Abigail Adams to John Adams
December 9 1781
My Dearest Friend
I hear the Alliance is again going to France with the Marquis Fayett and the Count de Noiales.1 I will not envy the Marquis the pleasure of Annually visiting his family, considering the risk he runs in doing it. Besides he deserves the good wishes of every American and a large portion of the Honours and applause of his own Country.
He returns with the additional Merrit of Laurels won at York Town by the Capture of a whole British Army. America may boast that she has accomplished what no power before her ever did, contending with Britain—Captured two of their celebrated Generals and each [with] an Army of thousands of veteran Troops to support them. This Event whilst it must fill Britain with despondency, will draw the union already formed still closer and give us additional Allies; if properly improved must render a negotiation easier and more advantageous to America.
But I cannot reflect much upon publick affairs; untill I have unburthend the load of my own Heart. Where shall I begin my list of Grievences? Not by accusations, but lamentations. My first is that I do not hear from you. A few lines only dated in April and May, have come to hand for 15 Months. You do not mention receiving any from me, except by Capt. Caznew, tho I wrote by Col. Laurence, by Capt. Brown, by Mr. Storer, Dexter and many others. By Babson to Bilboa by Trash, and several times by way of France.2 You will refer me to Gillion I suppose. Gillion has acted a base part, of which no doubt you are long e’er now apprized. You had great reason to suppose that he would reach America, as soon or sooner than the Merchant vessels and placed much confidence in him, by the treasure you permited to go on Board of him. Ah! how great has my anxiety been, what have I not sufferd since I heard my dear Charles was on Board and no intelligence to be procured of the vessel for 4 months after she saild. Most people concluded that she was founderd at Sea, as she sailed before a voilent Storm. Only 3 weeks ago did I hear the contrary. My unkle dispatchd a Messenger the Moment a vessel from Bilboa arrived with the happy tidings that She was safe at Corruna, that the passenger[s] had all left the Ship in consequence of Gillions conduct, and were arrived at Bilboa. The vessel saild the day that the passengers arrived at Bilboa so that no Letters came by Capt. Lovett but a Dr. Sands reports that he saw a child whom they told him was yours and that he was well. This was a cordil to my dejected Spirits. I know not what to wish for. Should he attempt to come at this Season upon this coast, it has more Horrours than I have fortitude. I am still distresst. I must resign him to the kind protecting Hand of that Being who hath heitherto preserved him, and submit to what ever dispensation is alloted me.
What is the matter with Mr. T[haxte]r, has he forgotten all his American Friends, that out of four vessels which have arrived, not a line is to be found on Board of one of them from him?
I could Quarrell with the climate, but surely if it is subject to the Ague, there is a fever fit as well as the cold one. Mr. Guile tells me he was charged with Letters, but left them with his other things on Board the frigate, She gave him the Slip, he stept on Board Capt. Brown and happily arrived safe. From him I have learnt many things respecting my dear connexions, but still I long for that free communication which I see but little prospect of obtaining. Let me again intreat you to write by way of Guardoca, Bilboa is as safe a conveyance as any I know of.—Ah my dear John, where are you— in so remote a part of the Globe that I fear I shall not hear a Syllable from you.—Pray write me all the intelligence you get from him, send me his Letters to you. Do you know I have not a line from him for a year and half.—Alass my dear I am much afflicted with a disorder call’d the Heartach, nor can any remedy be found in America, it must be collected from Holland, Petersburgh and Bilboa.—And now having recited my Greifs and complaints, the next in place are those of my Neighbours. I have been applied to by the parents of several Braintree youth to write to you in their behalf, requesting your aid and assistance if it is in your power to afford it. Capt. Cathcart in the privateer Essex from Salem, went out on a cruise last April into the Channel of England, and was on the 10 of June So unfortunate as to be taken and carried into Ireland, the officers were confined there, but the Sailors were sent prisoners to Plimouth jail 12 of whom are from this Town, a list of whom I inclose. The Friends of these people have received Intelligence by way of an officer who belonged to the Protector, and who escaped from the jail; that in August last they were all alive, several of them very destitute of cloathing, having taken but a few with them, and those for the Summer, particularly Ned Savils and Jobe Feild. There request is that if you can, you would render them some assistance, if not by procuring an exchange, that you would get them supplied with necessary cloathing.
I have told them that you would do all in your power for them, but what that would be I could not say. Their Friends here are all well, many of them greatly distresst for their Children, and in a particular manner the Mother of Jeriah Bass.
I wish you to be very particular in letting me know by various opportunities and ways, after the recept of this, whether you have been able to do any thing for them, that I may relieve the minds of these distresst parents. The Capt. got home about 3 months ago, by escapeing to France, but could give no account of his Men after they were taken.3
Two years my dearest Friend have passd away since you left your Native land. Will you not return e’er the close of an other year? I will purchase you a retreat in the woods of Virmont and retire with you from the vexations, toils and hazards of publick Life. Do you not sometimes sigh for such a Seclusion—publick peace and domestick happiness,
“an elegant Sufficency, content
Retirement, Rural quiet, Friendship, Books
Ease and alternate Labour, usefull Life
progressive Virtue and approveing Heaven.”
May the time, the happy time soon arrive when we may realize these blessings so elegantly discribed by Thomson, for tho many of your country Men talk in a different Stile with regard to their intentions, and express their wishes to see you in a conspicuous point of view in your own State, I feel no ambition for a share of it. I know the voice of Fame to be a mere weathercock, unstable as Water and fleeting as a Shadow. Yet I have pride, I know I have a large portion of it.
I very fortunately received by the Apollo, by the Juno and by the Minerva the things you sent me, all in good order.
They will enable me to do I hope without drawing upon you, provided I can part with them, but Money is so scarce and taxes so high, that few purchasers are found. Goods will not double, yet they are better than drawing Bills, as they cannot be sold but with a large discount. I could not get more than 90 for a hundred Dollers, should I attempt it.
I shall inclose an invoice to the House of Ingraham Bromfild,4 and one to de Neufvilla. There is nothing from Bilboa that can be imported with advantage, hankerchiefs are sold here at 7 dollers & half per dozen. There are some articles which would be advantageous from Holland, but Goods there run high, and the retailing vendues which are tolerated here ruin the Shopkeepers. The articles put up, by the American House were better in Quality, for the price than those by the House of de Neufvilla. Small articles have the best profit, Gauze, ribbons, feathers and flowers to make the Ladies Gay, have the best advance. There are some articles which come from India I should suppose would be lower priced than many others—bengalls,5 Nankeens, persian Silk and Bandano hankerchiefs, but the House of Bromfeild & C[o]. know best what articles will suit here.
I have been fortunate and unfortunate. The things which came in Jones remain at Philadelphia yet.
Our Friends here are all well. Your Mother is rather in better Health, and my Father is yet sprightly. Believe me with more affection than Words can express ever Ever Yours,
P.S. I have inclosed a memorandom of some articles. I have not written to any one about them. You will give it to whom you think best and send it when you can. I shall in some future Letter mention a list of articles which I wish you to bring home with you whenever the happy time comes, but which I do not want without you. Adieu.
RC (Adams Papers); endorsed by John Thaxter: “Portia 9. & 23d. Decr. 1781 inclosing Dean’s Letter.” It was in her letter of 23 Dec., q.v. below, that AA enclosed Silas Deane’s letter. The enclosures mentioned in her present letter and its postscript have not been found.
1. Louis Marie, Vicomte de Noailles, who served with Rochambeau, was Lafayette’s brother-in-law; see sketch in JA, Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 4:85.
2. Punctuation as in MS.
3. Although the list enclosed by AA of the Braintree sailors who were made prisoners and sent to Mill Prison at Plymouth after capture of the Essex by the English privateer Queen Charlotte has not been found, it may be reconstructed by adding to the names of Jeriah Bass, Job Field, and Edward Savil, named in this letter, those of two Beales (Nathanael and another), Gridley and Lemuel Clark, Samuel Curtis, Lewis Glover, William Horton, Briant Newcombe, and Thomas Vinton. (The documents on which the present note is based are listed in a single sequence in a separate paragraph below.)
Before AA wrote, JA had already been apprised by five of the men themselves of their plight, had been requested by them to provide for their relief, and had responded promptly by sending them two guineas apiece through Edmund Jenings in Brussels for disbursement through Jenings’ friend Michael Sawrey, a benevolently inclined merchant who lived in Plymouth. Before or at about the same time JA received AA’s appeal, he had also heard directly from two more of the Braintree lads, had had letters singly or jointly from the parents of the rest of the twelve, and had received a plea for additional aid from the five he had supplied in October. To these requests, JA responded by having Jenings transmit, as he had before, 40s sterling to each of eight of the men, including two who had shared in the earlier distribution. At the same time he asked that Sawrey inform him through Jenings whether these or any of the others “befriended before” were in need of more and how much. Sawrey responded with a list of seven: Bass, the two Clarks, Curtis, Glover, Horton, and Vinton. JA advanced additional sums then or later, so that all or most of the twelve had received £4 or more each from him before their return to Braintree.
The letters to JA from the Braintree prisoners and their families in 1781–1782 make clear that all the financial aid given by JA was on the express promise of reimbursement. Since he had no public funds available for this purpose, the advances were out of his own funds. Most of the recipients attempted to repay AA, who put them off while awaiting instructions from her husband.
Although JA did not himself acknowledge to AA until Sept. 1782 that he had responded to her appeal in behalf of the prisoners, word of his “Benevolent exertions and generous aid” reached her through their families in July and August. By that time, “enlargement” or exchange of all twelve (whether or not by JA’s efforts is not clear) had taken place, and by October eleven of them had reached Braintree.
Two additional prisoners at Plymouth, Capt. John Manley and Capt. Silas Talbot, apparently were added by Sawrey in the fall of 1781 to those JA had named to receive disbursements. What was evidently still another group, of whom the grandson of Rev. Charles Chauncy of Boston was one, escaped to the Netherlands in the summer of 1781 and were there given money and aid by JA. Beyond these instances, JA responded, without apparent success, to appeals in 1781–1782 to locate and aid in having exchanged, Benjamin Brackett, fifteen-year-old nephew of Joshua Brackett of Boston, and a Capt. Armstrong, friend of Tristram Dalton of Newburyport. It is edifying to find that two of the prisoners aided by JA while in the Netherlands turned up aboard the Active when AA sailed from Boston to Europe in that vessel in 1784. Dr. Chauncy’s grandson, “A likely young fellow whose countanance is a good Letter of recommendation,” was serving as second mate of the Active; and Job Field, a seaman “whose place on board the ship I had procured for him,” AA recorded, was so “Handy, attentive, obligeing and kind, [and so] excellent [a] Nurse, [that] we all prized him” (AA, Diary, June-July 1784, in JA, Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:155, 162).
The documents on which the above account is based are listed in chronological order herewith. All are in the Adams Papers, and the letters between JA and AA that fall within the time span of the present volume are printed herein. Job Field et al. to JA, 8 Sept.; JA to Job Field et al., 24 Oct., LbC; JA to Edmund Jenings, 24 Oct.; Jenings to JA, 28 Oct., 26 Nov.; JA to Jenings, 29 Nov.; Samuel Bass 2d to JA, 13 Dec.; Joshua Brackett to JA, 15 Dec.; Thomas Vinton Jr. to JA, 20 Dec. 1781. Thomas Vinton Jr. to JA, 5 Feb.; Edward Savil et al. to JA, 14 Feb.; JA to Jenings, 21 Feb.; Jenings to JA, 31 March, 6 June; AA to JA, 17 July, 5 Aug., 3 Sept.; JA to AA 17 Sept.; AA to JA, 25 Oct.; Tristram Dalton to JA, 26 Oct. 1782. AA recounts taking tea with Michael Sawrey and his wife when the Adamses visited Plymouth, England, in 1787 (AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 15 Sept. 1787, MWA; quoted in JA, Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:209).
JA’s concern with the plight of prisoners was of long duration. In the early days of hostilities he had been exercised over the reported treatment accorded prisoners of war taken by British troops in America; while in France in 1778 he had with Franklin and Arthur Lee dispatched to the British Ministry numerous protests against the treatment of prisoners in British hands and proposals for exchange of naval prisoners. While awaiting the sailing of the Alliance at Nantes in 1779 he had overseen an exchange; again at Bilbao in early 1780 he had undertaken to see that American prisoners escaped from Portugal received proper clothing. See above, vol. 2:224–226, 230–231; JA, Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 2:358–359, 432; 4:127–128, 138–139, 236, and index under Prisoners of War.
During his mission to the Netherlands JA’s problem with prisoners and former prisoners of war became more acute. The nature of this problem is epitomized and illuminated in the case of Thomas Beer and his family, which JA had recently had to deal with. Beer was not an American or a prisoner but an Englishman who had “been obliged to flee from England on account of his having assisted the American prisonners to Escape.” So Francis Coffyn wrote JA from Dunkirk on 2 Oct. 1781, adding that, on advice from Franklin in Paris, Coffyn had paid Beer “ten Guineas to help him to Holland, with his wife and two young children; I hope your Excellency will be pleased to recommand him and get him Employed in the Rope makers business in which he seems to be Expert, as he was one of the Surveyors in the King of England’s yards; to facilitate his passage to America” (Adams Papers). On 18 Oct. JA wrote from Amsterdam to Franklin:
“Thomas Beer, with his Wife and two small Children, came to my House, this Forenoon, and presented me, a Letter from Mr. Coffyn of Dunkirk ... recommending Beer to me as a Person who had been obliged to flee from England, for having assisted American Prisoners to escape; and inclosing a Copy of a Letter from your Excellency to Mr. Coffyn of 22 of August, advising Beer to go to Holland, where your Excellency imagined there was great demand for all Kind of Workmen, who are usefull in fitting out ships, ... and requesting Mr. Coffyn, for the future to send the Prisoners, to my Care, at Amsterdam, and to desire his Friend, at Ostend, to give them the same direction.
“As to Beer, I know not what to do with him. He has spent his last Guilder, and the Man, Woman and Children all looked as if they had been weeping, over their Distresses in deplorable Misery. I gave him some Money, to feed his Children a night or two and went out to see, if I could get him Work with a Rope Maker. But I was told that your Excellency was much mistaken.... That Navigation being in a manner stopped, such Tradesmen had the least to do of any, and particularly the Rope Makers complained of Want of Work more than ever and more than any other set of Tradesmen. However, a Gentleman will enquire if he can find a Place for him.
“I have no Objection to American Prisoners coming this Way, and shall continue to do any Thing in my Power, as I have done, to solace them in their distress. I have now for a Year past, relieved considerable Numbers who have escaped from England, with small Sums, and with my best endeavours [tried] to procure them Employment and Passages.
“But your Excellency is very sensible I have no publick Money in my Hands, and that therefore, the small sums of Money, which I have been able to furnish them must have been out of my own Pockett. This Resource is likely to fail very soon, if my Salary is not to be paid me, in future.
“If your Excellency would give me your Consent that I should take up small Sums of Money, of M[ess]rs. Fizeau and Grand, &c., for the Purpose of assisting our Countrymen who escape from Prison, I should esteem myself honoured by this Trust, for none of my Time, is spent with more Pleasure than that which is devoted to the Consolation of these Prisoners.—The Masters of Vessels have hitherto been very good in giving Passages, and We have made various shifts to dispose of such as have been here, and have succeeded so as to give tolerable Satisfaction but we should do much better if We had a little more Money.
“I have often told your Excellency, that the House of De Neufville & son had received a few thousand Guilders, upon the Loan Opened by me in behalf of the United States.—I have not yet touched this Money, because I thought it should He, to answer Bills of Exchange upon the Draughts of Congress: But as there is so little, if your Excellency would advise me to it, I would devote it to lie for the Benefit of the poor Prisoners, and would make it go as far, in relieving their distresses as I could.” (LbC in JA’s hand, Adams Papers; RC in John Thaxter’s hand, PPAmP.)
4. This American mercantile firm in Amsterdam had originated earlier this year as Sigourney, Ingraham & Bromfield; see JA, Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 2:453–454 and passim.