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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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Abigail Adams and the Hand of Friendship

I started this series with Abigail Adams’s first impression of Gen. Charles Lee in early July 1775: she called him “a careless hardy veteran” who showed little personal elegance.

On 24 July, her husband John wrote to a friend about that side of 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.
That wasn’t really a complaint of the sort that Adams wrote the same day about John Dickinson and other colleagues in the Continental Congress, but it also wasn’t what one gentleman was supposed to say about another. Especially one who had just risked a fortune to offer his expertise to your army. And who had a history of dueling.

Those lines became public in August 1775. Fortunately for Adams, Lee laughed them off when he got around to addressing them on 5 October:
As you may possibly harbour some suspicions that a certain passage in your intercepted letters have made some disagreeable impressions on my mind I think it necessary to assure You that it is quite the reverse. Untill the bulk of Mankind is much alter’d I consider the reputation of being whimsical and eccentric rather as a panegyric than sarcasm and my love of Dogs passes with me as a still higher complement. I have thank heavens a heart susceptible of freindship and affection. I must have some object to embrace. Consequently when once I can be convincd that Men are as worthy objects as Dogs I shall transfer my benevolence, and become as staunch a Philanthropist as the canting Addison affected to be.

But you must not conclude from hence that I give into general misanthropy. On the contrary when I meet with a Biped endow’d with generosity valour good sense patriotism and zeal for the rights of humanity I contract a freindship and passion for him amounting to bigotry or dotage and let me assure you without complements that you yourself appear to me possess’d of these qualities. I give you my word and honour that I am serious, and should be unhappy to the greatest degree if I thought you would doubt of my sincerity. Your opinion therefore of my attainments as a Soldier and Scholar is extremely flattering. Long may you continue in this (to me) gratissimus error. But something too much of this.
Lee added in a postscript: “Spada sends his love to you and declares in very intellegible language that He has far’d much better since your allusion to him for He is carress’d now by all ranks sexes and Ages.” Spada was, of course, Lee’s favorite dog.

It came back to Abigail to cement that new bond between Gen. Lee and her husband. Toward the end of the year, John wrote from Philadelphia to urge her to pay a social call on Mary Morgan, wife of the new head of the Continental Army medical corps. Mrs. Morgan was staying with quartermaster general Thomas Mifflin and his wife in the William Brattle house in Cambridge.

On 10 December, Abigail reported back on her visit there, including another encounter with Washington, Lee, and their companions:
I was very politely entertaind and noticed by the Generals, more especially General Lee, who was very urgent with me to tarry in Town and dine with him and the Laidies present, at Hob Goblin Hall [the Isaac Royall house], but I excused my self.

The General was determined that I should not only be acquainted with him, but with his companions too, and therefore placed a chair before me into which he orderd Mr. Sparder to mount and present his paw to me for a better acquaintance. I could not do otherways than accept it.—That Madam says he is the Dog which Mr. . . . . . has renderd famous.
Almost certainly Lee had said “Mr. Adams,” reminding Abigail of her husband’s remarks. So of course she had no choice but to shake Mr. Spada’s paw and look like she was pleased to do so.

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