Excerpt from John Adams by David McCullough, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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John Adams

by David McCullough

John Adams
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  • First Published:
    May 2001, 752 pages
    Sep 2002, 752 pages

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The day was Wednesday, January 24, 1776. The temperature, according to records kept by Adams's former professor of science at Harvard, John Winthrop, was in the low twenties. At the least, the trip would take two weeks, given the condition of the roads and Adams's reluctance to travel on the Sabbath.

To Abigail Adams, who had never been out of Massachusetts, the province of Pennsylvania was "that far country," unimaginably distant, and their separations, lasting months at a time, had become extremely difficult for her.

"Winter makes its approaches fast," she had written to John in November. "I hope I shall not be obliged to spend it without my dearest friend....I have been like a nun in a cloister ever since you went away."

He would never return to Philadelphia without her, he had vowed in a letter from his lodgings there. But they each knew better, just as each understood the importance of having Joseph Bass go with him. The young man was a tie with home, a familiar home-face. Once Adams had resettled in Philadelphia, Bass would return home with the horses, and bring also whatever could be found of the "common small" necessities impossible to obtain now, with war at the doorstep.

Could Bass bring her a bundle of pins? Abigail had requested earlier, in the bloody spring of 1775. She was entirely understanding of John's "arduous task." Her determination that he play his part was quite as strong as his own. They were of one and the same spirit. "You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator," she wrote at her kitchen table. "We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them." Unlike the delegates at Philadelphia, she and the children were confronted with the reality of war every waking hour. For though British troops were bottled up in Boston, the British fleet commanded the harbor and the sea and thus no town by the shore was safe from attack. Those Braintree families who were able to leave had already packed and moved inland, out of harm's way. Meanwhile, shortages of sugar, coffee, pepper, shoes, and ordinary pins were worse than he had any idea.

"The cry for pins is so great that what we used to buy for 7 shillings and six pence are now 20 shillings and not to be had for that." A bundle of pins contained six thousand, she explained. These she could sell for hard money or use for barter.

There had been a rush of excitement when the British sent an expedition to seize hay and livestock on one of the islands offshore. "The alarm flew [like] lightning," Abigail reported, "men from all parts came flocking down till 2,000 were collected." The crisis had passed, but not her state of nerves, with the house so close to the road and the comings and goings of soldiers. They stopped at her door for food and slept on her kitchen floor. Pewter spoons were melted for bullets in her fireplace. "Sometimes refugees from Boston tired and fatigued, seek an asylum for a day or night, a week," she wrote to John. "You can hardly imagine how we live."

"Pray don't let Bass forget my pins," she reminded him again. "I endeavor to live in the most frugal manner possible, but I am many times distressed."

The day of the battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, the thunder of the bombardment had been terrifying, even at the distance of Braintree. Earlier, in April, when news came of Lexington and Concord, John, who was at home at the time, had saddled his horse and gone to see for himself, riding for miles along the route of the British march, past burned-out houses and scenes of extreme distress. He knew then what war meant, what the British meant, and warned Abigail that in case of danger she and the children must "fly to the woods." But she was as intent to see for herself as he, and with the bombardment at Bunker Hill ringing in her ears, she had taken seven-year-old Johnny by the hand and hurried up the road to the top of nearby Penn's Hill. From a granite outcropping that breached the summit like the hump of a whale, they could see the smoke of battle rising beyond Boston, ten miles up the bay.

Copyright © 2001 by David McCullough

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