Adams Papers

Abigail Adams to James Lovell, 17 March 1781

Abigail Adams to James Lovell

March 17 1781

My dear Sir

It was not till the last week in Febry. that your favour of Janry. 8th reachd me. I had waited the arrival of each post with impatience but was so repeatedly dissapointed that I almost gave up my correspondent even in the way of Friendship. I struck up of1 the list of Galantry some time ago. It is a character in my mind very unbefitting a senator notwithstanding the Authority of Chesterfeild against me, yet the Stile of some Letters obliged me to balance a long time and study by detail the character I was scrutinizing. I wished to divest myself for the time of a partiality which I found predominant in my Heart, yet give to every virtue its due weight. I wished for once, for a few moments and 3 hundred miles distance observe, to consider myself in the nearest connexion possible, and then try the force of certain Epethets addressed to a Lady—we will suppose her for Arguments sake amiable, agreable and his Friend. I found from trial that those Epethets only would bear [i.e. be bearable] . If they were carried a Syllable beyond, to Lovely, to charming, they touchd too too sensibly the fine tuned instrument and produced a discord where Harmony alone should subsist. What right has she who is appropriated to appear Lovely or charming in any Eyes but his whose property she is?2 I am pursuaded says a Lady who had seen much of the world, that a woman who is determined to place her happiness in her Husbands affections should abandon the extravagant desire of engageing publick adoration, and that a Husband who tenderly loves his wife should in his turn give up the reputation of being a Gallant. However antiquated and unpolite these Ideas may appear to our Modern refiners, I can join with Juba in the play “by Heavens I had rather have that best of Friends approve my deeds than Worlds for my admirers.”3

A particular reason has led me to wish the Man whose Soul is Benevolence itself flowing out in these exuberances would more circumspectly guard a pen.—A Captured Letter, not to Portia thank fortune, but to his Friend G[err]y published by the Enemy, has made some talk. I have tried to obtain it that I might judge whether what was said of it was true. Have not yet been able to, but his own conscience must tell him whether any thing written to a confidiential Friend should give just occasion of pain to an affectionate wife. That it has done so I know not, but ought there to be room for the world to suppose it capable of it? I will not judge unheard and unseen, only repeate an observation which I once before made to you, that no situation was more delicate, more critical or more liable to censure than that of a Lady whose Husband has been long seperated from her. The world will judge from selfish motives nor will they consider of any obligation prior to that which binds a man to his family or that the demands of his country must silence the voice of pleading Nature. A similarity of circumstances leads me to sympathize with every sufferer. I own I am exceedingly tenacious of my prerogative and it would wound me to the Soul even to have it suspected.

I had many things in mind to say to you in the political way when I took up my pen, but will defer them for the subject of an other Letter or untill you tell me that you have received this in that Spirit of Friendship with which it flowed from the pen of


Dft (Adams Papers); without indication of addressee, but this letter set off a long train of exchanges between Lovell and AA, running all the way to the following August; see note 4 below. The (missing) RC was not received by Lovell until late in May, and then in the form of a duplicate RC (also missing) enclosed in hers to him of 10 May (below), the original having either strayed in the mail or actually been captured by the enemy. See Lovell to AA, 14, 29 May, and 16 June, all below.

1Thus in MS. AA probably meant to write: “struck him off.”

2The reasons impelling AA at this juncture “to balance a long time and study by detail” the propriety of the language Lovell had employed in his letter of 8 Jan. (above) and, generally, in other letters he had written her, are discussed in note 4 below. In the present passage, written in some agitation, she is saying that “Epethets” like amiable and agreeable addressed to a [married] Lady” by a male friend are perfectly acceptable, but lovely and charming are not. They smack too much of the Chesterfieldian code of “Galantry,” which she rejects.

3Initial quotation mark supplied. AA is quoting, a little inaccurately, from Addison’s Cato (1713), Act II, scene v, lines 144–145.

4AA’s concern and admonitions as expressed in this letter sprang from two different but related causes. Lovell in his correspondence with her habitually indulged in a queer sort of gallantry, imitative of Laurence Sterne’s writings, which she in turn indulged him in without protest and thus apparently found acceptable. However, in his letter of 8 Jan., which she found indiscreet (see note 2 above), he spoke of her as one of the “most lovely of the Loveliest Sex,” and at the same time blandly mentioned that recent letters of his, including one to her (dated 21 Nov. 1780, not found), had fallen into the hands of “Jemmy Rivington,” the tory newspaper printer in New York. This naturally suggested to her that the combination of what she here calls Lovell’s “exuberances” and the increasingly frequent British interception of American mails made her reputation more vulnerable than was pleasant to contemplate. Six weeks or so elapsed between Lovell’s writing his letter of 8 Jan. and her receipt of it in late February, and meanwhile AA learned that Rivington and other loyalist printers had published one or more of Lovell’s private letters, specifically one to Elbridge Gerry, 20 Nov. 1780, containing enough indiscretions to excite talk in Boston. Though she had not seen the paper or papers in question, she was bound to wonder what further epistolary indiscretions her correspondent might have committed and she was still to hear about. Waiting for several weeks, and still without sight of what Rivington had printed, AA here phrased her multiple rebukes to Lovell with care and tact. In a letter of 10 May, below (and perhaps in others intervening but not found), and still not having seen the offending letter to Gerry, AA renewed her “Stricktures” on Lovell’s conduct in severe terms; see the notes and references there.

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