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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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Quizzing John Adams: The Answers

Yesterday I offered thumbnail descriptions of four dramatic moments in episode 3 of the John Adams miniseries, and asked which of them never actually happened to John Adams. Here they are again, with documentation for my answers.

  • On his first trip to Europe as a diplomat for the U.S. of A., John’s ship met an armed British vessel. The American captain asked John to go below for his own safety, but he quietly came back up on deck with his gun.
That anecdote was published as early as 1822 in Hezekiah Niles’s Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America and repeated in A Selection of Eulogies, Pronounced in the Several States, in Honor of Those Illustrious Patriots and Statesmen, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, published in Hartford in 1826:
[Capt. Samuel] Tucker saw a large English ship showing a tier of guns, and asked Mr Adams’ consent to take her; this was granted. Upon hailing her, she answered by a broadside. Mr. Adams had been requested to retire to the cock-pit—but Tucker looking forward, observed Mr. Adams among the marines, with a musket in his hand, having privately applied to the officer of the marines for a gun, and taking his station among them.

At this sight, Capt. Tucker became alarmed, for he was responsible for the safety of Mr. Adams, and walking up to the ambassador, desired to know how he came there; upon which the other smiled, gave up his gun, and went immediately below.
The miniseries showed John sneaking back up to the deck with his own gun, and even firing the first shot of the encounter. What really happened wasn’t that dramatic, but John did go on deck to help in the fight. The other vessel was not a Royal Navy warship but an armed merchantman, and Capt. Tucker was able to cow its captain into surrendering without much resistance.

  • John assisted during an emergency shipboard surgery, helping to hold down a wounded man while his leg was sawed off.
From John Adams’s autobiography, describing an event between 11 and 20 Mar 1778:
Mr. Barrons our first Lieutenant, attempting to fire a Gun as a Signal to the Brigg, the Cannon burst, and tore in pieces the right leg of this worthy officer so that the Surgeon was obliged to amputate it, a little below the Knee.

I was present at this afflicting Scene, and, together with Captain Tucker, held Mr. Barron in our Arms, while the Doctor put on the Turnequett and cutt off the Limb. Mr. Barron bore it with fortitude, but thought he should die, and his principal concern seemed to be for his family.
The miniseries showed a man wounded in the sea skirmish mentioned above, and the amputation taking place as the fighting goes on. John’s autobiography is clear that Barron was wounded at least two days later as a cannon burst during a salute to a friendly ship. Once again, John really did have this experience, but the television script altered details to make it even more dramatic. (As for Mr. Barron, he didn’t survive.)

  • During his posting in Paris, John was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the Congress had appointed Franklin as the first American minister plenipotentiary to France.
John had actually recommended that Congress name Franklin to this ambassadorial post, so the news did not come as a surprise to him. On 12 Feb 1779 he wrote in his diary:
But this Day, Dr. Winship arrived here, from Brest, and soon afterwards, the Aid du Camp of Le Marquis de Fayette, with Dispatches, from Congress, by which it appears that Dr. Franklin is sole Plenipotentiary, and of Consequence that I am displaced.

The greatest Relief to my Mind, that I have ever found since the Appearance of the Address [by Silas Deane]. Now Business may be done by Dr. Franklin alone. Before it seemed as if nothing could be done.
But just because Franklin’s appointment wasn’t a surprise doesn’t mean it was pleasant. Over the next week John tried writing at least five letters to Abigail, and only on 20 February managed to express the news and what he really felt about it:
A new Commission has arrived by which the Dr. [i.e., Franklin] is sole Minister. Mr. [Arthur] Lee continues Commissioner for Spain, but I am reduced to the Condition of a private Citizen. The Congress has not taken the least Notice of me. On the 11. of September they resolved to have one Minister only in France, on the 14 they chose the Dr., in October they made out his Commission, the Alliance sailed in 14 Jany. and in all that Interval, they never so much as bid me come home, bid me stay, or told me I had done well or done ill.
Soon John sailed back home to Massachusetts, only to return to Europe before the end of the year to start negotiating a peace treaty with Britain. The miniseries left out that round trip, presumably to simplify its story.

  • Because he could speak French, John Quincy Adams was made secretary to the U.S. minister to Russia, which entailed traveling more than a thousand miles across Europe, even though he was only fourteen years old.
John Quincy was born 11 July 1767. Here’s a portion of his letter from St. Petersburg in September 1781 to his old tutor John Thaxter:
We arriv’d here the 16th of August old stile, (which is universally used yet, all over this Country;) having left Berlin, the 2d. of the same month, new stile, and rode the whole way, day and night, stopping only at the principal towns which lay in our way, viz: at Dantzic, three days, at Konigsberg, one, at Memel, one night, at Riga, four days, and at Narva, two: between these places, which are distant from one another, from one to four hundred English Miles there is hardly a Village to be seen. The whole route from Berlin here may be call’d a barren desart...
At fourteen years old, John Quincy was at the age when Boston boys left the town schools (if they attended at all) and started work in their chosen professions or went to that college in Cambridge. John Quincy and his younger brother Charles had already begun studying at the University of Leyden in January 1781. So the Adamses didn’t consider it odd to send their son away so young. Nonetheless, all the way to Russia was quite a distance.

Shown above is a handsome embroidered waistcoat owned by Francis Dana, the dipomat John Quincy accompanied to Russia. Dana family tradition says he brought it to wear when he presented his credentials to Catherine the Great. However, the czarina, hedging her bets about this new republic in North America, never granted him an audience. Dana, the waistcoat, and John Quincy returned after a few frustrating months. In 1809, President James Madison appointed John Quincy Adams the U.S. minister plenipotentiary to Russia, and this time he was received. As for the waistcoat, it became part of the collections of the Longfellow House in Cambridge.

So as I score this quiz, only one of the four dramatic moments I described never happened. A couple more were goosed up a little. But John Adams really did have a dramatic life.

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