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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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?

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