Adams Papers

John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776

John Adams to Abigail Adams

Philadelphia July 3d. 1776

Had a Declaration of Independency been made seven Months ago, it would have been attended with many great and glorious Effects. . . .1 We might before this Hour, have formed Alliances with foreign States.—We should have mastered Quebec and been in Possession of Canada. . . . You will perhaps wonder, how such a Declaration would have influenced our Affairs, in Canada, but if I could write with Freedom I could easily convince you, that it would, and explain to you the manner how.—Many Gentlemen in high Stations and of great Influence have been duped, by the ministerial Bubble of Commissioners to treat. . . . And in real, sincere Expectation of this Event, which they so fondly wished, they have been slow and languid, in promoting Measures for the Reduction of that Province. Others there are in the Colonies who really wished that our Enterprise in Canada would be defeated, that the Colonies might be brought into Danger and Distress between two Fires, and be thus induced to submit. Others really wished to defeat the Expedition to Canada, lest the Conquest of it, should elevate the Minds of the People too much to hearken to those Terms of Reconciliation which they believed would be offered Us. These jarring Views, Wishes and Designs, occasioned an opposition to many salutary Measures, which were proposed for the Support of that Expedition, and caused Obstructions, Embarrassments and studied Delays, which have finally, lost Us the Province.

All these Causes however in Conjunction would not have disappointed Us, if it had not been for a Misfortune, which could not be foreseen, and perhaps could not have been prevented, I mean the Prevalence of the small Pox among our Troops. . . . This fatal Pestilence compleated our Destruction.—It is a Frown of Providence upon Us, which We ought to lay to heart.

But on the other Hand, the Delay of this Declaration to this Time, has many great Advantages attending it.—The Hopes of Reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by Multitudes of honest and well meaning tho weak2 and mistaken People, have been gradually and at last totally extinguished.—Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their Judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13,3 have now adopted it, as their own Act.—This will cement the Union, and avoid those Heats and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago.

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.—I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with4 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.5

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not.—I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States.—Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing6 Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even7 altho We should rue8 it, which I trust in God We shall not.9

RC and LbC (Adams Papers). Since this is a celebrated letter, several small but characteristic stylistic revisions made by JA when preparing his fair copy (the RC) from his draft (the LbC) have been recorded in the notes below. For the early celebrity and textual garbling of this letter, in conjunction with the preceding letter of this date, see note 9.

1Here and below, suspension points are in MS.

2LbC: “shortsighted.”

3Preceding three words added in RC.

4Preceding three words added in RC.

5This word added in RC.

6This word added in RC.

7Preceding five words added in RC.

8LbC: “altho you and I may rue.”

9This and the preceding letter, embodying JA’s reflections in the course of the day after the United States became a nation, acquired early and deserved celebrity. But the history of their early publication and textual garbling offers a striking illustration of how difficult it is to overcome popular errors, or, to invert an idealistic saying, how error, crushed to earth, will rise again.

Only a summary of that history can be given here, and this summary is drawn largely from Charles Warren’s article, “The Doctored Letters of John Adams,” MHS, Procs. description begins Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections and Proceedings. description ends , 68 (1944–1947):160–170, a learned and skillful piece of scholarly detective work. Warren points out that the two JA letters to his wife dated 3 July were apparently first printed (the first of them with an indicated omission at the beginning of the text) in the Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine for May 1792 (8:313–315) as part of a series of JA’s Revolutionary letters. No explanation of their provenance is given there, and the identity of the recipient is in both cases disguised by the salutation “Sir.” (The texts as printed derive ultimately from JA’s letterbook copies, are quite faithful, and were presumably supplied by some member of his actual or official family who had access to his letterbooks. JA himself, in a letter to JQA of 19 Sept. 1795 [Adams Papers], alluded to the printing of this “Letter,” as he called it, and said he prized it “above a statue or a Monument—merely as Evidence of my Opinion at that time and of my Courage to avow it”; but he gave no hint of how publication occurred.) On 4 July 1792 the Philadelphia Gazette of the United States reprinted these texts, with a brief tribute to the Vice-President’s powers as a prophet.

On 1 July 1795 the Federalist Columbian Centinel of Boston published a letter from “An American,” who argued that his fellow Americans had all along been celebrating the wrong day (the Fourth of July) as the anniversary of independence; they ought, he said, to celebrate the Second. As evidence, he quoted “extracts of two letters, from Mr. JOHN ADAMS to a friend,” consisting of the seventh paragraph of JA’s first letter of 3 July (“Yesterday the greatest Question . . .”) and the last two paragraphs of JA’s second letter (“But the Day is past . . .”). “As a friend to propriety,” he concluded, “I could wish to see the alteration take place.”

Nine years later, in the same paper, 23 June 1804, “Seventy-Six” urged the same point, though in more sharply partisan terms. “Seventy-Six” cited the same passages from JA’s “letters to a friend” of 3 July 1776 as proof that JA was the “efficient agent in this glorious work [of independence],” whereas Jefferson was an “adventitious” agent, merely “penning a bill, after the principles [had] been decided upon.”

This argument having made little headway, a nameless Federalist writer took a different tack the next year. In the Boston Gazette for 4 July 1805 appeared a long, unsigned letter eulogizing the services of Washington and JA, and to this were appended the now familiar passages from JA’s letters, run together and treated as if they constituted a single letter in and of themselves. The direction at the foot of the text reads: “To Mr.——,” which was by now canonical, but the date at the head of the letter as printed in 1805 reads “July 5, 1776,” and in the passage on celebrating the national anniversary the second sentence is altered to read “The Fourth day of July 1776, will be a memorable epocha,” &c., to square it with the doctored dateline.

This mode of reconciling the two national political parties’ differing views on how (or rather when) the United States of America was born met with great and altogether undeserved success. Newspapers and holiday orators happily and frequently printed and quoted JA’s “letter” on celebrating the “Fourth” of July. (In one case the hybrid document with its erroneous date appeared in the very same issue of a paper to which JA contributed autobiographical recollections on another subject; see the Boston Patriot, 4 July 1810.) Not until 1819 was there a clarification forthcoming, and it came directly from JA, who after AA’s death late in 1818 had been rummaging among his old papers. On 16 Feb. 1819 JA wrote to Judge Thomas Dawes of Boston, a close friend and a connection by marriage, reminding him that “Once on a time, upon my Stony field Hill, you interrogated me concerning that extract [frequently printed in newspapers from JA’s letter or letters of 3 July 1776] in so particular a manner that I thought you felt a tincture of pyrrhonism concerning its authenticity.” To settle any such doubts, JA offered to show Dawes the originals in JA’s own hand, but meanwhile he enclosed full texts of the two letters addressed to AA, “one in the morning, and the other in the evening of . . . the day after the vote of Independence” (LbC in an unidentified hand, Adams Papers). Dawes communicated both enclosures, together with JA’s letter to him and a valuable introductory note of his own, to the Columbian Centinel, where all of them were printed on 3 July 1819.

Thus were made available, for the first time, complete and substantially faithful texts of JA’s two famous and prophetic letters, with their correct dates and a correct identification of their recipient. (These texts were actually drawn from JA’s letterbooks, without comparison with the recipient’s copies.) They were given still wider circulation and made permanently available by being reprinted in Hezekiah Niles’ Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America . . ., Baltimore, 1822, p. 328–330. And yet just two days after they had appeared fully and correctly in the Centinel, another Boston paper, the Independent Chronicle, which held Republican views, printed an extract from one of them under the wrong date of 5 July 1776, “the day after the passage of the memorable Declaration of Independence”; and it did so again at the annual returns of the national anniversary in 1822, 1824, and 1826. Doubtless other papers did so too. What is more, the handsomely printed and decorated cards of admission to the Fourth of July feasts at Faneuil Hall in Boston now annually bore the old, telescoped, mangled, and misdated text of JA’s “letter” from Philadelphia; two specimens of these—one directed to JA in 1821, and the other to JQA in 1824—are reproduced as illustrations in the present volume.

By this time even the Federalist Centinel, which had printed authentic texts and a full éclaircissement seven years earlier, was ready to cave in under dint of repetition. On 5 July 1826, the day after JA’s death, it quoted him in support of celebrating “the Fourth of July” with “pomp, shows, games,” and all the rest. Editor Niles caved in too. His obituary tribute to JA reprinted the garbled version of the letters that had been in circulation for decades (Niles’ Register description begins Niles’ Weekly Register, Baltimore, 1811–1849. description ends , 30:345 [15 July 1826]. That version remained standard through the first half of the century, even after correct (though normalized) texts from the recipient’s copies had been printed in JA’s Letters description begins Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1841; 2 vols. description ends (1841).

In printing these texts, CFA for some reason did not allude to the corrupt and popular version or versions of them until he issued the JA–AA Familiar Letters description begins Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams, during the Revolution. With a Memoir of Mrs. Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams, New York, 1876. description ends in 1876. There, at p. 193, he furnished an editorial note that almost apologizes for having upset a tradition by presenting accurate texts, and explains that the initial garbling was done by JA’s nephew and sometime secretary, William Smith Shaw (1778–1826), later well known as “Athenaeum” Shaw, on whom see the Adams Genealogy. Presumably the doctored text published in the Boston Gazette of 4 July 1805 was the one concocted by Shaw, but the present editors have not found the evidence on which CFA attributed it to him.

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