Abigail Adams to John Adams
November 13th 1780
My dearest Friend
How long is the space since I heard from my dear absent Friends? Most feelingly do I experience that sentiment of Rousseaus’ “that one of the greatest evils of absence, and the only one which reason cannot alleviate, is the inquietude we are under concerning the actual state of those we love, their health, their life, their repose, their affections. Nothing escapes the apprehension of those who have every thing to lose.” Nor are we more certain of the present condition than of the future. How tormenting is absence! How fatally capricious is that Situation in which we can only enjoy the past Moment, for the present is not yet arrived. Stern Winter is making hasty Strides towards me, and chills the warm fountain of my Blood by the Gloomy prospect of passing it alone, for what is the rest of the World to me?
“Its pomp, its pleasures and its nonesence all?”1
I last week only received a Letter written last March, and sent by Monseiur John Baptiste Petry.2 Where he is I know not. After nameing a Number of persons of whom I might apply for conveyance of Letters, you were pleased to add, they were your great delight when they did not censure, or complain, when they did they were your greatest punishment.
I am wholy unconscious of giving you pain in this way since your late absence. If any thing of the kind formerly escaped my pen, had I not ample retaliation, and did we not Balance accounts tho the sum was rather in your favour even after having distroyed some of the proof. In the most Intimate of Friendships, there must not be any recrimination. If I complaind, it was from the ardour of affection which could not endure the least apprehension of neglect, and you who was conscious that I had no cause would not endure the supposition. We however wanted no mediating power to adjust the difference, we no sooner understood each other properly, but as the poet says, “The falling out of Lovers is the renewal of Love.”
Be to my faults a little Blind
Be to my virtues ever kind
“Here Love his golden shafts employs; here lights
His constant Lamp, and waves his purple wings.”
I had written thus far when Capt. Davis arrived. The News of your being in Amsterdam soon reachd me, but judge of my dissapointment when I learnt that he had thrown over all his Letters, being chased by an American privateer, who foolishly kept up British coulours till she came along side of him. One only was saved by some accident and reachd me after hearing that the whole were lost. This tho short was a cordial to my Heart, not having received a line of a later date than 15  of June. This was the fourth of Sepbr., and just informd me of your Health and that you had been in Amsterdam a few weeks. My dear sons were not mentiond, and it was only by a very polite Letter from Mr. de Neufville that I learnt they were with you, and well. He is pleased to speak in high terms of them, I hope they deserve it.3
A week after a Brig arrived at Providence and brought me your favour of Sepbr. 15 and Mr. Thaxters of August and Sepbr. from Paris.4 You do not mention in either of your Letters which were saved, how long you expect to reside in Holland. I fancy longer than you then Imagined, as Capt. Davis informs that you had not heard of the Capture of Mr. Lawrence.5 This event will make your stay there necessary. I fear for your Health in a Country so damp, abounding in stagnant water, the air of which is said to be very unfriendly to Foreigners. Otherways if I was to consult my own feelings I should wish your continuance there, as I could hear more frequently from you. If it is not really nearer, its being a sea port, gives me that Idea, and I fancy the pains of absence increase in proportion to distance, as the power of attraction encreases as the distance diminishes. Magnets are said to have the same motion tho in different places. Why may not we have the same sensations tho the wide Atlantick roll between us? I recollect your story to Madam Le Texel upon the Nature and power of Attraction and think it much more probable to unite Souls than Bodies.6
You write me in yours of Sepbr. 15 that you sent my things in the Alliance. This I was sorry to see, as I hoped Mr. Moylan had informd you before that time, that Dr. Winship to whom he deliverd them neither came in the vessel or sent the things. I am not without fears that they will be embezzled. I have taken every opportunity to let you know of it, but whether you have got my Letters is uncertain.7 The cabals on Board the Ship threw the officers into parties, and Winship chose to involve my trunk in them. He certainly sent goods by the same vessel to other persons. General W[arre]n, my unkle and others examined and went on Board, but could find no Trunk for me. The Articles sent by private hands I believe I have got, except you sent more than one packet by Col. Flury who arrived at Newport [and] sent forward a package containing a few yards of Black Silk. A month afterwards, received a Letter from him desireing to know if I received two packages and some Letters which he brought.8 I received no Letter, and but one package by him. I have been endeavouring to find out the mistery, but have not yet develloped it.—The Articles you sent me from Bilboa have been of vast service to me, and greatly assisted me in dischargeing the load of Taxes which it would have otherways been impossible for me to have paid; I will enclose you a list of what I have paid, and yet remains due from July to this day. The Season has been so unfortunate in this state, that our produce is greatly diminished. There never was known so severe and so long a drought, the crops of corn and grass were cut of. Each Town in this State is called upon to furnish a suffering Army with provision. This Towns supply is 40 thousand weight of Beaf or money to purchase it. This has already been collected. Our next tax is for Grain to pay our six months and our 3 Months militia, to whom we wisely voted half a Bushel per day, the state pay, and a Bounty of a Thousand dollors each or money Equivalent to purchase the Grain. This is now collecting and our Town tax only is four times larger than our continential.9 You hear no such sound now, as that money is good for nothing. Hard money from 70 to 75 is made the standard, that or exchange is the way of dealing, everything is high, but more steady than for two years before. My Tenants say they must leave the Farm, that they cannot live. I am sure I cannot pay more than my proportion yet I am 10th they should quit. They say two Cows would formerly pay the taxes upon this place, and that it would now take ten. They are not alone in their complaints. The burden is greater I fear than the people will bear—and whilst the New England states are crushed by this weight, others are lagging behind, without any exertions, which has produced a convention from the New England States. A motion has been made, but which I sincerely hope will not be adopted by our Goverment, I mean to vest General Washington with the power of marching his Army into the state that refuses supplies and exacting it by Martial Law. Is not this a most dangerous step, fraught with Evils of many kinds. I tremble at the Idea. I hope Congress will never adopt such a measure, tho our delegates should receive such Instructions.10
Our publick affair[s] wear a more pleasing aspect, as you will see by the inclosed Gazet yet are we very far from extirpating the British force. If we are not to look for peace till that event takes place, I fear it is very far distant. Small as our Navy is, it has captured near all the Quebeck Fleet, 19 have arrived safe in port, and fill’d Salem and Cape Ann with Goods of all kinds. Besides not a week passes but gives us a prize from some Quarter.
As to the affairs of our common wealth, you will see who is Govenour. Two good Men have been chosen as Leiut. Governour, both of whom have refused. The late judge of probate is now Elected, and tis thought will accept.11 Last week his Excellency gave a very Grand Ball, to introduce our Republican form of Goverment properly upon the Stage.12
It was a maxim of Edward king of Portugal, that what ever was amiss in the manners of a people, either proceeds from the bad example of the Great, or may be cured by the Good. He is the patriot who when his Country is overwhelmed by Luxery, by his example stems the Torrent and delivers it from that which threatens its ruin. A writer observes with Regard to the Romans, that there must have been a considerable falling off, when Sylla won that popular favour by a shew of Lions, which in better times he could only have obtained by substantial services.
I have twice before enclosed a set of Bills, received from Mr. Lovell for you. I ventured to detain one hopeing for an opportunity to send to Holland. I enclose it now together with a list of the Articles if you think you can afford them to me. If not I shall be better satisfied in a refusal than in a compliance. The Articles you were so kind as to send me were not all to my mind. The Led coulourd Silk was clay coulour, not proper for the use I wanted it for, it was good however. A large Quantity of ordinary black ribbon, which may possibly sell for double what it cost, if it had been coulourd there would have been no difficulty with it. The tape is of the coarsest kind, I shall not lose by it, but as I wanted it for family use, it was not the thing. The Tea was Excellent, the very best I ever had and not so high priced as from other places. All the rest of the articles were agreable.—I have written to Mr. de Neufville encloseing a duplicate Bill, and a list of the same articles, but directed him to take your orders and govern himself by them.13 When ever you send me any thing for sale, Linnens especially Irish, are always saleable. Common calico, that comes cheep from Holland, any thing of the wollen kind such as Tamies, Durants or caliminco14 with ordinary linnen hankerchiefs answer well.
I have written a very long letter. To what port it will go first [I] know not; it is too late for any vessel to go to Holland this winter from hence.—Our Friends all well. Your Brother has lost his youngest daughter.15 I will write to my dear John and Charles and hope [my?]16 Letters will not meet the fate of theirs.
Ever & at all time yours,
The enclosure that appeared on page 17 in the printed volume appears on digital page 20.
RC (Adams Papers); endorsed in Thaxter’s hand: “Portia 18th.–24th. Novr. 1780.” Only one of the numerous enclosures mentioned in the text has been found; it is printed herewith; see further, Neufville & Son to AA, 25 May 1781 and enclosure.
1. Closing quotation mark supplied. Throughout this letter AA’s very indifferent punctuation has been minimally regularized.
2. JA to AA, 18 March 1780, in Adams Papers but omitted here, a brief note in which the only significant passage (beyond introducing Petry) is paraphrased by AA at the end of the present paragraph.
JA’s note was one of nine he wrote on the same date to friends in Boston and Philadelphia introducing in complimentary terms “Monsieur John Baptiste Petry, Secretary of the Comte de Chatelet  a Marshall of the Camps and Armies of the King of France.” It is somewhat doubtful, however, whether Petry came to America at this time, or at any rate to Boston. He is not mentioned in Chastellux’ Travels, and in a letter to JA of 22 Nov., James Warren said he had neither seen nor heard from “the Gentleman ... recommended” (Warren-Adams Letters description begins Warren-Adams Letters: Being Chiefly a Correspondence among John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Warren (Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, vols. 72–73), Boston, 1917–1925; 2 vols. description ends , 2:150–151). But a Jean Baptiste Petry served as vice consul of France at Wilmington, N.C., and Charleston, S.C., 1783–1792, and appears as consul in Pennsylvania in 1793 or 1794 and evidently stayed until 1798. There have been doubts whether this was the same J. B. Petry who came to America in 1815, upon the restoration of the French monarchy, as consul at New Orleans and who became consul general of France at Washington in 1819. From allusions in JQA’s diary entries in Paris during “the hundred days,” when Petry and JQA exchanged visits, it seems clear that it was the same Petry who served in America at such long intervals. See JQA, Diary, 14 Feb., 7, 27 April, 12 May 1815. During JQA’s secretaryship of state he and Petry became good friends, and CFA recorded on 24 Dec. 1823 Petry’s keen regret upon leaving the United States to take a post in Spain o which he had been ordered (CFA, Diary description begins Diary of Charles Francis Adams, Cambridge, 1964– .Vols. 1–2, ed. Aïda DiPace Donald and David Donald; vols. 3–4, ed. Marc Friedlaender and L. H. Butterfield. description ends , 1:20; see also JQA, Diary, Dec. 1823-Jan. 1824, passim). Information on Petry’s tours of duty in America has been furnished to the editors by Howard C. Rice Jr., Princeton University Library, who has long collected biographical data on French consular agents in the United States. See also A. P. Nasatir and G. E. Monell, comps., French Consuls in the United States: A Calendar of Their Correspondence in the Archives Nationales, Washington, 1967, p. 553, 567.
5. Henry Laurens had sailed from Philadelphia on 13 Aug. in the brigantine Mercury, which was captured off Newfoundland on 3 Sept. by the British frigate Vestal. Laurens was taken into St. John’s and then to England in the sloop Fairy in a somewhat ambiguous status. Arriving in London on 5 Oct., he was promptly committed to the Tower under “suspicion of high treason.” See Laurens’ “Narrative,” S.C. Hist. Soc., Colls., 1 (1857): 18–25. JA’s secret informant in England, Thomas Digges, who wrote over a great variety of signatures, reported with remarkable promptness, accuracy, and indignation what happened with respect to Laurens in the ensuing weeks. His first letter on the subject was dated 3 Oct., even before Laurens reached London. Although this letter was delayed in transit, JA had word of Laurens’ capture by the 11th and of his incarceration by the 14th. See “W.S.C.” [Thomas Digges] to “Ferdinando Ramon San” [JA], 3, 6, 10, 17, 20, 27 Oct. (Adams Papers); JA to Huntington, 11 Oct. (PCC, No. 84, II, printed in Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Washington, 1889; 6 vols. description ends , 4:95); “F.R.S.” to “W.S.C.,” 14 Oct. (LbC, Adams Papers, printed in JA, Works description begins The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1850–1856; 10 vols. description ends , 7:315). JA furnished extracts from some of Digges’ letters to Dumas at The Hague for publication in Dutch papers (JA to Dumas, 3 Nov., LbC, Adams Papers); the extracts will be found in Wharton description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Washington, 1889; 6 vols. description ends , 4:84–85.
6. This alludes to one of the racier anecdotes in JA’s Autobiography, recorded by him to illustrate the (to him) shocking freedom of conversation between the sexes in France. The incident had occurred at a dinner party in Bordeaux in April 1778, when JA had just arrived in France for the first time. In his Autobiography he did not name his dinner companion who asked him an embarrassing question that he handled with great finesse, identifying her only as “One of the most elegant Ladies at Table, young and handsome” (Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 4:36–37).
7. JA had already made inquiries about the missing trunk of goods intended for AA; see his letter to James Moylan at Lorient, 28 Oct. (LbC, Adams Papers).
9. On these matters, indicative of the burdens borne by ordinary citizens in the fifth year of the war, see the votes of the town meetings of 17 July, 28 Sept., and 23 Oct. in Braintree Town Records description begins Samuel A. Bates, ed., Records of the Town of Braintree, 1640 to 1793, Randolph, Mass., 1886. description ends , p. 513, 515–516.
10. The convention to which AA alludes was held at Hartford, Conn., in mid-November. The four New England states and New York sent delegates; copies of the proceedings were transmitted to the governors of all the states, to General Washington, and to Congress. The ten resolutions adopted by the Convention were designed to guarantee—by “Coertion” if necessary, since some states were seriously delinquent—the filling up of state quotas of “Men Money Provisions or other Supplies” levied by Congress. The premise on which the Convention acted in this the bleakest year of the Revolution was that “Our present Embarrassments ... arise in a great Measure from a Defect in the present Governments of the United States,” which meant to those who held this view that Congress lacked effective power over the state governments. As E. James Ferguson and others have pointed out, the Hartford Convention of 1780 betokened a shift in American leadership from those who had begun and hitherto largely conducted the struggle for independence to a more conservative class of merchants and propertied men who thought the cause was faltering through want of vigorous, efficient, centralized authority. The leaders now coming forward were “nationalists,” whose thinking anticipated that of the majority of members of the Federal Convention of 1787 and of the Federalist party of the 1790’s. See E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776–1790, Chapel Hill, 1961, ch. 6; also the older account of the Hartford Convention of 1780 in George Bancroft, History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of America, N.Y., 1882, 1:12–16. The letters and proceedings of the Convention as laid before Congress and committed on 12 Dec. (JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, 1904–1937; 34 vols. description ends , 18:1141) are in PCC, No. 33:391–418. Texts of these, contributed by Bancroft and apparently not available in print elsewhere, are in Magazine of Amer. Hist., 8 (1882): 688–698.
As soon as the recommendations of the Convention became known they excited strong feelings among those less “nationalist” in their outlook—the “old revolutionaries,” so to speak. One clause in the fourth resolution, to which AA is alluding here, proved particularly offensive because it proposed to elevate military over civil power in a way painfully suggestive of Roman precedents familiar to all literate Americans. The original reads:
“That it be earnestly recommended to the several States represented in this Convention to Instruct their respective Delegates to use their Influence in Congress. That the Commander in Chief of the Army of the United States be Authorized and Impowered to take such Measures as he may deem proper and the publick Service may render necessary to induce the several States to a punctual Compliance with the Requisitions which have been or may be made by Congress for Supplies for the Years 1780 and 1781.”
James Warren interpreted this passage in the same manner and with the same alarm as AA did. Writing Samuel Adams on 4 Dec., he said:
“I suppose you have before this seen the doings and Resolutions of the Hartford Convention. If one of them does not astonish you I have forgot my political Catechism. Surely History will not be Credited when it shall record that a Convention of Delegates from the four New England States and from the next to them met at Hartford in the Year 1780, and in the heigth of our Contest for public Liberty and Security solemnly Resolved to recommend it to their several States to Vest the Military with Civil Powers of an Extraordinary kind and, where their own Interest is Concerned, no less than a Compulsive power over deficient States to oblige them by the point of the Bayonet to furnish money and supplies for their own pay and support. This must have been done without recollecting political Maxims, without attending to Historical Admonitions and warnings, or the Principles upon which our Opposition to Britain rests. General Washington is a Good and a Great Man. I love and Reverence him. But he is only a Man and therefore should not be vested with such powers, and besides we do not know that his successor will be either Great or Good. Much less can we tell what Influence this precedent may have half a Century since.” (Warren-Adams Letters description begins Warren-Adams Letters: Being Chiefly a Correspondence among John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Warren (Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, vols. 72–73), Boston, 1917–1925; 2 vols. description ends ), 2:151–152.
When the Convention’s proposals came before Congress in December, the fourth resolution appeared to be essentially a renewal of a motion made in that body early in September by John Mathews of South Carolina and then defeated. Its substance is known only through a passage in a letter from James Lovell to Elbridge Gerry (both “old revolutionaries”), written on 20 November. Under its terms Washington was to be “fully authorized and empowered to carry into Execut’n in the most compleat and ample manner such measures as shall appear to him best calculated for raising and bringing into the field on or before the 1st day of Jan’ry next, an army of 25000 men to continue in the service of these United States during the present war with Great Britain,” together with the arms, ammunition, and stores required by them. “And the Congress of these United States do in the most solemn manner pledge themselves to the said Gen. W fully and vigorously to support him and to ratify whatever shall be by him done in the premises.” A second resolve declared these virtually unlimited “powers and authorities ... to be in full force” until 1 Dec. 1781. (Burnett, ed., Letters of Members description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Washington, 1921–1936; 8 vols. description ends , 5:542). We know something of the circumstances that led to the defeat of this motion from a letter that Mathews, its mover, addressed to Washington on 15 Sept.; it was thought, he said, to be “too strongly tinctured with ... Army principles” (same, p. 374). And so was the Hartford Convention’s fourth resolution, on which John Witherspoon (a member of the committee to which the resolutions were referred) commented as follows in a letter of 16 Dec. to Governor William Livingston of New Jersey:
“Though it is well known to you that few persons have a higher opinion of or confidence in Gen. Washington than myself or a greater desire of having vigorous executive powers put into the hands of persons at the head of affairs either in the military or civil department, yet that resolution is of such a nature that I should never give my voice for it unless you or my constituents should specifically direct it, perhaps even not then, and I have that opinion of Gen. Washington that I do not think he would accept or act in consequence of such powers. What could induce that Convention to recommend such a measure is a mystery to me, but I believe it will have few advocates” (same description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Washington, 1921–1936; 8 vols. description ends , p. 487–488).
For the subsequent history of Congress’ action, or inaction, on the Convention’s proposals, which, minus the more offensive ones, became embodied in administrative reforms carried out after the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in March 1781, see Madison, Papers, ed. Hutchinson description begins The Papers of James Madison, eds. William T. Hutchinson and William M. E. Rachal, Chicago, 1962– . description ends , 2:318–319.
11. On the election of John Hancock over James Bowdoin as first governor under the new constitution, see AA to JA, 5 July (vol. 3, above), and note 7, with references there. On 31 Oct., Bowdoin addressed a letter to the General Court declining, “by reason of a continued ill-state of health,” his election both as a member of the Senate and as lieutenant governor (Boston Gazette, 6 Nov. 1780, p. 2, col. 1–2). On 7 Nov., James Warren was elected lieutenant governor, but he too declined (same, 13 Nov., p. 4, col. 1; his letter of declination, dated 10 Nov. and citing the distance of his residence from Boston and prior obligations, is in same, 20 Nov., p. 4, col. 2). Shortly thereafter, Thomas Cushing, a supporter of Hancock and Suffolk judge of probate, was chosen; after some deliberation he accepted. See Cotton Tufts to JA, 27 Nov., below.
12. “Thursday evening last [23 Nov.] a ball and entertainment was given by His Excellency the Governor to the officers of the army and navy, and principal ladies and gentlemen of this city” (Continental Journal, 30 Nov. 1780, p. 3, col. 1).
13. This letter and its enclosure have not been found.
14. Tamis (variously spelled), a cloth made for straining or bolting; durant, a woolen stuff, sometimes called “everlasting”; calamanco, a Flemish woolen cloth with a glossy surface (OED description begins The Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford, 1933; 12 vols. and supplement. description ends ).
16. One or two words having been rubbed out, the text is obscure.