Abigail Adams to Elbridge Gerry
March 13th 1780
Altho this is the first time I ever took up my pen to address you,1 I do it in perfect confidence that you will not expose me, having been long ago convinced that you are the sincere and constant Friend of one deservedly Dear to me, whose honour and character it is my Duty at all times to support.
I observed in a late Philadelphia paper of Janry. 27, that the Philosophical Society had chosen a Number of Members, among whom they were pleased to place The Honorable J[ohn] A[dam]s Esqr. late Member of Congress, no doubt with an intention of confering an Honour upon him. Before him is placed—His Excellency John Jay Esqr. Minister of the united States at the court of Madrid.2
May I ask you Sir, why this distinction? Tho I do not know that you are any ways connected with the Society,3 I presume no person will say that the commission with which Mr. A——s is invested, is of less importance than that of Mr. J—ys. I suppose they both bear the same title of Minister plenipotentary. Mr. A——s had acted under a commission from Congress near two years before Mr. J—ys appointment, which if I am not mistaken, both in the Army and Navy gives a pre’eminence of Rank.
It may be considerd as pride and vanity in me Sir, for ought I know, to take notice of such a circumstance, nor should I have done it, if I had not before observed similar Instances with regard to Mr. A——s.
In a publick Society where they mean to Confer an Honorary Distinction, such things as these ought to be attended to, especially as they have a much greater influence abroad where Rank is considerd of more importance than in our Young Country.
I do not Imagine Sir that this distinction was aim’d so much at the person, as the State. You have not been so long conversant with the Southern Department as to be inattentive to4 the jealousy that there is of the Massachusets, and of every Man of any Eminence in it.
Is it not therefore particuliarly incumbent upon the Members of this State carefully to gaurd the Honor of it, and of those who represent it, which never can be done if such Little Stigmas are sufferd to be fixed upon them.
The journals of Congress will sufficently shew the various Departments in which Mr. A——s acted whilst a Member of it. Those who sat with him, are the best judges of the Integrity of his conduct, an ample testimony of which has been given him by the unsolicited honor conferd upon him, in the important Embassy with which he is at present charged. Yet there is envy and jealousy sufficient in the world to seek to lessen a character however benificial to the Country or useful to the State.
Nor are these passions Local. They are the Low, Mean and Sordid inhabitants of all countries and climates, an Instance of which I can give you, with regard to Mr. A——s. When he first arrived in France, he found great pains had been taken to convince all Ranks that the person sent them in a publick character was not the famous A[dam]s.5 Who then could it be? Why some one of no importance, of whom the World never heard before, tho he however was not under the necessity of borrowing a reputation, nor had he any reason to complain of the French court or nation, from whom he received every mark of respect and attention.
A prophet is not without honour save in his own country. By that, he was left in a situation which I need not discribe to you sir who felt it for him, but which I am now satisfied, arose more from the Embarrassment in which foreign affairs were involved, than from any designed slight or neglect of Mr. A——s. Yet the light in which it was viewd abroad gave designing malicious persons an opportunity to shew their malignity, and they improved it to that purpose, for imediately upon Mr. A——s quitting France a report was circulated, (as I have learnt from a Letter lately received from a correspondent of Mr. A——s directed to him) that during his station there, he had entertaind an illicit correspondence with the British Ministery, and that he was gone to England. “In vain says the writer did I endeavour to shew them the absurdity of such an opinion, by your embarking in the same ship with the Chevalier, but the people in this country are very Ignorant of American affairs, and eagerly swallow any thing.”6
If Sir America means to be respected abroad, she must chuse out such characters to represent her as will disinterestedly persue her Interest and happiness, in whom she can place an approved confidence, and whenever she is in possession of such characters, she must support them with honour and delicacy, nor hearken to the Machinations of envy, jealousy, vanity or pride. For if those who have stood foremost in her cause, supported her through all her perils and dangers, borne a large share in some of the most hazardous of them, do not find themselves and their characters defended and protected by her, will it be any wonder if she should finally be forsaken by every Man of Merrits withdrawing from her Service.7
I can answer for my absent Friend that he never regarded the appendages of Rank and precedence any other ways than they affected the publick; more Espicially this State, and that he would think himself happier in a private Station, beneath this Humble cottage in the cultivation of his farm, and the Society of his family, than in his envyed Embassy at foreign courts, where tho he possesst the Innocence of the dove, and the wisdom of a more subtle animal, they would be found insufficient to serene him against the Clandestine Stabs of calumny.
I have presumed to write thus freely to you sir, upon a subject which will not bear noticeing to any but a confidential Friend. In that light my dear Mr. A——s has always considerd you, and from the intimate union which constitutes us one, permit me through him, to consider you in the same character and to Subscribe myself your Friend and Humble Servant,
RC (PHarH); endorsed: “Braintree [. . .] Mrs. Adams March 13 recd & ansd. Apr 17 1780.” Dft (Adams Papers); at head of text in CFA’s hand: “1781.” Of the numerous, mostly minor, variations between RC and Dft, only two are recorded in the notes below.
1. This would seem to preclude Gerry as the intended recipient of AA’s draft letter to an unidentified member of the Massachusetts delegation to the Continental Congress, printed above under the assigned date of Jan. 1779. But if, as seems likely, AA did not send that letter, she might then have had Gerry in mind and still have opened a correspondence with him in these terms fourteen months later.
2. The Pennsylvania Packet for 27 Jan. 1780, p. 3, col. 1, carried a notice of twenty-two persons elected to the American Philosophical Society at a meeting on 21st. The list is headed by “His Excellency George Washington, Esq; General and Commander in Chief of the Armies of the United States of North America.” Washington and eight others, including Jefferson, La Luzerne, and Marbois, do indeed seem to have been duly elected. But for no fewer than nine other persons in the list, no other record whatever of their election exists (the original minutes of the Jan. 1780 meeting are missing); and three more, namely Jay, Hamilton, and JA, were later elected (in 1787, 1791, and 1793, respectively) without reference to their publicly reported election in 1780. According to Whitfield J. Bell Jr., librarian of the Society, who has kindly furnished information for the present note, this puzzle of the elections of Jan. 1780 and the apparent double elections has never been resolved.
3. Gerry was not a member.
4. Dft: “insensible of.”
5. For the incident of “the fameux Adams,” see JA’s diary entry of 11 Feb. 1779 and note there (Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 2:351–352). See also Isaac Smith Sr. to JA, 17 June 1778, above.
7. Dft adds at this point the following paragraph, perhaps unintentionally omitted from RC: “We have an Instance of the delicacy and politeness with which foreign courts treat their Servants in the recall of Mr. Gerrard.”
AA and, in turn, her correspondent Gerry may seem to have taken a small matter overseriously, but the necessity in the 18th century of using official titles fully and correctly is substantiated in an engaging way (though in a very different connection) in a letter JA addressed on 25 May 1780 to John Bondfield, a merchant friend at Bordeaux who had undertaken many weeks before to supply the wines for JA’s legation at Paris. The wines did not arrive and despite repeated inquiries could not be traced. The trouble was, as JA’s French friends explained to him after examining his papers relating to the transaction, that the consignment had been addressed simply “to Mr. John Adams at Paris. They say that it should have been addressed to me, by my name and quality and the Hotel and street where I live. So that I dont expect to get a Glass of this Wine to the Lips of any of my Friends these six Weeks, [and] not then without writing many Letters and sending many Messages.” What is more, he continued, he is having the same kind of difficulty with respect to parcels of books and papers from Ostend and the Adams party’s trunks which had come by sea from Spain to Brest. Considering the reputation JA later acquired for standing upon punctilio concerning titles of dignity, the conclusion of his letter is instructive:
“There is not a Being upon Earth who has a greater Contempt for all kind of Titles than I have in themselves, but when I find them in this Country not only absolutely necessary to make a mans Character and Office respected, but to the transaction of the most ordinary Affairs of Life, to get a glass of Wine to drink, a pamphlet to read or a shirt to put on, I am convinced of their Importance and necessity here. By the Etiquette of all the Courts in Europe a minister Plenipotentiary has the Title of Excellency, and the wise men of Europe cant believe it possible a Man should be one without it. I therefore request that for the future, you would address every Letter, Pamphlet, Bundle, Case and Cask for me, A Son Excellence, Monsieur Monsieur John Adams Ministre Plenipotentiaire des Etats Unis De L’Amerique, Hotel de Valois, Ruë de Richelieu a Paris” (LbC, Adams Papers).