Woman of Independence

July 4, 2016

Celebrations of American Independence generally focus on the men who made it happen. There were those who made it happen on paper, like John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin. And there were those who made it happen on the battlefields, like George Washington, or Nathanael Greene, or Henry Knox. But there were no women in the Continental Congress, and no women in the Continental Army. As with many great historical events, women were, sadly, relegated to the sidelines.

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams as a newlywed, 1766

But one woman had an important influence on the great event of American Independence, albeit from the sidelines. Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, was her husband’s “dearest friend,” the mother of his children, the sounding board for his ideas.

Abigail Adams and Her Times, by Laura E. Richards (1917), is an engaging account, full of fascinating details that bring Colonial times to life. (“Snail-water,” a home remedy of the time for infants, is definitely not to be tried at home, and definitely not on infants.)

But Richards also brings Abigail herself to life. The great frustration of Abigail’s biographers has always been that she never kept a diary. Her youth and the early days of her marriage are not all that well documented. Although John Adams kept a diary, he only occasionally mentioned his wife in it. We learn who she is primarily from the many letters she exchanged with him — but that correspondence didn’t begin in earnest until a decade after their marriage, when he was thoroughly embroiled in the fight for American Independence and was away from home for long periods of time.

Richards deftly mines the letters for clues to Abigail’s character and personality. Abigail frequently signed herself “Portia,” after Shakespeare’s artful heroine. Her support for John’s important work was wholehearted, but she also urged him to consider greater rights for women:

… in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Alas, Abigail’s hopes were not realized for nearly 150 years, but to John’s news that the Continental Congress had voted in favor of independence, she joyfully wrote:

By yesterday’s post I received two letters dated 3d and 4th of July, and though your letters never fail to give me pleasure, be the subject what it will, yet it was greatly heightened by the prospect of the future happiness and glory of our country. Nor am I a little gratified when I reflect that a person so nearly connected with me has had the honor of being a principal actor in laying a foundation for its future greatness.

May the foundation of our new Constitution be Justice, Truth, Righteousness! Like the wise man’s house, may it be founded upon these rocks, and then neither storm nor tempests will overthrow it!

Abigail remained John’s closest and most trusted adviser throughout the Revolution, during his Presidency, and afterward, while the titans who created the new nation struggled and quarreled over how it should be governed. Their joint epitaph is a fitting tribute to their partnership:

During an union of more than half a century they survived, in harmony of sentiment, principle, and affection, the tempests of civil commotion; meeting undaunted and surmounting the terrors and trials of that revolution, which secured the freedom of their country; improved the condition of their times; and brightened the prospects of futurity to the race of man upon earth.

July 4, 2016, is the 240th anniversary of American Independence.


The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn

July 4, 2015

Every once in a while, when my usual route home to Brooklyn from my job in Queens is clogged with traffic, I opt to take what I like to think of as the Revolutionary War Route. This route takes me past the site of a brilliant strategic move by the British that nearly cost the brand-new American nation its independence. You can learn much about that move from Henry Phelps Johnston’s fascinating account, The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn, published in 1878.

map The campaign actually began months before the American Continental Congress issued its Declaration of Independence (the first e-book, by the way, that Project Gutenberg ever posted). Johnston relates how in January 1776, George Washington, rightly suspecting that the British would try to occupy New York City, obtained the Continental Congress’s approval to raise the city’s defenses. By August 1776, enough forts, batteries, barricades, and redoubts had been constructed so that the Americans “had inclosed themselves on the Brooklyn peninsula.”

The Americans, however, hadn’t reckoned on one key weakness in their position. Between them and the British lay a long, thickly wooded ridge, the product of glaciers receding thousands of years before. Today, this ridge is filled with parks and cemeteries, and along it runs the parkway I sometimes take to get home. Back in 1776, it was a wilderness. The Americans believed that they had all the important passes through this ridge under control.

But there was another pass that they had left essentially unguarded: the Jamaica Pass. Four miles to the east of the American lines, it was too isolated to keep covered effectively. Just a handful of officers were assigned to patrol it, for the Americans confidently believed that the British would be approaching from a different direction.

As Johnston puts it,

But little did the Americans suspect that at the very moment their defence seemed well arranged and their outguards vigilant they were already in the web which the enemy had been silently weaving around them during the night. That flanking column!… [W]ith crushing weight was it now to fall upon our outpost guards, who felt themselves secure along the hills and in the woods.

British troops poured through the pass, and the Americans were outflanked. They lost the Battle of Long Island, and eventually lost control of New York to the British. The war, fought on many fronts throughout the colonies, would not end until 1783.

The depth of Johnston’s scholarship is evident, but his writing is so clear that the reader never feels mired in detail. There are helpful maps, and a special bonus in Part II of the book: dozens of documents from the campaign that not only illustrate the strategies and concerns of the American generals, but also give a fascinating glimpse into everyday military life in the 18th Century. Johnston’s book is an outstanding contribution to American history.

Today is the 239th anniversary of American independence.


Novanglus and Massachusettensis

July 4, 2014

Many people have a vague idea that the battle for American independence from Great Britain began with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. But the battle really began much earlier—almost a decade earlier, when American colonists first began protesting “taxation without representation” in the British Parliament. Unrest turned to violence in 1770, when a crowd of angry Boston colonists surrounded a group of British soldiers, who fired into the crowd and killed three people in what became known as the Boston Massacre. In 1773 came the Boston Tea Party, during which saboteurs dressed as Mohawks dumped over 300 chests of British tea into Boston Harbor. Punishment was swift: the British government closed Boston Harbor and passed the “Intolerable Acts,” which, among other things, stripped the Massachusetts Bay Colony of its right to self-government.

The battle wasn’t just waged in the streets or in the harbor. A bitter war of words erupted among the intellectual elite of the colonies, who were split in their opinions of Parliament’s actions. Among the combatants was a feisty Boston lawyer named John Adams (1735-1826), a future Founding Father and President of the United States. Adams, ironically, represented several of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, and his strong self-defense arguments resulted in acquittals. But Adams was no less of a patriot for that. He simply understood how important it was for the American cause to ensure that the soldiers had a fair trial.

Adams

John Adams

A few years later, as American-British relations deteriorated, Adams employed his brilliant legal skills to respond to a series of pro-British letters, by someone calling himself “Massachusettensis,” published in a Loyalist Boston newspaper beginning in December 1774. Writing as “Novanglus,” Adams set forth his argument that the colonies were not answerable to the British Parliament.  In 1819, these letters were collected in a volume entitled Novanglus, and Massachusettensis; or Political Essays, Published in the Years 1774 and 1775, on the Principal Points of Controversy, between Great Britain and Her Colonies. The edition that DP volunteers used to prepare the Project Gutenberg e-book was the presentation copy to John Adams from the printers.

In 1775—more than a year before the Declaration of Independence—Adams was not yet arguing for independence from Britain; he expressly disclaimed such a treasonous view. Instead, he stuck to the more subtle argument that the colonies might be subject to the will of the Crown, but they were not subject to Parliament, because they were self-governing. He argued extensively from British statutes and cases involving the similar status of Ireland and Wales.

Adams’s arguments were brilliant, but his opponent “Massachusettensis” was every bit a match for him, arguing his Loyalist views with equal vigor and skill.  Indeed, because “Massachusettensis” was the better writer, his arguments can seem more compelling than Adams’s “huge pile of learning,” as “Massachusettensis” sneeringly called Adams’s scholarly legal citations.

The exchange between “Novanglus” and “Massachusettensis” came to an abrupt halt in April, 1775, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The revolution had begun, and there was no going back.

The 1819 edition identifies “Massachusettensis” as Adams’s onetime friend Jonathan Sewall, the last King’s Attorney General for Massachusetts, and Adams himself long believed it was Sewall. But “Massachusettensis” was actually Taunton lawyer and Loyalist Daniel Leonard, another friend from whom Adams later became irrevocably estranged in the turmoil of the Revolution. Leonard was forced to flee America when the British evacuated Boston in 1776; he later became chief justice of Bermuda and then retired to London. When the letters were published in London in 1822, he revealed himself to be “Massachusettensis.”

The 1819 edition of Novanglus, and Massachusettensis also features letters that Adams wrote to various friends and colleagues later in life, recounting the events leading up to the American Revolution. John Adams died on July 4, 1826, at the age of 90. His last words were said to be, “Thomas Jefferson survives”—but the author of the Declaration of Independence had also passed away that very day.

Today, July 4, 2014, is the 238th anniversary of American independence.


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