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 22, 2007

Samuel Adams’s Marital Advice

On 22 Nov 1780, Samuel Adams sent a letter from Philadelphia to Thomas Wells of Boston:

when I was last in Boston…I then consented that you should form the most intimate Connection with the dear Girl whom I pride myself in calling my Daughter. I did this with Caution and Deliberation; and having done it, I am now led to contemplate the Relation in which I am myself to stand with you, and I can [hardly] forbear the same Stile in this Letter, which I should take the Liberty to use if I was writing to her.

The Marriage State was designd to complete the Sum of human Happiness in this Life. It some times proves otherwise; but this is owing to the Parties themselves, who either rush into it without due Consideration, or fail in point of Discretion in their Conduct towards each other afterwards. It requires Judgment on both Sides, to conduct with exact Propriety; for though it is acknowledgd, that the Superiority is & ought to be in the Man, yet as the Management of a Family in many Instances necessarily devolves on the Woman, it is difficult always to determine the Line between the Authority of the one & the Subordination of the other.

Perhaps the Advice of the good Bishop of St. Asaph on another Occasion, might be adopted on this, and that is, not to govern too much. When the married Couple strictly observe the great Rules of Honor & Justice towards each other, Differences, if any happen, between them, must proceed from small & trifling Circumstances. Of what Consequence is it, whether a Turkey is brought on the Table boild or roasted? And yet, how often are the Passions sufferd to interfere in such mighty Disputes, till the Tempers of both become so sowerd, that they can scarcely look upon each other with any tolerable Degree of good Humor.
I dug this quote out of the hard drive because I liked Adams's remark about turkey. I was delighted to see that he wrote this letter 227 years ago today.


Koviak said...

Would you happen to know any info on the marriage? Children?

J. L. Bell said...

Samuel Adams married twice: to Elizabeth Checkley from 1749 to 1757, and to Elizabeth Wells from 1764 to his death in 1803.

The first Mrs. Samuel Adams had six children during her short marriage, and only two survived to adulthood. At the time, Samuel was having trouble finding the right career; he was trying business unsuccessfully before going into politics full-time. That doesn’t sound like a happy household to me, but we don’t have the sources to know how the couple coped.

We know more about the second Mrs. Samuel Adams, to whom he was married when he wrote this letter. She was alive during the Revolution, which was the first time Samuel left the Boston area for an extended time and therefore had reason to exchange letters to his wife. This couple had no children, but Elizabeth helped raise Samuel and Hannah, the surviving children of Samuel’s first marriage.

I’ve read some of the letters between Samuel and the second Elizabeth, as well as some from the son of the first Elizabeth to his stepmother. Husband and wife seem fond of each other and respectful, and the son seems respectful and caring.

These Adams letters don’t have the intellectual or emotional content of those between John and Abigail Adams, but few couples of the time wrote like those two.

Samuel Adams’s son died in 1788, only in his late thirties, so the only child who outlived him was Hannah, whom this letter refers to.

Mary Anne Fifield said...

where could i find information about the surviving child, Hannah Adams? i understand that i am her descendant. i am Mary Anne Fifield, one of many generations of Mary after his mother. thank you, maf

J. L. Bell said...

Probably the best starting-point for information is Samuel Wells’s biography of Adams, since that came from the family itself.