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, November 26, 2020

Abigail Adams’s Quiet Thanksgiving in 1798

On 29 Nov 1798, Abigail Adams sat down to an unusually small Thanksgiving dinner.

An autumn Thanksgiving feast was an important tradition in New England, and in October Massachusetts’s governor, Increase Sumner, issued a proclamation naming the date for that year.

But that holiday applied only within the state, not nationally. John Adams had gone back to work as President in Philadelphia.

Furthermore, all of Abigail and John’s children were also away from Quincy. Nabby Smith was with her husband and children in New York, as was Charles Adams with his wife and children. (Those spouses were also siblings, by the way.) John Quincy Adams was serving his father and country as minister to Russia, and he had taken baby brother Thomas Boylston Adams along as his secretary.

Abigail was thus facing an empty nest. She wrote to John:
This is our Thanksgiving day. when I look Back upon the year past, I perceive many, very many causes for thanksgiving, both of a publick and Private nature. I hope my Heart is not ungratefull, tho sad; it is usually a day of festivity when the social Family circle meet together tho seperated the rest of the year.

No Husband dignifies my Board, no Children add gladness to it, no Smiling Grandchildren Eyes to sparkle for the plumb pudding, or feast upon the mincd Pye. Solitary & alone I behold the day after a sleepless night, without a joyous feeling. am I ungratefull? I hope not.

Brother [Richard] Cranchs illness prevented Him and my sister [Mary] from joining me, & [Peter] Boylston Adams’s sickness confineing him to his House debared me from inviting your Brother & Family. I had but one resource, & that was to invite mr & mrs [David and Lydia] Porter to dine with me; and the two Families to unite in the Kitchin with Pheby the only surviving Parent I have, and thus we shared in the [“]Bounties of providence”
The Porters worked on the Adams estate. Phoebe Abdee had been enslaved to Abigail Adams’s father, the Rev. William Smith of Weymouth. After she became free, Adams hired her to help run the farm as well, but the phrase “the only surviving Parent I have” indicates how much more the woman meant to her. 

A New England Thanksgiving of this time always included a sermon. In the Quincy meetinghouse that was delivered by the Rev. Kilborn Whitman (1765-1835), who had left his pulpit in Pembroke in a disagreement over salary. But Abigail Adams didn’t attend:
I was not well enough to venture to meeting and by that means lost an excellent discourse deliverd by mr Whitman, upon the numerous causes of thankfullness and gratitude which we all have to the Great Giver of every perfect Gift; nor was the late Glorious Victory gained by Admiral Nelson over the French omitted by him, as in its concequences of Great importance in checking the mad arrogance of that devouring Nation.
By this point in her life Adams was quite comfortable talking about politics. Indeed, one senses she missed the oportunity to discuss foreign policy with her family over Thanksgiving dinner.

As for Whitman, the congregation invited him to become the partner and ultimate replacement for the Rev. Anthony Wibird, but the vote wasn’t unanimous and he wisely decided not to stay. Whitman was already studying the law and soon went into that profession instead, back in Pembroke.

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