Abigail Adams to Mercy Otis Warren
Auteuil near Paris
September 5th. 1784
Although I have not yet written to you, be assured Madam, you have been the subject of some of my most pleasing thoughts: the sweet communion we have often had together, and the pleasant Hours I have past both at Milton, and Braintree I have not realized in Europe; I visit, and am visited; but not being able to converse in the language of the Country, I can only silently observe Manners and Men. I have been here so little while that it would be improper for me to pass Sentence, or form judgments of a People from a converse of so short duration. This I may however say with truth that their Manners are totally different from those of our own Country. If you ask me what is the Business of Life here? I answer Pleasure. The Beau Monde you reply. Ay1 Madam from the Throne to the footstool it is the Science of every Being in Paris, and its environs. It is a matter of great Speculation to me, when these People labour. I am persuaded the greater part of these people, who crowd the Streets, the publick walks, the Theatres, the Spectacles as they term them, must subsist upon Bread and Water. In London the Streets are also full of People, but their Dress, their Gait, every appearance indicates Business, except upon Sundays, when every Person, devotes the Day, either at Church or in walking, as is most agreeable to his fancy: but here from the gayety of the Dress, and the Places they frequent I judge Pleasure is the Business of Life. We have no days with us, or rather in our Country by which I can give you an Idea of the Sabbath here; except Commencement and Election. Paris upon that Day pours forth all her Citizens into the environs for the purposes of recreation; we have a Beautiful wood, cut into walks, within a few rods of our dwelling, which upon this Day, resounds with Musick and Dancing, jollity and Mirth of every kind. In this Wood Booths are erected, where cake, fruit, and wine are sold. Here Milliners repair with their gauzes ribbons and many other articles in the pedling Stile, but for other purposes I imagine, than the mere sale of their Merchandize, but every thing here is a subject of merchandize.
I believe this Nation is the only one in the world who could make Pleasure the Business of Life, and yet retain such a relish for it, as never to complain of its being tasteless or insipid; the Parisians seem to have exhausted Nature, and Art in this Science; and to be triste is a complaint of a most serious Nature.
What Idea my dear Madam can you form of the Manners of a Nation one city of which furnishes (Blush o, my sex when I name it) 52,000 unmarried females so lost to a Sense of Honour, and shame as publickly to enrole their Names in a Notary Office for the most abandoned purposes and to commit iniquity with impunity: thousands of these miserable wretches perish, annually with Disease and Poverty, whilst the most sacred of institutions is prostituted to unite titles and Estates.2 In the family of Monsieur Grand, who is a Protestant I have seen a Decorum and Decency of Manners, a conjugal and family affection, which are rarely found, where seperate apartments, seperate Pleasures and amusements shew the world that Nothing but the Name is united. But whilst absolutions are held in estimation and Pleasure can be bought and sold, what restraint have mankind upon their Appetites and Passions? There are few of them left in a Neighbouring Country amongst the Beau Monde, even where dispensations are not practised. Which of the two Countries can you form the most favourable opinion of, and which is the least pernicious to the morals? That where vice is Licenced: or where it is suffered to walk at large soliciting the unwary, and unguarded as it is to a most astonishing height in the Streets of London and where virtuous females are frequently subject to insult. In Paris no such thing happens, but the greatest Decency and Respect is shown by all orders to the female Character. The Stage is in London made use of as a vehicle to corrupt the Morals. In Paris no such thing is permitted, they are too Polite to wound the Ear. In one Country, vice is like a ferocious Beast, seeking whom it may devour: in the other like a subtle Poison secretly penetrating and working destruction. In one Country you cannot travel a mile without danger to your person and Property yet Publick executions abound; in the other your person and property are safe; executions are Rare. But in a Lawful way, Beware for with whomsoever you have to deal, you may rely upon an attempt to over reach you. In the Graces of motion and action this People shine unrivalled. The Theatres exhibit to me the most pleasing amusement I have yet found; the little knowledge I have of the Language, enables me to judge here, and the actions to quote, an old phrase, speak louder than words. I was the other Evening at what is called the French Theatre (to distinguish it from several others) it being the only one upon which tragedies are acted, here I saw a piece of the celebrated Racine, a sacred Drama called Athalia.3 The dresses were superb, the House Elegant and Beautiful, the Actors beyond the reach of my pen. The Character of the high-Priest admirably well supported. And Athalia, would have shone as Sophonisba,4 or Lady Macbeth: if the term shine, may be applied to a Character full of Cruelty and Horrour. To these publick Spectacles (and to every other amusement) you may go, with perfect security to your Person, and property; Decency and good order, are preserved, yet are they equally crowded with those of London, but in London, at going in and coming out of the Theatre, you find yourself in a Mob: and are every Moment in Danger of being robbed; in short the term John Bull, which Swift formerly gave to the English Nation,5 is still very applicable to their Manners; the cleanliness of Britain joined to the civility and politeness of France, would make a most agreeable assemblage: you will smile at my Choice, but as I am like to reside sometime in this Country, why should I not wish them the article in which they are most deficient.
It is the established Custom of this Country for Strangers to make the first visit; not speaking the Language, lays me under embarassments, for to visit a Lady, merely to bow to her, is painful especially where they are so fond of conversing, as the Ladies here generally are, so that my female acquaintance is rather confined as yet, and my residence 4 miles from Paris will make it still more so. There are four American Ladies who have visited, me, Mrs. Barclay with whom I have a Friendship, and whom I can call upon at all times without Ceremony, and who is an excellent Lady, a Mrs. Price, a canadian Lady,6 Mrs. Valnais, and Mrs. Bingham. Mrs. Bingham is a very young Lady, not more than 20, very agreeable, and very handsome: rather too much given to the foibles of the Country for the mother of two Children, which she already is.7
As to politicks, Madam, the world is at Peace, and I have wholly done with them. Your good Husband, and mine would speculate upon treaties of Commerce, could they spend their Evenings together as I sincerely wish they could or upon what they love better, agriculture, and Husbandry; which is become full as necessary for our Country. This same surly John Bull is kicking up the Dust and growling, looking upon the fat pastures he has lost, with a malicious and envious Eye, and though he is offered admission upon Decent Terms, he is so mortified and stomachful,8 that although he longs for a morcel, he has not yet agreed for a single Bite.
This Village of Auteuil, where we reside is 4 miles from Paris, and 1. from Passy, a very pretty Summer retreat, but not so well calculated for Winter: I fear it will prove as cold as Milton Hill; if I was to judge of the Winters here by what I have experienced of the fall I should think they were equally severe, as with us. We begin already to find fires necessary.9
During the little time I was in England, I saw more of the curiosities of London, than I have yet seen of Paris so that I am not able to give you any account of any publick Buildings or amusements, except the Theatres of which I shall grow very fond, as soon, as I am mistress enough of the Language to comprehend all the Beauties of it. There are 3. theatres in Paris constantly open, but that upon which tragedies are acted is the most pleasing to me. Corneille, Racine, Crebillon and Moliere are very frequently given here upon the Stage. The best pronuntiation is to be acquired. There is a Mrs. Siddons in London, who is said to be the female Garrick of the present day. I had not the happiness to see her when I was in London, as she was then in Ireland, but I saw no actors upon their Stage, which by any means equal those which I have met with here: The People of this Country, keep up their intercourse, with each other by dining together after which they repair to the Theatres and to the publick walks.
I sigh10 (though not allow’d) for my social tea parties which I left in America, and the friendship of my chosen few, and their agreeable converse would be a rich repast to me, could I transplant them round me in the Village of Auteuil, with my habits, tastes and Sentiments, which are too firmly rivetted to change with change of Country or Climate, and at my age the greatest of my enjoyments consisted in the reciprocation of Friendship.11
How is my good friend Charles? Finely recovered I hope.12 I do not despair of seeing him here, and at this house he may be assured of a welcome whenever he wishes to try the air of France. Gay Harry, has he got any more flesh and Health? Grave Mr. George is well I hope, and fixed in some business to his mind. Let not my esteemed Friend the eldest of the Brothers,13 think I have forgotten or neglected him by naming him last. His tenderness for his Brothers, and his better Health will excuse me, if I have been guilty of a breach of order. He will accept my good wishes for his Health and Prosperity without regard to place.14
Shall I ask General Warren how farming and Husbandry flourish; I thought often of him, and the delight he would have received in a Journey from Deal to London. The rich variety of grass and Grain, with which that Country was loaded as I rode through it, exhibited a prospect of the highest cultivation. All Nature look’d like a Garden; the Villages around Paris are pleasant, but neither the Land, nor the cultivation equal a neighbouring Nation.
When you see our good Friend Madam Winthrop, be pleased to make my regards to her; you will also remember me to your Neighbours at the foot of the Hill, and let me hear from you, by every opportunity, as the correspondence of my Friends is the only compensation I can receive for the loss of their Society.
Is Polly married? Happiness attend her and her partner if she is. To Mr. and Mrs. Otis, to one and all of my dear Friends be kind enough to remember me; the truth of one Maxim of Rochefoucault I experience, “that absence heightens rather than diminishes those affections which are strong and Sincere.”
You will see, my dear Madam, by the date of the above,15 that my Letter has lain by long, waiting a private conveyance. Mr. Tracy and Mr. Jackson, design to return to London this week and I shall request the favour of them to take charge of it. Since it was written there have been some changes in the political world, and the Emperor16 has recalled his Ambassador from the United Provinces. Every thing seems to wear an Hostile Appearance. The Dutch are not in the least intimidated but are determined at all events to refuse the opening of the17 Scheld to the Emperor. This Court is endeavouring to Mediate between the Emperor and the Dutch. When the affair was to be debated in the Kings Counsel18 the Queen said to the Count de Vergennes, “M. le Comte, you must remember that the Emperor is my brother.” “I certainly shall Madam,” replied the Count, “but your Majesty will remember that you are Queen of France.”19
Thus much for Politicks. You ask about treaties of Commerce. Courts like Ladies, stand upon Punctilio’s and chuse to be address’d upon their own ground. I am, not at Liberty to say more.20
This is the 12th. of December, and we have got an American Snow Storm, the climate is not so pleasant as I expected to find it; I love the cheerful Sun shine of America, and the Clear blue Sky.
Adieu my dear Madam, I have so much writing to do, that I am, tho unwillingly obliged to close requesting my Son to copy for me. You will not fail writing soon to your Friend and humble Servant.
RC in JQA’s hand (MHi: Warren Papers); docketed: “Mrs Abigail Adams Sepr 5 & Decr 12th 1784 No. 15.” Dft (Adams Papers); docketed by CFA: “To Mrs. James Warren. Sept. 1784.” Important variants in the draft are noted below, but JQA’s occasional corrections of AA’s spelling, mostly of French proper names, have not been marked.
1. AA’s characteristic “Aya” appears in the draft.
2. This long sentence is omitted from AA, Letters, ed. CFA, 1848 description begins Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams. With an Introductory Memoir by Her Grandson, Charles Francis Adams, 4th edn., rev. and enl., Boston, 1848. description ends .
3. Racine’s Athalie (1691) was performed at “the French Comedy,” also called “the French Theatre.” AA may have seen this play with AA2, who saw it on either 6 or 13 Sept. (JQA to Charles Storer, 16 Sept., Adams Papers).
4. Sophonisba, daughter of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal, committed suicide to escape capture by the Romans. She was the subject of several English tragedies, most recently (1730) by James Thomson, one of AA’s favorite authors (The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Sir Paul Harvey, Oxford, 1932).
5. The History of John Bull (1712) was actually the creation of John Arbuthnot; it was republished in Pope and Swift’s Miscellanies in 1727 (same).
6. JA had known a Mr. and Mrs. Price in Paris since Nov. 1782 (Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:46), and John Thaxter records meeting a Mrs. Price about the same time (Thaxter to AA, 19 Nov. 1782, above). Mr. Price may have been the Montreal merchant, mentioned by JA in 1775 (JA, Papers description begins Papers of John Adams, ed. Robert J. Taylor, Gregg L. Lint (from vol. 6), and others, Cambridge, 1977-. description ends , 3:17, and note 2), who was a business partner of John Bondfield, also a Canadian, in 1778–1779 (same, 7:203, note 1, 374).
7. Anne Willing, daughter of the prominent Philadelphia merchant and banker Thomas Willing, married William Bingham in 1780, shortly after her sixteenth birthday (Notable American Women description begins Edward T. James and Janet Wilson James, eds., Notable American Women, 1607–1950, Cambridge, 1971; 3 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–1936; 20 vols. plus index and supplements. description ends ). In the draft AA substituted the latter part of this sentence, after the colon (and writing “follies” rather than “foibles”) in place of the following crossed out passage: “as to Gentleman I see a variety of them, amongst the French Gentlemen who have visited here I have not been better pleased with any than Count Sarsfield, who is an elderly Gentleman of good Sense and probity. He speaks English, and has ever been a warm and steady Friend of Mr. Adamses.”
9. In the draft AA wrote, “we have kept fires for six Weeks.” If AA wrote this on 5 Sept., and not considerably later, she exaggerated—the Adamses had only been in France for about three weeks. But AA may well have written this passage many weeks after the opening of her letter, and she apparently completed the draft only in December (see notes 14 and 15).
10. In the draft this paragraph begins with the following crossed out passage: “Very few of them sup, nor have I ever been invited to spend an evening abroad since I have been in this country.”
11. In the draft this paragraph continues on: “<
I have been Surprized. I have the company and Society of my best Friend which largely compensates for the want of many others. I have a part of my family with me, but I see them sighing for the social intercourse of America and in the midst of the world in solitude, but thus it must be or give into pleasures and amusements> unbecoming the Characters of Republicans and of Americans and wholy unequal to our finances—which whatever our countrymen may think are wholy unequal to the manner of living which is required of  person in the publick Character in which they have placed my Friend. I dinned the other day at the table of a former Farmer General and at one dinner the equipage upon the table could not have been purchased for a whole Years american ministers sallery. There  American Gentlemen and their families now in Paris who live in a higher Stile and expend much more than is allowed to the American ministers. But why should I grumble. I would not, if they would let us live at Braintree in a private Character where an english Shilling would go farther than a Louidor here.” AA certainly intended to strike out the entire passage, but stopped at the bottom of the page. Compare her sentiment here with that in her letter to Mary Cranch, , and note 4, above.
12. Charles Warren had been ill with consumption for several months; he died near Cadiz, Spain, in 1785, while on a futile third journey to regain his health (AA to JA, 15 March, above; Alice Brown, Mercy Warren, N.Y., 1896, p. 256–257).
13. James Warren Jr.
14. This paragraph, the next three paragraphs, and the dateline, “December 12th,” do not appear in the draft, although the draft has a considerable amount of blank space following the long deleted passage in note 11. AA might have dictated these four paragraphs to JQA. All of the text following “December 12th,” however, is in the draft, with the exceptions noted below.
15. The draft has the more precise expression “the above date,” but no date actually appears; AA perhaps left this blank until the letter was ready to copy, and then did not bother to enter a date on the draft. The editors do not know of any letters written by AA between 9 Sept. and 2 Dec. 1784.
16. In the draft after “Emperor,” AA crossed out: “has declared War against the states.”
17. The phrase “opening of the” is not in the draft.
18. In the draft, AA began this sentence: “When the Count de Vergennes,” and then broke off, and proceeded to the next paragraph, “Thus much for Politicks.”
19. Quotation marks have been supplied before “I” and “but” in this passage. The Scheldt River and its major port, Antwerp, had been closed to shipping since the Dutch Republic had obtained control of the barrier fortresses at the river’s mouth under the terms of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. By closing the river the Dutch forestalled commercial competition from Antwerp and considerably lessened the value of the Austrian Netherlands to Austria. The Dutch ability to enforce the prohibition of navigation was considerably dependent on their treaties with Great Britain which required British aid if the Netherlands was attacked, but Britain’s suspension of those treaties in 1780 and the subsequent Anglo-Dutch war isolated the Netherlands and provided the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II, with an apparent opportunity to alter the status quo. He, therefore, opened a campaign of diplomatic and military intimidation that, by December 1784, seemed about to result in a major war. But Joseph relied too much on the existing Franco-Austrian alliance and the influence of his sister, Marie Antoinette, to force France to come to his aid, for while Louis XVI and Vergennes were willing to make some accommodations to the Austrian position and mediate a settlement, they were unwilling to ignore Dutch interests or, more importantly, their own in not having a strengthened Austrian presence on their northern border. The resulting Treaty of Fontainebleau of 8 Nov. 1785 thus included important Dutch concessions, but the Scheldt remained closed (Orville T. Murphy, Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes: French Diplomacy in the Age of Revolution, 1719–1787, Albany, 1982, p. 405–416). For the acrimonious exchanges between Marie Antoinette and Vergennes, including that quoted by AA but with Vergennes replying “I remember, Madame, but I recall, above all else, that Monseigneur le Dauphin is your son,” see p. 415–416.
20. See JQA to Richard Cranch, 6 Sept. (MeHi); AA to Mary Cranch, 9 Dec., under dateline 12 Dec., below; and JA to Cotton Tufts, 15 Dec. (Adams Papers).