J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Abigail Adams and the Hand of Friendship

I started this series with Abigail Adams’s first impression of Gen. Charles Lee in early July 1775: she called him “a careless hardy veteran” who showed little personal elegance.

On 24 July, her husband John wrote to a friend about that side of Lee:
You observe in your Letter the Oddity of a great Man—He is a queer Creature—But you must love his Dogs if you love him, and forgive a Thousand Whims for the Sake of the Soldier and the Scholar.
That wasn’t really a complaint of the sort that Adams wrote the same day about John Dickinson and other colleagues in the Continental Congress, but it also wasn’t what one gentleman was supposed to say about another. Especially one who had just risked a fortune to offer his expertise to your army. And who had a history of dueling.

Those lines became public in August 1775. Fortunately for Adams, Lee laughed them off when he got around to addressing them on 5 October:
As you may possibly harbour some suspicions that a certain passage in your intercepted letters have made some disagreeable impressions on my mind I think it necessary to assure You that it is quite the reverse. Untill the bulk of Mankind is much alter’d I consider the reputation of being whimsical and eccentric rather as a panegyric than sarcasm and my love of Dogs passes with me as a still higher complement. I have thank heavens a heart susceptible of freindship and affection. I must have some object to embrace. Consequently when once I can be convincd that Men are as worthy objects as Dogs I shall transfer my benevolence, and become as staunch a Philanthropist as the canting Addison affected to be.

But you must not conclude from hence that I give into general misanthropy. On the contrary when I meet with a Biped endow’d with generosity valour good sense patriotism and zeal for the rights of humanity I contract a freindship and passion for him amounting to bigotry or dotage and let me assure you without complements that you yourself appear to me possess’d of these qualities. I give you my word and honour that I am serious, and should be unhappy to the greatest degree if I thought you would doubt of my sincerity. Your opinion therefore of my attainments as a Soldier and Scholar is extremely flattering. Long may you continue in this (to me) gratissimus error. But something too much of this.
Lee added in a postscript: “Spada sends his love to you and declares in very intellegible language that He has far’d much better since your allusion to him for He is carress’d now by all ranks sexes and Ages.” Spada was, of course, Lee’s favorite dog.

It came back to Abigail to cement that new bond between Gen. Lee and her husband. Toward the end of the year, John wrote from Philadelphia to urge her to pay a social call on Mary Morgan, wife of the new head of the Continental Army medical corps. Mrs. Morgan was staying with quartermaster general Thomas Mifflin and his wife in the William Brattle house in Cambridge.

On 10 December, Abigail reported back on her visit there, including another encounter with Washington, Lee, and their companions:
I was very politely entertaind and noticed by the Generals, more especially General Lee, who was very urgent with me to tarry in Town and dine with him and the Laidies present, at Hob Goblin Hall [the Isaac Royall house], but I excused my self.

The General was determined that I should not only be acquainted with him, but with his companions too, and therefore placed a chair before me into which he orderd Mr. Sparder to mount and present his paw to me for a better acquaintance. I could not do otherways than accept it.—That Madam says he is the Dog which Mr. . . . . . has renderd famous.
Almost certainly Lee had said “Mr. Adams,” reminding Abigail of her husband’s remarks. So of course she had no choice but to shake Mr. Spada’s paw and look like she was pleased to do so.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

“An object of nearly universal detestation”

After the royal authorities published the private letters they had captured on Benjamin Hichborn in August 1775, what was the fallout for the men who had written those letters?

Unfortunately for unabashed gossips, there aren’t a lot of good sources on Benjamin Harrison’s reaction. We can imagine that he quickly wrote another letter to Gen. George Washington promising that his earlier one had never really hinted that they might both enjoy a pretty washerwoman’s daughter. (If so, that follow-up letter doesn’t survive.)

It’s conceivable that Harrison volunteered to be part of the Continental Congress committee that met with Washington in Cambridge in October in order to confirm their personal relationship.

In November, Harrison was very insistent on having a ball in Philadelphia to honor Martha Washington, passing through the city on her way north. Was he so passionate because he wanted to make up for embarrassing her? That’s possible, but it’s also possible that Harrison had laughed off the publication of the falsified letter and just liked parties.

As for John Adams, the letters published over his initials had managed to denigrate most of the Congress in general, John Dickinson (shown above) in particular, and Gen. Charles Lee in passing. Printers in Philadelphia chose not to reprint the letters from the Boston News-Letter, but things were still pretty bad for a while. On 16 September Adams wrote in his diary:
Walking to the Statehouse this Morning, I met Mr. Dickinson, on Foot in Chesnut Street. We met, and passed near enough to touch Elbows. He passed without moving his Hat, or Head or Hand. I bowed and pulled off my Hat. He passed hautily by. The Cause of his Offence, is the Letter no doubt which Gage has printed in Drapers Paper.
And Dickinson wasn’t the only one snubbing Adams, according to the memoir of his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush:
It exposed him to the execrations of all the prudent and moderate people in America, insomuch that he was treated with neglect by many of his old friends. I saw this profound and enlightened patriot…walk our streets alone after the publication of his intercepted letter in our newspapers in 1775 an object of nearly universal detestation.
A British spy in Philadelphia named Gilbert Barkly reported that local Quakers had decided that Adams was dangerous to America; he also planned to push that sentiment along by circulating his own copies of the letters.

Adams might have told people he hadn’t written exactly what was published. In his autobiography decades later he said: “Irritated with the Unpoliteness of Mr. Dickinson and more mortified with his Success in Congress, I wrote something like what has been published. But not exactly. The British Printers made it worse, than it was in the Original.” And the originals are gone, so there’s no proof one way or the other.

But historians generally think that the Boston News-Letter quoted Adams accurately. Unlike the Harrison letter, there are no copies without the embarrassing lines. Adams never identified what bits he hadn’t written, but instead tried to justify one of the more controversial parts (as I quoted yesterday). Most tellingly, Adams had written quite similar things in previous letters, including two he’d sent the previous day.

Looking back, Adams claimed that the publication of his letters had actually benefited him, and he may have been right. For one thing, he liked to think of himself as unpopular because of his principled stands. At times he exaggerated the criticism and downplayed the support he received to justify that feeling. But in the summer of 1775, he could feel that way naturally.

Furthermore, the publication of the letters opened a public discussion on the possibility of independence, and raised his profile as an advocate for it. In his autobiography Adams even wrote that Joseph Reed had told him, “Providence seemed to have thrown these Letters before the Public for our good.”

Meanwhile, events were bending Adams’s way. Before copies of his letters arrived in London, the royal government had already declared all the colonies at the Congress to be in rebellion and rejected the Olive Branch petition. Thus, by the end of the year Dickinson’s moderate position had lost some credit and Adams’s advocacy of independent governments seemed smart.

In fact, on 1 Jan 1776, while Adams was back home in Massachusetts, the Boston Gazette reprinted the letters. Obviously, printer Benjamin Edes, working out of his temporary quarters in Watertown, didn’t view those documents as too awkward or scandalous to share with the world.

But there was still that comment about the “Oddity” of Gen. Lee.

TOMORROW: Abigail Adams extends the hand of friendship.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Dr. Hope and the Patriots’ “cruel oppressive sentiments”

Last month I wrote about a small collection of letters in the U.K. National Archives from army surgeon Richard Hope to relatives back home in England.

Among those letters is one dated 20 Aug 1775, which Dr. Hope sent with a page from the Boston News-Letter that printed three intercepted messages from Continental Congress delegates. That document is interesting in showing how that disclosure affected one observer inside Boston, and how he spread the word about evidence of the American Patriots’ true designs.

Hope wrote:
I inclose you a Boston news paper containing three letters there were intercepted in going from the Continental Congress at Philadelphia to the rebels headquarters at Cambridge in this province. The two last are from Mr. John Adams a violent son of liberty, an inflammatory seditious demagogue and leader of the infatuated people, and one of the Boston Delegates to the grand Congress.
I suspect the doctor had John Adams mixed up with his second cousin Samuel. In 1775 Samuel was known as an inflammatory popular leader while John’s profile was smaller. In fact, these intercepted letters probably went a long way to establishing John Adams’s reputation as a radical.

Hope continued:
The General [Thomas Gage] has above two hundred more of these letters in his hands which I suppose will be sent to the Ministry for their inspection; the two gentlemen who were bearing them we have prisoners. You will remark how cheap they hold poor old England, as she is not once mentioned; the universal opinion they entertain and propagate, is that Britain can not support the contest for six months, and look on the King’s troops here as their prisoners at will. I doubt not but they make a grand mistake in the reckoning, for should they attempt to force our lines, they will find so warm a reception and their losses so heavy as will make them heartily sick of the undertaking.

In the fifth paragraph of the last letter one may form a judgement of their cruel oppressive sentiments and resolves should success attend their arms.
That last comment referred to Adams’s questions to James Warren about a reestablished new Massachusetts government: “Will your new Legislative and Executive feel bold, or irresolute? Will your Judicial hang and whip, and fine and imprison, without Scruples?”

Decades later Adams (shown above about 1816) complained in his manuscript autobiography that this passage had been misread:
There were a few Expressions which hurt me, when I found the Ennemy either misunderstood them or willfully misrepresented them. The Expressions were Will your Judiciary Whip and hang without Scruple. This they construed to mean to excite Cruelty against the Tories, and get some of them punished with Severity. Nothing was farther from my Thoughts. I had no reference to Tories in this. But as the Exercise of Judicial Powers without Authority from the Crown, would be probably the most offensive Act of Government to Great Britain and the least willingly pardoned, my Question meant no more than “Will your Judges have fortitude enough to inflict the severe punishments when necessary as Death upon Murderers and other capital Criminals, and flaggellation upon such as deserve it.” Nothing could be more false and injurious to me, than the imputation of any sanguinary Zeal against the Tories, for I can truly declare that through the whole Revolution and from that time to this I never committed one Act of Severity against the Tories. On the contrary I was a constant Advocate for all the Mercy and Indulgence consistent with our Safety.
Of course, that line appeared in the same letter that said, “We ought…to have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston.” So one can see why Dr. Hope and others in 1775 didn’t perceive Adams to be full of “Mercy and Indulgence.”

TOMORROW: The fallout in Philadelphia.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

“Genuine Copies of the Intercepted Letters” in the Press

For the royal authorities in Boston, the letters that Benjamin Hichborn had carried from Philadelphia were the equivalent of today’s intercepted radio communications.

Those papers contained some sensitive information about the enemy’s army—for example, Virginia delegate Benjamin Harrison hinted that Gen. George Washington wasn’t fully impressed by his chief engineer, Col. Richard Gridley. And they laid bare the Continental Congress’s secret factionalism.

The British authorities decided to get even more value out of the documents by publicizing them. There was one newspaper left in Boston, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter published by Margaret Draper and John Howe (shown above, over four decades later). Its 17 August issue printed all three “Intercepted Letters,” noting that the first was signed by Harrison while the second was unsigned but in the same handwriting as the third, to Abigail Adams from her husband.

The documents offered Loyalists and British observers evidence to confirm the most dire warnings about the American radicals: Adams’s clear statement that he believed his side should already have “arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages.”

There were also hints of private misdeeds. On the way to the press, someone apparently juiced up the Harrison letter by adding lines about an interrupted dalliance with “pretty little Kate the Washer-woman’s Daughter over the Way,” and a hint that Harrison was happy to share her with Washington himself. I discussed that passage back here. It was probably included to embarrass and discredit the commander-in-chief.

Finally, the published letters let everyone in America see John Adams writing about his colleagues with contempt, especially “A certain great Fortune and piddling Genius.” I don’t know if folks in Massachusetts realized that meant John Dickinson, but politicians in Philadelphia certainly did. And the British evidently didn’t have to change a word of Adams’s prose to get that point across.

TOMORROW: Dr. Hope shares the news with the folks back home.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

“Treason! Rebellion! Massacre!”

To be fair to Benjamin Hichborn, there’s no evidence that he’d read the letters he was delivering to Massachusetts for John Adams and Benjamin Harrison (and delivered right into the hands of the Royal Navy on 31 July 1775).

Hichborn no doubt hoped those documents were important, because that would make himself more important. But he probably thought their rhetoric was typical for American Patriots in mid-1775.

Hichborn was therefore shocked by Capt. James Ayscough’s reaction to what he’d been carrying. Here’s how he described it months later [with paragraph breaks thrown in]:
My first interview with Ayscough, after his discovery of the Letters, I think worth relating—(if I had been subject to fits, I am sure he wou’d have thrown me into the most violent Convulsions)— “Oh the damn’d, black, hellish, bloody Plots contained in these Letters!

Pray Capt. Ayscough what do they contain?

Oh too shocking to relate! Treason! Rebellion! Massacre! (then beating his breast, with the most unnatural distortions of his face and body) O my God! It makes my blood run cold to think on it.

For God’s sake, Capt: Ayscough, if you have any compassion for my feelings, tell me what you mean.

Oh! (beating his breast again) it chilled the very blood in my veins when I read them. There is a plan laid to seize and massacre all the Officers and Friends of Goverment and all the Churchmen [i.e., Anglicans] upon the Continent in one Night. Pray Gentlemen is it a fair question, to ask if you are Churchmen?

(Mr. [Anthony Walton?] White said he was, I told him I was not.)

Such cruel, black designs, never before entered the heart of Man!

But Capt. Ayscough, are you not mistaken?

Oh I read them over and over again.

I am not disposed to question your veracity, but if I had read it myself I woud not believe it. Pray Sir, whose signature do they bear?

They are all signed John Adams.
In fact Adams had not written about a plan “seize and massacre all the Officers and Friends of Goverment and all the Churchmen upon the Continent in one Night.” He had merely written that the Patriots should “have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston.” So the captain did have a reason to feel alarmed.

Ayscough brought Hichborn around Cape Cod and into Boston harbor (shown above in 1764). On 5 August 1775, Gen. George Washington wrote to the Continental Congress:
I have this Morning been alarmed with an Information that two Gentlemen from Philada [(]Mr Hitchbourn & Capt. White) with Letters for General [Charles] Lee & mylf have been taken by Capt. Ayscough at Rhode Island, the Letters intercepted & sent forward to Boston with the Bearers as Prisoners. That the Captain exulted much in the Discoveries he had made & my Informer who was also in the Boat but released understood them to be the Letters of Consequence. . . . I shall be anxious till I am relieved from the Suspence I am in as to the Contents of those Letters.
Alas, I don’t know who Washington’s informant “also in the Boat but released” was.

In fact, the letters Ayscough turned over to his superiors weren’t that important, in the sense of containing vital orders or intelligence that Washington needed. But they did have consequences.

TOMORROW: Mrs. Draper’s press.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

“By such a mere accident as this”

Yesterday we left Benjamin Hichborn on the Royal Navy ship Swan, commanded by Capt. James Ayscough, on the way to Rhode Island. Hichborn had taken it upon himself to carry letters to Massachusetts for two Continental Congress delegates, and he didn’t want the British authorities to find them.

Of course, Hichborn had already passed by opportunities to keep quiet about those letters, to travel more safely by land, and to toss the letters overboard at the first sign of trouble. But he didn’t want to let go of those letters, which would be proof of how reliable he was.

At first, Hichborn later wrote, things seemed to be all right. Capt. Ayscough treated him and his traveling companion, Anthony Walton (?) White, with polite deference. But the next day, the captain had become suspicious and hostile. Hichborn guessed that another traveler, clerk to a Loyalist merchant, had reported that he and White were traveling to aid the rebel cause—which they were, and had probably boasted about. By the second evening, the captain put a guard over those two young men.

Hichborn could still have kept the letters secret. Nobody had yet searched him or his belongings. He came up with what he thought was a clever ruse:
my plan I thought was compleat and ensured me success; I had provided a couple of blank letters directed to General [George] Washington and Coll. [James] Warren, which in Case [the clerk] Stone shoud acknowledge himself the Informer and confront me with his declaration, I intended to deliver them up with seeming reluctance and pretend I had concealed them through fear.
But he never put that plan into action.

Instead, Capt. Ayscough rendezvoused with H.M.S. Rose under Capt. James Wallace, which was patrolling Narragansett Bay. As Ayscough prepared to transfer his two prisoners and their baggage onto Wallace’s ship, Hichborn had another brainstorm:
Just as the boat was preparing to carry our baggage on board Capt. Wallace for examination a Gentleman who came passenger with us from New York sent on board for a trunk which we thro’ mistake had taken for our own, this circumstance looked so favourable that I coud not avoid seizing [it] to get the letters on shore. I opened the trunk with my own key, put the letters in the folds of the Gentlemans Linen and with some difficulty locked it again, when the trunk came upon deck the Lieutenant mistook it for mine put it into the boat with the rest of our things and rowed off immediately on board the other Ship. By such a mere accident as this did the letters fall into their Hands.
Simply because Hichborn had claimed that trunk as his own, had control of it belowdecks, and even had a key that opened it, the naval officers wouldn’t just send it off to the man from New York as Hichborn asked them to. Really the whole situation was unforeseeable.

Soon naval officers searched that trunk and found letters from two Continental Congress delegates, one from Benjamin Harrison speaking in detail about troops, gunpowder, and fighting in Virginia and one from John Adams saying:
We ought to have had in our Hands a Month ago, the whole Legislative, Executive and Judicial of the whole Continent, and have compleatly moddelled a Constitution, to have raised a Naval Power and opened all our Ports wide, to have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston.
Not surprisingly, the British authorities thought that was treasonous. They put Hichborn under arrest and confined him to a warship in Boston harbor.

TOMORROW: And royal officials decided to make use of those letters.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Benjamin Hichborn’s Delivery Service

In late July 1775, twenty-nine-year-old lawyer Benjamin Hichborn set off from Philadelphia for his home province of Massachusetts, proudly carrying three letters from Continental Congress delegates. Those letters would, he’d insisted, show that he had the confidence of Patriot leaders.

I suspect that Hichborn met up with Anthony Walton White (1750-1803, shown here), son of a New Jersey merchant who was seeking an appointment in the Continental Army. On 27 July, White obtained a recommendation letter from George Clinton of New York addressed to the new commander-in-chief, George Washington, so the timing fits. Hichborn later referred to his traveling companion only as “Mr. White.”

In the summer of 1775 it was very easy for a gentleman of means to travel in the American colonies. The royal army was almost entirely concentrated in Boston. The land war hadn’t spread beyond that region to make the roads treacherous. The Royal Navy had unchallenged control of the sea, but Hichborn could simply have stuck to a land route.

Which he didn’t.

Instead, as he wrote later that year:
When we came to New York, contrary to our expectations, we found a packet-boat waiting for Passengers, and in the opinion of every one there was not the least danger in crossing the [Long Island] Sound, we accordingly took passage for New-Port…
Hichborn could probably still have made his way to Rhode Island by sea unmolested if he kept a low profile, not telling anyone about the documents he was carrying. As a gentleman, he wasn’t likely to be subjected to close scrutiny.

But he didn’t.

Instead, Hichborn let on to a man named “Stone, (a person who formerly was Clerk to Henry Lloyd, and came passenger with us from New York),” that he had letters to Gen. Washington and James Warren, leader of Massachusetts legislature. Stone’s employer, Lloyd, was widely known as a Boston Loyalist. (Interestingly, two months earlier Lloyd had been worried about the security of his own mail.)

Sure enough, the packet boat carrying Hichborn, White, and Stone was stopped by the British warship Swan under the command of Capt. James Ayscough. However, the captain assured the young gentlemen that he was simply impressing sailors. Hichborn could still have kept the letters away from the British authorities by tossing them overboard in the night, and indeed he wrote of how he later “loaded them with money of the least value I had about me intending to drop them over board in the Evening.”

But he never did.

After all, if Hichborn were to come back to Massachusetts with no letters, he’d have no evidence that the Congress delegates trusted him.

TOMORROW: Benjamin Hichborn’s clever schemes.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

“It would give him the Appearance of having my Confidence”

When John Adams wrote those cranky letters from Philadelphia that I quoted yesterday, he had someone looking over his shoulder: a young lawyer named Benjamin Hichborn (1746-1817).

Hichborn was a cousin of Paul Revere, but he came from a branch of the family that was already upwardly mobile. He had attended Harvard, graduating in 1768, and then gone to work as a clerk for the Boston lawyer Samuel Fitch.

Fitch was a Loyalist. This should not have been a surprise to Hichborn since Fitch was already accepting royal appointments in the Vice Admiralty courts in 1768. Then he signed the complimentary farewell address to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson in 1774 and stayed in Boston during the siege.

Fitch’s actions made Hichborn’s political allegiance suspect. Or at least he said so. It might have helped if he’d been politically active before the war, like a couple of his older relatives, but I don’t see his name anywhere prominent. So Hichborn went to Philadelphia to prove his dedication to liberty.

As Adams remembered the situation decades later:
A young Gentleman from Boston, Mr. Hitchbourne, whom I had known as a Clerk in Mr. Fitch’s office, but with whom I had no Particular connection or Acquaintance, had been for some days soliciting me, to give him Letters to my Friends in the Massachusetts. I was so much engaged in the Business of Congress in the day time and in consultations with the Members on Evenings and Mornings that I could not find time to write a Line.

He came to me at last and said he was immediately to sett off, on his Journey home, and begged I would give him some Letters. I told him I had not been able to write any. He prayed I would write if it were only a Line to my Family, for he said, as he had served his Clerkship with Mr. Fitch he was suspected and represented as a Tory, and this Reputation would be his ruin, if it could not [be] corrected, for nobody would employ him at the Bar. If I would only give him, the slightest Letters to any of my Friends, it would give him the Appearance of having my Confidence, and would assist him in acquiring what he truly deserved the Character of a Whigg.

To get rid of his importunity, I took my Penn, and wrote a very few Lines to my Wife and about an equal Number to General James Warren.
Actually, Adams also included Hichborn on a short list of young Massachusetts men he hoped Warren could find appointments for.

One might think that Adams, facing a young man whom he barely knew and whose political loyalty was so debatable, would send him off with some innocuous correspondence. Adams had just written to his wife and his friend Warren, so he didn’t really have to say more to them. But maybe that was the trouble—trying to think of stuff he hadn’t already written.

In any event, in his “very few Lines” for Hichborn to carry, Adams managed to say impolitic things about John Dickinson, Charles Lee, and most of his colleagues in the Continental Congress, and also to advocate for radical measures that he and his Massachusetts colleagues were still publicly disavowing.

Adams wasn’t the only delegate to entrust Hichborn with letters. Benjamin Harrison (shown above in a miniature owned by the Virginia Historical Society) also gave him a letter to carry to Massachusetts, in his case to his fellow Virginian Gen. George Washington.

TOMORROW: And how did Hichborn carry out that task?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

John Adams and “the Oddity of a great Man”

Abigail Adams wasn’t the only person reporting to her husband John about public reaction in Massachusetts to the arrival of Gen. George Washington and Gen. Charles Lee in early July 1775.

Legislative leader James Warren was another Adams confidant. On 7 July he wrote:
General Lee I have seen but a Minute. He appears to me a Genius in his way. He had the Marks about him of haveing been in the Trenches. I heartily rejoice at the Appointment of these two Generals, and I dare say it will give you pleasure to hear that every Body seems to be satisfied with it. I have not heard a single word Uttered against it. This is more than I Expected with regard to the second, since their Arrival everything goes well in the Army.
Lee’s appointment had been more controversial in Philadelphia than Washington’s. Though he had become well known as a pamphleteer for the American colonial cause and as a military expert, he was still widely considered an Englishman and therefore a curious choice to be third-in-command of the Continental Army. And Lee’s eccentric personal style didn’t help.

On 24 July, Adams sat down to write back to Warren. He had written just the previous day, but a young man was pressing him to write some more. So he wrote a bunch more, including this about Gen. Lee:
You observe in your Letter the Oddity of a great Man—He is a queer Creature—But you must love his Dogs if you love him, and forgive a Thousand Whims for the Sake of the Soldier and the Scholar.
Warren hadn’t actually said much about Lee’s “Oddity,” but it’s possible that by then Adams had received Abigail’s letter of the 16th and had her comments about his lack of outward “Elegance” on his mind. (According to the editors of the Adams Papers, William Tudor’s 19 July letter from Cambridge had reached Adams four days later, so it was possible for mail to move that quickly.)

In any event, Adams wrote about Lee with admiration but what some might consider an impolite frankness. But that’s no surprise since he’d started his message to Warren:
In Confidence,—I am determined to write freely to you this Time.—A certain great Fortune and piddling Genius whose Fame has been trumpeted so loudly, has given a silly Cast to our whole Doings…
That comment was about John Dickinson, a wealthy and well regarded Pennsylvania delegate resisting more radical measures.

That same day, Adams also sent a reply to Abigail, which managed to remain polite all the way until the postscript:
I wish I had given you a compleat History from the Beginning to the End of the Journey, of the Behaviour of my Compatriots.—No Mortal Tale could equal it.—I will tell you in Future, but you shall keep it secret.—The Fidgets, the Whims, the Caprice, the Vanity, the Superstition, the Irritability of some of us, is enough to—
He didn’t need to finish that sentence for her.

And then John Adams gave those two letters to Benjamin Hichborn, a young lawyer, to carry back home to Massachusetts.

TOMORROW: And how did that go?

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Request to John Adams

In the same long letter from Abigail Adams that I quoted yesterday, she included these personal messages from the children to their father:
Our little ones send Duty to pappa. You would smile to see them all gather round mamma upon the reception of a letter to hear from pappa, and Charls with open mouth, What does par say—did not he write no more. And little Tom says I wish I could see par.

Upon Mr. [Nathan] Rice’s going into the army he asked Charls if he should get him a place, he catchd at it with great eagerness and insisted upon going. We could not put him of, he cryed and beged, no obstical we could raise was sufficent to satisfy him, till I told him he must first obtain your consent. Then he insisted that I must write about it, and has been every day these 3 weeks insisting upon my asking your consent. At last I have promised to write to you, and am obliged to be as good as my word.
At this time, Charles was five. (He’s shown above, considerably older though still in his youth.)

John Adams sent “Love to the children” in some of his letters home that month, but never specifically addressed this request.