From “Senseless Turpitude” to Stately Duty
FATHER AND SON
John Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, on October 19, 1735, the fourth-generation descendant of Henry Adams, who arrived in America with his wife, Edith, about 1636. Of yeoman stock, pious, frugal, and hardworking, Henry died a decade after settling in Braintree, leaving eight sons and a daughter, a house with two rooms, a farm of forty acres on which ranged a cow, heffer, and swine, and a modest library of treasured books. One son, Joseph, followed in his father’s footsteps and, married to Abigail Baxter, had no less than twelve children. Their son Joseph Adams Jr. married Hannah Bass, great-granddaughter of John and Priscilla Alden of the Plymouth landing and Mayflower epic. Their son, the first John Adams, married Susanna Boylston, the daughter of a family in Massachusetts medical history. Into the Adams-Boylston marriage was born John Adams, the eldest of the three sons.
The dwelling in which young Adams grew up was plain, simple, severe. On the farm of hay fields sat a two-story clapboard house with a single chimney that served to heat four dimly lit rooms. The sloping roof made the two upstairs bedrooms into a low cubbyhole under which the boys had to stoop to turn in to bed. As with much of the rest of Puritan New England, the Adams family experienced life as a challenge to moral character, an austere, demanding existence without the luxury of servants or slaves.
Although lacking material comfort and often enduring dreary weather, the Adams household enjoyed a wealth of books, ideas, and stimulating conversation. A theological atmosphere weighed down upon New England, with citizens worrying about the fate of their souls while debating the inscrutability of God’s purposes and the meaning of evil. Adams senior took his son to a barnlike meetinghouse to hear sermons asking the congregation to turn to faith, and then to the town meeting to hear public issues discussed that asked citizens to rely upon reason. The father hoped his eldest son would enter college and study for the ministry. But young Adams was not the bookworm that one might assume in view of his later life as a learned intellectual. He relished the outdoors; knew every trail, pond, and woods in the neighborhood; and took pride in his physical prowess despite his small size. Well into adulthood he would retain a passion for tracking and hunting. His father, however, a farmer and outdoorsman himself, wanted his son to study Latin to prepare for Harvard College. When he protested that he hated the subject, his father replied: “Well, John, if Latin-grammar does not suit you, you may try ditching, perhaps that will; my meadow yonder needs a ditch, and you may put by Latin and try that.” Young John looked forward to the “delightful change,” only to discover after a day and a half of hard, backbreaking work that he preferred Latin to labor. But he felt too humiliated to admit it to his father. Finally at nightfall “toil conquered pride, and I told my father, one of the severest trials of my life, that, if he chose, I would go back to Latin-grammar. He was glad of it; and if I have since gained any distinction, it has been owing to the two days’ labor in that abominable ditch.”
Adams entered Harvard at fifteen. To the Puritan founders of New England, the life of the mind was everything; few could forget that the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation were first promulgated in the universities of Europe. Under Harvard’s tutorial system, Adams studied Greek and Latin, logic, rhetoric, physics, and, in his senior year, moral philosophy and metaphysics. Not all his classmates buckled down. Some of Harvard’s brightest students would be reprimanded for drinking, gambling, rioting, whoring, and, even worse, lapses into infidelity and blasphemy. Adams was reticent about his college experience. Perhaps his lack of enthusiasm reflected the rote nature of the learning that had students simply copying the contents of books rather than critically analyzing them. In his later years, Adams would do both when subjecting Western political philosophy to his penetrating analysis, quoting long passages from Machiavelli to show where the Florentine political philosopher contradicts himself.
Adams was graduated from Harvard in 1755, and returned to Braintree uncertain of a vocation. The ministry that his father favored Adams found stifling. He had his fill of the doctrinal disputes surrounding “frigid John Calvin,” and he could not help remembering the attacks on the liberal theologian Jonathan Mayhew and others who deviated from orthodoxy. He decided to accept an earlier offer of a teaching position at a grammar school in Worcester, and with a horse sent by the town for him to ride, he made the sixty-mile trip from Braintree (later called Quincy) in a single day.
The opportunity to teach young people led Adams to reflect upon what it is that motivates the mind. Who in the class will turn out to be a “hero” or a “rake” or a “philosopher” or a “parasite”? The boredom and daydreaming of the students rubbed off on the schoolmaster, who found his own mind wandering out the window. Schoolteachers were poorly paid, and Adams could only afford to board with families. It was in his first few years as a Worcester instructor that Adams started to keep a diary. The opening pages are full of doubt, self-scrutiny, and intellectual curiosity about God and the nature of the universe and the adequacy of his own character. “Constantly forming but never executing good resolutions,” he lamented. “Oh! That I could wear out my mind any mean and base affectation; conquer my natural pride and self-conceit; expect no more deference from my fellows than I deserve; … subdue every unworthy passion, and treat all men as I wish to be treated by all.” What troubled Adams was that his mind flitted with thoughts that seemed to have no object, leaving his mental life all motion and no direction. And his inability to concentrate resulted in many students’ dilemma:
What is the Cause of Procrastination? To day my Stomack is Disordered, and my Thoughts of Consequences, unsteady and Confused. I cant study to day but will begin tomorrow. Tomorrow comes. Well, I feel pretty well, my head is pretty clear, but Company comes in. I cant yet study tomorrow, but will begin in Earnest next day. Next day comes. We are out of Wood, I cant study: because I cant keep a fire. Thus, something is always wanting that is necessary.
Adams’s experience in the classroom led him to believe that young minds are more likely to be motivated positively than negatively, by expectations of praise instead of fear of punishment. At this point in his life, having turned twenty-one and finding himself still uncertain of his chosen vocation, Adams became preoccupied with motivation. In view of his later social philosophy, which would emphasize the human need for external recognition, his earlier thoughts valued even more the force of inner conviction. In 1756, he wrote to a friend, “Upon common theatres, indeed, the applause of the audience is of more importance to the actor than their own approbation. But upon the stage of life, while conscience claps, let the world hiss.” But Adams’s conscience was hardly clapping as he sank into idleness, the worst sin for a Puritan. “I am dull and inactive, and all my resolutions, all the spirits I can muster are insufficient to rouse me from this senseless turpitude.” He knew he had to leave behind grammar-school teaching, and he thought about the three options available to college graduates: divinity, medicine, or law. Against the advice of family and friends, he chose to study law, then a profession of mixed repute.
The original settlers of New England had no lawyers. But when the visions of commonwealth and love quickly receded, and conflict and distrust took hold, the profession of law emerged to handle suits and litigations. Public as well as personal disputations shaped the life of law, and indeed the controversies between the colonies and mother country that led to the Revolution were legal in nature. Adams would argue the American cause as a lawyer, defending a country whose rights had been violated. Adams carried into his new chosen calling the religious idealism that sprang from his Puritan environment. A century later Adams’s great-grandson Henry Adams would look upon the legal profession as the hireling of big business. But “honest John Adams” saw law as an instrument of morality, and he dedicated himself to the profession as a cause that fulfilled his need to do right by his conscience.
Adams was cut out perfectly for the profession. He delighted in courtroom drama; enjoyed riding the circuit; had a clear, sonorous manner of speaking, a mind that could cut quickly to the heart of an issue and present effective summations, and a character so open in its convictions that few could suspect him of concealing evidence or manipulating opinion. He valued law as rooted in history, in experience, and in precedent. Admitted to the bar by the Massachusetts Superior Court in 1761, Adams returned to Braintree and out of a small office handled matters dealing with property, taxes, deeds, and wills; while on the circuit he took cases involving theft, libel, rape, and bastardy. In his hometown he also led a crusade against taverns, whose customers took to drinking and brawling. Adams succeeded in getting an ordinance to limit the licensing of these dens of iniquity, appearing in court in his distinguished black robe and white wig.
Adams was particularly impressed by the stirring role of another lawyer. James Otis took to court the case of Boston merchants protesting the breaking into of their ships and warehouses by British customs officials whose actions had been authorized by writs of assistance issued by the English Crown. Otis’s speech against the writs deeply moved Adams. The trial itself involved only a petty matter of protecting smugglers, but it would have, Adams reflected, implications for the limitations of British authority in America. From the courtroom resonated the theory of the social compact stipulating the natural rights of citizens and the right of revolution itself.
ABIGAIL AND THE “WILD AND GIDDY DAYS”
Long before he was a practicing attorney, Adams felt himself drawn to the female sex. His wit and charm appealed to village belles, and while he himself remained chaste, Braintree and other towns had their share of unwed mothers and bastard children. Male friends warned him against the tender trap of matrimony, and few rushed into it at an early age. Even so, Adams spent hours “gallanting the girls” and reading Ovid to the wife of the town doctor. He found himself captivated by the enticing Hannah Quincy, who had other young men swarming around her like moths to a flame. On one occasion he almost proposed to her, but friends burst into the room and the embarrassed couple drew apart. When Hannah soon after married another suitor, Adams suddenly knew what it meant to be lovesick, unable to sleep without thinking of her beautiful smiling face, a scene that aroused desires that could not be fulfilled and lingered only to “be grappled to my soul. Wherever I go, whatever I do, asleep or awake, This dear bewitching scene attends me, and takes up all my Thoughts.”
One of Adams’s best friends married in 1761, two years after he first met Abigail Smith. But Adams put off becoming engaged to Abigail until early 1764. Unlike the flirtatious Hannah, Abigail, then only fifteen and ten years younger than Adams, was too coy to show her feelings to the man who moved her heart, and it took him some time to sense her rare qualities of mind and spirit. He also felt inadequate financially, having no prospects of becoming rich. But with the death of his father he inherited a saltbox cottage on the farm, and after three years he grew confident and pursued her ardently. His instincts proved correct. The forty-five-year marriage between John and Abigail Adams constitutes one of the great romances in the history of the American presidency. The relationship was a rapture of fused souls. They came together, John said, “like magnet and steel.” But political duty took John away for long stays in Europe, and during the twelve years when he was vice president and president, Abigail frequently remained in Quincy. Until Adams left office in 1801, he and Abigail had lived apart more often than together. But correspondence between the two sustained an intimacy that age could not wither. Earlier, when Adams was serving as a diplomat in Europe, Abigail expressed her feelings before leaving to join him: “My thoughts are fixed, my latest wish depend / on thee guide, guardian, Husband, lover, Friend.” It was the rarest of relationships, one in which husband and wife were exceptionally well mated, and love conquered space and time.
Abigail came from the town of Weymouth, born into a well-off ministerial family whose members thought her marriage to a small-town lawyer was beneath her. As a youth, Abigail had suffered from frequent illnesses, although she thought back fondly on a pleasant childhood of “wild and giddy days.” Together with her two sisters, she received her education at home with her mother serving as instructor and her father’s library as a valuable resource. Well-read, perceptive, witty, Abigail carried on with John Adams as an equal, bringing stability to his dark moods and self-doubts. A painting, rendered around the time of the marriage, shows her with a serenely attractive face from which stare dark, intense eyes; hair pulled back; and lips about to smile but holding the serious look customary in eighteenth-century portraits. Later drawings show her aging gracefully. In some of her letters she took the pen name “Portia,” reference to the long-suffering wife of the Roman leader Brutus. But Abigail was whimsical rather than whining. She never complained of marriage and motherhood but instead accepted the conventional code of female behavior while valuing her own privacy and autonomy. With her husband occupied with public life, Abigail took on the responsibility of managing the farm and handling financial matters. She also became a gifted letter writer, carrying on a rich correspondence not only with her husband but with the author Mercy Otis Warren, one of the first historians of the American Revolution.
After the Revolution broke out there were moments when Abigail did become political. In the spring of 1776, she wrote to John: “I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” and she then offered the advice, “and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” She concluded her counsel with sentiments common to colonial women. “Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the Husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.”
“THE MOST MAGNIFICENT MOVEMENT OF ALL”: THE REVOLUTION
In 1763, a seven-year war between England and France for the control of North America came to an end, the so-called French and Indian War that saw native Americans fighting alongside France in the Northeast, where “New France” went down to defeat with the fall of Quebec. “This,” said the English statesman Lord Granville, “has been the most glorious war and the most triumphant peace that England ever knew.” Granville uttered that thought on his deathbed; fortunately, he would not live to see how wrong he was. In less than two decades, England would be driven out of America, and not by France or Spain but by her own children.
England’s victory created two ironic circumstances. While the American colonists no longer felt they needed England for protection against the French and native Indians, England just as strongly believed it needed America to pay for the war and the upkeep of the colonial system as well as the security afforded by the British army and navy. The century-old relationship of America to the mother country had been characterized by charters, laws, and regulations, many of which were so ill defined and ignored that an English historian remarked that his country’s relations with the world and the settlement of America took place in a “fit of absence of mind.” To rectify the situation, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765. The legislation, requiring all kinds of printed material, from newspapers to diplomas to legal documents, to carry revenue seals, meant that for the first time in history colonists had been taxed directly. When news of the law reached America in May, Boston exploded in anger. Tax collectors were tarred and feathered, stamp seals seized and burned, effigies hung and bonfires lit, and the house of Peter Oliver, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s brother-in-law, was stormed and smashed into shambles; soon after, Hutchinson’s own luxurious house full of paintings, silver, china, and rare books was gutted.
The behavior of the once law-abiding Boston people troubled Adams. Those who led the assaults called themselves the “Sons of Liberty,” but Adams wondered whether liberty could survive the passions of a mob riot. Adams and a dozen leading citizens organized an evening club to discuss the meaning of law and order in a political culture based on rights and freedoms. Out of these discussions came Adams’s first contribution to political philosophy, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law. The essays were published anonymously and without title in the Boston Gazette and later appeared in London. The document, much discussed at the time, has since fallen into neglect. A pity, for Adams, like Abraham Lincoln later in American history, was attempting to explain the meaning of America to America and to the world.
When English men, women, and children departed from the Old World to come to the New, they brought with them the best single idea and left behind the two worst. They arrived with the germ of the idea of the natural rights of humankind and left back in the Old World the ideas of absolutism and dogmatism based on the institutions of feudalism and Catholicism, the reign of “kings and cruel priests.” Both feudal and canon law kept their subjects in a state of “sordid ignorance and staring timidity,” and it was only with the Protestant Reformation, whose rebellious spirit the Puritans brought to America, that there took place a world-shaking revolt against the tyranny of church and state. The Dissertation signaled Adams’s most radical moment when he seemed to be questioning authority in the name of liberty and obedience in the name of resistance. He was trying to make America aware of that which Edmund Burke would later try to make the British Parliament aware: the colonists as Protestants are by nature implacable protesters who will not be subdued, but instead will suspect the worst if anyone tries to infringe upon their sovereignty. King George III may call the colonists “rebels,” but they are rebels with a cause and a conscience. The great sin, announced Adams the Puritan, is passivity and complacency. “Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”
Due to the protests of Adams and others, England repealed the Stamp Act, and the colonists rejoiced. But in 1767, Parliament proposed new legislation imposing duties on goods imported to the colonies, insisting that the tax was external rather than internal in that it involved foreign trade. Once again, Adams argued against any form of taxation without consent and representation. While Parliament debated the new duties law, England increased the number of troops in America. Colonists taunted British soldiers, “Bloody Lobsterbacks,” and a youth was killed by a musket shot. Shortly after the boy’s funeral, a gang of youths flung rocks at soldiers and dared them to use their guns. When the mob shouted “Kill them!,” shots rang out, leaving three men dead and eight wounded. One of the dead was a brave, brawny mulatto, Crispus Attucks, who had joined the whites in baiting the troops, the first African American to die in the cause of American freedom.
The officer who allegedly gave the order to fire, Captain Thomas Preston, was arrested and turned over to the city’s Superior Court to be tried for the “Boston Massacre.” British officers prevailed upon Adams to defend Preston, and when he accepted the case, the people of Boston could only wonder whether he was truly committed to the patriots’ cause. Adams and another attorney, Josiah Quincy, produced witnesses who testified that the captain and his terrified soldiers had been provoked into firing. But to dramatize the fear, Adams resorted to an early form of racial profiling, reminding the jury that the mob was “a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and mullatoes, Irish teagues [pigs] and outlandish jack tars,” and that the troops faced the African Attucks, whose “very looks” would “terrify any person.” He also made a powerful case for self-defense. The British were acquitted.
The American Revolution began in mischief. What has come to be called the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, started when patriots dressed as Indians boarded British ships and quietly dropped overboard 365 chests of tea. Adams, hearing the dramatic story from Abigail, wrote exultantly in his diary of “the most magnificent movement of all,” so courageous that there is “a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity” on the part of the patriots who stole aboard British ships in the Boston Harbor and, under cover of darkness, staged the party that made history. “This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it as an epoch in history!” More than an act of vandalism, the destruction of property symbolized the point of no return. “The die is cast,” Adams wrote to a friend.
England felt the same way and ordered the port of Boston closed. Then rumors began arriving from England that Redcoats were coming, that patriot leaders had been indicted for treason, or, better news, that the tea duty had been revoked. Some leaders, including Ben Franklin, urged caution and tried to explore the possibility of compromise. The leader of the faction that would come to be known as the “Loyalists,” Daniel Leonard, went so far as to insist that the colonists had no right to oppose taxes and to defy the authority of the mother country. Leonard also charged inconsistency. At the time of the Stamp Act the colonists had acknowledged that England could levy taxes to regulate trade for the purpose of promoting commercial advantages but could not do so solely to raise revenue. When that law was repealed and new legislation was proposed on tea and other commodities, the colonists denied all forms of taxation, whether internal or external. Leonard also charged that a small clique of agitators was misleading the colonists and inflaming them with the suspicion that England intended not only to regulate the colonies but to subvert the people’s rights and liberties. Adams replied to Leonard and other Tory voices in a series of papers that appeared in the Boston Gazette with the title “Novanglus,” Latin for New England. The rebels could read Adams’s writings as a powerful justification of their cause; they can also be read in hindsight as a rationalization.
Adams displayed considerable erudition in drawing upon the teachings of “Aristotle and Plato, Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington and Locke,” whose thoughts were grounded in the “principles of nature and eternal reason.” But “Novanglus” is more polemical than profound. Of the authors cited, only John Locke regarded people as endowed with the right of revolution; the others could be cited, as indeed they were, to uphold England’s position that reason and virtue commanded the colonists to subordinate their interests to the greater good of the commonwealth. Adams’s essays anticipated the Declaration of Independence in rejecting any right whatsover of Parliament to rule in the colonies. Both documents were declarations of freedom that sprang from the deeper emotion of denial, rejecting the authority to which colonists once swore allegiance. The American Revolution, it turned out, would be less a war of ideas than a power struggle between a mother country determined to prevail and her colonies determined to be free. Adams may have invoked the “principles of nature and eternal reason,” but he well knew that the dispute would be settled by brute force. If Great Britain dared to subordinate the colonies to Parliament, she must do so by “the law of brickbats and balls, which can be answered only by brickbats and balls.”
Before the last of the “Novanglus” papers were published, gunfire was indeed answered by gunfire. On the fields of Concord and Lexington, on April 19, 1775, power replaced philosophy, and the issue of sovereignty would be determined not by reason but by strength. Taking positions behind trees, colonial minutemen exchanged volleys with British Redcoats and harassed their retreat to Boston. War, at last, had broken out, but it would take more than a year for America to declare its independence from England. In that period an epidemic of smallpox swept through the northern colonies, taking its toll on thousands of British and American soldiers and leaving Abigail Adams to care for a household of sick children. Boston became a hospital.
The Revolution saw the colonies deeply divided. In Adams’s estimate, one-third of the people supported the Revolution, one-third opposed it, and one-third were neutral or indifferent. Pennsylvania Quakers had no stomach for war, and some Virginians thought England could be persuaded to change its policies. Many delegates to the Continental Congress were instructed by their states not to vote for independence. Rumors speculated about sending a peace commission to England. Adams knew that ties with England had been forever broken. He also knew that it would be a long war and that other countries would be reluctant to recognize America until it became sovereign and independent. But America hesitated to take that bold step. Then in January 1776, a small pamphlet came forth from a side-street printer in Philadelphia, and Americans suddenly knew what had to be done.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense swept the colonies with its powerfully simple message. It is absurd, Paine insisted, for an island to presume to govern a continent. Indeed, government itself, “the badge of lost innocence,” is an artificial inconvenience based on our vices when in the New World all that is needed is a society of liberty and open opportunity. America offered the world a fresh start if it would only seize the moment and come to a “final separation.” The sun shines on our cause. “The birthday of a new world is at hand.”
As did much of America, Adams welcomed Paine’s propitious pamphlet. Yet while its spectacular popularity helped the cause of independence, Adams worried that Paine’s pamphleteering approach to political thought would ill prepare America for a true understanding of what would be needed in the postrevolutionary era. Thus again he reached for his pen and wrote Thoughts on Government . Paine, Adams observed to Abigail, displays more talent in tearing down government than in having any thought on how it should be set up. Drawing upon classical sources, Adams insisted that happiness is founded only in virtue, and the people’s capacity for virtue depends on the deliberate structure and administration of government, a government of institutions and laws and not simply of people acting on their own with neither rules nor restraints. Adams’s thoughts circulated throughout the thirteen colonies at a time when each was deciding on establishing its own state government.
On July 2, 1776, Adams was appointed to a five-man committee to frame resolutions that would announce: “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States.” How the actual draft of the Declaration of Independence came to be written by Jefferson remains unclear. Adams claimed he chose Jefferson as the better writer. Although Jefferson cannot remember Adams’s claim, the author did indeed compose a forceful and felicitous manifesto. And while Jefferson supplied the language that made the case for independence, Adams supplied the spoken words that persuaded the country to move bravely ahead. Appearing before the Second Continental Congress, Adams spoke with eloquence and conviction. One delegate described him as “the Atlas of American Independence.” Adams’s “power of thought and expression,” Jefferson wrote, “moved us from our seats.”
After the widespread enthusiasm that greeted the Declaration of Independence, a sense of gloom began to spread through the northern colonies. The smallpox epidemic worsened, leaving citizens and soldiers weak and in a panic searching for inoculation. Abigail nursed her own as well as neighbors’ children. Even more distressing was the news of defeats suffered by American soldiers on Long Island, the capture of New York, and members of Congress fleeing Philadelphia. About twenty thousand British troops and Hessian auxiliaries were landing on American shores. But in the fall of 1777, America took hope with the first victory at Saratoga and the dramatic surrender of General Burgoyne’s army. More encouraging was to hear that the retreating Gen. George Washington surprised everyone when he crossed the Delaware under darkness to seize a sleepy Hessian garrison. Days later he again struck at night, having quietly rowed back across the river, after leaving his campfires burning, to drive back British troops in New Jersey.
THE PURITAN DIPLOMAT IN PARIS
In the winter of 1777 to 1778, Adams agreed to join Arthur Lee and Ben Franklin on a commission to the Court of France to negotiate an alliance and seek financial aid. The voyage of three thousand miles took two months. It was also deadly dangerous. The north Atlantic crossing was treacherous at that time of year, and the ship could be captured by the British navy; Adams, as a leading rebel, could be tried for high treason and locked up in the Tower of London to await hanging. Abigail decided against going out of fear both parents might be captured, but she wanted their ten-year-old son Johnny to accompany his father. The boy (the future president John Quincy Adams) was eager to venture out into the seas and Abigail felt that his going out into the world was the best way to improve his understanding and sense of responsibility. Because of the many spies prowling around Boston, Adams and his son embarked secretly from Marblehead. British cruisers closed in on the American vessel, which outdistanced them due to the superior sailing skills of its captain. In the southern course a violent tropical storm hit the ship and shattered the mainmast. In his diary Adams wrote of “the ship, her motions, rollings, wringings, and agonies” and of the “devastation and purtrefaction” belowdecks.
John Adams always acknowledged his deep desire for recognition, and he would have had the chance to fulfill it in France had he not been so honest. “Le fameux Adams?” he was asked, leaving him wondering whether the French had in mind not him but his cousin Samuel, the notorious activist who joined artisans, riggers, and mechanics, the incendiary who gave the signal for the Boston Tea Party, the spark of the American Revolution. The French thought Adams too modest to accept the accolade, “C’est un homme célèbre.” They also thought him the author of Common Sense, reprinted in France with the author’s name dropped and all hostile references to monarchy dropped as well. In his diary, Adams recorded that the more he denied such popular fame, the more it eluded him, until finally, after his mission to France was assumed by Franklin, he felt “a man of whom nobody had ever heard before,—a perfect cipher; a man who does not understand a word of French; awkward in his figure, awkward in his dress; no abilities; a perfect bigot and fanatic.”
At first Adams enjoyed the attention of French nobles and countesses; he particularly valued meeting Madame la Marquise de Lafayette, whose husband was in America fighting alongside Washington, and dining with the great philosopher Condorcet and the financier Baron Turgot—thinkers with whom he would later clash over the proper framework of constitutional government. But when Adams met other commissioners, he sensed trouble. One lived lavishly in Paris at America’s expense; another brought his wife and children there with no intention of reporting to his post in Italy as minister to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Neither kept bills or records made for the purchase of weapons to be shipped to America. The more frugal Adams chose to move in with Ben Franklin at Passy, located modestly on the outskirts of the city.
It was not the first time that Adams shared quarters with Franklin. Years earlier they slept in the same room, and when Adams closed the windows tight before turning in, he would awake shivering to find that Franklin had opened them wide and, instead of allowing Adams to get back to sleep, Franklin would give him a lecture on the virtues of fresh air. Later when Franklin passed away, in 1790 at the age of eighty-four, Adams told Abigail that too much open air did him in.
Not only different sleeping habits separated the two. To onlooking Parisians, the two American statesmen seemed like the anxious Puritan exasperated by the ageless playboy. At seventy, the affable Franklin was thirty years older than the stern Adams, and the old man seemed to want to prove that sensuality is not the vice of the young alone. In his diary Adams grumbled about Franklin’s life of “continual dissipation,” which kept him in the company of les demi mondaines. Franklin would come home in the wee hours of the morning and was rarely up at breakfast to discuss the business of the day. Franklin’s many erotic involvements, perhaps exaggerated, became the talk of Paris. Franklin, the darling of French society, was the most famous American in Europe. People lined the streets when his carriage went by. With his coonskin cap, easy manners, scientific achievements, wise aphorisms, and clever puns, he stood as the image of the new America. Adams did not resent Franklin’s popularity or his libido, but the swirl of soirees seemed frivolous in view of the needs of revolutionary America.
In Paris Adams became his most irritable self, suspecting Franklin and others of plotting against him so they could take credit for winning a peace treaty. Adams thought France intended to keep America weak and dependent upon its ally; hence France’s support of restitution for the American Loyalists was far from a gesture of justice by a monarchist regime but designed to complicate things and prolong the war. Distrusting by nature, Adams faced a diplomacy of distrust. “No good diplomat in the eighteenth century would have suspended his suspiciousness,” wrote the historian James H. Hutson of the Treaty of 1783. Adams, less interested than Franklin in parties and more concerned about policies, had to work with the French diplomat Count de Vergennes, whose vague utterances and indirections only made Adams wonder what America could expect from France. Vergennes sought to deal secretly and supply America with aid unbeknownst to England, lest Parliament reconcile with the colonies and join America in driving France out of the New World. Moreover, Adams and Franklin were blind to what Vergennes knew and kept to himself—that some of the secretaries serving American commissioners were British spies. Vergennes was quite comfortable with secret diplomacy and its intrigues. Compared to the more amiable Franklin, Vergennes found Adams stubborn and impatient and tried to have him recalled to America. Monarchist France had little sympathy for the cause of republican liberty in America.
Although Adams sought financial assistance, he had no desire to see America become an instrument of French diplomatic and military aims. While he requested that France send as much of her fleet as possible to America’s coastal waters to cut off British supplies, he resisted any suggestion that French soldiers be allowed to fight on American soil. Nor would he accept a peace treaty with England unless accompanied by full recognition of American independence. England’s overriding interest was to bring the war to an end, and thereby retain Canada; France’s priority was to prolong it, thereby gaining revenge for its loss to England in the earlier French and Indian War, and to see England prostrated and forfeiting all its possessions in the New World. Adams courted England with the possibility of a postwar commercial treaty, knowing full well that a reunion of America and England was the last thing the French wished to see.
Vergennes preferred to deal with the more cooperative Franklin than the insistent Adams. English envoys in Paris, together with the Spanish ambassador, French diplomats, and American commissioners, thrashed out such issues as territorial claims to the Mississippi, fishing rights off of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the stability of American currency in view of debts, and the status of the Tories and the confiscation of their property. Adams insisted that the subject of the Loyalists was solely an American matter, and, since their properties had been confiscated by different states, Congress had no jurisdiction. Loyalists, Adams advised, would find life so unfriendly in postrevolutionary America, it would be better for them to remain in Canada and England.
In the summer of 1779, Adams returned to America and reported to Congress on the issues that remained to be negotiated. He also drafted a new constitution for Massachusetts, which was prefaced with a declaration of rights and prescribed the separation of power and a bicameral legislature. When Adams returned to Europe, he was appointed by Congress as minister plenipotentiary to negotiate the peace treaty. Even more than France, affluent Holland was where money could be had, and Adams departed for the Hague in October 1780, carrying with him instructions to negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce with the provinces of the Low Countries. The Dutch, though prosperous, had been unable to protect their merchant vessels from the English navy, and Adams had less trouble than he encountered in France in forming friendly connections with Amsterdam brokers and presenting America’s case. Dutch writers and intellectuals drew parallels between the revolt of the Low Countries and the revolt of the American colonies. For two years Adams remained in Holland, at times growing discouraged by the reluctance of the Dutch to commit to America. But in late November 1781 came the “glorious news” of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, the general of the English army in America, and soon a treaty of commerce was established and loans totaling 5,000,000 guilders were extended from prestigious financial houses. Upon his return to Paris, Adams was hailed for his accomplishments in Holland. Adams would regard the obtaining of loans and diplomatic recognition as the greatest political achievement of his life. To a friend he wrote: “The standard of the United States waves and flies at the Hague in triumph over … insolence and British pride.”Then the sin-struck Adams felt his ascension. “When I go to heaven,” he added, not bothering with an if, “I should look down over the battlements with pleasure upon the Stripes and Stars wantoning in the wind at the Hague.”
Its forces routed in America, England had no choice but to negotiate a peace settlement. Now the maneuvering began. Count de Vergennes claimed that America had already won its freedom from England and thus it was irrational to believe that independence should come ahead of the treaty itself. An effect, independence, cannot precede its cause, the treaty, reasoned the French diplomat. Strangely enough, the American Congress agreed with the French that a peace treaty need not stipulate acknowledgment of America’s independence. Dumbfounded, the outraged Adams threatened to resign and return home. Fortunately, Adams had the support of Franklin and the newly arrived diplomat John Jay. The three decided to ignore Congress and Vergennes and deal with the British on their own terms, making a separate treaty independently of France. Formal discussions began in the winter of 1782 and continued until the following fall. In the Treaty of Paris of 1783, it was declared: “His Britanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States … to be free, sovereign, and independent states.” The three American diplomats held their ground, insisting upon coastal fishing rights and conceding to Europe no territorial claims in America and to the Loyalists no compensation for property. The treaty was signed in a building that is presently part of the University of the Sorbonne, in the fashionable sixth arrondissement at 56, rue de Jacob.
Adams had experienced politics at the local level in Massachusetts, but diplomacy in Europe seemed an entirely different proposition, and from his reflections one can understand why later he would, when thinking about constitutional systems, put more trust in institutions than in men. “I will venture to say,” he wrote in his diary,
however feebly I may have acted my part, or whatever mistakes I may have committed, yet the situations I have been in, between angry nations and more angry factions, have been some of the most singular and interesting that ever happened to any man. The fury of enemies as well as of elements, the subtlety and arrogance of allies and, what has been worse than all, the jealousy, envy, and little pranks of friends and copatriots, would be one of the most instructive lessons in morals and politics that was ever committed to paper.
Adams may have lost his patience with compatriots as well as enemies. But with the help of Franklin and Jay, Adams accomplished something unique in U.S. history. What the Treaty of 1783 commemorated was not to be repeated in the twentieth century: America won both the war and the peace.
LEAVING PARIS WITH TRISTESSE
Adams’s last days in Paris were treasured for personal as well as political reasons. While the negotiations with England had been under way, Abigail, now thirty-nine, and daughter Abigail, nicknamed Nabby, had boarded ship to sail the Atlantic and rejoin the rest of the family. On a previous brief trip back to America, John returned with his son Charles, who, though at first fearful of the high seas, turned out to be as “stout a sailor” as his older brother John Quincy, who would make numerous trips across the Atlantic serving as an American diplomat.
But the vessel on which mother and daughter sailed reeked with whale oil and vomit, and in a storm off the Grand Banks bottles and plates crashed to the floor as passengers held fast to whatever was lashed down. Women on board had to put up with two cramped, airless cabins, while the larger number of men slept in a room that served as the mess hall. The dampness of the quarters affected Abigail’s rheumatism, and the meals were so revolting that often she would pitch in to prepare something more edible. When the weather improved, she left her quarters and began to “make a bustle,” as she put it, describing how she “soon exerted my authority with scrapers, mops, brushes, infusions of vinegar, etc. and in a few hours you would have thought you were on a different ship.”
Abigail started out terrified of the ocean, but during the crossing she sensed a certain sublimity watching the mysterious phosphorescence of the water at night. She wrote to her sister ecstatically of the “blazing ocean,” as dangerous as it was divine. “Great and marvelous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty.”
Mother and daughter landed in England and spent a few days in London where Adams, arriving from Holland, joined them before they crossed the channel to Calais and continued through the French countryside in a coach driven by six horses. Abigail and Nabby felt caught up in scenes from a Laurence Sterne narrative.
Adams was delighted to resettle in Paris, particularly in a spacious house with a garden located near the Bois de Boulogne. But at first Abigail and Nabby found Paris repugnant. At a loss with the language, they suspected coachmen and servants of trying to cheat them. French society seemed too leisurely and hedonistic, French women shameless in their flirtations and risque affairs, and even priests more promiscuous than pious. But the new environment grew on them, and Adams pointed out the delights of the city: the elegant gardens; broad, tree-lined boulevards; magnificent museums; and opera and theater. Abigail became fascinated by the exquisite poise and pace of French ballerinas, and Adams recalled years earlier sitting at the opera in a box next to the famous old philosopher Voltaire. When Adams was relocated to London in 1785, Abigail spoke the sentiments of the family when she wrote in a letter to Jefferson: “I think I have somewhere met with the observation that nobody ever leaves Paris but with a degree of tristesse.”