From The International Library of Masterpieces, Literature, Art, & Rare Manuscripts, Volume I, Editor-in-Chief: Harry Thurston Peck; The International Bibliophile Society, New York; 1901; pp. 35-44.
ADAMS, ABIGAIL (SMITH), wife of President John Adams, born at Weymouth, Mass., November 11, 1744; died at Quincy, Mass., October 28, 1818. She was married to Mr. Adams in 1764, and was his constant associate during his whole public career. Their correspondence during his long absences on official duty takes almost the form of a journal by both parties. It will naturally be presumed that the letters of an uncommonly sensible woman like Mrs. Adams, who lived in an eventful period of our history, and was personally, and for the most part intimately, acquainted with the great men of her times, must be full of interest and instruction. Some of the most characteristic productions of John Adams, also, were written in letters to his wife. In 1784 Mrs. Adams went to Europe, where her husband was residing in a diplomatic capacity. They took up their residence at Auteuil, a village some miles from Paris. In letters home Mrs. Adams describes their way of life.
LONDON, Friday, 24th July, 1784.
MY DEAR SISTER:
I AM not a little surprised to find dress, unless upon public occasions, so little regarded here. The gentlemen are very plainly dressed, and the ladies much more so than with us. ’T is true, you must put a hoop on and have your hair dressed; but a common straw hat, no cap, with only a ribbon upon the crown, is thought dress sufficient to go into company. Muslins are much in taste; no silks but lutestrings worn; but send not to London for any article you want: you may purchase anything you can name much lower in Boston. I went yesterday into Cheapside to purchase a few articles, but found everything higher than in Boston. Silks are in a particular manner so; they say, when they are exported, there is a drawback upon them, which makes them lower with us. Our country, alas, our country! they are extravagant to astonishment in entertainments compared with what Mr. Smith and Mr. Storer 36 tell me of this. You will not find at a gentleman’s table more than two dishes of meat, though invited several days before-hand. Mrs. Atkinson went out with me yesterday, and Mrs. Hay, to the shops. I returned and dined with Mrs. Atkinson, by her invitation the evening before, in company with Mr. Smith, Mrs. Hay, Mr. Appleton. We had a turbot, a soup, and a roast leg of lamb, with a cherry pie. . . .
The wind has prevented the arrival of the post. The city of London is pleasanter than I expected; the buildings more regular, the streets much wider, and more sunshine than I thought to have found: but this, they tell me, is the pleasantest season to be in the city. At my lodgings I am as quiet as at any place in Boston; nor do I feel as if it could be any other place than Boston. Dr. Clark visits us every day; says he cannot feel at home anywhere else: declares he has not seen a handsome woman since he came into the city; that every old woman looks like Mrs. H——, and every young lone like — like the D—l. They paint here nearly as much as in France, but with more art. The head-dress disfigures them in the eyes of an American. I have seen many ladies, but not one elegant one since I came; there is not to me that neatness in their appearance which you see in our ladies.
The American ladies are much admired here by the gentlemen, I am told, and in truth I wonder not at it. Oh, my country, my country! preserve, preserve the little purity and simplicity of manners you yet possess. Believe me, they are jewels of inestimable value; the softness, peculiarly characteristic of our sex, and which is so pleasing to the gentlemen, is wholly laid aside here for the masculine attire and manners of Amazonians.
LONDON, BATH HOTEL,
WESTMINSTER, 24th June, 1785.
MY DEAR SISTER:
I have been here a month without writing a single line to my American friends. On or about the twenty-eighth of May we reached London, and expected to have gone into our old quiet lodgings at the Adelphi; but we found every hotel full. The sitting of Parliament, the birthday of the King, and the famous celebration of the music of Handel, at Westminster Abbey, had drawn together such a concourse of people that we were glad to get into lodgings at the moderate price of a guinea per day, for two rooms and two chambers, at the Bath Hotel, Westminster, 37 Piccadilly, where we yet are. This being the Court end of the city, it is the resort of a vast concourse of carriages. It is too public and noisy for pleasure; but necessity is without law. The ceremony of presentation, upon one week to the King, and the next to the Queen, was to take place, after which I was to prepare for mine. It is customary, upon presentation, to receive visits from all the foreign ministers; so that we could not exchange our lodgings for more private ones, as we might and should, had we been only in a private character. The foreign ministers and several English lords and earls have paid their compliments here, and all hitherto is civil and polite. I was a fortnight, all the time I could get, looking at different houses, but could not find any one fit to inhabit under £200, beside the taxes, which mount up to £50 or £60. At last my good genius carried me to one in Grosvenor Square, which was not let, because the person who had the care of it could let it only for the remaining lease, which was one year and three-quarters. The price, which is not quite two hundred pounds, the situation, and all together, induced us to close the bargain, and I have prevailed upon the person who lets it to paint two rooms, which will put it into decent order; so that, as soon as our furniture comes, I shall again commence housekeeping. Living at a hotel is, I think, more expensive than housekeeping, in proportion to what one has for his money. We have never had more than two dishes at a time upon our table, and have not pretended to ask any company, and yet we live at a greater expense than twenty-five guineas per week. The wages of servants, horse hire, house rent, and provisions are much dearer here than in France. Servants of various sorts, and for different departments, are to be procured; their characters are to be inquired into, and this I take upon me, even to the coachman. You can hardly form an idea how much I miss my son on this, as well as on many other accounts; but I cannot bear to trouble Mr. Adams with anything of a domestic kind, who, from morning until evening, has sufficient to occupy all his time. You can have no idea of the petitions, letters, and private applications for assistance, which crowd our doors. Every person represents his case as dismal. Some may really be objects of compassion, and some we assist; but one must have an inexhaustible purse to supply them all. Besides, there are so many gross impositions practised, as we have found in more instances than one, that it would take the whole of a person’s time to trace 38 all their stories. Many pretend to have been American soldiers, some have served as officers. A most glaring instance of falsehood, however, Colonel Smith detected in a man of these pretensions, who sent to Mr. Adams from the King’s Bench prison, and modestly desired five guineas; a qualified cheat, but evidently a man of letters and abilities: but if it is to continue this way, a galley slave would have an easier task.
The Tory venom has begun to spit itself forth in the public papers, as I expected, bursting with envy than an American minister should be received here with the same marks of attention, politeness, and civility, which are shown to the ministers of any other power. When a minister delivers his credentials to the King, it is always in his private closet, attended only by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, which is called a private audience, and the minister presented makes some little address to his Majesty, and the same ceremony to the Queen, whose reply was in these words: “Sir, I thank you for you civility to me and my family, and I am glad to see you in this country;” then she very politely inquired whether he had got a house yet. The answer of his Majesty was much longer; but I am not at liberty to say more respecting it, than that it was civil and polite, and that his Majesty said he was glad the choice of his country had fallen upon him. The news-liars know nothing of the matter; they represent it just to answer their purpose. Last Thursday, Colonel Smith was presented at Court and to-morrow, at the Queen’s circle, my ladyship and your niece make our compliments. There is no other presentation in Europe in which I should feel as much as in this. Your own reflections will easily suggest the reasons.
I have received a very friendly and polite visit from the Countess of Effingham. She called, and not finding me at home, left a card. I returned her visit, but was obliged to do it by leaving my card too, as she was gone out of town; but when her ladyship returned, she sent her compliments and word that if agreeable she would take a dish of tea with me, and named her day. She accordingly came, and appeared a very polite, sensible woman. She is about forty, a good person, though a little masculine, elegant in her appearance, very easy and social. The Earl of Effingham is too well remembered by America to need any particular recital of his character. His mother is first lady to the Queen. When her ladyship took leave, she desired I would let her know the day I would favor her with a visit, as she 39 should be loath to be absent. She resides, in summer, a little distance from town. The Earl is a member of Parliament, which obliges him now to be in town, and she usually comes with him, and resides at a hotel a little distance from this.
I find a good many ladies belonging to the Southern States here, many of whom have visited me; I have exchanged visits with several, yet neither of us have met. The custom is, however, here much more agreeable than in France, for it is as with us: the stranger is first visited.
The ceremony of presentation here is considered as indispensable. There are four minister-plenipotentiaries’ ladies here; but one ambassador, and he has no lady. In France, the ladies of ambassadors only are presented. One is obliged here to attend the circles of the Queen, which are held in summer once a fortnight, but once a week the rest of the year. and what renders it exceedingly expensive is, that you cannot go twice the same season in the same dress, and a Court dress you cannot make use of anywhere else. I directed my mantua-maker to let my dress be elegant, but plain as I could possibly appear, with decency; accordingly, it is white lutestring, covered and full trimmed with white crape, festooned with lilac ribbon and mock point lace, over a hoop of enormous extent; there is only a narrow train of about three yards in length to the gown waist, which is put into a ribbon upon the left side, the Queen only having her train borne. Ruffle cuffs for married ladies, treble lace lappets, two white plumes, and a blond lace handkerchief. This is my rigging. I should have mentioned two pearl pins in my hair, earrings and necklace of the same kind.
My head is dressed for St. James’s, and in my opinion looks very tasty. While my daughter’s is undergoing the same operation, I set myself down composedly to write you a few lines. “Well,” methinks I hear Betsey and Lucy say, “what is cousin’s dress?” White, my dear girls, like your aunt’s, only differently trimmed and ornamented: her train being wholly of white crape, and trimmed with white ribbon; the petticoat, which is the most showy part of the dress, covered and drawn up in what are called festoons, with light wreaths of beautiful flowers; the sleeves white crape, drawn over the silk; with a row of lace round the sleeve near the shoulder, another half-way down the arm, and a third upon the top of the ruffle, a little flower stuck between; a kind 40 of hat-cap, with three large feathers and a bunch of flowers; a wreath of flowers upon the hair. Thus equipped, we go in our own carriage, and Mr. Adams and Colonel Smith in his. But I must quit my pen to put myself in order for the ceremony, which begins at two o’clock. When I return I will relate to you my reception; but do not let it circulate, as there may be persons eager to catch at everything, and as much given to misrepresentation as here. I would gladly be excused the ceremony.
Congratulate me, my dear sister: it is over. I was too much fatigued to write a line last evening. At two o’clock we went to the circle, which is in the drawing-room of the Queen. We passed through several apartments, lines as usual with spectators upon these occasions. Upon entering the ante-chamber, the Baron de Lynden, the Dutch Minister, who has been often here, came and spoke with me. A Count Sarsfield, a French nobleman, and with whom I was acquainted, paid his compliments. As I passed into the drawing-room, Lord Carmarthen and Sir Clement Cotterel Dormer were presented to me. Though they have been several times here, I had never seen them before. The Swedish and the Polish Ministers made their compliments, and several other gentlemen; but not a single lady did I know until the Countess of Effingham came, who was very civil. There were three young ladies, daughters of the Marquis of Lothian, who were to be presented at the same time, and two brides. We were placed in a circle round the drawing-room, which was very full; I believe two hundred persons present. Only think of the task! The royal family have to go round to every person and find small talk enough to speak to them all, though they very prudently speak in a whisper, so that only the person who stands next to you can hear what is said. The King enters the room and goes round to the right; the Queen and Princesses to the left. The lord-in-waiting presents you to the King; and the lady-in-waiting does the same to her Majesty. The King is a personable man; but, my dear sister, he has a certain countenance, which you and I have often remarked: a red face and white eyebrows. The Queen has a similar countenance, and the numerous royal family confirm the observation. Persons are not placed according to their rank in the drawing-room, but promiscuously; and when the King comes in, he takes persons as they stand. When he came to me, Lord Onslow said, “Mrs. 41 Adams;” upon which I drew off my right-hand glove, and his Majesty saluted my left cheek; then asked me if I had taken a walk to-day. I could have told his Majesty that I had been all the morning preparing to wait upon him; but I replied, “No, Sire.” “Why, don’t you love walking?” says he. I answered that I was rather indolent in that respect. He then bowed, and passed on. It was more than two hours after this before it came to my turn to be presented to the Queen. The circle was so large that the company were four hours standing. The Queen was evidently embarrassed when I was presented to her. I had disagreeable feelings, too. She, however, said, “Mrs. Adams, have you got into your house? Pray, how do you like the situation of it?” While the Princess Royal looked compassionate, and asked me if I was not much fatigued; and observed, that it was a very full drawing-room. Her sister, who came next, Princess Augusta, after having asked your niece if she was ever in England before, and her answering, “Yes,” inquired of me how long ago, and supposed it was when she was very young. All this is said with much affability, and the ease and freedom of old acquaintance. The manner in which they make their tour round the room is, first, the Queen, the lady-in-waiting behind her, holding up her train; next to her, the Princess Royal; after her, Princess Augusta, and their lady-in-waiting behind them. They are pretty, rather than beautiful; well-shaped, fair complexions, and a tincture of the King’s countenance. The two sisters look much alike; they were both dressed in black and silver silk, with silver netting upon the coat, and their heads full of diamond pins. The Queen was in purple and silver. She is not well shaped nor handsome. As to the ladies of the Court, rank and title may compensate for want of personal charms; but they are, in general, very plain, ill-shaped, and ugly; but don’t you tell anybody that I say so. If one wants to see beauty, one must go to Ranelagh; there it is collected, in one bright constellation. There were two ladies very elegant, at Court, — Lady Salisbury and Lady Talbot; but the observation did not in general hold good that fine feathers make fine birds. I saw many who were vastly richer dressed than your friends, but I will venture to say that I saw none neater or more elegant: which praise I ascribed to the taste of Mrs. Temple and my mantua-maker; for, after having declared that I would not have any foil or tinsel about me, they fixed upon the dress I have described.
[Inclosure to her niece.]
MY DEAR BETSEY:
I believe I once promised to give you an account of that kind of visiting called a ladies’ rout., There are two kinds: one where a lady sets apart a particular day in the week to see company. These are held only five months in the year, it being quite out of fashion to be seen in London during the summer. When a lady returns from the country she goes round and leaves a card with all her acquaintance, and then sends them an invitation to attend her routs during the season. The other kind is where a lady sends to you for certain evenings, and the cards are always addressed in her own name, both to gentlemen and ladies. The rooms are all set open, and card tables set in each room, the lady of the house receiving her company at the door of the drawing room, where a set number of courtesies are given and received, with as much order as is necessary for a soldier who goes through the different evolutions of his exercise. The visitor then proceeds into the room without appearing to notice any other person, and takes her seat at the card table.
“Nor can the muse her aid impart,
Unskilled in all the terms of art,
Nor in harmonious numbers put
The deal, the shuffle, and the cut.
Go, Tom, and light the ladies up,
It must be once before we sup.”
At these parties it is usual for each lady to play a rubber, as it is termed when you must lose or win a few guineas. To give each a fair chance, the lady then rises and gives her seat to another set. It is no unusual thing to have your rooms so crowded that not more than half the company can sit at once, yet this is called society and polite life. They treat their company with coffee, tea, lemonade, orgeat, and cake. I know of but one agreeable circumstance attending these parties, which is, that you may go away when you please without disturbing anybody. I was early in the winter invited to Madame de Pinto’s, the Portuguese Minister’s. I went accordingly. There were about two hundred persons present. I knew not a single lady but by sight, having met them at Court; and it is an established rule, though you were to meet as often as three nights in the week, never to speak together, or know each other unless 43 particularly introduced. I was, however, at no loss for conversation, Madame de Pinto being very polite, and the foreign ministers being the most of them present, who had dined with us, and to whom I had been early introduced. It being Sunday evening, I declined playing cards; indeed, I always get excused when I can. And Heaven forbid I should
“Catch the manners living as they rise.”
Yet I must submit to a party or two of this kind. Having attended several, I must return the compliment in the same way. Yesterday we dined at Mrs. Paradice’s. I refer you to Mr. Storer for an account of this family. Mr. Jefferson, Colonel Smith, the Prussian and Venetian ministers, were of the company, and several other persons who were strangers. At eight o’clock we returned home in order to dress ourselves for the ball at the French Ambassador’s, to which we had received an invitation a fortnight before. He has been absent ever since our arrival here, till three weeks ago. He has a levee every Sunday evening, at which there are usually several hundred persons. The Hotel de France is beautifully situated, fronting St. James’s Park, one end of the house standing upon Hyde Park. It is a most superb building. About half-past nine we went, and found some company collected. Many very brilliant ladies of the first distinction were present. The dancing commenced about ten, and the rooms soon filled. The room which he had built for this purpose is large enough for five or six hundred persons. It is most elegantly decorated, hung with a gold tissue, ornamented with twelve brilliant cut lustres, each containing twenty-four candles. At one end there are two large arches; these were adorned with wreaths and bunches of artificial flowers upon the walls; in the alcoves were cornucopiæ loaded with oranges, sweetmeats, and other trifles. Coffee, tea, lemonade, orgeat, and so forth, were taken here by every person who chose to go for them. There were covered seats all around the room for those who chose to dance. In the other rooms, card tables, and a large faro table, were set; this is a new kind of game, which is much practised here. Many of the company who did not dance retired here to amuse themselves. The whole style of the house and furniture is such as becomes the ambassador from one of the first monarchies of Europe. He had twenty thousand guineas allowed him in the first instance to furnish his house, and an annual salary of ten thousand more. He has agreeably blended 44 the magnificence and splendor of France with the neatness and elegance of England. Your cousin had unfortunately taken a cold a few days before, and was very unfit to go out. She appeared so unwell that about one we retired without staying for supper, the sight of which only I regretted, as it was, in style, no doubt, superior to anything I have seen. The Prince of Wales came about eleven o’clock. Mrs. Fitzherbert was also present, but I could not distinguish her. But who is this lady? methinks I hear you say. She is a lady to whom, against the laws of the realm, the Prince of Wales is privately married, as is universally believed. She appears with him in all public parties, and he avows his marriage wherever he dares. They have been the topic of conversation in all companies for a long time, and it is now said that a young George may be expected in the course of the summer. She was a widow of about thirty-two years of age, whom he a long time persecuted in order to get her upon his own terms; but finding he could not succeed, he quieted her conscience by matrimony, which, however valid in the eye of Heaven, is set aside by the laws of the land, which forbids a prince of the blood to marry a subject. As to dresses, I believe I must leave them to be described to your sister. I am sorry I have nothing better to send you than a sash and a Vandyke ribbon. The narrow is to put round the edge of a hat, or you may trim whatever you please with it.