Adams Papers

Abigail Smith to Cotton Tufts, 2 April 1764

Abigail Smith to Cotton Tufts

Weymouth April th 2. 1764

Dear Unkle1

I should not have been unmindful of you, even tho you had not call’d upon me to exert myself. I should be the most ungrateful of Mortals, if I did not always with Gratitude remember so kind a Benefactor, as you have been to me both in Sickness, and in Health.

How often has your kind hand supported me when I was more helpless than an Infant. How often have you revived me by your Vital Heat? And for how many Nights lodging am I indebted to you? Fain would I repay you, tho not in kind now. I fancy you are by this time too infectious for a Being of purity, to wish for any Communication with you. How do you feel? I think you are in good Spirits, at which I rejoice.2

Our friend3 thinks you dieted too low. Says you look’d as if a puff of wind would have blown you off your Horse, and that He could see through you, (which by the way is more than every one can) wants to hear how you fare, before he begins Lent. We have almost brought him over to the faith, tho’ he still continues some what doubtful. Says if he was to follow his own judgment, he should not go into the method prescribed, but since his Friends advise other ways he will Submit. This looks like a pretty hopeful Speach, I wonder if one may not improve upon such a Heart? I expect nothing more from you, than saying, it is a good example Child, and if you value your own happiness you will in many cases follow it. Aye it may be so, but we wont dispute that point now.

Inclosed you will find two very curious Letters. I have had some doubt whether it would be best to send one of them, for indeed tis a very Saucy one, but tis in Character I believe—and Nature I suppose you will say.

I shall send them by Mr. Eyers [Ayers] that you may have opportunity to see Dr. Perkins4 and more leisure for writing, than you would have if I waited till thursday when Tom5 will be down.

I see the Good Man has given you some account of himself. He will have it that he is temperate in all things, but I know Doctor you understand his constitution better than to believe him, tho you need not mention this, for perhaps Mercury will be no benifit to him upon that account.

As for News, we have neither Foreign nor Domestick, Civil nor Ecclesiastical nor so much as one word of Scandle Stiring, that I hear of.

I have been a very good Girl since your absence, and visited your Lady almost every day. She would have impowerd me to have written to you in her Name, but I told her I had no inclination at present to have any communication with any Man in the character of a wife, besides I who never own’d a Husband did not know how to address one. I think she Supports your absence like a Heroine. She complaind a Day or two ago of a Tooth ake, which She Suspected to be the forerunner of some great event, Suppose you best understand what. Your Son Seems to be finely recoverd, has got his Neck at liberty again, and is as great a Rogue as ever.6 Our pale Face desires to be rememberd to you, keeps at the old notch, and according to Pope—(“Not to go back, is something to advance”) may be say’d to be a little better.7—Thus haveing run my rig, think it time to draw towards a close. By Tom hope to receive a token of remembrance, and to hear that you are as Speckled as you desire to be. I am not affraid of your Virmin if you roast them well, otherways fear they will be too hard for my Digestion. I leave that to your care, and Conclude assureing you that no person wishes you more Health and Happiness than Your affectionate Niece,

Abll. Smith

Please to remember me to my Brother and tell him he should write to me, for he has little else to do.

RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “To Cotton Tufts Esqr. Boston.” Enclosures not found.

1Cotton Tufts (1732–1815), Harvard 1749, a distinguished physician of Weymouth. He was AA’s first cousin on her paternal side, and by his marriage in 1755 to Lucy (1729–1785), daughter of Col. John Quincy of Mount Wollaston, he had become her uncle on the maternal side. See Adams Genealogy.

2Tufts was in Boston, where he had been inoculated with smallpox by Dr. Perkins (Cotton Tufts, MS Diary in MHi, 28–29 March 1764; see also note 4 below). Since JA was soon to follow Tufts and since the ensuing correspondence is so largely devoted to the subject, a summary account of the Boston epidemic of 1764 is appropriate here.

Variolous inoculation had been introduced in Boston in 1721 and led to a famous controversy which was renewed every time smallpox broke out. until, at the beginning of the 19th century, William Jenner’s discovery of vaccination (inoculation with a milder but immunizing disease, the cowpox) replaced it entirely.

Physicians and civic authorities early recognized that inoculated smallpox was far less dangerous than smallpox taken “in the natural way.” But while inoculation protected the individual, it was a threat, even when carefully managed, to others in the community who had not had the disease. Hence the resistance to doctors’ enthusiasm for inoculation (which was thought by many people to be simply mercenary), and the numerous town regulations and provincial laws prohibiting it except when, as occasionally happened, outbreaks of the disease got far beyond control.

Such an outbreak occurred early in 1764. In February isolation hospitals were established at Castle William and Point Shirley, under strict guard and regulations, for inoculating those who wished to be; but the disease spread, and on 13 March the town voted to allow anyone and everyone to be inoculated during the next five weeks. “Boston quickly became one great hospital” not only for Bostonians but for outsiders who flocked there, including some from other colonies where inoculation was forbidden. “By the 30th, according to the official census, there had been 699 cases of natural smallpox with 124 deaths, and 4,977 cases of inoculated with 46 deaths.”

The preparatory treatment of the body by a milk-and-vegetable or “cooling” diet and purgatives (“Antimony and Mercury intimately united”) which was then in vogue and was followed by JA, had been described and popularized by Dr. Adam Thomson of Philadelphia. In A Discourse on the Preparation of the Body for the Small-Pox, Phila., 1750, Thomson declared that in twelve years he had not lost a patient who had followed this regimen for a fortnight preceding inoculation. The mode of administering the disease and the course it took when so administered are vividly described in JA’s letters below.

This note is very largely based on John B. Blake’s monograph, Public Health in the Town of Boston, 1630–1822, Cambridge, 1959, chs. 4–5, and his earlier papers on aspects of the same subject cited in his notes, especially “Smallpox Inoculation in Colonial Boston,” Jour. of the Hist. of Medicine, 8 (1953):284–300. See also Boston Record Commissioners, 16th and 18th Reports description begins City of Boston, Record Commissioners, Reports, Boston, 1876–1909; 39 vols. description ends , passim.

3Doubtless JA.

4Though at least three physicians named Perkins were practicing in Boston at this time, this was probably Nathaniel Perkins (1715–1799), Harvard 1734, a prosperous Boston physician and apothecary and later a loyalist (Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates description begins John Langdon Sibley and Clifford K. Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge and Boston, 1873– description ends , 9:428–430). See JA’s description of Nathaniel Perkins in his letter of 13 April, below, and compare Copley’s portrait, reproduced in Mr. Shipton’s biographical sketch, facing p. 428.

5Rev. William Smith’s Negro servant. Smith’s own Diary (MHi) records baptizing “my Negro man Thomas” on 22 March 1741. “Old Tom” died in 1766 (JA, Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 1:307).

6Cotton Tufts Jr. (1757–1833), Harvard 1777. See Adams Genealogy.

7These allusions remain obscure.

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