Woodcut of John Adams

A Revolutionary Guest: John Adams’ letters from Ipswich

by the late Bruce Laing.

John Adams visited Ipswich many times during his tenure as the Boston representative to the colonial legislature from 1770 to 1774. This brilliant and controversial fellow served as a member of the Continental Congress, then as the 1st Vice President in the Washington administration, then as the 2nd President of the United States. He was a ‘founding brother’ of this nation. Those days, there were only 2.5 million people in all of the colonies, of which as many as 800,000 were slaves. This leaves about 1.7 million British subjects, men, woman, and children, and women had limited involvement in education and government. For context, the first federal census of the population in 1790 recorded Ipswich’s population at 4562.

John Adams

In his diary, May 29, 1774 Adams’ writings evoke the temper of those days, and raise issues we still struggle with today: international trade, taxes, judgeships, nepotism, bankruptcy, and more.

  • “29. Tuesday. Rode to Ipswich, and put up at the old place, Treadwell’s. The old lady has got a new copy of her great grandfather Governor Endicott’s picture hung up in the house. The old gentleman is afraid they will repeal the excise on tea, and then that we shall all have it plenty; wishes they would double the duty, and then we should never have any more.

The question is, Who should succeed Judge Ropes? whether Brown or Pynchon, or Lee, or Hatch? The bar here are explicit against the last two, as unfit. Lowell says Pynchon would take it, because he wants to make way for Wetmore, who is about marrying his daughter. Pynchon says Judge Ropes was extremely agitated, all the time of his last sickness, about the public affairs in general and those of the superior court in particular; afraid his renunciation would be attributed to timidity; afraid to refuse to renounce; worried about the opinion of the bar, etc. Mr. Farnham is exceedingly mollified; is grown quite modest and polite, in comparison with what he used to be, in politics. Lowell is so, too; seems inclined to be admitted among the liberty men. At a meeting of the bar, a doubt of Brother Lowell was mentioned, upon the law of the Province for the relief of poor prisoners for debt. Questions were asked, whether appealing an action was not fraud? whether trading without insuring was not fraud? etc. A question also about the duty of the sheriff. Whether a party plaintiff could control the King’s precept, etc, by ordering the sheriff not to serve it? etc. Mr. Wetmore was agreed to be recommended for the oath, etc.

In his visits to Ipswich, Adams stayed at Treadwell’s Inn, still standing on North Main Street.

The next day, May 30, 1774, Adams gives a personal glimpse of the traveler away from home, the olden days version of today’s road warrior out-of-town on business. We learn that travel, even in those revolutionary days, was not all it’s cracked up to be, and today’s quip ‘We’re from the head office, and we’re here to help’ was true even back then…

  • 30. Wednesday. A dull day. My head is empty. but my heart is full. I am wanted at my office, but not wanted here; there is business there, but none here. My wife, perhaps, wants to see me. I am anxious about her; I cannot get the thoughts about her state of health out of my mind; I think she must remove to Braintree, and the family, at least for the season.

A month later, Adams is on another of his ‘eastern circuits’ and on his way back to Ipswich. He ponders a new idea that is being bandied about, to form a continental congress of some sort, in response to the American’s desires for increased self-government, and reminds us of the challenges of citizen deliberations and decision-making, challenges that we still experience today, as participants in our own small town’s government. In his case, there is also a refreshing measure of modesty, and awareness that he must learn and consider options, before becoming useful to his community.

In the second paragraph, he hints that the time for discussion has passed, and one alternative is action. June 20, 1774:

  • June 20. Monday. At Piedmont’s, in Danvers; bound to Ipswich. There is a new and grand scene open before me; a Congress. This will be an assembly of the wisest men upon the continent, who are Americans in principle, that is, against the taxation of Americans by the authority of Parliament. I feel myself unequal to this business. A more extensive knowledge of the realm, the colonies, and of commerce, as well as of law and policy, is necessary, than I am master of. What can be done? Will it be expedient to propose an annual congress of committees? to petition? Will it do to petition at all? — to the King? to the Lords? to the Commons? What will such consultation avail? Deliberations alone will not do. We must petition or recommend to the Assemblies to petition, or—. The ideas of the people are as various as their faces. One thinks no more petitions,— former having been neglected and despised; some are for resolves, spirited resolves, and some are for bolder counsels. I will keep an exact diary of my journey, as well as a journal of the proceedings of Congress.

Several days later, Adams was again in Ipswich, and wrote a letter to his friend James Warren. Warren was a Harvard Graduate and married to Mercy Otis, a one-time sheriff of the King for Plymouth County where he was born, and a member of the Massachusetts General Court. He opposed British rule and later served as President of the Provisional Congress. Again we see Adams being modest and thoughtful, as he considers the task ahead, since he has been selected as a representative to the first Continental Congress. And we read his concerns about the ‘talent pool’ for politicians, perhaps reminding some of us about the limitations of our modern national politicians. In the midst of this, in the third paragraph, we get a whiff of the age-old self-importance of men, although Adams does seem respectful and acknowledges that the wives are superior in certain respects. In the fourth paragraph, Adams notes the painful nature of politics, in words that perhaps our town officials can relate to. In the fifth paragraph, he calls all of us to contribute to the process of learning, getting involved, and helping to make decisions that will benefit us all. Before closing, he asks for advice.

Letter to James Warren:
Ipswich, 25 June, 1774.

  • I am very sorry that I had not the pleasure of seeing you after your return from Salem, as I wanted a great deal of conversation with you on several subjects. The principal topic, however, was the enterprise to Philadelphia. I view the assembly, that is to be there, as I do the court of Areopagus, the council of the Amphictyons, a conclave, a sanhedrim, a divan, I know not what. I suppose you sent me there to school. I thank you for thinking me an apt scholar, or capable of learning.

For my own part, I am at a loss, totally at a loss, what to do when we get there; but I hope to be there taught. It is to be a school of political profits, I suppose, a nursery of American Statesmen. May it thrive and prosper and flourish, and from this fountain may there issue streams, which shall gladden all the cities and towns in North America, forever! I am for making it annual, and for sending an entire new set every year, that all the principal geniuses may go to the university in rotation, that we may have politicians in plenty. Our great complaint is the scarcity of men fit to govern such mighty interests as are clashing in the present contest. A scarcity indeed! For who is sufficient for these things? Our policy must be to improve every opportunity and means for forming our people, and preparing leaders for them in the grand march of politics. We must make our children travel. You and I have too many cares and occupations, and therefore we must recommend it to Mrs. Warren, and her friend Mrs. Adams, to teach our sons the divine science of the politics; and to be frank, I suspect they understand it better than we do. There is one ugly reflection. Brutus and Cassius were conquered and slain, Hampden died in the field, Sidney on the scaffold, Harrington in jail, etc. This is cold comfort. Politics are an ordeal path among red hot ploughshares. Who, then would be a politician for the pleasure of running about barefoot among them? Yet somebody must. And I think those whose characters, circumstances, and educations, etc, call them, ought to follow. Yet I do not think that one or a few men are under any moral obligation to sacrifice for themselves and families all the pleasures, profits, and prospects of life, while others for whose benefit this is to be done lie idle, enjoying all the sweets of society, accumulating wealth in abundance, and laying foundations for opulent and powerful families for many generations. No. I think the arduous duties of the times ought to be discharged in rotation, and I never will engage more in politics but upon this system. I must entreat the favor of your sentiments and Mrs. Warren’s, what is proper, practicable, expedient, wise, just, good, necessary to be done at Philadelphia. Pray let me have them in a letter before I go.

……….John Adams

John Adams wrote, “This afternoon, I have taken a long walk through the Neck, as they call it, a fine tract of land in a general field. Corn, rye, grass, interspersed in great perfection this fine season.” Photo: Cows on Jeffreys Neck. Photo by George Dexter, circa 1900.

On the afternoon of the same day he wrote the above letter to James Warren, John Adams makes an entry in his diary about his walk through Ipswich, and his thoughts thereon. I trust the reader will make the many connections between Adams’ comments, and our present state of affairs, both the beautiful, and the foreboding. June 25, 1774:

  • 25. Saturday. Since the Court adjourned without day, this afternoon, I have taken a long walk through the Neck, as they call it, a fine tract of land in a general field. Corn, rye, grass, interspersed in great perfection this fine season. I wander alone and ponder. I muse, I mope, I ruminate. I am often in reveries and brown studies. The objects before me are too grand and multifarious for my comprehension. We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, in education, in travel, in fortune, in every thing. I feel unutterable anxiety. God grant us wisdom and fortitude! Should the opposition be suppressed, should this country submit, what infamy and ruin! God forbid. Death in any form is less terrible!

John Adams by David McCullough

John Adams is known as one of the Founding Fathers and the one-term second President of the United States, but that’s just the surface. The man was contemplative and deliberative, determined to make the right choices even when they were politically unpopular. He began his career as a circuit-riding lawyer, and in his early years was often at court in Ipswich. When no one else would serve as defense for the British soldiers being tried for murder after the Boston Massacre, he agreed to take the case and won, because he believed so strongly in the judicial system. Yet after the British attacked the Colonists at Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, Adams became the strongest voice for independence at the Continental Congress.

Many people know that John and his wife Abigail wrote to each other frequently during his long absences as a lawyer, representative to Congress, and as an overseas diplomat before assuming the vice-presidency under Washington. She was the person he relied on for counsel, and the rock that held the family together. In times of crisis it was his conversations with Abigail that brought Adams to the moment of decision. She never fought in a battle or held political office, but Abigail Adams is also a hero of the American Revolution.

As I read McCullough’s book, I could feel the burden of being John Adams. Just as it is today, every action was scrutinized, everyone had an opinion, and emotions ran high. It was probably not Adams’ ambition to play so large a role on the political stage, but it was his inescapable destiny.

By the time he was elected President, Adams’ political enemies included leaders of both parties. After years of exhausting service to the new country that he helped found, Adams grew tired of bickering politicians and rowdy populists, and he had no patience for his fellow Federalists who advocated war with France. Although he saved the peace, Adams lost the election in 1801 to charismatic Thomas Jefferson. He left Washington in the early morning hours on the day of the inauguration for his long final journey back to Abigail and the family farm in Quincy. In 1818 he was devastated by her loss, but in his final eight years John Adams resumed his lost friendship with Jefferson, with whom he exchanged a tremendous volume of letters that provide a rich history of the Revolution and the new nation. In a remarkable coincidence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Helen Breen added the following comment:

“Thanks for your excellent review of McCullough’s John Adams. Agreed: “… he was a man contemplative and deliberate, determined to make the right choices even when they were politically unpopular.” Indeed, Adams and all his kinsmen were their own most demanding critics. I recall attending a talk by David McCullough years ago at MHS when he first published the book. Originally he had intended to write about Jefferson, but he became enamored with the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society and changed his subject to Adams. The family left tons of papers, diaries, correspondence etc to the Society, some of which was sealed until 50 years after the death of the 4th generation I believe. A worthy follow up would be Descent from Glory by Paul Nagel, the bittersweet story of the four generations of the family including Brooks and Henry Adams. An fun day trip for those interested in the clan would be to visit the “Old House” in Quincy where John Adams breathed his last on July 4, 1826.” Truly a remarkable family.

2 thoughts on “A Revolutionary Guest: John Adams’ letters from Ipswich”

  1. I love all things Adams. John, even in those years before the Revolution occurred, is thinking ahead about the great things to come and how they will affect him and his progeny:

    “Yet I do not think that one or a few men are under any moral obligation to sacrifice for themselves and families all the pleasures, profits, and prospects of life, while others for whose benefit this is to be done lie idle, enjoying all the sweets of society, accumulating wealth in abundance, and laying foundations for opulent and powerful families for many generations.”

    Great article…

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