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, June 01, 2017

John Adams and “the Art of lying together”

In his autobiography, John Adams recorded this anecdote under the heading of 2 April 1778. He was then in Bordeaux, France, on his first trip to Paris as a diplomat for the new U.S. of A.
One of the most elegant Ladies at Table, young and handsome, tho married to a Gentleman in the Company, was pleased to Address her discourse to me. Mr. [John] Bondfield [a Canadian who had joined the American cause] must interpret the Speech which he did in these Words “Mr. Adams, by your Name I conclude you are descended from the first Man and Woman, and probably in your family may be preserved the tradition which may resolve a difficulty which I could never explain. I never could understand how the first Couple found out the Art of lying together?”

Whether her phrase was L’Art de se coucher ensemble, or any other more energetic, I know not, but Mr. Bondfield rendered it by that I have mentioned.

To me, whose Acquaintance with Women had been confined to America, where the manners of the Ladies were universally characterised at that time by Modesty, Delicacy and Dignity, this question was surprizing and shocking: but although I believe at first I blushed, I was determined not to be disconcerted. I thought it would be as well for once to set a brazen face against a brazen face and answer a fool according to her folly, and accordingly composing my countenance into an Ironical Gravity I answered her “Madame My Family resembles the first Couple both in the name and in their frailties so much that I have no doubt We are descended from that in Paradise. But the Subject was perfectly understood by Us, whether by tradition I could not tell: I rather thought it was by Instinct, for there was a Physical quality in Us resembling the Power of Electricity or of the Magnet, by which when a Pair approached within a striking distance they flew together like the Needle to the Pole or like two Objects in electric Experiments.”

When this Answer was explained to her, she replied “Well I know not how it was, but this I know it is a very happy Shock.”

I should have added “in a lawfull Way” after “a striking distance,” but if I had her Ladyship and all the Company would only have thought it Pedantry and Bigottry.

This is a decent Story in comparison with many which I heard in Bourdeaux, in the short time I remained there, concerning married Ladies of Fashion and reputation.
Charles Francis Adams omitted the whole story when he edited his grandfather’s writings for publication in the middle of the Victorian era.

But John had shared the tale with his wife Abigail, and that lets us identify the French lady who so discomfited the Yankee diplomat.

TOMORROW: “One of the most elegant Ladies at Table.”

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