Brendon DeMeo

December 3rd 2008

Main Source: The Massachusetts Historical Society – Adams Electronic Archive:
The Final Four Letters between John and Abigail Adams during the Adams Presidency:

Note: In order to reference the letters and attribute them correctly, I put the full names of the person writing the letter, and in Abigail Adams case, the number of the letter she wrote, starting with 1 for the first.

I chose the last four letters John and Abigail Adams wrote to each other during the Adam’s Presidency to examine and report on for my digital document project. I chose these because the letters offer a candid look into the lives of early American’s. They are personal, insightful, and perhaps romantic to a certain degree. I am very interested in politics and the political aspect of the letters intrigued me as well.

I found the document through Professor Bridget Marshall, my American Literature I professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. I first became interested in the Adams letters when studying them for class during October of 2008. Professor Marshall directed me to the Massachusetts Historical Society – Adams Electronic Archive at when I expressed interest in studying a few of the Adams letters for the digital document assignment.

The Massachusetts Historical Society website was very rich in information and easy to navigate, but had a plain and boring appearance. The website and letters were well organized, and the quality of the pictures of the original letters was high. I could print them and read them as if I had the originals in my hand. The site not only contained pictures of the original letters, but interpretations of their hand writing which I found very useful, my report wouldn’t be as good without them. I only wish they provided more information on what John and Abigail Adams were referring to in their letters.

The letters I’m reporting on were interesting in many ways. First, they revealed that the winner of the 1800 presidential election was put in power soon after the results of the election were revealed (Wikipedia). Both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, Democratic-Republican Party candidates, had more electoral votes than John Adams, a Federalist. According to C-SPAN’s website:

The tied election then went to the House of Representatives where each state had one vote. The sixteen states deadlocked through several ballots and over several days. Finally, after thirty-six rounds of ballots, and internal politicking by former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and others, Jefferson received ten votes, Burr received four (thus becoming the vice president), with two states abstaining (C-SPAN).

And we thought the election of 2000 was a mess. It is interesting to note that this is one cause of a duel between Burr and Hamilton in 1804 which lead to Hamilton’s death (EyeWitness). Besides the rather eventful election these four Adams letters were written around, the letters are interesting for other reasons. Three of the four letters were written by Abigail Adams. Abigail wrote the first letter, John wrote the second, and then Abigail wrote the final two. It is unknown why John did not respond to Abigail’s second letter in this set.
Besides being interesting, the document is important. It is important because it reveals the political process of The United States of America when it was still very new, and because it reveals the thoughts and feelings of the couple on the election. For example, John Adams accepted the results of the election in a gentlemanly manner, saying the results of the election were “…given out by good Authority” (John Adams). Abigail Adams on the other hand, reported on a woman who said “What an inconsistency… the Bells of Christ Church ringing for an Infidel President!” (Abigail Adams 3). Perhaps the woman said that because President Jefferson was a deist (Dulles). John Adams was a Unitarian though and was considered a deist as well, so I don’t really know why the word infidel was used (Adherents). There are many references to historical events in the letters, the election, to economic troubles facing the nation that Abigail Adams wrote about in her second letter.

The first letter was written by Abigail Adams and is dated February 13th 1801, in Baltimore. Written on paper turned brown and grey by time as all four of the letters are, her pen strokes were wide on both pages in her letter, but I was able to decipher her handwriting with much success as long as I read slowly. In the top left corner of the first page it said “To JA” in brackets, in what appeared to be pencil. In the upper right corner it had more penciled writings, the first saying “XXXI 239” and the second in green, which simply said “II 4574.” I was unable to figure out what the numbers and roman numerals meant, but my theory is that they are old postal markings of some sort or an address. There appeared to be “bleed-through” on the top of the page, which could be easily explained by the notion that the second page of the letter was actually penned on the top of the backside of the sheet of paper she used to write the first page of the letter, or because she wrote on two sheets of paper but the pages touched each other in some way for so long that bleed-through occurred.

John Adams wrote the second letter, and it is somewhat similar to the first one. It was dated February 16th 1801, in Washington (D.C). This one also had roman numerals penciled in, in the upper right hand corner, which read “XXX 278,” and under two illegible characters followed by the number 4580 in green writing. In the bottom left corner it appears to say “Mrs A,” most likely referring to his wife Abigail, in the same thin pen strokes John used to write the rest of the letter, so I’m pretty sure John wrote it. The document is in very good shape despite its age, but John’s handwriting is small and very hard to read. I could read parts of it, but I had to differ to the Massachusetts Historical Society’s translation.

Abigail wrote the third and fourth letters. The third is highly indecipherable, as the words, letters, and sentences are very close together. Perhaps Abigail was trying to conserve paper so she could write all she wanted to on one sheet; this would also explain the lack of paragraphs and indentation. There is heavy bleed-through, perhaps for the same reason there was bleed-through on her first letter, which is unbeknownst to me, although I have speculated. Her pen strokes are once again wide and elegant, the way her letters look are beautiful. It is dated February 19th 1801, in Philadelphia. There is a large black and grey blemish on the left side of the middle of the first page, which may be a burn mark or ink blot of some sort. There’s also one on the right side of the second page, which lends evidence to the letter being penned on both sides of one sheet of paper.

On the first page, in the upper right corner is “XXXI” and “241” in pencil, followed by “II 4582” in green. On the second page are no notable markings besides the aforementioned blemish, so I’ll move on to the fourth and final letter. Once again there is bleed-through like the first and third letters. It’s dated on the 21st of February, 1801, and written in Philadelphia once again. In this letter, the green markings come first in the upper right corner, and they say “II 4587” followed by “XXXI 240” in grey pencil as usual.

There is a circular chunk of paper missing on the middle-left of the page which is absent on the second page, so I don’t believe both sides of the letter were written on the same sheet. Other than this, there isn’t much to note about the appearance of this letter, besides a lot of crossed-out words near the end of the letter. Crossed out words aren’t uncommon in letters between John and Abigail Adams though, as my meager experience examining their letters has taught me, but the amount of crossed-out words on this page are the most in a row out of any of the four. They say “Pray tell all who inquire after me” (Abigail Adams 3).

I found it hard to pay attention when I was examining the appearance of the letters, because I got distracted by what the letters actually said. It’s hard to report on the contents of these four letters, because a lot was said and I can’t break them all down and quote them all in their entirety without going many pages overboard. So, I picked out the most interesting parts of each letter to discuss, which made me make many tough decisions. In order to study the contents of the letters I turned to the interpretations by the Massachusetts historical society.

The first letter, from Abigail to her husband John on February 13th 1801, started off with “My dearest Friend,” (Abigail Adams 1). In fact, the next two letters the couple exchanged after this one started with the same greeting, and the final letter started off with “My dear Sir” (Abigail Adams 3). Abigail told John she arrived, in some unmentioned location in Philadelphia, at about 6:30. She did not specify if it was in the morning or evening. She claimed to be “beat and bang’d enough” from the journey (Abigail Adams 1).
She then said that she didn’t “wish for the present, a severer punishment to the Jacobins and half-feds who have sent me home at this Season, than to travel the Roads in the San Culot Stile just now…” (Abigail Adams 1). I could not figure out what “San Culot Stile” was, all I discovered was that Culot was a French word which means “cheek” or “to bluff” (WordReference). It appears to be some form of insult, along with half-feds and of course, Jacobins.

Abigail went on to describe her journey and briefly mentioned that someone named Susan fell asleep on the floor as soon as she came inside from the journey. I could not discover who Susan was, but it was not one of their children. Abigail then said she hadn’t “lost (her) curiosity about the fate of the Election…” (Abigail Adams 1). It is obvious from this quote and other things she had said in other letters that she was deeply interested in politics, it’s too bad she wasn’t allowed to vote let alone seek office herself. She then told John her plans to rest for a day before continuing her journey which would require crossing the Susquehanna River, and that she hoped someone named Mr. Cranch would overtake her because she wanted “…Gentleman with…” her to help her travel the roads (Abigail Adams 1).

The sentence Abigail Adams ended the letter with is illegible according to the Mass. Historical Society. I couldn’t understand it either though; the final words are too blurred. Abigail concluded the letter by saying “Ever yours” and signed it with her initials. Three days later, on February 16th, John Adams wrote his reply. He started off the letter by saying that he received her letter from the 13th, and a letter for Thomas, who was most likely their youngest son, Thomas Boylston Adams.

John Adams revealed that he also wished Abigail had a gentleman with her, for help and protection (John Adams). I thought this was a bit funny because I believe most husbands would not want some other guy to be traveling with their wife, nor a wife want a woman traveling with her husband, but I guess people trusted each other a lot more then. John certainly trusted his wife, and Abigail obviously thought nothing of a man accompanying her for help and protection.

In this letter, John Adams revealed that Thomas Jefferson won the election, and then mentioned his duties before leaving office. They included nominating judges, consuls, and other officers, delivering over the furniture, and preparing for a 500 mile journey “through the mire” (John Adams). I thought it was interesting that the president nominated judges and such at the end of his presidency. All I could think of was George W. Bush and the trouble he had with the Democrats, who refused to even hold a vote for many of his nominees, because it shows how different things have become. It shows how political the courts have become over the years.
At the end of the letter, John Adams said “I give a feast today to Indian Kings and Aristocrats” (John Adams). I could not find information on this feast, but I know that aristocrat was sometimes used as an insult, and Indian Kings could be an insult as well, or perhaps he meant Indian chiefs. I believe he was using both terms as an insult, insulting those he had to dine with, which I believe were opposed to his political views. This shows that some things never change – political bickering has always existed and contempt for others of alternative political beliefs existed in our past as well.

Three days after John wrote his letter to Abigail, on February 19th Abigail wrote John another, but it doesn’t appear to be a reply as she does not mention the results of the election until her next letter. She wrote about a man named Mr. Parker who helped her on her journey, whom she credits for helping her cross the Susquehanna River, and how she bought a “carriage of Evans… with good horses and a good driver” for eighty dollars to take her to where she is, somewhere in Philadelphia (Abigail Adams 2). I’m not sure what that is in terms of inflation, but I’m sure it is a lot. The Adams family (no pun intended) certainly had money. I took a flight to New Jersey once for around eighty dollars, and that was about five years ago. I guess some things do get cheaper with time, and often more efficient as well, which is refreshing to think about since it’s something positive in such a broken world.

After describing the interesting details of her trip with Mr. Parker, Abigail wrote a short account of a man named Townsend who seems to have lost 200 dollars he left in his “port manteau” (Abigail Adams 2). According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary a portmanteau is a large suitcase (Merriam-Webster). What happened exactly isn’t quite clear though, I was left confused and curious. Abigail Adams closed the letter by talking about her upcoming journey to New York, and said she feared someone’s bride “will prove a very vixen to him” and wished them “much joy and happiness” (Abigail Adams 2). Who she was referring to may have been her and John, in the third-person, at least that’s the impression I got.

Two days after sending her last letter, Abigail Adams replied to the one she received from John Adams. She wrote that a river was impassible and spoke of Mr. Jefferson’s victory and the celebration surrounding it, which I have already discussed. She also said “the people of this city have evidently been in terror, least their Swineish Herd should rise in rebellion and seize upon their property and share plunder amongst them…” (Abigail Adams 3). What she meant is unclear to me, although I am curious. She also said she foresaw a day New England would have to send their militia to “preserve this very State (Pennsylvania – she was writing from Philadelphia) from destruction” (Abigail Adams 3). I wish I knew what she was talking about, but I don’t, and I’ve pondered it a lot.

She wrote about “uneasiness with the Merchants” and an article rejected by the Senate that she doesn’t provide details about – John most likely knew them already. It concerned money and the Chamber of Commerce, and it reminded me a lot of the recent 700 billion dollar bailout. Government meddling, for better or worse, in the economy, is nothing new as this letter shows. Abigail reported smiling when she heard of a conversation between a man named Mr. Breck and Mr. Wolcott, because Mr. Wolcott said “there was no faith to be placed in French promises, treaties or conventions” (Abigail Adams 3). I thought it was funny too, as recently as this decade France and the United States were at odds.

She ended the letter by wishing John well through the end of his journey, sending love to William, whoever that was, and asking to see a list of judges (Abigail Adams 3). All in all, Abigail Adams is shown to be a very smart woman through these letters, and it’s astounding that she didn’t have the same rights as her husband John when it appears she was just as intelligent, if not more so. I wish half the people who vote now were as intelligent as her, a woman who never got to vote.

These four Adams letters are a treasure. They contain knowledge, history, love, and a glimpse into American politics, which in some ways are unchanging. It contains many of the literary themes studied in American Lit I, namely women’s rights, relationships, and the development of a new country which was to become the most powerful in the world. I enjoyed reading the letters and wish I could have written more on them.


Works Cited

2003 Teacher Fellows. “Election of 1800.” CAMPAIGNS & ELECTIONS. C-SPAN. 15 Dec. 2008 <‌classroom/‌govt/‌1800.asp>.
“Culot.” WordReference. 2008. 15 Dec. 2008 <‌fren/‌culot>.
“Duel at Dawn, 1804.” EyeWitness to History. 2000. 15 Dec. 2008 <‌duel.htm>.

Dulles, Avery Cardinal. “The Deist Minimum.” First Things (Jan. 2005). 15 Dec. 2008 <‌article.php3?id_article=143>.

“Letters during presidency, November 1796 - 1801.” Adams Electronic Archive. The Massachusetts Historical Society. 15 Dec. 2008 <‌digitaladams/‌aea/‌browse/‌letters_1796_1801.html>. The final four letters on the list -
Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 13 February 1801
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 16 February 1801
Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 19 February 1801
Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 21 February 1801

“Portmanteau.” Def. 1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Online. 15 Dec. 2008 <‌dictionary/‌portmanteau>.

“The Religious Affiliation of Second U.S. President John Adams.” Adherents. 30 Nov. 2005. 15 Dec. 2008 <‌people/‌pa/‌John_Adams.html>.

“United States presidential election, 1800.” Wikipedia. 11 Dec. 2008. 15 Dec. 2008 <‌wiki/‌United_States_presidential_election,_1800>.