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.
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.”