Thomas Jefferson must have been in a particularly “Enlightenment” mood in April, considering the long letter he writes to John Adams excoriating John Calvin and Calvinism, translating John 1:1 to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and describing the divinity of Jesus as a “fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words,” not to mention “mystical,” and on par with “the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” All this because JA made a joke about his own affinity with Calvin’s arthritis, gout, and sciatica. Talk about hitting a nerve.
This could be the jumping-off point for a discussion of the founding fathers’ Christian beliefs (or lack thereof), but my mood is more along the lines of this sign-off by JA: “I salute your fire-side with cordial esteem and affection. J.A. In the 89 year of his age still too fat to last much longer.”
You also may be wondering how much longer this correspondence can go on, or, equally important, how much longer my corresponding erudition can sustain itself. (Was that a pun?)
Rest assured, 15 letters remain in the collection, which means just 3 more weeks of disciplined reading and questionably enlightened reflection. (Was that a poem?)
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “Now Sir, my Griefs! The dear Partner of my Life for fifty four years as a Wife and for many Years more as a Lover, now lyes in extremis, forbidden to speak or be spoken to.”
This was written on October 20. Abigail Adams died on October 28 of typhoid fever. She was 73 years old and was married to John Adams for 54 years. JA’s comment about being lovers for more than 54 years is intriguing, probably only because it resists our stereotypes of prudish 18th century Puritans. I won’t pretend to know anything more than that, other than it sounds like true love to me. Much has already been written about the impressive Mrs. Adams. I hesitate to dwell on morbidity, but one particular scene in her life sticks with me, which is the image of three generations standing together in one room: Mrs. Adams beside the bedside of her dying daughter, Abigail Adams Smith, along with Mrs. Smith’s daughter, Caroline Amelia Smith. Not long after her daughter’s death, AA wrote to Mr. Jefferson:
A lively only daughter of her Mother lives to console me.
“who in her youth, has all that Age required” “And with her prudence, all that youth admired”
Since I first read that, I’ve been wondering about Caroline Amelia. How old was she when her mother died? What happened to her? The romantic side of me imagined her as a little girl literally consoling AA—and vice versa—by staying with her grandparents and growing up there as a second daughter to Mr. and Mrs. Adams. In reality, she was 18 years old and she married a year later. Not much as been written about her. Despite being the granddaughter and niece of two U.S. presidents, she has—like most of us will—slowly dissipated into the foggy history of ordinary, unknown people.
Caroline was, however, a writer. In 1841 she edited and published her mother’s journal and correspondence, which also included a number of letters written to herself by her grandparents, John and Abigail Adams. Below is an excerpted letter written to her by AA, about one month after Caroline married John Peter De Windt.
TO MRS. DE WINDT.
Quincy, Oct. 23d, 1814.
MY EVER DEAR CAROLINE:
If you find as many joyful faces to receive you, as you have left sorrowful hearts behind you, you will have no reason to complain. When upon former occasions you have been separated from me, it was always with the expectation of having you again with me ; since I have considered you as mine, you have been to me one of the chief props and supports of my declining years. By your watchful attention, and cheerful readiness to prevent even my wants, you have rendered yourself so necessary to me, as to be the solace of my days. It is natural to feel a privation in proportion to our enjoyments; what then, think you, is the void left in my breast? . . .
Yesterday completed half a century since I entered the married state, then just your age. I have great cause of thankfulness that I have lived so long, and enjoyed so large a portion of happiness as has been my lot. The greatest source of unhappiness I have known in that period, has arisen from the long and cruel separations which I was called in a time of war, and with a young family around me, to submit to. My pen runs on, “but,” as the gallant Adam said to Eve, “with thee conversing I forget all time.”
That you and the rest of my posterity may enjoy as large a share of felicity as has fallen to me, is the sincere wish and prayer of your affectionate grandmother, A. A.
Caroline dedicated the published collection to her uncle, John Quincy Adams. After he received a copy, he wrote this letter to Caroline (excerpted):
TO MRS. C. A. D. W.
Quincy, 30th October, 1841
My Dear Niece:
I HAVE delayed acknowledging the receipt of your volume of journal and correspondence of my dear sister, your revered mother, until I should have read it entirely through, a practice which I always observe in reading a collection of letters. . .
The writers are all of them among the dearest, tenderest and most affectionate relatives whom I have enjoyed upon earth—a father, a mother, an only sister whom I ever knew, and her beloved husband. . .
I thank you for the dedication of your book, and for the separate copy of each of the two engraved prints.
The portrait of my sister is a memorial upon which I can never look but with pleasure, which it is but just should be reflected upon her daughter.
I am, my dear niece, your
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS.
Later, Caroline included that letter in a book of poetry she published in 1842 entitled, Melzinga: A Souvenir. One of her poems, “Years in the Wilderness,” describes her childhood in New York and the death of her mother. Below is an excerpt:
She to the wilderness, where oft her parents To beguile of sorrow, and reverse of fortune, Would climb the rock, for fruit or flowers, Tempt the stream to catch the speckled trout. In woods she’d boil the maple sap, or with The Indian in the forest, braid the Straw and weave the basket.
Or in tuneful numbers turn her wheel.
Then mounted on palfrey gray, descend the Bank, and with an aged matron, ail Intent her solitude to sweeten, would Ramble through the wood, gather flowers Richly spread by nature’s hand, or ford the Dashing stream, when with raised feet to keep Them from the river’s brink, the aged steed Would nearly swim across the stream.
The loved one of her sire—the child whose Every wish he’d watched, anticipated All her youthful fancies, and had in her With parental fondness realized his Cherished expectations ; whene’er they met, His arms expanded to receive her, she Rushed to their fond embrace, and on his Bosom hushed her childish fears, she Filled his heart, and was his only daughter.
Her mother sickened, and oft in the Silent midnight watch, while cup or potion Warmed for her relief, would the prayer On bended knee ascend, and with Devotion from the heart implore the Agency divine, to cheer and bless ; it Came—the sainted mother sank to rest in Her aged parents’ fond embrace, And left her child their warmest love to claim. The old man wept—but sorrowed not as Those bereft of hope. The Christian’s brightest Joys were his—for she whose loss he mourned, Had led the way to immortality. Her life had been of peace and love, And preparation for the blessed above.
A year elapsed! to the altar the Maid was led, and then to former scenes Returned, where her early childhood had Been passed . . .
The biographical sketch you’ll most likely read about Caroline’s father, Colonel William Stephens Smith, is that he was more or less an irresponsible husband who squandered his opportunities. That’s probably all true—and explains the poem’s “reverse of fortune.” But, of course, that has nothing to do with the people in his life, the sorrows he suffered, or the joys he cherished, like the love of a wife and a daughter. That’s the stuff that dissipates, a little bit preserved here and there by a poem or a letter like the ones above. Not that the dissipation is a bad thing. That’s life. But it’s worth remembering that behind the face or name of every stranger—in the past or in the present—is a deep well of experiences, friends, struggles, joys, and uncertainties. I’d probably be a nicer person if I did a better job at that.
I’ll give JA the last word. On December 30, 1818, about two months after the death of his wife, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson. I imagine him standing at a window that night, wrapped in a blanket and looking out over a moonlit field, unable to sleep, as the lonely house groans and cracks under a winter chill. Having lived beyond his wife and daughter, perhaps he clutches in his hand a letter from his 23-year old granddaughter. “All is now still and tranquil. There is nothing to try Mens Souls nor to excite Men’s Souls but Agriculture. And I say, God speed the Plough, and prosper the stone Wall.”
I thought this letter deserved to stand by itself.
Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson:
“Your kind and Friendly Letter found me in great affliction for the loss of my dear and only daughter, Mrs. Smith. She had been with me only three weeks having undertaken a journey from the State of N. York, desirious once more to see her parents, and to close her days under the paternal roof. . .
“You sir, who have been called to seperations of a similar kind, can sympathize with your bereaved Friend. I have the consolation of knowing that the Life of my dear daughter was pure, her conduct in prosperity and adversity, exemplary, her patience and resignation becomeing her religion. You will pardon by [i.e. my] being so minute, the full Heart loves to pour out its sorrows, into the Bosom of a sympathizing Friendship.
“A lively only daughter of her Mother, lives to console me. . .
“You called upon me to talk of myself, and I have obeyed the summons from the assurance you gave me, that you took an interest in what ever affected my happiness.
“Greif has changed me since you saw me last,
“And carefull hours with times deformed hand”
“hath written strange defections o’er my face”
Adams includes a line from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. The play was already about 220 years old at that time. William Shakespeare speaking to Abigail Adams speaking to you and me. A string of human connection leap-frogging 200 years at a time. I’m not sure why that is comforting, but it is. The written word is something else, isn’t it?
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “Your Friend, my only Daughter, expired Yesterday Morning in the Arms of Her Husband her Son, her Daughter, her Father and Mother, her Husbands two Sisters and two of her Nieces in the 49th. Year of her Age, 46 of which She was the healthiest and firmest of Us all: Since which, She has been a monument to Suffering and to Patience.”
John and Abigail’s eldest child, Abigail Adams Smith (known as Nabby), died on August 13, 14, or 15, 1813 of breast cancer. Dates always bug me, because was it the 13th, 14th, or 15th, and why don’t we know? This letter from John Adams as transcribed by Lester J. Cappon is dated “Quincy August [14?] 1813,” which would mean Nabby died on the 13th if Cappon correctly deciphered the date (and if JA, in his grief, wrote the correct date). The PBS website, “American Experience: John & Abigail Adams,” lists her death date as August 14. Wikipedia claims August 15, and I’m willing to bet that about 90% of every other source on the internet is simply recycling that entry. I consult David McCullough’s John Adams, and he assures us that it was August 15. Like a good armchair historian, I weigh the sources and pick the best one. PBS claims Nabby died at the age of 48, contrary to both John Adams’s and David McCullough’s claim of 49, so let’s just dismiss PBS right now. I would tend to trust Mr. Cappon and his original source, but then I must assume that Mr. McCullough read these letters as well and must have additional sources to back his conclusion. And I trust McCullough because of his fame and influence and because I’ve read his book and therefore have an automatic sympathetic bias. We’ll go with the 15th. You have to trust someone.
Not that it matters.
An internet search reveals that I’m one of many who were moved, pained, and astounded by the account of Nabby Adams’s ordeal with breast cancer, her mastectomy in 1811, and her death in 1813. A 25-minute surgery and a one-hour post-operative dressing, conducted without the profound benefit of anesthesia, is an ordeal that I cannot imagine, whether as a patient or as the mother standing beside her daughter or as the father waiting downstairs (as it was for Abigail and John). An essay by Jim Olson, from his Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer, and History, describes the scene in detail.
The surgery itself was horrific, but what is heartbreaking is that it ultimately failed to cure Mrs. Smith’s cancer. I’m reading McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, in which an American medical student in Paris (home to the finest surgeons in Europe) in the 1830s estimated that two-thirds of all surgery patients died afterwards. McCullough concurs that “most patients who survived surgery of any kind at the hands of the most skilled surgeons later died and nearly all of infection.” No anesthesia, no understanding of bacteria, no disinfecting of surgical tools. It is incredible that Mrs. Smith survived. The heartbreaking injustice—if there were any justice when it comes to disease—is that less than two years later the cancer killed her anyway. Considering what I assume was a long and painful recovery after her mastectomy, an obvious question is whether the surgery was worth it.
It’s an impossible question. How often did Nabby Smith ask herself? How many nights did John and Abigail lay awake at night asking themselves? Her husband? Her children? The doctor?
“Will it be worth it?”
“Is this worth it?”
“Was it worth it?”
They decided that it was, so it was. All I can do is sit in awe at Courage, Heartbreak, and Survival.
I like the portrait of Ms. Adams above, capturing a memory of her at the age of nineteen: young, unmarried, fashionable, pretty, a “lady in London” with her parents when John Adams was Minister to Great Britain. Of the painting, she wrote to her brother that “Pappa is much pleased with it, and says he has got my character, a Mixture of Drolery and Modesty.” I love that, and it’s right on. There’s a touch of teenage sarcasm around the edges of her lips and in her raised eyebrows. Whether this portrait brought comfort or pain to her parents after 1813 I don’t know, but it seems like a good way to be remembered.