Abigail Adams: Two Letters

▪ Primary Source
      Although Abigail Adams had little formal education, she was intelligent and broad-minded and became a terse and vigorous letter writer. That she was concerned with the growth of the new republic can be seen in her numerous letters to her husband, John Adams. In the first letter, written November 27, 1775, she expresses her doubts about the ability of the Americans to form a viable government.

      A much different spirit pervades the second letter, written some 29 years later. Following John Adams's defeat in the presidential elections of 1800, the Adamses retired to "Quincy," their Massachusetts farm. Like her husband, Mrs. Adams was a thoroughgoing Federalist, and she continued to be disturbed by the attacks on his administration, many of which she considered unfounded. In 1804 she wrote to Thomas Jefferson on the death of his daughter, of whom she had been fond in former days; but her letter, while full of what the president called "the tenderest expressions of concern at the event," carefully avoided any overtures of friendship toward him. In reply, Jefferson expressed his appreciation for her concern and went on to mention the strained relations between himself and her husband. In a further letter of July 1, 1804, which is reprinted here, Mrs. Adams took the opportunity to defend ex-president Adams's last-minute or "midnight" appointments, which had come under fire by the Republicans. Jefferson and Adams did not become epistolary friends again for another nine years.

      The source of the following documents is Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, ed., 4th edition, 1848.

      Colonel Warren returned last week to Plymouth, so that I shall not hear anything from you until he goes back again, which will not be till the last of this month. He damped my spirits greatly by telling me that the court had prolonged your stay another month. I was pleasing myself with the thought that you would soon be upon your return. It is in vain to repine. I hope the public will reap what I sacrifice.

      I wish I knew what mighty things were fabricating. If a form of government is to be established here, what one will be assumed? Will it be left to our assemblies to choose one? And will not many men have many minds? And shall we not run into dissensions among ourselves?

      I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature; and that power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and, like the grave, cries "Give, give." The great fish swallow up the small; and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but, at the same time, lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.

      The building up a great empire, which was only hinted at by my correspondent, may now, I suppose, be realized even by the unbelievers. Yet, will not ten thousand difficulties arise in the formation of it? The reins of government have been so long slackened that I fear the people will not quietly submit to those restraints which are necessary for the peace and security of the community. If we separate from Britain, what code of laws will be established? How shall we be governed so as to retain our liberties? Can any government be free which is not administered by general stated laws? Who shall frame these laws? Who will give them force and energy? It is true your resolutions, as a body, have hitherto had the force of laws; but will they continue to have?

      When I consider these things, and the prejudices of people in favor of ancient customs and regulations, I feel anxious for the fate of our monarchy or democracy, or whatever is to take place. I soon get lost in a labyrinth of perplexities; but, whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the stability of our times, and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted by patience and perseverance.

      I believe I have tired you with politics. As to news, we have not any at all. I shudder at the approach of winter, when I think I am to remain desolate.

      I must bid you good night; 'tis late for me, who am much of an invalid. I was disappointed last week in receiving a packet by the post, and, upon unsealing it, finding only four newspapers. I think you are more cautious than you need be. All letters, I believe, have come safe to hand. I have sixteen from you, and wish I had as many more.

      Your letter of June 13 came duly to hand. If it had contained no other sentiments and opinions than those which my letter of condolence could have excited, and which are expressed in the first page of your reply, our correspondence would have terminated here. But you have been pleased to enter upon some subjects which call for a reply; and as you observe that you have wished for an opportunity to express your sentiments, I have given them every weight they claim.

      "One act of Mr. Adams' life, and one only (you repeat) ever gave me a moment's personal displeasure. I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind; they were from my most ardent political enemies."

      As this act, I am certain, was not intended to give any personal pain or offense, I think it a duty to explain it, so far as I then knew his views and designs. The Constitution empowers the President to fill up offices as they become vacant. It was in the exercise of this power that appointments were made, and characters selected whom Mr. Adams considered as men faithful to the Constitution, and, where he personally knew them, such as were capable of fulfilling their duty to their country. This was done equally by General Washington in the last days of his administration, so that not an office remained vacant for his successor to fill upon his coming into office. No offense was given by it and no personal unkindness thought of.

      But the different political opinions which have so unhappily divided our country must have given rise to the idea that personal unkindness was intended. You will please to recollect, sir, that at the time these appointments were made, there was not any certainty that the presidency would devolve upon you, which is another circumstance to prove that no personal unkindness was intended. No person, I am sure, was ever selected from such a motive, and so far was Mr. Adams from harboring such a sentiment that he had not any idea of the intolerance of a party spirit at that time. I know it was his opinion that if the presidency devolved upon you, except in the appointment of secretaries, no material change would be made.

      I perfectly agree with you in opinion that those should be men in whom the President can repose confidence, possessing opinions and sentiments corresponding with his own; or if differing with him, that they ought rather to resign their offices than to cabal against measures which he may consider essential to the honor, safety, and peace of the country. Neither ought they to unite with any bold and daringly ambitious character to overrule the cabinet or to betray the secrets of it to friends or enemies. The two gentlemen who held the offices of secretaries, when you became President, were not of this character. They were persons appointed by your predecessor nearly two years previous to his retirement. They had cordially cooperated with him, and were gentlemen who enjoyed the public confidence. Possessing, however, different political sentiments from those which you were known to have embraced, it was expected that they would, as they did, resign.

      I have never felt any enmity toward you, sir, for being elected President of the United States. But the instruments made use of and the means which were practised to effect a change have my utter abhorrence and detestation, for they were the blackest calumny and the foulest falsehoods. I had witnessed enough of the anxiety and solicitude, the envy, jealousy, and reproach attendant upon the office, as well as the high responsibility of the station, to be perfectly willing to see a transfer of it; and I can truly say that at the time of election, I considered your pretensions much superior to his who shared an equal vote with you. Your experience, I dare venture to affirm, has convinced you that it is not a station to be envied. If you feel yourself a freeman, and can conduct, in all cases, according to your own sentiments, opinions, and judgment, you can do more than either of your predecessors could, and are awfully responsible to God and your country for the measures of your administration.

      I must rely upon the friendship you still profess to entertain for me (and I am conscious I have done nothing to forfeit it) to excuse the freedom of this discussion, to which you have led with an unreserve, which has taken off the shackles I should, otherwise, have found myself embarrassed with. And, now, sir, I will freely disclose to you what has severed the bonds of former friendship, and placed you in a light very different from what some viewed you in.

      One of the first acts of your administration was to liberate a wretch who was suffering the just punishment of his crimes for publishing the basest libel, the lowest and vilest slander which malice could invent or calumny exhibit, against the character and reputation of your predecessor; of him for whom you professed a friendship and esteem, and whom you certainly knew incapable of such complicated baseness. The remission of Callender's fine was a public approbation of his conduct. If abandoned characters do not excite abhorrence, is not the last restraint of vice, a sense of shame, rendered abortive? If the chief magistrate of a nation, whose elevated station places him in a conspicuous light and renders his every action a concern of general importance, permits his public conduct to be influenced by private resentment, and so far forgets what is due to his character as to give countenance to a base calumniator, is he not answerable for the influence which his example has upon the manners and morals of the community?

      Until I read Callender's seventh letter containing your compliment to him as a writer and your reward of $50, I could not be made to believe that such measures could have been resorted to, to stab the fair fame and upright intentions of one who, to use your own language, "was acting from an honest conviction in his own mind that he was right." This, sir, I considered as a personal injury; this was the sword that cut asunder the Gordian knot, which could not be untied by all the efforts of party spirit, by rivalry, by jealousy, or any other malignant fiend.

      The serpent you cherished and warmed bit the hand that nourished him, and gave you sufficient specimens of his talents, his gratitude, his justice, and his truth. When such vipers are let loose upon society, all distinction between virtue and vice is leveled; all respect for character is lost in the deluge of calumny; that respect which is a necessary bond in the social union, which gives efficacy to laws, and teaches the subject to obey the magistrate, and the child to submit to the parent. . . .

      This letter is written in confidence. Faithful are the wounds of a friend. Often have I wished to have seen a different course pursued by you. I bear no malice. I cherish no enmity. I would not retaliate if it was in my power; nay, more, in the true spirit of Christian charity, I would forgive as I hope to be forgiven.

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

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