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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Monday, September 04, 2023

“Strength, Spirit and Abilities so exhausted”

In the immediate aftermath of the Continental Congress’s vote for independence in early July 1776, almost all the Massachusetts delegation got sick.

As I wrote last month, on 15 July 1776 John Adams saw Elbridge Gerry off on a trip back to Massachusetts. Gerry was “worn out of of Health, by the Fatigues of this station,” Adams told his wife, Abigail.

To James Warren he wrote that Gerry “is obliged to take a Ride for his Health, as I shall be very soon or have none. God grant he may recover it for he is a Man of immense Worth.”

Eleven days later, Adams wrote to Warren more ominously:
My Health has lasted much longer, than I expected but at last it fails. The Increasing Heat of the Weather added to incessant application to Business, without any Intermissions of Exercise, has relaxed me, to such a degree that a few Weeks more would totally incapacitate me for any Thing. I must therefore return home.
And the next day:
I assure you the Necessity of your sending along fresh delegates, here, is not chimerical. [Robert Treat] Paine has been very ill for this whole Week and remains, in a bad Way. He has not been able to attend Congress, for several days, and if I was to judge by his Eye, his Skin, and his Cough, I should conclude he never would be fit to do duty there again, without a long Intermission, and a Course of Air, Exercise, Diet, and Medicine. In this I may be mistaken.

The Secretary [i.e., Massachusetts General Court clerk Samuel Adams], between you and me, is compleatly worn out. I wish he had gone home Six months ago, and rested himself. Then, he might have done it, without any Disadvantage. But in plain English he has been so long here, and his Strength, Spirit and Abilities so exhausted, that an hundred such delegates, here would not be worth a shilling.

My Case is worse. My Face is grown pale, my Eyes weak and inflamed, my Nerves tremulous, and my Mind weak as Water—fevourous Heats by Day and Sweats by Night are returned upon me, which is an infallible Symptom with me that it is Time to throw off all Care, for a Time, and take a little Rest. I have several Times with the Blessing of God, saved my Life in this Way, and am now determined to attempt it once more.

You must be very Speedy in appointing other Delegates, or you will not be represented here. Go home I will, if I leave the Massachusetts without a Member here.
I looked at Paine’s surviving correspondence from this month, and I don’t see him saying anything about being sick.

On 3 August, Gerry wrote back to both John and Samuel Adams from Massachusetts:
I have heard this Morning that Colo. Warren has received a Letter mentioning Mr. Pain’s Illness and your Intention to set off for N England in a fortnights’ Time; and that the Government would be unrepresented. I left Boston yesterday and the Letter had not then arrived, but Mr. [Benjamin] Edes mentions it as a Fact communicated to him by Colonel or rather Major General Warren and therefore I have no Doubt of it.

I should have been glad that You had tarryed untill my Return, as the Absence of so many at one Time will I fear be considered by the people as a discourageing Circumstance; but I shall at all Events Return in a Week or ten Days from hence notwithstanding It will be impossible in so short a Time to benefit much by the Journey, and to recover from a febrile State which the southern Climate has fixed upon me and within this Day or two I find increased.
On 12 August, Samuel Adams left Philadelphia. Gerry arrived back in that city by 6 September. Paine and John Adams never left.

Ironically, John Hancock, who was already becoming known for pleading ill health when he didn’t want to do something, was the one Massachusetts delegate who seems to have remained perfectly well in this period. And as chairman of the Congress, he had plenty of work to do.

Hancock did write to Thomas Cushing on 30 July: “I have Determin’d to move my Family to Boston the Beginning of September, and propose being there my self in all that month.” But that was probably because of his wife Dorothy’s health, not his own. She was pregnant with their first child.

The Massachusetts legislature didn’t send anybody new to the Continental Congress until 1777.

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