Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) and Thomas Jefferson became friends when Jefferson and John Adams were both American diplomats in Europe. Born in November 1744, in Weymouth, Massachusetts, Abigail Adams was nineteen months younger than Thomas Jefferson. She was schooled at home by her parents, became an avid reader, and, in common with the Virginian, developed a lifelong interest in formal education. The future “First Lady” was married to John Adams in 1764 and was the mother of four children by the time that she and Jefferson met in 1784.
Abigail and John Adams endured extended absences from one another during his service in the Continental Congress and in Europe. In the summer of 1784, when John Adams’s European duties had separated him from his wife for nearly five years, Abigail Adams made her first trip abroad. Thomas Jefferson likewise sailed for Europe in July 1784, having been elected as minister plenipotentiary by the Confederation Congress.
Before traveling separately across the Atlantic Ocean, Abigail Adams and Jefferson met in Massachusetts. From Boston, Jefferson gallantly informed John Adams, “I have hastened myself on my journey hither in hopes of having the pleasure of attending Mrs. Adams to Paris and of lessening some of the difficulties to which she may be exposed.” Jefferson found that Mrs. Adams had already booked passage for London and would sail the following day. Jefferson himself sailed two weeks later and both Adams and Jefferson arrived in Paris by mid-August 1784.
Watch: Q&A with Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams
Four days after arriving in the French capital, the Adamses moved into Hotel Roualt, a residence “large, commodious, and agreeably situated” in the village of Auteuil, four miles from Paris. Jefferson became a frequent guest at H√¥tel Roualt and reciprocated the Adamses’ hospitality by inviting them to his own Hotel Landron. “Mr. Jefferson with one or two Americans visits us in the Social friendly way,” Adams wrote to her sister Mary Cranch. “On Thursday I dine with him at his house, on Sunday he is to dine here, on Monday, we all dine with the Marquis, and on Thursday we dine with the Sweedish Ambassador.” Jefferson, she assured Cranch, was “one of the choice ones of the Earth.”
Common interests contributed to the friendship between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Both Americans enjoyed ornamental gardens and appreciated the music of songbirds. The garden at the Adamses’ Hotel Roualt was “a fine walk in summer” with a variety of flowers that “would tempt you to tan yourself in picking and trimming them.” For overseas companionship, Abigail Adams acquired a pair of domesticated songbirds, and confessed to Jefferson that “they hourly repay me by their melodious Notes.” The Adams and Jefferson children — Martha Jefferson and John Quincy and Abigail (“Nabby”) Adams — further bound the two families together. Miss Jefferson, enrolled at a convent school, visited occasionally with the Adamses; on one outing, the families gathered at Martha’s convent to observe young nuns taking the veil. Following a dinner at Benjamin Franklin’s home, Jefferson escorted John Quincy and Nabby to a concert at the Chateau of the Tuileries.
In the spring of 1785, John Adams was appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James in London. Abigail Adams hated to leave Paris just when the gardens in Auteuil were beginning to bloom. “The exchange of climate must be for the worse,” she moaned. “I shall regreet that, and the loss of Mr. Jeffersons Society.” Ten days after arriving in London, Abigail Adams sent her first letter to Jefferson, wrapping up a newsy missive with a modest request for a response. “I have to apoligize for thus freely scribling to you,” she concluded. “I will not deny that there may be a little vanity in the hope of being honourd with a line from you.” In a reply with the latest gossip from Paris, Jefferson welcomed Adams’s initial letter. “I ... am now to return you thanks,” he declared, “for your condescension in having taken the first step for settling a correspondence which I so much desired ....”
Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson exchanged more than forty letters during the three years when she lived in London and he remained in Paris. The correspondence was a lively one and incorporated news from America along with the European scene. When Adams called upon Jefferson for shopping favors, Jefferson was not hesitant to respond in kind. The back and forth requests began with Adams’s desire for “fashionable” silk shoes from Paris. Jefferson, in his turn, needed damask tablecloths and dinner napkins of the kind that “we used to import from England.”
The pleasant community that the families had enjoyed in France continued with the written word. Jefferson’s occasionally playful tone conveyed the close relationship that had been established. “[W]hen writing to you,” Jefferson mused, “I fancy myself at Auteuil, and chatter on till the last page of my paper awakes me from my reverie.” An extended interval without communication did not go unnoticed. Writing to John Adams, Jefferson admitted to “meditating what step to take to provoke a letter from Mrs. Adams, from whom my files inform me I have not received one these hundred years.”
The geographic separation allowed Adams and Jefferson to compare experiences in the performing arts. “I went last week to hear the Musick in Westminster Abbey,” Adams reported. “I most sincerely wisht for your presence as your favorite passion would have received the highest gratification.” The celebrated Sarah Siddons, performing on the London stage, offered another reason for Jefferson to “cross the Channel.” Jefferson countered Adams’s reviews with news of the opera in Paris. The “new opera of Penelope by Marmontel and Piccini” was a success and, according to Jefferson, “Mademoiselle Renaud, of 16. years of age sings as no body ever sung before.”
Abigail Adams regularly issued invitations to both Jefferson and his elder daughter, offering enticements that appealed to Jefferson’s interests. “Were you to come to this Country,” she suggested on one occasion, “... as a Husbandman you would be delighted with the rich verdure of the field, and the high cultivation of the Lands.” When Jefferson arrived in England in the spring of 1786, gardens featured prominently on the agenda.
In December 1786, Jefferson charged Abigail Adams with her most important commission. “My friends write me that they will send my little daughter to me by a Vessel which sails in May for England,” he notified his friend. “I have taken the liberty to tell them that you will be so good as to take her under your wing till I can have notice to send for her ....” Six months later, Adams reported that Mary Jefferson, called “Polly” in the letters, had arrived safely. Jefferson soon sent Adrien Petit to escort Polly and Sally Hemings to Paris. By that time, his daughter had formed an enduring attachment to Adams, who warmed to her charge with a motherly affection. In carefully-worded language, she suggested to Jefferson that he should have come for Polly himself, and that the fine-spirited little girl should not be exiled to a Parisian convent.
Early in 1788, John and Abigail Adams began preparing for their return to the United States. Jefferson received the news with dismay. To Abigail Adams, he lamented, “I have considered you while in London as my neighbor, and look forward to the moment of your departure from thence as to an epoch of much regret and concern for me.” That spring, Jefferson made a rare mention of Mrs. Adams in correspondence outside of the two families. Writing to James Madison, he praised Abigail Adams as “one of the most estimable characters on earth.”
Jefferson himself returned to the United States late in 1789 and joined the Washington administration in New York. Abigail Adams was there with her husband, who was serving as Washington’s vice president. Upon Jefferson’s arrival in New York City, Mrs. Adams was pleased to announce that “mr Jefferson is here, and adds much to the social circle.” Throughout the 1790s, Jefferson and the Adamses found themselves increasingly divided by party politics. Despite the differences that arose, Mrs. Adams maintained her respect for Jefferson’s character. When Jefferson was elected as her husband’s vice president in 1796, Adams was confident that the two men would work well together. To her younger sister, she explained, “I have long known mr Jefferson, and have ever entertaind a Friendship for him; he is a Man of understanding, and of probity, ... between him and mr Adams there has ever subsisted harmony, tho they have not accorded always in sentiment, they have dissented without warmth, or ill will, like gentlemen, and mr Jefferson I have not a doubt will support the President ....”
The good relationship between Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams could not survive the election of 1800, when John Adams lost the presidency to Jefferson. The Adamses returned to Massachusetts with no expectation of renewing contact with the new president. Upon the death of Polly Jefferson in 1804, however, Mrs. Adams succumbed to the “powerfull feelings” of her heart and sent her sympathies to Polly’s father. Jefferson would long remember the tone of that letter. “[S]he carefully avoided a single [expression] of friendship towards myself,” he later recalled, “and even concluded it with the wishes ‘of her who once took pleasure in subscribing herself your friend.’”
In responding to Adams, Jefferson thanked her for her affectionate sentiments toward Polly and maintained that he had always valued her friendship. Rather than stopping here, however, Jefferson felt the need to mention John Adams’s “personally unkind” appointment of federal judges in the final days of his presidential administration. Jefferson’s avowed forgiveness and “high measure of respect” for John Adams did not satisfy Adams’s loyal spouse. Answering Jefferson’s charges, Abigail Adams defended her husband and boldly voiced her own complaint — that Jefferson had condoned James Callender’s “lowest and vilest Slander” against John Adams. Four more letters quickly passed between the correspondents, with actions justified on each side and satisfaction reached by neither party.
In 1811, Benjamin Rush, a mutual friend, engineered a reconciliation between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. When John Adams resumed correspondence on January 1, 1812, he disclosed that “All of my Family whom you formerly knew are well.” Warming to Jefferson’s prompt reply, Adams soon sent word from his wife, adding below his signature on February 3 that “Madam joins and Sends her kind Regards to your Daughter and your Grand Children as well as to yourself.”
In August 1813, Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams for the first time in nine years. The passage of time was reflected in Jefferson’s subject matter. He sympathized with Adams about her rheumatism and enumerated his grandchildren. “I have compared notes with mr Adams on the score of progeny,” he boasted, “and find I am ahead of him .... I have 10½ grandchildren, and 2¾ great-grand-children; and these fractions will ere long become units.” A handful of short, friendly letters passed between Abigail Adams and Jefferson over the next few years. The most poignant came from Jefferson’s pen on January 11, 1817. “Our next meeting must then be in the country to which [time] has flown,— a country for us not now very distant,” Jefferson conceded. “You and I, dear Madam, have already had more than an ordinary portion of life, and more, too, of health than the general measure.”
Abigail Adams died in Massachusetts on October 28, 1818.
-Nancy Verell, 3/30/2015
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