Mother, Daughter, Granddaughter

May 29, 1818 – December 30, 1818

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.


Quincy, Oct. 23d, 1814.


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

Affectionate uncle,


Abigail Adams Smith, engraved from the original painting by John Singleton Copley. Printed in “The Journal and Correspondence of Miss Adams,” edited by Caroline Amelia Smith De Windt, 1841.

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.”


A Mother’s Grief

September 20, 1813

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?

The Stats

July 9, 1813 – July 16, 1813

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “Never mind it, my dear Sir, if I write four Letters to your one; your one is worth more than my four.”

I doubt anyone, except maybe TJ, believed that statement. But how about the numbers? Did JA get that right? Let’s look at the stats.

Letters from JA to TJ: 189
Letters from TJ to JA: 140

Out of 329 letters between the two, JA gets the edge, 57% to TJ’s 43%. That doesn’t count the letters between TJ and Abigail Adams:

Letters from AA to TJ: 27
Letters from TJ to AA: 24

About even. If you add up them all up, you’ve got 380 Adams-Jefferson letters. The Adams duo wrote 216 to TJ’s 164, leaving the percentages exactly the same.

I’m going to assume that JA did not have his lifetime correspondence in mind when writing that sentence to TJ. The two are about 18 months into their renewed letter-writing. They’ve gotten a lot of old grudges and missstatements and smoldering resentments out of the way, and the conversation is veering into religious territory. (Politics and religion. These guys just don’t let up, do they?) It’s these past 18 months JA probably has in mind, so how does his ratio compare if you add up the letters from January 1, 1812, when they began writing again, to July 15th, 1813, when JA offers his gracious analysis?

JA: 22 letters
TJ: 8 letters

About 3:1. Close, JA

Making Up is Hard to Do

May 20, 1804 – October 25, 1804

Jefferson’s daughter, Maria Jefferson Eppes, died on April 17, 1804, two months after giving birth to a daughter. This news prompted Abigail Adams to write to him, sixteen years after their last correspondence. The result is seven letters between the two during 1804.

AA to TJ: “It has been some time since that I conceived of any event in this Life, which could call forth, feelings of mutual sympathy. But I know how closely entwined around a parents heart, are those chords which bind the filial to the parental Bosom, and when snaped assunder, how agonizing the pangs of seperation. I have tasted the bitter cup, and bow with reverence, and humility before the great dispenser of it, without whose permission, and over ruling providence, not a sparrow falls to the ground. That you may derive comfort and consolation in this day of your sorrow and affliction, from that only source calculated to heal the wounded heart—a firm belief in the Being: perfections and attributes of God, is the sincere and ardent wish of her, who once took pleasure in suscribing Herself your Friend[,] Abigail Adams.”

I could, and almost want to, end it right there, because what follows feels unseemly. TJ writes back with predictable graciousness, but AA’s past-tense characterization of their friendship begs a response. So he adds a bit about past tensions between him and JA—water under the bridge stuff. Howevah: “I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only, ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure. I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind.” Oh no you didn’t, Mr. J.

What was the pre-can era version of opening a can of worms? Whatever it was he did it, because AA’s about to defend her man. And her son. And the Federalist party. And the Constitution. And the future of the USofA. There are a lot of grievances to air after sixteen years, and I’m not going to list them, but how about this for a taste of what TJ is served:

AA to TJ: “I have never felt any enmity towards 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 abhorence and detestation, for they were the blackest calumny, and foulest falsehoods.”

Or this:

“…may I be permitted to pause, and ask you whether in your ardent zeal, and desire to rectify the mistakes and abuses as you may consider them, of the former administrations, you are not led into measures still more fatal to the constitution, and more derogatory to your honour, and independence of Character? Pardon me Sir if I say, that I fear you are.”

TJ doesn’t just take it, either.

TJ to AA: “My sole object in this letter being to place before your attention that the acts imputed to me are either such as are falsely imputed, or as might flow from good as well as bad motives, I shall make no other addition than the assurances of my continued wishes for the health and  happiness of yourself and Mr. Adams.”

It’s classic. Two juggernaut personalities trying to reconcile, but not willing to give an inch. It’s marriage counseling 101. Someone’s got to give first, who’s it gonna be? I suppose TJ wins this one, since he finally stops responding and lets AA have the last word.

I’m having a bit of fun with this, which isn’t fair, because they aren’t joking around and the correspondence actually brings up some great topics about constitutional interpretation. For example, what’s the deal with presidential pardons? Here is one of AA’s grievances against TJ:

AA to TJ: “One of the first acts of your administration was to liberate a wretch who was suffering the just punishment of the Law due to his crimes for writing and publishing the basest libel, the lowest and vilest Slander, which malice could invent or callumny exhibit against the Character and reputation of your predecessor…”

A “wretch” gets locked up for writing crap about President Adams (under the Sedition Act of 1798). When TJ becomes president, he pardons said wretch.

TJ to AA: “I discharged ever person under punishment or prosecution under the Sedition law, because I considered and now consider that law to be a nullity as absolute and as palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image…”

AA to TJ: “With regard to the act under which he [the wretch] was punished, different persons entertain different opinions respecting it. It lies not to me to decide upon its validity. That I presume devolved upon the supreem Judges of the Nation: but I have understood that the power which makes a Law, is alone competent to the repeal. If a Chief Magistrate can by his will annul a law, where is the difference between a republican, and a despotic Government?”

Good point. I have never understood why presidents are allowed to pardon criminals.

TJ to AA: “You seem to think it devolved on the judges to decide on the validity of the sedition law. But nothing in the constitution has given them a right to decide for the executive, more than to the Executive to decide for them. Both magistracies are equally independant in the sphere of action asigned to them. The judges, believing the law constitutional, had a right to pass a sentence of fine and imprisonment, because that power was placed in their hands by the constitution. But the Executive, believing the law to be unconstitutional, was bound to remit the execution of it; because that power has been confided to him by the constitution.”

Now, that is taking separation of powers seriously. It goes beyond my elementary school understanding of the three branches of government. The president can do whatever the hell he wants? I don’t know. But let TJ finish:

“That instrument meant that it’s co-ordinate branches should be checks on each other. But the opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional, and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action, but for the legislature and executive also in their spheres, would make the judiciary a despotic branch.”

Ah, “checks and balances,” I know that one! But I’m not sure I follow that logic all the way through. How is the legislative “sphere” any different from the “judicial” sphere when it comes to the law of the land? Still, TJ does raise the uncomfortable issue of an all-powerful Supreme Court. Is the president our last defense if Congress and the Supreme Court take crazy pills and go nuts with the laws? Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution says the President “shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” If things got really bad, how broadly could the president interpret that? What is an “offense” against the United States? I guess this is the eternal, genius tension of the three branches of government and the dynamism of the US Constitution. So they say.

Remember I mentioned that AA had the last word? Actually, that’s not true, because at the end of her last letter, there’s this postscript from Mr. Adams:

“Quincy Nov. 19. 1804. The whole of this Correspondence was begun and conducted without my Knowledge or Suspicion. Last Evening and this Morning at the desire of Mrs. Adams I read the whole. I have no remarks to make upon it at this time and in this place.”

Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall for that breakfast conversation?

“You did what?!”

I’ve said it before, how can you not love this guy?

Leaving London

February 20, 1788 – August 2, 1788

AA to TJ: “I thank you my dear sir for all your kind wishes and prayers. Heaven only knows how we are to be disposed of. You have resided long enough abroad to feel and experience how inadequate our allowance is to our decent expenses, and that it is wholy impossible for any thing to be saved from it. This our countrymen in general will neither know or feel. I have lived long enough, and seen enough of the world, to check expectations, and to bring my mind to my circumstances, and retiring to our own little farm feeding my poultry and improveing my garden has more charms for my fancy, than residing at the court of Saint James’s where I seldom meet with characters so innofensive as my Hens and chicklings, or minds so well improved as my garden.”

This is a charming goodbye from Abigail Adams as she and her husband pack their bags to return to the USofA. But I’m finding Mrs. Adams’s letters a bit melodramatic. It seems unlikely, from what I understand about her intellect and drive, that she would really rather hole up on the farm than forge ahead with Mr. Adams in carving out a new government in the company of the nation’s political elite (plus she manages to get in a dig about JA’s crap paycheck). It’s probably a common refrain among leaders, warriors, and CEOs—and not to say there isn’t some truth in it. Heck, I insist on my desire for a life of hermitude, but I’d probably lose my mind in about two weeks if it actually happened. Kind of reminds me of this:

The New Yorker, March 19, 20122

The previous paragraph leads me to derail the theme and voice some thoughts about vocabulary. “Hermitude” isn’t really a word, is it? What am I looking for? A life of “solitude?” But that doesn’t paint the picture of the ascetic up in a mountain cave that I’m going for. Also, “melodramatic” isn’t really the word I wanted. What I had in mind was the adjective form of “affectation,” which up until just now when I looked in the dictionary, I thought was (and having been using in conversations, at least in my head) “affectatious.” That is not a word either. “Bombastic?” “Pretentious?” I’m a bit horrified that I’ve trained my brain to use “affectatious” (and “hermitude”) when there is no such thing. That’s going to be a tough one to unlearn. As I get older, I find I have a growing fear of being accused of catechresis. OK, no one is going to use that word in a conversation—at least no one I know—but if my friends and acquaintances are anything like me, they may be thinking, “Whoops, he just used the wrong word and doesn’t even know it. What’s the word for doing that?” I could have sworn it was something other than catachresis, too. Please help.

To conclude (in case you were wondering), this comes from TJ to JA on August 2, 1788: “I have received with a great deal of pleasure the account of your safe arrival and joyful reception at Boston.”