Adams Papers

William Smith Shaw to Abigail Adams, 20 July 1798

William Smith Shaw to Abigail Adams

Atkinson July 20th 1798.

My dear aunt

O how happy should I be, were I to sit down to write you of my dear sisters better health, but alas I cannot. She fails every day & has now grown so weak that she is not able to wride out or even to come below stairs. She still keeps her usual flow of spirits, & sits “like patience on a monument, smiling” even tho in the arms of death.1 How miserable should I be, my aunt, in seeing my dear sister thus mouldering away, did I believe with the boasting modern philosophers, that after death, she would be consigned, like beasts, to eternal sleep and putrefaction. No, I firmly believe & have the strongest grounds for my belief, which afford consolations, neither few nor small, that she dies but to live forever—“that christianity will seat herself by her dying pillow, draw aside the curtains of eternity, point her closing eyes to the opening gates of everlasting life & convey her departing spirit in peace & transport to a state of perfect evergrowing knowledge, virtue, enjoyment, usefulness & glory:”2

I wrote to you in a letter which I hope you have received, that I should not be at commencement I found no difficulty in being excused. The president was so sick that his life was despaired of for more than a week Dr. Howard presided in his place com. day.3

The resolute conduct of the Americans, will I hope, prove to France & the world, what we ought to blush & be ashamed ever to have had doubted, that we are resolve’d on a continuance of our independance or death—that rather than be slaves to a foreign nation, we will all die, like Hanibal, by our hands. As for myself, I verily swear—I speak it with reverence, as being in the presence of my God— I solemnly swear, that the “impression of keen whips, I will wear as rubies, & strip myself to death as to a bed that longing I have been sick for,” ere I will writhe under the scourge of any foreign tyrant on earth.4

The excellent patriotick songs, from various parts of the US, serve to enkindle a glorious enthusiasm in every soul, in which there is a single spark of fire.5 Let me compose your songs & ballads (said a celebrated English patriot, I forget his name) & I dont care who makes your laws.6 Washingtons appointment, for I have no doubt but he will except, must electrify every bosom in his countrys cause. Under his banners, who can fight otherwise than valiantly? May the French have cause to say of our soldiers, as Tigranes the Persian exclaim’d of the Athenians, soon after the invasion of Xerxes Heavens! against whom have we come to contend? insensible to their own interest, they fight only for glory.7

I most ardently wished & fondly anticipated8 to have seen you long before this. I felt afraid that the extreme warm weather would make it sickly in P— that you may soon arrive at Q with health & happiness is the fond wish of your nephew / In great haste,

Wm S Shaw

your little grandsons are well

RC (Adams Papers); endorsed: “W s shaw August July / 20 1798.”

1Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act II, scene iv, lines 117–118.

2Timothy Dwight, The Nature, and Danger, of Infidel Philosophy, Exhibited in Two Discourses, Addressed to the Candidates for the Baccalaureate, in Yale College, New Haven, 1798, p. 91, Evans, description begins Charles Evans and others, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of All Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America [1639–1800], Chicago and Worcester, Mass., 1903–1959; 14 vols.; rev. edn., description ends No. 33657.

3Shaw’s letter has not been found. Rev. Joseph Willard remained dangerously ill for the rest of the summer. In his place, the Harvard College commencement was led by the senior clergyman of the Harvard Corporation and Willard’s close friend, Rev. Simeon Howard (1733–1804), for whom see vol. 7:466. The governor and lieutenant governor were escorted by cavalry to Cambridge for the ceremonies, which “were marked by that true spirit of federalism.” After dinner, “Adams and Liberty” and “Hail Columbia” were sung with enthusiasm (Boston Gazette, 23 July; Sidney Willard, Memories of Youth and Manhood, 2 vols., Cambridge, 1855, 2:4–5, 67–68; Sibley’s Harvard Graduates description begins John Langdon Sibley, Clifford K. Shipton, Conrad Edick Wright, Edward W. Hanson, and others, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge and Boston, 1873–. description ends , 14:279, 286, 288; New York Commercial Advertiser, 23 July).

4Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act II, scene iv, lines 101–103.

5In addition to “Hail Columbia” and “Adams and Liberty,” in the patriotic fervor of the spring and summer of 1798 a large number of songs were written that encouraged Americans to assert their rights against the French. These songs included “Washington and the Constitution,” a “Harvard Patriotic Ode,” “Washington and Independence,” “Portsmouth Federal Song,” and rewrites of “Yankee Doodle” (Philadelphia Gazette of the United States, 14 June; Boston Columbian Centinel, 30 June; New York Spectator, 28 July; Massachusetts Mercury, 31 July; Newport, R.I., Weekly Companion, 7 July; Alexandria Times, 10 July).

6Andrew Fletcher, An Account of a Conversation Concerning a Right Regulation of Governments for the Common Good of Mankind, Edinburgh, 1704, p. 10.

7John Gillies, The History of Ancient Greece, Its Colonies, and Conquests, 2 vols., London, 1786, 1:356.

8Shaw initially wrote the two italicized phrases in the reverse order but then numbered them “2” and “1” to identify his intended order.

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