Chapter Four of John Adams takes us with Adams and his son John Quincy on a transatlantic trip to France. Adams has been appointed along with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee to negotiate an alliance with France. The fledgling country needs France’s naval support to defeat the British. Knowing hardly any French, having no diplomatic skills, no experience with royalty, and never having crossed the Atlantic before in the middle of winter, Adams faces tough challenges. The sea voyage to France alone is filled with hazard. Bad weather, battles at sea, and lightning strikes are only a few of the highlights of the trip. Just another reason why cruises and boats in general have no appeal for me whatsoever. 🙂
Once in France, Adams struggles to learn the language, and is not only by turns bewildered and enchanted by the French and their penchant for luxury, but is also negatively enlightened as to the true character of his fellow representative, the eminent Benjamin Franklin. Having worked with Franklin during the Continental Congress days and to some extent while putting together the Declaration of Independence, Adams discovers another, less respectable side to “the good doctor”. Dallying with the ladies, sleeping late, spending too much money and generally neglecting his diplomatic duties in favor of society are only some of the indiscretions. Plus Adams finds himself in the midst of the uncomfortable conflict between Franklin and Lee. This leaves Adams as the only one doing the real work of the commission, lonely for his wife, children and farm, surrounded by spies and people he cannot trust, and feeling unappreciated by his Congressional cohorts back home. Adams finally gets the chance to return home to Abigail, but only after the Congress decides to make Franklin their French minister and send no instructions for what Adams is to do. Once home within the warm confines of family life, Adams takes on the challenge of writing the state constitution for Massachusetts, which is according to McCullough the oldest functioning constitution in the world. Go Adams!
What I felt was most interesting about this chapter were the letters that the Adams parents wrote to their children. Their letters were so formal, yet full of good advice, hopes and dreams for their future, and praise. The formality of the language of that time period in general is so amazingly different from how we communicate with our children these days. I’ll compare a sentence that Abigail Adams sent to her son Charles: “Great necessities call out great virtues”, to a sentence I texted my daughter last week: “Hope u had a gr8 day bby”. Has society really been dumbed down that much? Or have we become more relaxed in our relations with our children? What was more remarkable to me is that the portion of Abigail’s letter to Charles that McCullough included at the end of Chapter Four was to a 9 year old child. I’m not sure my daughter would have known the definition of half of the words in that snippet of letter at age 9.
We picture the famous folks of this era as something super-human, espousing all of the virtues that many claim no longer exist in our times, such as fidelity, integrity, and strength. I pictured Abigail bravely withstanding her husband’s absence with nary a complaint, but was surprised to read the voluminous correspondence she sent both to Adams and family and friends at this time bemoaning her situation and almost…..well, whining. I can understand how alone she must have felt, without her husband and oldest son to protect her in a war-torn country, with bare necessities hard to come by, and little or no income since Adams was no longer practicing as an attorney. It does not sound like girls were prepared in their pre-marriage lives for the possibility of trying to raise a family and keep hearth and home intact without a husband around, although I am sure it happened more frequently during the Revolution when men died in battle. And it was understandable that she would warm to the indiscreet Lowell’s flirtatious and flattering letters, even if she remained true to her husband in heart and soul. I wonder what Adams would have done had he known about the letters!
The next chapter has Adams heading back to France, once again sans Abigail, but this time with John Quincy and younger brother Charles. Soon the whole family will be speaking French!