Adams Papers

Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 19 October 1785

Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson

London October 19 1785

Dear sir

Mr. Fox a young Gentleman from Philadelphia who came recommended by Dr. Rush to Mr. Adams,1 will have the Honour of delivering you this Letter. We requested him to call upon Mr. Stockdale for your papers &c. Mr. Adams is unwell,2 and will not be able to write you by this opportunity. I am to acquaint you Sir that Dr. Price has transacted the buisness respecting Mr. Hudon. The Money is paid, but the policy is not quite ready but the Dr. has promised that it shall be sent in a few days, when it will be forwarded to you.

In your English papers you will find an extract of a Letter from Nova Scotia, representing the abuse said to be received by a Captain Stanhope at Boston, the Commander of the Mercury. The account is as false—if it was not too rough a term for a Lady to use, I would say false as Hell, but I will substitute, one not less expressive and say, false as the English.

The real fact is this. One Jesse Dumbar a native of Massachusetts, and an inhabitant of a Town near Boston and one Isaac Lorthrope were during the War taken Prisoners, and from one ship to an other were finally turnd over to this Captain Stanhope Commander of the Mercury, who abused him and the rest of the Prisoners, frequently whiping them, and calling them Rebels. The ship going to Antigua to refit, he put all the prisoners into Jail and orderd poor Jesse 2 dozen lashes for refusing duty on Board his ship. This Mr. Dumbar felt as an indignity and contrary to the Law of Nations. Peace soon taking place Jesse returnd Home, but when Stanhope came to Boston, it quickened Jesses remembrance and he with his fellow sufferer went to Boston, and according to his deposition, hearing that Captain Stanhope was walking in the Mall, he went theither at noon day and going up to the Captain asked him if he knew him, and rememberd whiping him on Board his Ship.3 Having no weapon in his hand, he struck at him with his fist, upon which Captain Stanhope, stept back and drew his sword. The people immediately interposed and gaurded Stanhope to Mr. Morten Door. Dumbar and his comrade following him, and at Mr. Mortens door he again attempted to seize him. But then the high sheriff interposed and prevented further mischief, after which they all went to their several homes. This Mr. Stanhope calls assassination and complains that the News papers abuse him. He wrote a Letter to the Govenour demanding protection. The Govenour replied by telling him that if he had been injured the Law was open to him and would redress him, upon which he wrote a very impudent abusive Letter to Mr. Bowdoin, so much so that Mr. Bowdoin thought proper to lay the whole correspondence before Congress. And Congress past some resolves in concequence and have transmitted them with Copies of the Letters to be laid before Mr. Stanhopes Master.4

Dumbars Deposition was comunicated in a private Letter by Mr. Bowdoin himself to Mr. Adams, so that no publick use can be made of it, but the Govenour was sensible that without it the truth would not be known.5

Is Col. Smith in Paris? Or have we lost him? Or is he so mortified at the King of Prussias refusing him admittance to his Reviews, that he cannot shew himself here again? This is an other English Truth, which they are industriously Circulating. I have had however, the pleasure of contradicting the Story in the most positive terms, as Col. Smith had enclosed us the Copy of his own Letter and the answer of his Majesty, which was written with his own hand.6 How mean and contemptable does this Nation render itself?

Col. Franks I hope had the good fortune to carry your things safely to you, and that they will prove so agreeable as to induce you to honour again with your Commands your Friend & Humble Servant

Abigail Adams

Compliments to the Gentlemen of your family and Love to Miss Jefferson. Mr. Rutledge has refused going to Holland. I fancy foreign embassies upon the present terms are no very tempting objects.

RC (DLC: Jefferson Papers); addressed by AA2: “His Excellency Thomas Jefferson Esqr Minister Plenipotentiary from the United states of America Paris favourd by Mr Fox”; endorsed: “Mrs Adams.” Dft (Adams Papers); notation by CFA: “1786.” The RC is longer with more detail, but the Dft contains some important variants and additional passages that are noted below.

1Samuel Fox, of a well-known Quaker family in Philadelphia, was introduced in Benjamin Rush to JA, 16 June (Adams Papers). Rush introduced Fox to Jefferson in a letter of the same date (Jefferson, Papers description begins The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen (from vol. 21), John Catanzariti (from vol. 24), and others, Princeton, 1950-. description ends , 8:220).

2The draft finishes this sentence: “and I know not whether he will be able to write You as Mr. Fox set[s] of early tomorrow morning.”

3The draft has “the Mercury”, but Dunbar’s deposition names the ship on which he was whipped as the Russell. AA may have re-read the deposition before preparing the recipient’s copy; see note 5, below.

4The draft has “his Majesty” in place of “Mr. Stanhopes Master.”

5In the draft this passage reads: “Dumbars deposition was sent by Mr. Bowdoin himself to Mr. Adams and is not amongst the papers forwarded by Congress. The abuse of Stanhope to Mr. Bowdoin is however evident enough without knowing the real cause. He has powerfull connections here and is of a respectable family, but his own Character is said to be that of a profligate. The Marquis of Carmarthan has been absent which has prevented his yet receiving the communications. Tomorrow they will be presented.”

Gov. James Bowdoin wrote JA on 10 Aug. (Adams Papers), to state his side of the affair so that Adams could defend the honor of Massachusetts and the United States in this controversy. With his letter Bowdoin enclosed both a copy of the deposition of Jesse Dunbar (not Dumbar) of Hingham, Mass., dated 10 Aug. (Adams Papers), and copies of the five letters that he exchanged with Stanhope between 1 and 4 Aug. (all Adams Papers), which Bowdoin had sent to Congress. Dunbar’s deposition, which AA’s account here follows almost verbatim, gives the rough dates of his captivity, from 1780 until the peace, but not the date of his whipping aboard the 74-gun ship Russell at Antigua. It also names his companion, both on the Russell and in the Mall in Boston on 31 July, as William (not Isaac) Lathrop of Sandwich, Mass. (although “William” is inserted above the line).

In his letter of 10 Aug., Gov. Bowdoin told JA that until Congress decided what action to take the enclosed letters were only for his information. On 18 Aug., Congress voted to accept Secretary for Foreign Affairs John Jay’s report, based on the five letters, which strongly protested Stanhope’s behavior to the British government. Jay wrote JA on 6 Sept., forwarding this protest and directing him to present it, with the letters, to the British secretary of state (Adams Papers; Dipl. Corr., 1783–1789 description begins [William A. Weaver, ed.,] The Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States of America, from . . . 1783, to . . . 1789, Washington, 1837 [actually 1855]; 3 vols. description ends , 2:387–296). The Bowdoin-Stanhope correspondence appeared in the London Daily Universal Register on 21 October.

Dunbar’s deposition, however, was neither sent to Congress nor presented to Lord Carmarthen, and therefore was not part of the official account of this incident. Capt. Stanhope, in his letters to Bowdoin, had not mentioned Dunbar by name, but said only that he had “been pursued and my Life as well as that of one of my Officers [had] been endanger’d by the violent Rage of a Mob Yesterday Evening without Provocation of any sort.” He then urged Bowdoin “to adopt such Measures as may discover the Ringleaders of the Party that Assassinated me, and bring them to Public Justice” (Stanhope to Bowdoin, 1 Aug., copy in Adams Papers). While Bowdoin disapproved of Dunbar’s assault, he felt that Stanhope had overreacted, particularly considering the orderly behavior of the crowd and the prompt action of the sheriff to protect Stanhope. And because Stanhope had not named Dunbar, Bowdoin saw no need to refer to him, but answered: “If you have been insulted, and your Life has been endangered, in manner as you have represented to me, I must inform you, that our Laws afford you ample satisfaction” (Bowdoin to Stanhope, 1 Aug., copy in Adams Papers). This reply incited Stanhope to stronger protests, prompting Bowdoin to send the correspondence to Massachusetts’ delegates for presentation to Congress.

Jefferson became deeply interested in this incident, and sometime in November he wrote a brief account of the affair, to which he added a legal defense of Gov. Bowdoin’s position, probably with an eye to publishing it in the Continental press to counter versions of the story that had just appeared in English newspapers which AA had forwarded to him (AA to Jefferson, 25 Oct., below; see AA2 to JQA, 18 Oct., note 16, above). Jefferson’s principal source, in addition to the Bowdoin-Stanhope letters that had already appeared in print, was Dunbar’s deposition, in the form in which AA summarized it in this letter. See Jefferson to AA, 20 Nov., below, and “Jefferson’s Account of the Stanhope Affair,” undated, in Jefferson, Papers description begins The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen (from vol. 21), John Catanzariti (from vol. 24), and others, Princeton, 1950-. description ends , 9:4–7. Congress’ handling of the affair is in JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, 1904–1937; 34 vols. description ends , 29:637–647 [18 Aug. 1785].

6In the draft AA ends this paragraph: “How feeble must that cause be which <only> has baseness meanness and falshood for its support. How contemptable does this Nation render itself?” See William Stephens Smith to AA, 5 Sept., and note 7, above.

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