe more closely the effects of reason and rage,
just as he must never again undertake a case without command of the details.
"Let me never undertake to draw a writ without sufficient time to examine and
digest in my mind all the doubts, queries, objections that may arise," he wrote.
And he never did. The painful lesson had been learned.
Henceforth, he vowed, he would bend his whole soul to the law. He would let
nothing distract him. He drew inspiration from his Roman heroes. "The first way
for a young man to set himself on the road towards glorious reputation," he read
in Cicero, "is to win renown." "Reputation," wrote Adams, "ought to be the
perpetual subject of my thoughts, and aim of my behavior."
Should he confine himself to the small stage of Braintree? Or would he be better
off in Boston? But how possibly could anyone with an interest in life keep a
clear head in Boston?
My eyes are so diverted with chimney sweeps, carriers of wood, merchants,
ladies, priests, carts, horses, oxen, coaches, market men and women,
soldiers, sailors, and my ears with the rattle gabble of them all that I
can't think long enough in the street upon any one thing to start and pursue
He felt "anxious, eager after something," but what it was he did not know. "I
feel my own ignorance. I feel concern for knowledge. I have...a strong desire
"I never shall shine, 'til some animating occasion calls forth all my powers."
It was 1760, the year twenty-two-year-old George III was crowned king and Adams
But if self-absorbed and ambitious, he was hardly more so than a number of other
young men of ability of his time. The difference was that Adams wrote about it
and was perfectly honest with himself.
"Why have I not genius to start some new thought?" he asked at another point in
his diary. "Some thing that will surprise the world?" Why could he not bring
order to his life? Why could he not clear his table of its clutter of books and
papers and concentrate on just one book, one subject? Why did imagination so
often intervene? Why did thoughts of girls keep intruding?
"Ballast is what I want. I totter with every breeze."
Chide himself as he would about time spent to little purpose, his appetite for
life, for the pleasures of society was too central to his nature to be denied.
Further, he had a talent for friendship. To many he seemed prickly, intractable,
and often he was, but as his friend Jonathan Sewall would write, Adams had "a
heart formed for friendship, and susceptible to the finest feelings." He needed
friends, prized old friendships. He kept in touch with his Harvard classmates,
and for several in particular maintained boundless admiration. Moses Hemmenway,
who had become a Congregational minister known for his interminable sermons,
would remain, in Adams's estimate, one of the first scholars of their
generation. Samuel Locke, another from the class, was not only the youngest man
ever chosen for the presidency of Harvard, but to Adams one of the best men ever
chosen, irrespective of the fact that Locke had had to resign after only a few
years in office, when his housemaid became pregnant. With his departure, in the
words of one Harvard history, Locke was "promptly forgotten," but not by John
"Friendship," Adams had written to his classmate and cousin, Nathan Webb, "is
one of the distinguishing glorys of man....From this I expect to receive the
chief happiness of my future life." When, a few years later, Webb became
mortally ill, Adams was at his bedside keeping watch through several nights
before his death.
His current friends Sewall, Richard Cranch, Parson Anthony Wibird were to
be his friends to the last, despite drastic changes in circumstance, differing
temperaments, eccentricities, or politics. When in time Adams became Richard
Cranch's brother-in-law, he would sign his letters "as ever your faithful friend
and affectionate brother, John Adams," meaning every word.
There was little he enjoyed more than an evening of spontaneous "chatter," of
stories by candlelight in congenial surroundings, of political and philosophic
discourse, "intimate, unreserved conversation," as he put it. And flirting,
"gallanting," with the girls.
He was lively, pungent, and naturally amiable so amiable, as Thomas Jefferson
would later write, that it was impossible not to warm to him. He was so widely
read, he could talk on almost any subject, sail off in almost any direction.
What he knew he knew well.
Jonathan Sewall had already concluded that Adams was destined for greatness,
telling him, only partly in jest, that "in future ages, when New England shall
have risen to its intended grandeur, it shall be as carefully recorded among the
registers of the literati that Adams flourished in the second century after the
exode of its first settlers from Great Britain, as it is now that Cicero was
born in the six-hundred-and-forty-seventh year after the building of Rome."
Yet Adams often felt ill at ease, hopelessly awkward. He sensed people were
laughing at him, as sometimes they were, and this was especially hurtful. He had
a way of shrugging his shoulders and distorting his face that must be corrected,
he knew. He berated himself for being too shy. "I should look bold, speak with
more spirit." In the presence of women those he wished to impress above all
he was too susceptible to the least sign of approval. "Good treatment makes
me think I am admired, beloved....So I dismiss my guard and grow weak, silly,
vain, conceited, ostentatious."
Determined to understand human nature, fascinated by nearly everyone he
encountered, he devoted large portions of his diary to recording their stories,
their views on life, how they stood, talked, their facial expressions, how their
minds worked. In the way that his literary commonplace book served as a notebook
on his reading, the diary became his notebook on people. "Let me search for the
clue which led great Shakespeare into the labyrinth of human nature. Let me
examine how men think."
He made close study of the attorneys he most admired, the Boston giants of the
profession, searching for clues to their success. Jeremiah Gridley's "grandeur"
emanated from his great learning, his "lordly" manner. The strength of James
Otis was his fiery eloquence. "I find myself imitating Otis," wrote Adams.
His portraits of "original characters" in and about Braintree were
extraordinary, detailed, full of life and color, and written obviously, like so
much of the diary, out of the pure joy of writing. Possibly he knew what a gift
he had as an observer of human nature. In another time, under different
circumstances, he might have become a great novelist.
That so many disparate qualities could exist in one person was of never-ending
fascination to him. He longed to understand this in others, as in himself. The
good-natured, obliging landlady of a friend was also a "squaddy, masculine
creature" with "a great staring, rolling eye," "a rare collection of
disagreeable qualities." A tavern loafer of "low and ignoble countenance," one
Zab Hayward of Braintree, who had no conception of conventional grace in dancing
or anything else, was nonetheless regarded as the best dancer in town. Adams sat
one night in a local tavern observing from the sidelines. "Every room...crowded
with people," he recorded. "Negroes with a fiddle. Young fellows and girls
dancing in the chamber as if they would kick the floor through." When at first
Zab "gathered a circle around him...his behavior and speeches were softly silly,
but as his blood grew warm by motion and liquor, he grew droll.
He caught a girl and danced a jig with her, and then led her to one side of
the ring and said, "Stand there, I call for you by and by." This was spoken
comically enough, and raised a loud laugh. He caught another girl with light
hair and a patch on her chin, and held her by the hand while he sung a
song....This tickled the girl's vanity, for the song which he applied to her
described a very fine girl indeed.
Adams's new friend, Pastor Anthony Wibird, who had assumed the pulpit of
Braintree's First Church during the time Adams was away at Worcester, also
became the subject of some of his most vivid sketches. Older than Adams by
several years, Wibird was, as would be said in understatement, "somewhat
eccentric," yet warmly esteemed. His pastorate would be the longest in the
annals of the parish, lasting forty-five years, and the friendship between Adams
and Wibird, equally enduring. Privately, Adams wrote of him with the delight of
a naturalist taking notes on some rare and exotic specimen:
P[arson] W[ibird] is crooked, his head bends forward....His nose is a large
Roman nose with a prodigious bunch protuberance upon the upper part of it.
His mouth is large and irregular, his teeth black and foul and craggy....His
eyes are a little squinted, his visage is long and lank, his complexion wan,
his cheeks are fallen, his chin is long, large, and lean....When he prays at
home, he raises one knee upon the chair, and throws one hand over the back
of it. With the other he scratches his neck, pulls the hair of his
wig....When he walks, he heaves away, and swags one side, and steps almost
twice as far with one foot as the other....When he speaks, he cocks and
rolls his eyes, shakes his head, and jerks his body about.
Wibird was "slovenly and lazy," yet and here was the wonder he had great
"delicacy" of mind, judgment, and humor. He was superb in the pulpit. "He is a
genius," Adams declared in summation.
Parson Wibird was one of the half dozen or so bachelors in Adams's social
circle. The two closest friends were Jonathan Sewall, a bright, witty fellow
Harvard man and struggling attorney from Middlesex County, and Richard Cranch, a
good-natured, English-born clockmaker who knew French, loved poetry, and
delighted in discussing theological questions with Adams. Bela Lincoln was a
physician from nearby Hingham. Robert Treat Paine was another lawyer and Harvard
graduate, whom Adams thought conceited but who, like Wibird and Sewall, had a
quick wit, which for Adams was usually enough to justify nearly any failing.
The preferred gathering place was the large, bustling Josiah Quincy household at
the center of town, where a great part of the appeal was the Quincy family.
Colonel Quincy, as an officer in the militia and possibly the wealthiest man in
Braintree, was its leading citizen, but also someone Adams greatly admired for
his polish and eloquence. (Nothing so helped one gain command of the language,
Quincy advised the young man, as the frequent reading and imitation of Swift and
Pope.) In addition to the lawyer son Samuel, there were sons Edmund and Josiah,
who was also a lawyer, as well as a daughter, Hannah, and a cousin, Esther, who,
for Adams and his friends, were the prime attractions. Esther was "pert,
sprightly, and gay." Hannah was all of that and an outrageous flirt besides.
While Jonathan Sewall fell almost immediately in love with Esther, whom he would
eventually marry, Adams, Richard Cranch, and Bela Lincoln were all in eager
pursuit of the high-spirited Hannah. Sensing he was the favorite, Adams was soon
devoting every possible hour to her, and when not, dreaming of her. Nothing like
this had happened to him before. His pleasure and distress were extreme, as he
confided to his friend and rival Cranch:
If I look upon a law book my eyes it is true are on the book, but imagination
is at a tea table seeing that hair, those eyes, that shape, that familiar
friendly look....I go to bed and ruminate half the night, then fall asleep
and dream the same enchanting scenes.
All this was transpiring when the amorous spirits of the whole group appear to
have been at a pitch. Adams recorded how one evening several couples slipped off
to a side room and "there laughed and screamed and kissed and hussled," and
afterward emerged "glowing like furnaces."
After an evening stroll with Hannah through Braintree through "Cupid's Grove"
Adams spent a long night and most of the next day with Parson Wibird, talking
and reading aloud from Benjamin Franklin's Reflections on Courtship and
"Let no trifling diversion or amusement or company decoy you from your books,"
he lectured himself in his diary, "i.e., let no girl, no gun, no cards, no
flutes, no violins, no dress, no tobacco, no laziness decoy you from your
books." Besides, he had moments of doubt when he thought Hannah less than
sincere. "Her face and heart have no correspondence," he wrote.
Then came the spring night he would remember ever after. Alone with Hannah at
the Quincy house, he was about to propose when cousin Esther and Jonathan Sewall
suddenly burst into the room and the moment passed, never to be recovered. As it
was, Bela Lincoln, the Hingham physician, increased his attentions and in a year
he and Hannah Quincy would marry.
Seeing what a narrow escape he had had, Adams solemnly determined to rededicate
himself. Only by a turn of fate had he been delivered from "dangerous shackles."
"Let love and vanity be extinguished and the great passions of ambition,
patriotism, break out and burn," he wrote.
Yet, when he met Abigail Smith for the first time later that same summer of
1759, he would not be greatly impressed, not when he compared her to Hannah.
Abigail and her sisters Mary and Elizabeth were the daughters of Reverend
William Smith of Weymouth, the small seaport town farther along the coast road.
Adams's friend Cranch had lately begun calling on Mary, the oldest and prettiest
of the three. On the evening he invited Adams to go along with him to meet
Abigail, the middle sister, it was for Adams anything but love at first sight.
In contrast to his loving, tender Hannah, these Smith sisters were, he wrote,
neither "fond, nor frank, nor candid." Nor did Adams much like the father, who
seemed a "crafty, designing man." Adams's first impressions were almost entirely
bad and, as he would come to realize, quite mistaken.
The heaviest blow of his young life befell John Adams on May 25, 1761, when his
father, Deacon John, died at age seventy, the victim of epidemic influenza that
took a heavy toll in eastern Massachusetts and on older people especially. In
Braintree, seventeen elderly men and women died. Adams's mother was also
stricken, and though she survived as she was to survive one epidemic after
another down the years she was too ill to leave her bed when her husband was
On the back of the office copy of his father's will, Adams wrote in his own hand
the only known obituary of Deacon John:
The testator had a good education, though not at college, and was a very
capable and useful man. In his early life he was an officer of the militia,
afterwards a deacon of the church, and a selectman of the town; almost all
the business of the town being managed by him in that department for twenty
years together; a man of strict piety, and great integrity; much esteemed
and beloved wherever he was known, which was not far, his sphere of life
being not extensive.
With his father gone, Adams experienced a "want of strength [and] courage" such
as he had never known. Still, as expected of him, he stepped in as head of the
family, and as time passed, those expressions of self-doubt, the fits of despair
and self-consciousness that had so characterized the outpourings in his diary,
With his inheritance, he became a man of substantial property by the measure of
Braintree. He received the house immediately beside that of his father's, as
well as forty acres ten of adjoining land, plus thirty of orchard, pasture,
woodland, and swamp and slightly less than a third of his father's personal
estate, since alone of the three sons he had been provided a college education.
Adams was a freeholder now and his thoughts took a decided "turn to husbandry."
He was soon absorbed in all manner of projects and improvements, working with
several hired men "the help," as New Englanders said building stone walls,
digging up stumps, carting manure, plowing with six yoke of oxen, planting corn
and potatoes. He loved the farm as never before, even the swamp, "my swamp," as
His love of the law, too, grew greater. He felt privileged, blessed in his
profession, he told Jonathan Sewall:
Now to what higher object, to what greater character, can any mortal aspire
than to be possessed of all this knowledge, well digested and ready at
command, to assist the feeble and friendless, to discountenance the haughty
and lawless, to procure redress to wrongs, the advancement of right, to
assert and maintain liberty and virtue, to discourage and abolish tyranny and
In the house that was now his own, in what had once been the kitchen, before a
lean-to enlargement was added at back, he established his first proper law
office. The room was bright and sunny and in winter warmed by what had been the
old kitchen fireplace. In the corner nearest the road, he had an outside door
cut so that clients might directly come and go.
His practice picked up. He was going to Boston now once or twice a week. Soon he
was riding the circuit with the royal judges. "I grow more expert...I feel my
In November 1762 his friend Richard Cranch and Mary Smith were married, a high
occasion for Adams that he hugely enjoyed, including the customary round of
"matrimonial stories" shared among the men "to raise the spirits," one of which
he happily included in his journal:
The story of B. Bicknal's wife is a very clever one. She said, when she was
married she was very anxious, she feared, she trembled, she could not go to
bed. But she recollected she had put her hand to the plow and could not look
back, so she mustered up her spirits, committed her soul to God and her body
to B. Bicknal and into bed she leaped and in the morning she was amazed,
she could not think for her life what it was that had so scared
In the company of Richard Cranch, Adams had been seeing more and more of the
Smith family, about whom he had had a change of heart. That his interest, at
first informal, then ardent, was centered on Abigail was obvious to all. As an
aspiring lawyer, he must not marry early, Jeremiah Gridley had warned. So it was
not until October 25, 1764, after a courtship of nearly five years and just
short of his twenty-ninth birthday, that John Adams's life changed as never
before, when at the Weymouth parsonage, in a small service conducted by her
father, he and Abigail Smith became husband and wife.
Of the courtship Adams had said not a word in his diary. Indeed, for the entire
year of 1764 there were no diary entries, a sure sign of how preoccupied he was.
At their first meeting, in the summer of 1759, Abigail had been a shy, frail
fifteen-year-old. Often ill during childhood and still subject to recurring
headaches and insomnia, she appeared more delicate and vulnerable than her
sisters. By the time of her wedding, she was not quite twenty, little more than
five feet tall, with dark brown hair, brown eyes, and a fine, pale complexion.
For a rather stiff pastel portrait, one of a pair that she and John sat for in
Salem a few years after their marriage, she posed with just a hint of a smile,
three strands of pearls at the neck, her hair pulled back with a blue ribbon.
But where the flat, oval face in her husband's portrait conveyed nothing of his
bristling intelligence and appetite for life, in hers there was a strong,
unmistakable look of good sense and character. He could have been almost any
well-fed, untested young man with dark, arched brows and a grey wig, while she
was distinctly attractive, readily identifiable, her intent dark eyes clearly
focused on the world.
One wonders how a more gifted artist might have rendered Abigail. Long years
afterward, Gilbert Stuart, while working on her portrait, would exclaim to a
friend that he wished to God he could have painted Mrs. Adams when she was
young; she would have made "a perfect Venus," to which her husband, on hearing
the story, expressed emphatic agreement.
Year after year through the long courtship John trotted his horse up and over
Penn's Hill by the coast road five miles to Weymouth at every chance and in all
seasons. She was his Diana, after the Roman goddess of the moon. He was her
Lysander, the Spartan hero. In the privacy of correspondence, he would address
her as "Ever Dear Diana" or "Miss Adorable." She nearly always began her letters
then, as later, "My Dearest Friend." She saw what latent abilities and strengths
were in her ardent suitor and was deeply in love. Where others might see a
stout, bluff little man, she saw a giant of great heart, and so it was ever to
Only once before their marriage, when the diary was still active, did Adams dare
mention her in its pages, and then almost in code:
Di was a constant feast. Tender, feeling, sensible, friendly. A friend. Not
an imprudent, not an indelicate, not a disagreeable word of action. Prudent,
soft, sensible, obliging, active.
She, too, was an avid reader and attributed her "taste for letters" to Richard
Cranch, who, she later wrote, "taught me to love the poets and put into my
hands, Milton, Pope, and Thompson, and Shakespeare." She could quote poetry more
readily than could John Adams, and over a lifetime would quote her favorites
again and again in correspondence, often making small, inconsequential mistakes,
an indication that rather than looking passages up, she was quoting from memory.
Intelligence and wit shined in her. She was consistently cheerful. She, too,
loved to talk quite as much as her suitor, and as time would tell, she was no
Considered too frail for school, she had been taught at home by her mother and
had access to the library of several hundred books accumulated by her father. A
graduate of Harvard, the Reverend Smith was adoring of all his children, who, in
addition to the three daughters, included one son, William. They must never
speak unkindly of anyone, Abigail remembered her father saying repeatedly. They
must say only "handsome things," and make topics rather than persons their
subjects sensible policy for a parson's family. But Abigail had views on
nearly everything and persons no less than topics. Nor was she ever to be
particularly hesitant about expressing what she thought.
Open in their affections for one another, she and John were also open in their
criticisms. "Candor is my characteristic," he told her, as though she might not
have noticed. He thought she could improve her singing voice. He faulted her for
her "parrot-toed" way of walking and for sitting cross-legged. She told him he
was too severe in his judgments of people and that to others often appeared
haughty. Besides, she chided him, "a gentleman has no business to concern
himself about the legs of a lady."
During the terrible smallpox epidemic of 1764, when Boston became "one great
hospital," he went to the city to be inoculated, an often harrowing, potentially
fatal ordeal extending over many days. Though he sailed through with little
discomfort, she worried excessively and they corresponded nearly every day,
Adams reminding her to be sure to have his letters "smoked," on the chance they
The rambling, old-fashioned parsonage at Weymouth and its furnishings were a
step removed from the plain farmer's cottage of John's boyhood or the house
Abigail would move to once they were married. Also, two black slaves were part
of the Smith household.
According to traditional family accounts, the match was strongly opposed by
Abigail's mother. She was a Quincy, the daughter of old John Quincy, whose big
hilltop homestead, known as Mount Wollaston, was a Braintree landmark. Abigail,
it was thought, would be marrying beneath her. But the determination of both
Abigail and John, in combination with their obvious attraction to each other
like steel to a magnet, John said were more than enough to carry the day.
A month before the wedding, during a spell of several weeks when they were
unable to see one another because of illness, Adams wrote to her:
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 or two more would make me the
most insufferable cynic in the world. I see nothing but faults, follies,
frailties and defects in anybody 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 candor.
Believe me, now and ever your faithful
His marriage to Abigail Smith was the most important decision of John Adams's
life, as would become apparent with time. She was in all respects his equal and
the part she was to play would be greater than he could possibly have imagined,
for all his love for her and what appreciation he already had of her beneficial,
Bride and groom moved to Braintree the evening of the wedding. There was a
servant to wait on them the same Judah who had been the cause of the family
row years before who was temporarily on loan from John's mother. But as the
days and weeks passed, Abigail did her own cooking by the open hearth, and while
John busied himself with his law books and the farm, she spun and wove clothes
for their everyday use.
Her more sheltered, bookish upbringing notwithstanding, she was to prove every
bit as hardworking as he and no less conscientious about whatever she undertook.
She was and would remain a thoroughgoing New England woman who rose at five in
the morning and was seldom idle. She did everything that needed doing. All her
life she would do her own sewing, baking, feed her own ducks and chickens, churn
her own butter (both because that was what was expected, and because she knew
her butter to be superior). And for all her reading, her remarkable knowledge of
English poetry and literature, she was never to lose certain countrified Yankee
patterns of speech, saying "Canady" for Canada, as an example, using "set" for
sit, or the old New England "aya," for yes.
To John's great satisfaction, Abigail also got along splendidly with his very
unbookish mother. For a year or more, until Susanna Adams was remarried to an
older Braintree man named John Hall, she continued to live with her son Peter in
the family homestead next door, and the two women grew extremely fond of one
another. To Abigail her mother-in-law was a cheerful, open-minded person of
"exemplary benevolence," dedicated heart and soul to the welfare of her family,
which was more than her eldest son ever committed to paper, even if he
John and Abigail's own first child followed not quite nine months after their
marriage, a baby girl, Abigail or "Nabby," who arrived July 14, 1765, and was,
her mother recorded, "the dear image of her still dearer Papa."
A second baby, John Quincy, was born two years later, and again in mid-July,
1767, and Adams began worrying about college for Johnny, fine clothes for Nabby,
dancing schools, "and all that." To Abigail, after nearly three years of
marriage, her John was still "the tenderest of husbands," his affections
For Adams, life had been made infinitely fuller. All the ties he felt to the old
farm were stronger now with Abigail in partnership. She was the ballast he had
wanted, the vital center of a new and better life. The time he spent away from
home, riding the court circuit, apart from her and the "little ones," became
increasingly difficult. "God preserve you and all our family," he would write.
But in 1765, the same year little Abigail was born and Adams found himself
chosen surveyor of highways in Braintree, he was swept by events into sudden
public prominence. His marriage and family life were barely under way when he
began the rise to the fame he had so long desired. "I never shall shine 'til
some animating occasion calls forth all my powers," he had written, and here now
was the moment.
"I am...under all obligations of interest and ambition, as well as honor,
gratitude and duty, to exert the utmost of abilities in this important cause,"
he wrote, and with characteristic honesty he had not left ambition out.
The first news of the Stamp Act reached the American colonies during the last
week of May 1765 and produced an immediate uproar, and in Massachusetts
especially. Starting in November, nearly everything written or printed on paper
other than private correspondence and books all pamphlets, newspapers,
advertisements, deeds, diplomas, bills, bonds, all legal documents, ship's
papers, even playing cards were required to carry revenue stamps, some
costing as much as ten pounds. The new law, the first British attempt to tax
Americans directly, had been passed by Parliament to help pay for the cost of
the French and Indian War and to meet the expense of maintaining a colonial
military force to prevent Indian wars. Everyone was affected. The Boston Gazette
reported Virginia in a state of "utmost consternation." In August, Boston mobs,
"like devils let loose," stoned the residence of Andrew Oliver, secretary of the
province, who had been appointed distributor of the stamps, then attacked and
destroyed the house of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, wrongly suspecting
him of having sponsored the detested tax.
Adams, who had earlier joined a new law club in Boston started by Jeremiah
Gridley, had, at Gridley's suggestion, been working on an essay that would
become A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law. It was his first extended
political work and one of the most salient of his life, written at the age of
thirty. Now, at the height of the furor, he arranged for its publication as an
unsigned, untitled essay in the Gazette. (It would be published in England
later, in a volume titled The True Sentiments of America.) It was not a call to
arms or mob action with his countryman's dislike of the Boston "rabble,"
Adams was repelled by such an "atrocious violation of the peace." The Stamp Act
was hardly mentioned. Rather, it was a statement of his own fervent patriotism
and the taproot conviction that American freedoms were not ideals still to be
obtained, but rights long and firmly established by British law and by the
courage and sacrifices of generations of Americans. Years later Adams would say
the Revolution began in the minds of Americans long before any shots were fired
or blood shed.
"Be it remembered," he wrote in his Dissertation, "that liberty must at all
hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we
have not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us at the expense of their
ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.
And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people
who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge, as their great
Creator who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings and a desire
to know. But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable,
indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge,
I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.
He was calling on his readers for independence of thought, to use their own
minds. It was the same theme he had struck in his diary at Worcester a decade
before, in his turmoil over what to do with his life, writing, "The point is now
determined, and I shall have the liberty to think for myself."
Government is a plain, simple, intelligent thing, founded in nature and
reason, quite comprehensible by common sense [the Dissertation
continued]....The true source of our suffering has been our timidity. We
have been afraid to think....Let us dare to read, think, speak, and
write....Let it be known that British liberties are not the grants of
princes or parliaments...that many of our rights are inherent and essential,
agreed on as maxims and established as preliminaries, even before Parliament
existed....Let us read and recollect and impress upon our souls the views
and ends of our more immediate forefathers, in exchanging their native
country for a dreary, inhospitable wilderness....Recollect their amazing
fortitude, their bitter sufferings the hunger, the nakedness, the cold,
which they patiently endured the severe labors of clearing their grounds,
building their houses, raising their provisions, amidst dangers from wild
beasts and savage men, before they had time or money or materials for
commerce. Recollect the civil and religious principles and hopes and
expectations which constantly supported and carried them through all
hardships with patience and resignation. Let us recollect it was liberty,
the hope of liberty, for themselves and us and ours, which conquered all
discouragements, dangers, and trials.
The essay began appearing in the Gazette on August 12, 1765, and it struck an
immediate chord. "The author is a young man, not above 33 or 34, but of
incomparable sense," wrote Boston's senior pastor, Charles Chauncey, to the
learned Rhode Island clergyman and future president of Yale College, Ezra
Stiles. "I esteem that piece one of the best that has been written. It has done
honor to its author; and it is a pity but he should be known."
Soon afterward Adams drafted what became known as the Braintree Instructions
instructions from the freeholders of the town to their delegate to the General
Court, the legislative body of Massachusetts which, when printed in October
in the Gazette, "rang" through the colony. "We have always understood it to be a
grand and fundamental principle of the [English] constitution that no freeman
should be subject to any tax to which he has not given his own consent." There
must be "no taxation without representation" a phrase that had been used in
Ireland for more than a generation. And in rejecting the rule of the juryless
Admiralty Court in enforcing this law, the instructions declared that there must
be a trial by jury and an independent judiciary.
In amazingly little time the document was adopted by forty towns, something that
had never happened before.
Now fully joined in Boston's political ferment, Adams was meeting with Gridley,
James Otis, Samuel Adams, and others. Observing them closely, he concluded that
it was his older, second cousin, Samuel Adams who had "the most thorough
understanding of liberty." Samuel Adams was "zealous and keen in the cause," of
"steadfast integrity," a "universal good character." The esteemed Otis, however,
had begun to act strangely. He was "liable to great inequities of temper,
sometimes in despondency, sometimes in rage," Adams recorded in dismay.
Otis, a protégé of Gridley, had been for Adams the shining example of
the lawyer-scholar, learned yet powerful in argument. Now he became Adams's
political hero, just as Thomas Hutchinson became Adams's chief villain. A
lifetime later, Adams would vividly describe Otis as he had been in his
surpassing moment, in the winter of 1761, in argument against writs of
assistance, search warrants that permitted customs officers to enter and search
any premises whenever they wished. Before the bench in the second-floor Council
Chamber of the Province House in Boston, Otis had declared such writs which
were perfectly valid in English law and commonly issued in England null and
void because they violated the natural rights of Englishmen. Adams, who had been
present as an observer only, would remember it as one of the inspiring moments
of his life, a turning point for him as for history. The five judges, with
Hutchinson at their head as chief justice, sat in comfort near blazing
fireplaces, Adams recalled, "all in their new fresh robes of scarlet English
cloth, in their broad hats, and immense judicial wigs." But Otis, in opposition,
was a "flame" unto himself. "With the promptitude of classical illusions, a
depth of research...and a torrent of impetuous eloquence, he hurried away all
before him." By Adams's account, every one of the immense crowded audience went
away, as he did, ready to take up arms against writs of assistance. "Then and
there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims
of Great Britain," Adams would claim. "Then and there the child independence was
But by 1765 it was the tragic decline of James Otis that gripped Adams. At
meetings now, Otis talked on endlessly and to no point. No one could get a word
in. "Otis is in confusion yet," Adams noted a year or so later. "He rambles and
wanders like a ship without a helm." Adams began to doubt Otis's sanity, and as
time passed, it became clear that Otis, his hero, was indeed going mad, a
"The year 1765 has been the most remarkable year of my life," Adams wrote in his
diary that December. "The enormous engine fabricated by the British Parliament
for battering down all the rights and liberties of America, I mean the Stamp
Act, has raised and spread through the whole continent a spirit that will be
recorded to our honor, with all future generations."
"At home with my family. Thinking," reads the entry of a few nights later.
"At home. Thinking," he wrote Christmas Day.
With the repeal of the Stamp Act by Parliament in the spring of 1766, and the
easing of tensions that followed in the next two years, until the arrival of
British troops at Boston, Adams put politics aside to concentrate on earning a
living. He was thinking of politics not at all, he insisted.
He was back on the road, riding the circuit, the reach of his travels extending
more than two hundred miles, from the island of Martha's Vineyard off Cape Cod,
north to Maine, which was then part of the Massachusetts Bay Province, to as far
west as Worcester. As recalled in the family years later, he was endowed for the
profession of law with the natural gifts of "a clear and sonorous voice," a
"ready elocution," stubbornness, but with the "counter-check" of self-control,
and a strong moral sense. He handled every kind of case land transfers,
trespass, admiralty, marine insurance, murder, adultery, rape, bastardy,
buggery, assault and battery, tarring and feathering. He defended, not always
successfully, poor debtors, horse thieves, and smugglers. He saw every side of
life, learned to see things as they were, and was considered, as Jonathan Sewall
would write, as "honest [a] lawyer as ever broke bread."
In 1766, like his father before him, Adams was elected selectman in Braintree.
But so active had his Boston practice become by 1768 that he moved the family to
a rented house in the city, a decision he did not like, fearing the effect on
their health. He established a Boston office and presently admitted two young
men, Jonathan Austin and William Tudor, to read law with him, in return for fees
of 10 pounds sterling. "What shall I do with two clerks at a time?" Adams
speculated in his diary, adding that he would do all he could "for their
education and advancement in the world," a pledge he was to keep faithfully.
When Billy Tudor was admitted to the bar three years later, Adams took time to
write to Tudor's wealthy father to praise the young man for his clear head and
honest heart, but also to prod the father into giving his son some help getting
started in his practice. Adams had seen too often the ill effect of fathers who
ignored their sons when a little help could have made all the difference.
With the death of Jeremiah Gridley the year before and the mental collapse of
James Otis, John Adams, still in his thirties, had become Boston's busiest
attorney. He was "under full sail," prospering at last, and in the Adams
tradition, he began buying more land, seldom more than five or ten acres of salt
marsh or woodland at a time, but steadily, year after year. (Among his father's
memorable observations was that he never knew a piece of land to run away or
break.) Eventually, after his brother Peter married and moved to his wife's
house, John would purchase all of the old homestead, with its barn and
fifty-three acres, which included Fresh Brook, to Adams a prime asset. In one
pasture, he reckoned, there were a thousand red cedars, which in twenty years,
"if properly pruned," might be worth a shilling each. And with an appreciative
Yankee eye, he noted "a quantity of good stone in it, too."
He was becoming more substantial in other ways. "My good man is so very fat that
I am lean as a rail," Abigail bemoaned to her sister Mary. He acquired more and
more books, books being an acknowledged extravagance he could seldom curb. (With
one London bookseller he had placed a standing order for "every book and
pamphlet, of reputation, upon the subjects of law and government as soon as it
comes out.") "I want to see my wife and children every day," he would write
while away on the court circuit. "I want to see my grass and blossoms and
corn....But above all, except the wife and children, I want to see my books."
In the privacy of his journal, he could also admit now, if obliquely, to seeing
himself as a figure of some larger importance. After noting in one entry that
his horse had overfed on grass and water, Adams speculated wryly, "My biographer
will scarcely introduce my little mare and her adventures."
He could still search his soul over which path to follow. "To what object are my
views directed?" he asked. "Am I grasping at money, or scheming for power?" Yes,
he was amassing a library, but to what purpose? "Fame, fortune, power say some,
are the ends intended by a library. The service of God, country, clients, fellow
men, say others. Which of these lie nearest my heart?
What plan of reading or reflection or business can be pursued by a man who
is now at Pownalborough [Maine], then at Martha's Vineyard, next at Boston,
then at Taunton, presently at Barnstable, then at Concord, now at Salem,
then at Cambridge, and afterward Worcester. Now at Sessions, then at Pleas,
now in Admiralty, now at Superior Court, then in the gallery of the
House....Here and there and everywhere, a rambling, roving, vagrant,
Yet when Jonathan Sewall, who had become attorney general of the province,
called on Adams at the request of governor Francis Bernard to offer him the
office of advocate general in the Court of Admiralty, a plum for an ambitious
lawyer, Adams had no difficulty saying no.
Politically he and Sewall were on opposing sides, Sewall having become an avowed
Tory. Yet they tried to remain friends. "He always called me John and I him
Jonathan," remembered Adams, "and I often said to him, I wish my name were
David." Both understood that the office, lucrative in itself, was, in Adams's
words, a "sure introduction to the most profitable business in the province."
Sewall, with his large Brattle Street house in Cambridge, was himself an example
of how high one could rise. Yet so open a door to prosperity, not to say the
gratification to one's vanity, that a royal appointment might offer tempted
Adams not at all.
With Boston full of red-coated British troops sent in 1768 to keep order, as
another round of taxes was imposed by Parliament, this time on paper, tea,
paint, and glass the atmosphere in the city turned incendiary. Incidents of
violence broke out between townsmen and soldiers, the hated "Lobsterbacks."
The crisis came in March of 1770, a year already shadowed for John and Abigail
by the loss of a child. A baby girl, Susanna, born since the move to Boston and
named for John's mother, had died in February at a little more than a year old.
Adams was so upset by the loss that he could not speak of it for years.
On the cold moonlit evening of March 5, 1770, the streets of Boston were covered
by nearly a foot of snow. On the icy, cobbled square where the Province House
stood, a lone British sentry, posted in front of the nearby Custom House, was
being taunted by a small band of men and boys. The time was shortly after nine.
Somewhere a church bell began to toll, the alarm for fire, and almost at once
crowds came pouring into the streets, many men, up from the waterfront,
brandishing sticks and clubs. As a throng of several hundred converged at the
Custom House, the lone guard was reinforced by eight British soldiers with
loaded muskets and fixed bayonets, their captain with drawn sword. Shouting,
cursing, the crowd pelted the despised redcoats with snowballs, chunks of ice,
oyster shells, and stones. In the melee the soldiers suddenly opened fire,
killing five men. Samuel Adams was quick to call the killings a "bloody
butchery" and to distribute a print published by Paul Revere vividly portraying
the scene as a slaughter of the innocent, an image of British tyranny, the
Boston Massacre, that would become fixed in the public mind.
The following day thirty-four-year-old John Adams was asked to defend the
soldiers and their captain, when they came to trial. No one else would take the
case, he was informed. Hesitating no more than he had over Jonathan Sewall's
offer of royal appointment, Adams accepted, firm in the belief, as he said, that
no man in a free country should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial,
and convinced, on principle, that the case was of utmost importance. As a
lawyer, his duty was clear. That he would be hazarding his hard-earned
reputation and, in his words, "incurring a clamor and popular suspicions and
prejudices" against him, was obvious, and if some of what he later said on the
subject would sound a little self-righteous, he was also being entirely honest.
Only the year before, in 1769, Adams had defended four American sailors charged
with killing a British naval officer who had boarded their ship with a press
gang to grab them for the British navy. The sailors were acquitted on grounds of
acting in self-defense, but public opinion had been vehement against the heinous
practice of impressment. Adams had been in step with the popular outrage,
exactly as he was out of step now. He worried for Abigail, who was pregnant
again, and feared he was risking his family's safety as well as his own, such
was the state of emotions in Boston. It was rumored he had been bribed to take
the case. In reality, a retainer of eighteen guineas was the only payment he
Criticism of almost any kind was nearly always painful for Adams, but public
scorn was painful in the extreme.
"The only way to compose myself and collect my thoughts," he wrote in his diary,
"is to set down at my table, place my diary before me, and take my pen into my
hand. This apparatus takes off my attention from other objects. Pen, ink, and
paper and a sitting posture are great helps to attention and thinking."
From a treatise by the eminent Italian penologist and opponent of capital
punishment Cesare, Marchese di Beccaria, he carefully copied the following:
If, by supporting the rights of mankind, and of invincible truth, I shall
contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of
tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessings and years of
transport will be sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all
There were to be two conspicuously fair trials held in the new courthouse on
Queen Street. The first was of the British captain, Thomas Preston, the opening
of the trial being delayed until October when passions had cooled. The second
was of the soldiers. In the first trial Adams was assisted by young Josiah
Quincy, Jr., while the court-appointed lawyer trying the case was Josiah's
brother, Samuel, assisted by Robert Treat Paine. Whether Captain Preston had
given an order to fire, as was charged, could never be proven. Adams's argument
for the defense, though unrecorded, was considered a virtuoso performance.
Captain Preston was found not guilty.
Adams's closing for the second and longer trial, which was recorded, did not
come until December 3, and lasted two days. The effect on the crowded courtroom
was described as "electrical." "I am for the prisoners at bar," he began, then
invoked the line from the Marchese di Beccaria. Close study of the facts had
convinced Adams of the innocence of the soldiers. The tragedy was not brought on
by the soldiers, but by the mob, and the mob, it must be understood, was the
inevitable result of the flawed policy of quartering troops in a city on the
pretext of keeping the peace:
We have entertained a great variety of phrases to avoid calling this sort of
people a mob. Some call them shavers, some call them geniuses. The plain
English is, gentlemen, [it was] most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys,
Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jacktars. And why should
we scruple to call such a people a mob, I can't conceive, unless the name is
too respectable for them. The sun is not about to stand still or go out, nor
the rivers to dry up because there was a mob in Boston on the 5th of March
that attacked a party of soldiers....Soldiers quartered in a populous town
will always occasion two mobs where they prevent one. They are wretched
conservators of the peace.
He described how the shrieking "rabble" pelted the soldiers with snowballs,
oyster shells, sticks, "every species of rubbish," as a cry went up to "Kill
them! Kill them!" One soldier had been knocked down with a club, then hit again
as soon as he could rise. "Do you expect he should behave like a stoic
philosopher, lost in apathy?" Adams asked. Self-defense was the primary canon of
the law of nature. Better that many guilty persons escape unpunished than one
innocent person should be punished. "The reason is, because it's of more
importance to community, that innocence should be protected, than it is, that
guilt should be punished."
"Facts are stubborn things," he told the jury, "and whatever may be our wishes,
our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of
facts and evidence."
The jury remained out two and a half hours. Of the eight soldiers, six were
acquitted and two found guilty of manslaughter, for which they were branded on
There were angry reactions to the decision. Adams was taken to task in the
Gazette and claimed later to have suffered the loss of more than half his
practice. But there were no riots, and Samuel Adams appears never to have
objected to the part he played. Possibly Samuel Adams had privately approved,
even encouraged it behind the scenes, out of respect for John's fierce
integrity, and on the theory that so staunch a show of fairness would be good
As time would show, John Adams's part in the drama did increase his public
standing, making him in the long run more respected than ever. Years later,
reflecting from the perspective of old age, he himself would call it the most
exhausting case he ever undertook, but conclude with pardonable pride that his
part in the defense was "one of the most gallant, generous, manly and
disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I
ever rendered my country."
A second son, Charles, was born that summer of 1770, and for all the criticism
to which he was being subjected, Adams was elected by the Boston Town Meeting as
a representative to the Massachusetts legislature. It was his first real
commitment to politics. Inevitably it would mean more time away from his
practice, and still further reduction in income. When, the night of the meeting,
he told Abigail of his apprehensions, she burst into tears, but then, as Adams
would relate, said "she thought I had done as I ought, she was very willing to
share in all that was to come."
But the complications and demands of both the law and politics became too much
and Adams suffered what appears to have been a physical breakdown. "Especially
the constant obligation to speak in public almost every day for many hours had
exhausted my health, brought on pain in my breast and complaint in my lungs,
which seriously threatened my life," he would later write. In the spring of
1771, he and the family moved back to Braintree, to "the air of my native spot,
and the fine breezes from the sea," which "together with daily rides on
horseback," gradually restored him.
Another child, Thomas Boylston, was born in September of 1772, and again Adams
was off on the "vagabond life" of the circuit, carrying a copy of Don Quixote in
his saddlebag and writing Abigail sometimes as many as three letters a day.
Business was good in Massachusetts in the calm of 1772 and Adams prospered once
again. He appeared in more than two hundred Superior Court cases. Among his
clients were many of the richest men in the colony, including John Hancock. At
the conclusion of one morning in court, Adams was told people were calling him
the finest speaker they had ever heard, "the equal to the greatest orator that
ever spoke in Greece or Rome."
He could speak extemporaneously and, if need be, almost without limit. Once, to
give a client time to retrieve a necessary record, Adams spoke for five hours,
through which the court and jury sat with perfect patience. At the end he was
roundly applauded because, as he related the story, he had spoken "in favor of
At home, he filled pages of his journal with observations on government and
freedom, "notes for an oration at Braintree," as he labeled them, though the
oration appears never to have been delivered.
Government is nothing more than the combined force of society, or the united
power of the multitude, for the peace, order, safety, good and happiness of
the people....There is no king or queen bee distinguished from all others,
by size or figure or beauty and variety of colors, in the human hive. No man
has yet produced any revelation from heaven in his favor, any divine
communication to govern his fellow men. Nature throws us all into the world
equal and alike....
The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral
character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused
generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be
Ambition is one of the more ungovernable passions of the human heart. The
love of power is insatiable and uncontrollable....
There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to
be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public
At the same time, he was vowing, at least in the privacy of his diary, to devote
himself wholly to his private business and providing for his family. "Above all
things I must avoid politics...." But as tensions in the colony mounted, so did
his pent-up rage and longing for action. On an evening with the Cranches, when a
visiting Englishman began extolling the English sense of justice, Adams
exploded, taking everyone by surprise, and Adams as much as any. "I cannot but
reflect upon myself with the severity of these rash, inexperienced, boyish, raw
and awkward expressions," he wrote afterward. "A man who has not better
government of his tongue, no more command of his temper, is unfit for everything
but children's play and the company of boys." There was no more justice in
Britain than in hell, he had told the Englishman.
By the time of the destruction of the tea, what was later to become known as the
Boston Tea Party in December 1773, he had again moved the family to Boston. His
hatred of mob action notwithstanding, Adams was exuberant over the event. In
less than six months, in May 1774, in reprisal, the British closed the port of
Boston, the worst blow to the city in its history. "We live, my dear soul, in an
age of trial," he told Abigail. Shut off from the sea, Boston was doomed. It
must suffer martyrdom and expire in a noble cause. For himself, he saw "no
prospect of any business in my way this whole summer. I don't receive a shilling
Yet she must not assume he was "in the dumps." Quite the contrary: he felt
better than he had in years.
In 1774, Adams was chosen by the legislature as one of five delegates to the
First Continental Congress at Philadelphia, and with all Massachusetts on the
verge of rebellion, he removed Abigail and the children again to Braintree,
where they would remain.
In July he traveled to Maine, for what was to be his last turn on the circuit
before leaving for Philadelphia. During a break from the court at Falmouth
(later Portland), he and Jonathan Sewall, who was still attorney general,
climbed a hill overlooking the blue sweep of Casco Bay, where they could talk
Their friendship had cooled in recent years, as had been inevitable under the
circumstances. In his diary Adams had grieved that his best friend in the world
had become his implacable enemy. "God forgive him for the part he has acted,"
Adams had written, adding, "It is not impossible that he may make the same
prayer for me." Now Sewall pleaded with Adams not to attend the Congress. The
power of Great Britain was "irresistible" and would destroy all who stood in the
way, Sewall warned.
As long as they lived, neither man would forget the moment. Adams told Sewall he
knew Great Britain was "determined on her system," but "that very determination,
determined me on mine." The die was cast, Adams said. "Swim or sink, live or
die, survive or perish, [I am] with my country...You may depend upon it."
Less than a year later, after the battle of Bunker Hill, Sewall would choose to
"quit America." With his wife and family he sailed for London, never to return.
"It is not despair which drives me away," he wrote before departure. "I have
faith...that rebellion will shrink back to its native hell, and that Great
Britain will rise superior to all the gasconade of the little, wicked American
Not long afterward, in a series of letters to the Boston Gazette that he signed
"Novangelus" the New Englander Adams argued that Americans had every right
to determine their own destiny and charged the Foreign Ministry in London with
corruption and venal intent. America, Adams warned, could face subjugation of
the kind inflicted on Ireland. Unless America took action, and at once, Adams
wrote, they faced the prospect of living like the Irish on potatoes and water.
Excerpted from "John Adams" by David McCullough. Copyright © 2001 by David McCullough. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.