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, April 03, 2008

Meanwhile, Back Home in Braintree

Because the John Adams miniseries was busy last Sunday following John’s diplomatic missions in Europe (and skipping a lot of time along the way), it didn’t portray what Abigail Adams and her eldest daughter, nicknamed Nabby, were doing back home in Braintree.

On 23 Dec 1782, Abigail wrote to John that a young lawyer had moved to town, and he was starting to pay attention to Nabby, then seventeen years old. After Abigail told him that “he was not yet Established in Buisness sufficient to think of a connection with any one,” the young man replied in a note:

I can only say that the second impulse in my Breast is my Love and respect for you; and it is the foible of my nature to be the machine of those I Love and venerate. Do with me as seemeth good unto thee. I can safely trust my dearest fondest wishes and persuits in the hands of a Friend that can feel, that knows my situation and her designs.
Obviously, this fellow was doing his best to flatter Abigail. And that’s not all. Through her, he also flattered John, as Abigail passed on this anecdote:
The other day the gentleman I have been speaking of; had a difficult writ to draw. He requested the favour of looking into your Book of [legal] forms, which I readily granted; in the Evening when he returned me the key he put in to my hands a paper which I could not tell what to make of; untill he exclaimed “O! Madam Madam, I have new hopes that I shall one day become worthy your regard. What a picture have I caught of my own Heart, my resolutions, my designs! I could not refrain breaking out into a Rhapsody. I found this coppy of a Letter in a pamphlet with observations upon the study of the Law and many excellent remarks; you will I hope forgive the theft, when I deliver the paper to you; and you find how much benifit I shall derive from it.”
On 22 Jan 1783, John, contrary as always, wrote back:
A Lawyer would be my Choice, but it must be a Lawyer who spends his Midnights as well as Evenings at his Age over his Books not at any Ladys Fire side. I Should have thought you had seen enough to be more upon your Guard than to write Billets upon such a subject to such a youth. A Youth who has been giddy enough to Spend his Fortune or half his Fortune in Gaieties, is not the Youth for me, Let his Person, Family, Connections and Taste for Poetry be what they will. I am not looking out for a Poet, nor a Professor of belle Letters.
He added, “I dont like this method of Courting Mothers.” The next month he declared:
That Frivolity of Mind, which breaks out into Such Errors in Youth, never gets out of the Man but Shews itself in some mean Shape or other through Life. You seem to me to have favoured this affair much too far, and I wish it off.
In April, Abigail assured John, “certain reasons which I do not chuse to enumerate here, have led me to put a present period [i.e., end], as far as advise and desires would go, to the Idea of a connection.” Yet by June she was again starting to plead the young man’s case:
Yet nothing unbecomeing the Character which I first entertaind has ever appeard in this young Gentleman since his residence in this Town, and he now visits in this family with the freedom of an acquaintance, tho not with the intimacy of a nearer connection.

It was the request of Emelia [i.e., Nabby] who has conducted with the greatest prudence, that she might be permitted to see and treat this Gentleman as an acquaintance whom she valued. “Why said she should I treat a Gentleman who has done nothing to forfeit my Esteem, with neglect or contempt, merely because the world have said, that he entertained a preferable regard for me? If his foibles are to be treated with more severity than the vices of others, and I submit my judgment and opinion to the disapprobation of others in a point which so nearly concerns me, I wish to be left at liberty to act in other respects with becomeing decency.”

And she does and has conducted so as to meet with the approbation of all her Friends.
At the end of 1783, John thought he’d found a way to handle the situation. Now that he’d helped negotiate peace between Britain and America, the ocean was safe enough for Abigail to cross; she would join him in Europe and bring Nabby with her. But after receiving an October letter in which Abigail once again praised the young man and described her daughter’s continuing interest, John wrote on 25 Jan 1784:
If Miss Nabby is attached, to Braintre, and you think, upon Advizing with your Friends, her Object worthy, marry her if you will and leave her with her Companion in your own House...
Twelve days before, the lawyer had written his own letter to John asking for his approval to marry Nabby. In April, John sent the young man his blessing, but by then Abigail and Nabby had decided that they would both go to Europe. They sailed in June.

Having finally won over both Abigail and John, the young man then managed to send Nabby only four letters in the first year she was away from home. She broke off the relationship.

In June 1786, Nabby Adams married Col. William Stephens Smith, secretary to the American diplomatic mission in London. (The miniseries leaves out Nabby’s travels, and shows her meeting Smith only after he accompanies her father back home to America.)

The unsuccessful suitor left Braintree, taking with him the earliest volume of John Adams’s diary. He was Royall Tyler, and he became America’s first significant playwright, a bestselling novelist, and eventually chief justice of the state of Vermont. However, John Adams’s first, distant impression of him was probably correct.

1 comment:

Chaucerian said...

Well told! At first, I was thinking, well, John Adams just doesn't like not being the center of attention and not being the decider, silly him. But at the end, I'm thinking, Wow! Narrow escape! O wise John Adams!