Abigail Adams to John Adams
December 23. 1782
My dearest Friend
I have omited writing by the last opportunity to Holland; because I had but small Faith in the designs of the owners or passengers. The vessel sails from Nantucket, Dr. Winship1 is a passenger, a Mr. Gray and some others—and I had just written you so largely by a vessel bound to France, the General Galvaye,2 that I had nothing New to say. There are few occurences in this Northen climate at this Season of the year to divert or entertain you—and in the domestick way should I draw you the picture of my Heart, it would be what I hope you still would Love; tho it containd nothing New; the early possession you obtained there; and the absolute power you have ever mantaind over it; leaves not the smallest space unoccupied. I look back to the early days of our acquaintance; and Friendship, as to the days of Love and Innocence; and with an undiscribable pleasure I have seen near a score of years roll over our Heads, with an affection heightned and improved by time—nor have the dreary years of absence in the smallest degree effaced from my mind the Image of the dear untittled man to whom I gave my Heart. I cannot sometimes refrain considering the Honours with which he is invested as badges of my unhappiness. The unbounded confidence I have in your attachment to me, and the dear pledges of our affection, has soothed the solitary hour, and renderd your absence more supportable; for had I have loved you with the same affection, it must have been misiry to have doubted. Yet a cruel world too often injures my feelings, by wondering how a person possesst of domestick attachments can sacrifice them by absenting himself for years.
If you had known said a person to me the other day; that Mr. A[dam]s would have remained so long abroad; would you have consented that he should have gone? I recollected myself a moment, and then spoke the real dictates of my Heart. If I had known Sir that Mr. A. could have affected what he has done; I would not only have submitted to the absence I have endured; painfull as it has been; but I would not have opposed it, even tho 3 years more should be added to the Number, which Heaven avert! I feel a pleasure in being able to sacrifice my selfish passions to the general good, and in imitating the example which has taught me to consider myself and family, but as the small dust of the balance when compaired with the great community.
Your daughter most sincerely regreets your absence,3 she sees me support it, yet thinks she could not imitate either parent in the disinterested motives which actuate them. She has had a strong desire to encounter the dangers of the sea to visit you. I however am not without a suspicion that she may loose her realish for a voyage by spring. The tranquility of mine and my dear sisters family is in a great measure restored to us, since the recovery of our worthy Friend and Brother. We had a most melancholy summer. The young folks of the two families together with those of Col. Q[uinc]ys and General W[arre]n preserve a great Intimacy, and as they wish for but few connections in the Beau Mond, it is not to be wonderd at that they are fond of each others company. We have an agreable young Gentleman by the Name of Robbins who keeps our little school, son to the Revd. Mr. Robbins of Plimouth. And we have in the little circle an other gentleman who has opend an office in Town, for about nine months past, and boarded in Mr. Cranch[’s] family. His Father you knew. His Name is Tyler,4 he studied Law upon his comeing out of colledge with Mr. Dana, but when Mr. Dana went to congress he finished his studies with Mr. Anger.5 Loosing his Father young and having a very pretty patrimony left him, <
inheriting> possessing a sprightly fancy a warm imagination and an agreable person, he was rather negligent in persueing his buisness in the way of his profession; and dissipated two or 3 years of his Life and too much of his fortune for to reflect upon with pleasure; all of which he now laments but cannot recall. At 23 the time when he took the resolution of comeing to B[osto]n and withdrawing from a too numerous acquaintance; he resolved to persue his studies; and his Buisness; and save his remaining fortune which sufferd much more from the paper currency than any other cause; so that out of 17 thousand pounds which fell to his share; he cannot now realize more than half that sum; as he told me a few days past. His Mamma is in possession of a large Estate and he is a very favorite child. When he proposed comeing to settle here he met with but little encouragement, but he was determined upon the trial. He has succeeded beyond expectation, he has popular talants, and as his behaviour has been unexceptionable since his residence in Town; in concequence of which his Buisness daily increases—he cannot fail making a distinguished figure in his profession if he steadily persues it. I am not acquainted with any young Gentleman whose attainments in literature are equal to his, who judges with greater accuracy or discovers a more delicate and refined taste. I have frequently looked upon him with the Idea that You would have taken much pleasure in such a pupil. I wish I was as well assured that you would be equally pleased with him in an other character, for such I apprehend are his distant hopes. I early saw that he was possest with powerfull attractions, and as he obtaind and deserved, I believe the character of a gay; tho not a criminal youth, I thought it prudent to keep as great a reserve as possible. In this I was seconded by the discreet conduct of a daughter, who is happy in not possessing all her Mothers sensibility. Yet I see a growing attachment in him stimulated by that very reserve. I feel the want of your presence and advise. I think I know your sentiments so well that the merit of a gentleman will be your first consideration, and I have made every inquiry which I could with decency; and without discloseing my motives. Even in his most dissipated state he always applied his mornings to study; by which means he has stored his mind with a fund of usefull knowledge. I know not a young fellow upon the stage whose language is so pure—or whose natural disposition is more agreable. His days are devoted to his office, his Evenings of late to my fire side. His attachment is too obvious to escape notice. I do not think the Lady wholy indifferent; yet her reserve and apparent coldness is such that I know he is in misirable doubt. Some conversation one Evening of late took place which led me to write him a Billet6 and tell him, that at least it admitted a possibility that I might quit this country in the Spring; that I never would go abroad without my daughter, and if I did go, I wished to carry her with a mind unattached, besides I could have but one voice; and for that I held myself accountable to you; that he was not yet Established in Buisness sufficient to think of a connection with any one;—to which I received this answer—
I have made an exertion to answer your Billet. I can only say that the second impulse in my Breast is my Love and respect for you; and it is the foible of my nature to be the machine of those I Love and venerate. Do with me as seemeth good unto thee. I can safely trust my dearest fondest wishes and persuits in the hands of a Friend that can feel, that knows my situation and her designs. If reason pleads against me, you will do well to hestitate. If Friendship and reason unite I shall be happy—only say I shall be happy when I deserve; and it shall be my every exertion to augment my merit, and this you may be assured of, whether I am blessed in my wishes or not, I will endeavour to be a character that you shall not Blush once to have entertaind an Esteem for. Yours respectfully &c.
What ought I to say? I feel too powerful a pleader within my own heart and too well recollect the Love I bore to the object of my early affections to forbid him to hope. I feel a regard for him upon an account you will smile at, I fancy I see in him Sentiments opinions and actions which endeared to me the best of Friends. Suffer me to draw you from the depths of politicks to endearing family scenes. I know you cannot fail being peculiarly interested in the present. I inclose you a little paper7 which tho trifling in itself, may serve to shew you the truth of my observations. The other day the gentleman I have been speaking of; had a difficult writ to draw. He requested the favour of looking into your Book of forms, which I readily granted; in the Evening when he returned me the key he put in to my hands a paper which I could not tell what to make of; untill he exclaimed “O! Madam Madam, I have new hopes that I shall one day become worthy your regard. What a picture have I caught of my own Heart, my resolutions, my designs! I could not refrain breaking out into a Rhapsody. I found this coppy of a Letter in a pamphlet with observations upon the study of the Law and many excellent remarks;8 you will I hope forgive the theft, when I deliver the paper to you; and you find how much benifit I shall derive from it.”
I daily see that he will win the affections of a fine Majestick Girl who has as much dignity as a princess. She is handsome, but not Beautifull. No air of levity ever accompanies either her words or actions. Should she be caught by a tender passion, sufficient to remove a little of her natural reserve and soften her form and manners, she will be a still more pleasing character. Her mind is daily improveing, and she gathers new taste for literature perhaps for its appearing in a more pleasing form to her. If I can procure a little ode which accompanied an ice Heart I will inclose it to you.9
It is now my dear Friend a long long time since I had a line from you. The Fate of Gibralter leads me to fear that a peace is far distant, and that I shall not see you—God only knows when; I shall say little about my former request, not that my desire is less, but before this can reach you tis probable I may receive your opinion. If in favour of my comeing to you; I shall have no occasion to urge it further, if against it, I would not embarrass you; by again requesting it. I will endeavour to set down and consider it as the portion alloted me. My dear sons are well their application and improvements go hand in hand. Our Friends all desire to be rememberd. The Fleet of our allies expect to sail daily but where destined we know not;10 a great harmony has subsisted between them and the Americans ever since their residence here. I wish to write to Mr. T[haxte]r but fear I shall not have time. Mrs. D[an]a and children are well. The judge11 has been very sick of a fever but I believe is better. This Letter is to go by the Iris which sails with the Fleet. I hope it will reach you in safety. If it should fall into the hands of an Enemy, I hope they will be kind enough to distroy it; as I would not wish to see such a family picture in print; adieu my dear Friend. Why is it that I hear so seldom from my dear John; but one Letter have I ever received from him since he arrived in Petersburgh?12 I wrote him by the last oppertunity. Ever remember me as I do you; with all the tenderness which it is possible for one object to feel for an other; which no time can obliterate no distance alter, but which is always the same in the Bosom of
RC (Adams Papers); addressed by Royall Tyler: “His Excellency John Adams Esqr. American Minister <
at the Hague>”; in a different hand: “à Paris”; notation by Tyler: “To be sunk in Case of Capture”; postmarked: “Nantes”; endorsed: “Portia. Dec. 23. 1782.”
1. AA had every reason to be suspicious of Dr. Amos Windship, who had, several years earlier, improperly moved into the Adams’ house in Boston and then resisted vacating it when the proper renter sought possession. See vol. 2:187–188, 3:208, note 3; and Sibley’s Harvard Graduates description begins John Langdon Sibley and Clifford K. Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge and Boston, 1873–. description ends , 17:673–679, for the knavery that marked Windship’s career. CFA omitted the first part of this sentence, up to “and some others,” from AA, Letters, 1840 description begins Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams. With an Introductory Memoir by Her Grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1840. description ends , and from 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 .
2. Presumably AA to JA, 13 Nov., and possibly AA to JA, 25 Oct., both above, since JA received and replied to both on the same day, 29 Jan. 1783, below. The October and November letters reached JA one week after he received this December letter (see JA to AA, 22 Jan., below).
3. CFA omitted the entire text from this sentence to footnote 9—everything relating to Royall Tyler—from AA, Letters, 1840 description begins Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams. With an Introductory Memoir by Her Grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1840. description ends , and from 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 .
4. This letter begins the historical record of Royall Tyler’s long and ultimately futile courtship of AA2. Almost everything known about this romance appears both in long passages and oblique references scattered through the letters that are or will be published in the Adams Family Correspondence, extending from 1782 to early 1786, and concluding just beyond the boundary of the present volumes. Taken together, this evidence is extensive, but remarkably indirect. Nearly every statement of AA2’s feelings toward Tyler is by AA, and most personal assessments of Tyler in this period are by either AA or Mary Cranch. Only one brief letter from AA2 to Tyler (, below) survives, and that only in a printed and possibly abridged form. No extant letters from Tyler to AA2 are known to the editors, although several survive from Tyler to either AA or JA (all printed below). Finally, only one direct expression of AA2’s opinion of Tyler, her first and perhaps most negative one, preceding Tyler’s courtship of her, has survived (AA2 to Elizabeth Cranch, June 1782, vol. 4:335–336, and note 5.)
From this unsatisfactory evidence, a rather curious tale emerges. Royall Tyler (1757–1826), Harvard 1776, author of The Contrast (1787)—said to be the first play by an American produced on the American stage (in which certain characters drawn on the Adamses appear in a rather negative light)—and later chief justice of the supreme court of Vermont, came to Braintree about April 1782 to start his law practice. He took a room in the home of Richard and Mary Cranch. At first viewed with distrust by both AA and AA2 (vol. 4:335), Tyler began his courtship of AA2 sometime between June and December, and quickly charmed the mother, and more gradually the daughter. His suit was initially opposed by JA with as much passion as he had expressed on any occasion (JA to AA, 22 Jan. 1783, below), but eventually JA, too, came around. In early 1784, Tyler evidently reached an understanding with AA2, with the approval of her parents, that she would marry him upon the Adams’ return from Europe. According to AA and Mary Cranch, however, between June 1784 and August 1785 Tyler was either too lazy or too perverse to write AA2 regularly, and too dishonest to admit his error, and in August AA2 summarily dismissed him (AA2 to Tyler, , below). Later justifications of her own role in the affair by Mary Cranch, and of AA2’s conduct by AA, which add considerable detail to the story, ran into 1786.
What is most striking from this lopsided record is the active role of AA in this first courtship of her daughter, and the apparent passivity of AA2, and perhaps also, after his first outburst, of JA. Recent interpretive treatments include those of Paul C. Nagel, in Descent from Glory, N.Y., 1983, and The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters, N.Y., 1987; and Richard Alan Ryerson, “The Limits of a Vicarious Life: Abigail Adams and Her Daughter,” MHS, Procs. description begins Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections and Proceedings. description ends , 100 (1988):1–14. See also JA, Earliest Diary description begins The Earliest Diary of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1966. description ends , p. 18–30.
6. Not found.
11. Edmund Trowbridge, uncle of Francis Dana, would live until 1793. Dana was Trowbridge’s heir, and Elizabeth Ellery Dana and her two young sons lived with the judge while Dana was abroad (Sibley’s Harvard Graduates description begins John Langdon Sibley and Clifford K. Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge and Boston, 1873–. description ends , 8:519). CFA omitted the text from “I wish to write to Mr. T[haxte]r” through “I would not wish to see such a family picture in print” from AA, Letters, 1840 description begins Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams. With an Introductory Memoir by Her Grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1840. description ends . In later editions published in 1841 and 1848, and in 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 , he included the sentences: “This Letter is to go by the Iris which sails with the Fleet. I hope it will reach you in safety,” but omitted the rest of the material that he omitted in 1840.