Abigail Adams had never been farther from home than Boston, when her husband sent for her to come to Paris.
The Separations of Abigail and John Adams
When the Adamses married in 1764, John Adams was a struggling attorney, riding a wide court circuit around Boston, trying to earn a living. At that time, travel was either by foot, by horse, by horse and vehicle, or by ship. John would be gone for days at a time.
When the politics of revolution were filling the air in the 1770s, John Adams became one of its most prominent spokesmen, and as such was a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, some five hundred miles away. It would take about two weeks for him to reach Philadelphia – and he and Abigail would now be separated for months at a time. The letters between John and Abigail Adams flowed.
Mr. Adams Goes to Paris
In 1788, the Continental Congress sent John Adams to Paris to help negotiate loans and trade and general French assistance for the struggling new country. Their letters, which had been frequent during the Philadelphia separations, would dribble nearly to a halt across the Atlantic Ocean. The separation between him and his beloved wife would now last for years.
Transatlantic crossings were infrequent. It was also a time of war, between the erstwhile colonies and Great Britain, the world’s superpower. Ships were lost or taken as prizes. Mail packets were ceremoniously dumped into the sea – after the important correspondence was confiscated. Whenever a ship from Europe arrived at Boston harbor, Abigail hurried into town and haunted the wharves, seeking out passengers and crew, trying to learn where and how her husband was. Months could pass before Abigail even knew if her husband was still alive.
Abigail Adams Plans a Trip
Finally John sent for her. She was forty. Her two youngest children were old enough to be left with family. She would go to Paris with her nineteen-year-old daughter Nabby. And, since her husband held an important post in the new country’s government, she hired a married couple as servants, befitting his high status.
Traveling was a daunting challenge. The journey would take between a month and six weeks, depending on weather conditions. Weeks of planning were essential; much was needed and collected. Most ships were cargo rather than passenger vessels. They provided a means of travel – but little else.
There would be a cook on board, but passengers needed to supply their own food. Dozens of chickens would be brought for their eggs, and later butchered as they neared the end of the journey. If milk was wanted, a cow would be brought. Barrels of beer and ale, fresh water and wine would be brought. Barrels of flour, of corn meal, of salted meats, of preserves, of sugar and lard. Abigail brought gallons of vinegar, and enough soap and candles to last for months. She did not know what to expect, other than the tales people had told about chronic mal-de-mer, so she also brought her medicine box of potions and powders to fend off the sea-sickness she justifiably feared.
Passengers were also expected to bring their own entertainment: knitting and sewing supplies, books and cards, chess boards and games. Abigail had purchased French grammar books, and her little party spent hours teaching themselves the language – from books. (She would manage to read French passably, but her conversational skills would be non-existent. No one was available to teach her pronunciation.)
The Adams party also had to bring their own bedding and linens. Abigail, Nabby and their woman servant were assigned to the best accommodations – a tiny cabin which they could separate from the rest of the crew by hanging a clothesline and draping a sheet over it for privacy.
Sanitation facilities consisted of a wooden bucket which was carried on deck each day, tied to a rope and thrown overboard for cleaning. No wonder Mrs. Adams had faced the voyage with dread. And she would be just as seasick as she had feared.
Then of course, the old ship came nowhere near Abigail Adams’ criteria of cleanliness, thus the gallons of vinegar. Abigail, Nabby and her servants would spend hours cleaning and scouring every inch of the vessel, to make conditions more acceptable.
Abigail Adams Arrives in France
Five weeks later, Abigail Adams finally arrived in Paris. It would prove to be an awakening like nothing she had ever imagined. She had never been in a large city before; tiny Boston only had a population of perhaps 15,000. Paris was a city of palaces and gardens, of magnificent buildings and avenues. She would see art and theatre, hear opera and concerts. She would meet world renowned people.
She had believed that two competent servants would be sufficient for the American diplomatic couple. She was overwhelmed to find herself living in a palace of her own, with more than a dozen servants already in place.
John and Abigail Adams would spend nearly five years abroad, first in France and then in London. Abigail would grow in scope and experience far more than she had ever dreamed. Many of her preconceived notions of propriety and society would change. Her entire outlook would change. She would become more cosmopolitan. Her notions of culture would mature. When she became First Lady, her revolutionary spirit would be tempered by a deeper understanding of traditions and manners and the need for order.
Abigail Adams would always retain her essential Americanism, but after spending time in Europe, she would never be quite the same.
- Holton, Woody – Abigail Adams, 2009, Free Press
- Levin, Phyllis Lee – Abigail Adams, 1987, St. Martin’s Press
- Nagel, Paul C. – Descent from Glory, 1983, Oxford University Press