In the News
This is the third part of a continuing series of blog posts with author David Bruce Smith about Abigail and John Adams. Historic Deerfield’s resident historians will pose questions to Smith, who is the author of Abigail & John, a nonfiction children’s book that offers readers the opportunity to view prominent scenes in American history through the remarkable lives of one of the country’s most beloved couples—the Adams’s. Exploring the historical significance of a partnership that spanned over five decades, the book details the love they shared for each other and the country. We hope this blog can be a helpful historical resource for learners of all ages.
1. Please discuss Abigail’s correspondence with John while trying to make ends meet during the war. How did she try to ensure their family’s financial security despite an uncertain financial future?
While the Colonies and King George III continued to clash, John Adams was dispatched to Philadelphia in 1774, for the First Continental Congress. Fifty-five representatives from 12 of the 13 colonies—including George Washington, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry—assembled there to devise a strategy for independence.
In the meantime, Abigail toiled at Peacefield, their farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. At slightly over 30 years old, Abigail managed an entire operation of formidable functions, with almost no help. The family was staunchly abolitionist until John Quincy catapulted to the presidency in 1825—and in a moral reversal—seasoned the White House with slaves.
While John was away—layering his law practice with luster, fighting for freedom, and polishing his political profile, Abigail tended to the chickens and livestock—in calamitous cold and hellish heat; milked the cows, labored in the fields; cared for her the four surviving children, and equipped them with an education of excellence.
Abigail also sorted out the family’s financial affairs, with guidance from her uncle, Cotton Tufts, who recommended investments “in debt instruments issued to finance the Revolutionary War.” Eventually, the bonds were redeemed at full-face value. Abigail’s acumen—and good fortune—provided enough familial wealth until John’s death. (Abigail Adams Wikipedia, p. 3)
Sometimes, the revolution inched up, close to their home. When the Battle of Lexington and Concord was fought 20 miles away, some of the soldiers who escaped hid in Abigail’s house, or trained in her yard, while she melted down utensils into musket balls for the Cause.
In another incident, cannon fire awakened her. She and John Quincy climbed a nearby summit, and watched, aghast, as Charlestown, Massachusetts burned during the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Abigail had been caring for the children of Dr. Joseph Warren, a family friend. He died in the skirmish.
There is little doubt that the couple’s long separations were taxing and tough, but they were not unusual—for the time—even though Abigail pined to her John in December of 1773: “How many snow banks [sic] divide thee and me”.
But the harder hurdle to maneuver was the creeping along of communications; letters were slow in coming; lost; or intercepted in wartime. Still, Abigail’s words conjured a combination of constant concern about her beloved husband that was homogenized with hilarious humor, and an appetite to apprise John of a home life he would hardly ever experience:
“Pray let me know how your Health is, and whether you have not had exceeding [sic] hot weather. The drought has been very severe. My poor Cows will certainly prefer a petition to you, setting for the their Greavences and informing you that they have been deprived…whereby they are become great Sufferers…They Humbly pray that you would consider them least hunger should break thro the Stone walls. Our little flock are well, and present their Duty to their Pappa…Nabby [daughter] has enclosed a letter to you—would be glad I would excuse the writing, because of a soar Thumb, which she has.
The tenderest regard evermore awaits you from your Most Affectionate.”
(Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 2 September 1774; Adams Family Papers).
2. What was the couple’s life like in England and France when John was deployed abroad?
In 1779, Adams was appointed to negotiate a peace with Britain that would officially end the Revolutionary War. He brought along his sons, John Quincy, and Charles.
After four years of arduous negotiations, the “Treaty of Paris” was signed by Adams, John Jay [diplomat; future second governor of New York, and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court]; Benjamin Franklin, and representatives from the Court of King George III.
When the work completed, John sent for Abigail and Nabby; after five years, apart, it was time to reunite the family.
In those days, transatlantic crossings were unusual and dangerous. The country’s stockpile of ships was skeletal, and most were only capable of cargo transport.
The journey was expected to take four to six weeks—depending on the weather; a cook was aboard, but passengers oversaw their own food. If milk was needed, a cow was brought—and so were oversized barrels of beer and ale; water and wine; flour and corn meal; sugar and lard.
Dozens of chickens were needed for eggs, until they were slaughtered at the end of the trip.
Abigail and Nabby packed their bedding, and knitting, sewing, cards, books, and games, for entertainment. Abigail also secured a surplus of soap and candles to outlast the journey, plus a potpourri of potions, powders, and preparations to stop seasickness–but none of them worked.
The lucky Adams’s had a servant girl who tidied their Best of the Worst accommodation; it was little more than a tiny cabin cordoned off from the crew by a hanging sheet anchored to a clothesline.
Their sanitation requirements were fulfilled by a wooden bucket; every day it was tied to a rope, submerged, retrieved, and doused with vinegar.
Abigail could not have predicted any phase of the odyssey because she had never traveled beyond Boston.
Five weeks later, the Adams women arrived in Paris. At first, Abigail was astonished by its size. Boston—considered a large American city–had a population of 16,000, but the French capital eclipsed it by many multiples—600,000—who circulated among captivating castles, glorious gardens, august architecture, and magnificent museums.
During their year-long stay, Abigail saw much of the world’s greatest art; attended theatre, opera, and concerts; socialized with Benjamin Franklin, and befriended Thomas Jefferson.
The future frugal First Lady did not realize initially that she would be living in luxury, as well: a 12- room house in nearby Anteuil—with an equivalent number of servants. Prickly about the pomp at first, Abigail eventually acclimated to her social ascent, grew fond of the French, cultivated the artistic treats that were novel to her, and admired the women’s exquisite fashions, which—for her—“would never be in the mode.”
In 1785 John was appointed Minister to Great Britain; after the family followed, Nabby married William Smith, her father’s amiable secretary, who turned out to be a lifelong disappointment, and a poor provider who bankrupted his family in a bum steer real estate investment.
Abigail, meanwhile, was unable to form any friendships with the people in England: stylish society shunned her, but garnering the guardianship of Thomas Jefferson’s youngest daughter, the motherless Polly, was far more satisfactory to her and the rest of the family.
Free, at last, of all public responsibilities, Abigail and John went back to Peacefield in 1788. Abigail started to enlarge and refurbish the house, while John prepared for his journey to New York.
He was about to become George Washington’s vice-president.
3. Did Abigail and John ever disagree about politics?
Arguments become less “audible” through the ages, but surely the practically perfect partnership of Abigail and John Adams had occasional bouts of bickering.
Abigail—the stronger spouse—was principled, passionate, progressive—and pushy. She was a proponent of independence, and insisted it be applied equally to women and men.
While John was at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, haggling over the Declaration-of-Independence-To-Be, she wrote him from Braintree:
“And, by the way, 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 favourable to them than your ancestors
…Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular 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.” (Abigail Adams History.Com, p. 2).
John absorbed—and seriously considered Abigail’s advice–but he also knew it was an inopportune time to pitch women’s rights to a gaggle of men who were tone-deaf to the savagery of slavery.
Although Abigail must have been disappointed, Adams tried to assure her that smarter, cooler, and more enlightened brains of the future would surely flatten the disparities between the sexes.
Little did Abigail know: “Remembering the Ladies” wafted the sentiment of suffrage across the land—and it rang.
Twenty-two years later, Abigail’s heavy-handed, protective personality generated a political presidential policy generated a political firestorm–, and maybe—a marital moment of misery.
After years of tension with France, failed diplomacy junkets to Paris, and a country-wide rise in resentment against the French, Congress was angling to corkscrew Adams into granting the government more leeway in determining the punishments of suspicious persons and foreigners; a hastily passed Naturalization Act raised the residency requirements for citizenship eligibility from five to 14 years; Vice President Jefferson was against the legislation, but President Washington—retired at Mount Vernon–endorsed it.
On June 25, 1798, Adams signed the Alien Act, which “gave him the power to deport any alien living in the U.S. with ties to U.S. wartime enemies…”, but he dilly-dallied over whether to sign the Sedition Act into law. During his period of pause, Jefferson and his Republicans slandered the president, and mocked his policies, while the cabinet torqued up the pressure to corral him into conformity. Abigail feared for John’s life, believed all his opponents were “criminal and vile” and pressed– her husband—hard–into relinquishing his resistance.
The Sedition Act was passed on July 14th –the ninth anniversary of the French Revolution. It “gave Adams tremendous power to define treasonable activity…including any false, scandalous and malicious writing…”—which encompassed publishers of newspapers, pamphlets, and other printed matter.
Meanwhile, the incendiary Jefferson—always on the hunt for a political advantage—accused his former friend of abusing his presidential powers and stripping the people of their right to free speech. America pivoted against their president, picked Jefferson in the next election, and Adams’s career was over.
4. What was Abigail’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, and how did it change the relationship between Jefferson and Abigail and John?
After their 1784 arrival in Paris, Abigail and John soaked up their new society, and started to socialize with their neighbor, Thomas Jefferson. He was a frequent guest in the Adams’s commodious home; that hospitality was generously reciprocated.
Abigail wrote to her sister, Mary Cranch, excitedly, ”Mr. Jefferson with one or two Americans visits us in the Social friendly way…On Thursday I dine with him at his house, on Sunday he is to dine here, on Monday, we all dine with the Marquis, and on Thursday we dine with the Sweedish Ambassador. Jefferson [is] one of the choice ones of the earth. (Adams Family Correspondence; May 8, 1785).
Abigail and Jefferson had various in-common interests such as ornamental gardens, an appreciation of the beautiful music from the songbirds—and their children: Martha Jefferson, John Quincy, and Nabby were friends with a rising camaraderie.
The families were content, until their stasis was jarred by John’s diplomatic transfer to the Court of St. James in London. The crestfallen Abigail wrote her uncle, Cotton Tufts: “I shall regret…the loss of Mr. Jefferson’s Society”. (ibid., April 26, 1785).
A year later, Jefferson returned to England, after having tricked his youngest daughter—Polly– into boarding a ship that was traveling to Europe. He asked if Abigail “could take over her care, until he got there.”
“My friends write me that they will send my little daughter to me by a Vessel which sails in May for England. I have taken the liberty to tell them that you will be so good as to take her under your wing till I can have notice to send for her…”
(Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, December 21, 1786; Transcription available at Founders Online).
Abigail agreed; six months later, she happily reported to Jefferson that his little girl was “the favorite creature in the house.” (ibid., July 6, 1787).
The nine-year-old was attached to the Adams’s as well. Abigail delicately suggested to Jefferson that “he should have come to Polly himself,” and—recommended—against throwing her into a Parisian convent.
Soon, the guardianship ended, the diplomatic tour was over, and Abigail and John went home to Peacefield in 1788; the following year John was elected George Washington’s Vice President, and Thomas Jefferson was appointed Secretary of State.
During the next decade, the carefully cultivated closeness between Adams and Jefferson unraveled. Jefferson was uncomfortable in the vice-presidency: their political views were mismatched, and he still resented Adams for defeating him in the presidential election of 1796. But this election cycle, Jefferson was positioned to choreograph a smear campaign that would clip the odds of an Adams victory.
In the early hours of Inauguration Day, Abigail and John departed for Quincy; they had decided to exile Jefferson from their lives, but then Polly died in 1804, and Abigail felt compelled to send Jefferson a note about the little girl an entire family had loved. Jefferson acknowledged receipt of Abigail’s condolences, but he trespassed her tenderness with his criticism of John.
Always the loyal and loving wife, Abigail and Jefferson traded a few more testy letters, but the three-sided anger stayed stoked until Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father, and a mutual friend of Adams and Jefferson, intervened—and brokered a truce.
By Michael Paulson for The New York Times
June 25, 2020
In the spring of 2017, a production executive withdrew an encrypted hard drive from a Midtown Manhattan vault and boarded a flight to London.
A year before, a film crew had shot two of the final “Hamilton” performances featuring most of the original cast, and the plan was to lock the footage away for five or six years, until the time felt right to share it with the public.
But a cut was ready to show the person whose opinion mattered most: Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s laureled creator and star.
Miranda was in Britain, filming “Mary Poppins Returns.” (He played the lamplighter.) So the “Hamilton” movie’s brain trust flew over, renting a private screening room in a hotel basement that the star could readily access during a break from Cherry Tree Lane.
The team didn’t have to wait long to find out what Miranda thought. As the screening got underway, he periodically interjected his approval, and when the final number began, he took off a shoe and threw it into the air.
“I thought, ‘OK, we did our job,’” said Jon Kamen, chairman and chief executive of RadicalMedia, which produced the film. “If he starts throwing his shoes around the theater, it’s pretty special.”
The public will now finally get a chance to see the film — neither a feature nor a documentary but a live-capture of the stage show — and won’t even have to wear shoes. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Disney, which last year outbid competing studios for the rights to the film, announced that it would forgo a planned theatrical release and instead stream it on Disney Plus starting July 3.
The movie, known to legions of obsessive fans by the hashtag #Hamilfilm, will be the first opportunity for many to see a show that chronicles the Revolution-era life and death of Alexander Hamilton, who was the United States’s first Treasury secretary. The show won both the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in drama and the Tony Award for best new musical; its pre-pandemic productions around North America and in London were routinely sold out, with the best seats on Broadway retailing for $847, and its cast album has been on the Billboard 200 chart for 246 weeks.
Broadway shows are often recorded for archival purposes, but rarely for commercial runs. The “Hamilton” film was shot over just three days in June 2016, shortly after the Tonys and shortly before Miranda and several other performers departed from the cast.
“Theater is like ‘Brigadoon’ — it’s this kind of magical thing, and if you weren’t there you missed it,” said the actress Renée Elise Goldsberry, who plays Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler. “So to be able to save how it felt to do that show, at that time, together with this group of people, was a gift.”
There were no rehearsals — that seemed unnecessary, given that most of the cast had already done the show several hundred times. “These are the most well-rehearsed actors in the history of movies,” Miranda said.
But there was no room for missteps. “We didn’t have the option to go back,” said Thomas Kail, who directed the stage production and the film.
Kail had strong ideas about the “Hamilton” capture. “I didn’t want to pretend we weren’t in the theater,” he said. “That’s why you hear the audience and see the audience a little bit. I wanted to create a document that could feel like what it was to be in the theater at that time.”
Declan Quinn, the director of photography, spent two months watching performances and reading the script, trying to suss out the best angles to capture key dramatic beats. He installed nine cameras around the Richard Rodgers Theater — one with a view toward the audience through a hole cut into the back of the stage set, one fixed on the balcony rail for a wide shot, and seven hidden behind black drapes so they would be less distracting to theatergoers — to shoot a Sunday matinee and a Tuesday evening show. Between those performances, the cast ran through 13 of the 46 numbers, but this time with onstage equipment — a Steadicam, a crane and a dolly-mounted camera — for close-ups and overheads.
Sound was recorded through more than 100 microphones. Quinn and Kail sat in a truck on the street, watching live feeds and radioing in adjustments to the camera operators.
“You have to find the sweet spots where all of the language comes together — lighting, choreography, costumes,” Quinn said.
The film’s editor, Jonah Moran, had been unable to score tickets to “Hamilton” until coming on board for the movie; he then saw it about five times in New York and once in San Francisco as he and Kail wrestled with when to show the full stage, with set and choreography, and when to go tight on an actor’s face or a costume detail. “We were playing with the scale and the spectacle of it,” Moran said. “How do you capture all these details?”
The 161-minute film is the full Broadway show — with all scenes, all songs, even an intermission. Careful listeners may, however, notice a pair of elisions: Miranda allowed two of three obscenities in the libretto to be rendered inaudible to secure a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America.
The musical’s lead producers — Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs and Jill Furman — financed the filming themselves. “We just had a funny feeling that, no matter what deal we made at that point, it wouldn’t be enough,” Seller said. “It turned out it was a good decision.”
The producers spent “less than $10 million” shooting “Hamilton,” he said. They sold it to Disney for roughly $75 million.
Disney in some ways seemed like an inevitable choice, not just because of its scale and power, but also because of its growing relationship with Miranda, who wrote songs for “Moana,” starred in “Mary Poppins Returns,” and is now co-writing a new animated musical, set in Colombia, for the studio.
But Team “Hamilton” made Disney sweat for the rights to the film. In 2018, the producers shopped it around Hollywood and then turned everyone down. “We weren’t sure what to do,” Seller said, “and sometimes when you’re not sure, slow down.”
Then Kail unexpectedly joined the Disney family. He was directing the mini-series “Fosse/Verdon” for FX when Disney acquired 20th Century Fox. And last year, Kail reached out to Robert A. Iger, then Disney’s chief executive, to inform him that the film was still available.
Iger really wanted it. He had seen the musical on Broadway (but not the original cast) and in Los Angeles; he said his children were “big fans,” and that he had “a few grandchildren who know every word.”
“I thought that ‘Hamilton’ was one of the most culturally significant pieces of art I had seen,” he said. “And when I saw the film, I was extremely impressed. It’s not just the best seat in the house; it’s a seat that doesn’t exist in the house, because when you’re onstage it’s like you’re among those characters.”
“The vessels that the story comes through are part of the creation of the piece of art, and I’m so grateful that this family understands that,” Goldsberry said. “That should always be the case for anybody that contributes to a film, just like it should be the case for anybody that’s in the theater.”
In February of this year, Disney announced it would release the live-capture film in theaters on Oct. 15, 2021. But at the same time, the coronavirus was quietly spreading around the world. Among the side effects: by mid-March, new film and television production had largely halted, leaving the company’s streaming service hungry for material.
“After the pandemic hit, and everything shut down, I sent an email to Tommy and Lin, and I said, ‘The world needs this now more than ever,’” said Iger, who had just become Disney’s executive chairman. “Would you consider not taking it to theaters, and bringing it right to Disney Plus?”
The response was immediate: “No.”
“I thought we should stay the course, but I confess that was early in the epidemic, when we thought we might go back to work in the summer,” said Seller, still reeling from having to shut down all six productions of “Hamilton.” “As the profundity of this pandemic set in, and I realized we’re not coming back this year, I thought we should reconsider.”
On May 12, the studio and the musical producers announced that the film would stream on Disney Plus, starting the weekend of Independence Day, which commemorates part of the history depicted in the show.
“I’m getting messages every day from folks who had tickets to ‘Hamilton’ and can’t go because of the pandemic, so moving up the release so everyone could experience it this summer felt like the right move,” Miranda said.
Disney has no current plans to show it on the big screen, but the “Hamilton” team remains optimistic. “Absolutely,” Kail said. “I hope at some point, when people go back to movie theaters, there’s an opportunity for people to experience this in a group, sitting in the dark.”
The move to streaming has implications for Disney and “Hamilton.”
“It is a very different financial proposition than if we had put it in movie theaters,” Iger said. He declined to share a specific estimate for the movie’s box office potential, but said, “We felt it would get extremely well reviewed, and that people would love it, but it was also unclear how it would do globally, so our estimates were relatively conservative outside the U.S. and bullish inside the U.S.”
Now the company hopes to benefit via new Disney Plus subscriptions. In the run-up to the film’s release, the service has stopped offering free trials in the U.S., although it says that change is not tied to “Hamilton.” And Iger said the benefits to Disney are not entirely monetary. “We don’t really view it as a pure financial proposition for us at all actually,” he said. “We view it as something really great to be associated with.”
As for “Hamilton,” there is some financial downside. Iger said the initial deal has been “adjusted” to reflect the lack of a theatrical release. Seller declined to discuss details, but said he thinks that the film will further whet the appetite for the stage productions. “I’ve looked at the effects of audiovisual performances on live theater over the last 20 years, and they’ve all been positive,” he said. “It’s a calculated risk, but I believe it’s going to help.”
There’s been another unexpected development: Two weeks after Disney announced its streaming plan for “Hamilton,” George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis, prompting weeks of protest and a national conversation about racial injustice. Will that conversation affect how “Hamilton,” with leading roles played almost entirely by of actors of color, is seen?
Leslie Odom Jr., who stars as Aaron Burr, said the casting was important because of the significance of “who has the mic, who is allowed to tell the story, and what language the story is told in.”
“Raising a young black girl, I can’t tell you how difficult it is for me to find books and films and works of art that are not centered around white people and white beauty and white genius and white joy,” Odom said. “Ushering black and brown beauty into the world is still political, and it is still important because the examples are few and far between.”
And the show’s cast members said they hoped the questions it raises will feel newly relevant as the musical reaches a wider audience.
“Now more than ever we need to see representation onscreen, and to use ‘Hamilton’ as a way, once again, to hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask who we are as a society, and what we want to be,” said Phillipa Soo, who stars as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. “As much as we are grappling with the things that are very flawed in our country, I hope it gets people excited about what it means to be an American.”
By Allyson Waller for The New York Times
June 24, 2020
NASA announced on Wednesday that it would name its Washington, D.C., headquarters after Mary Jackson, the organization’s first black female engineer and a pivotal player in helping U.S. astronauts reach space.
Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of NASA, said the agency would continue to honor those whose histories have long been overlooked.
“Today, we proudly announce the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building,” Mr. Bridenstine said in a statement. “It appropriately sits on ‘Hidden Figures Way,’ a reminder that Mary is one of many incredible and talented professionals in NASA’s history who contributed to this agency’s success.”
Carolyn Lewis, Ms. Jackson’s daughter, said she felt honored to see NASA continue to celebrate her mother’s legacy.
“She was a scientist, humanitarian, wife, mother and trailblazer who paved the way for thousands of others to succeed, not only at NASA, but throughout this nation,” Ms. Lewis said in the statement.
Born in Hampton, Va., Ms. Jackson graduated from the Hampton Institute, now known as Hampton University, in 1942, after majoring in math and physical science.
In 1951, she began working at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, in the then-segregated West Area Computing Unit of what is now the Langley Research Center.
She went on to work with NASA’s 4×4 supersonic pressure tunnel and became the agency’s first black female engineer in 1958. She completed additional training and courses for her new role after petitioning the City of Hampton to allow her to learn with white students, taking University of Virginia night classes at a local high school.
Growing up, Ms. Lewis said it wasn’t hard to notice the adversities her mother endured.
“We thank God for my mother, for the sacrifices she made for us,” Ms. Lewis said in an interview, referring to herself and her brother, Levi Jackson Jr.
Ms. Jackson retired from NASA in 1985. Aside from her professional accomplishments, she was known for her dedication to elevating women in scientific fields, and Ms. Lewis said she was also a Girl Scout troop leader. She died in 2005.
Her contributions, along with the work of the NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, were highlighted in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” inspired by a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The film, in which Ms. Jackson was portrayed by Janelle Monáe, was nominated for three Oscars.
Ms. Lewis said she and her family appreciated the recognition her mother started to received, but she also wished it would have come sooner.
“We are so proud of what her accomplishments are, but sometimes it makes us sad,” she said, “because you don’t get recognized until maybe after you’re gone. She surely should have had her recognition before then.”
Since the women’s stories have been brought to a wider audience, NASA has taken steps to make sure their names — and contributions — remain known.
Last year, NASA renamed its Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, W.Va., after Ms. Johnson, just days before her death; in 2017, the agency named a research facility in her honor. In June 2019, NASA renamed the street in front of its headquarters Hidden Figures Way.
“NASA facilities across the country are named after people who dedicated their lives to push the frontiers of the aerospace industry,” Mr. Bridenstine said. “The nation is beginning to awaken to the greater need to honor the full diversity of people who helped pioneer our great nation.”
This is the second part of a continuing series of blog posts with author David Bruce Smith about Abigail and John Adams. Historic Deerfield’s resident historians will pose questions to Smith, who is the author of Abigail & John, a nonfiction children’s book that offers readers the opportunity to view prominent scenes in American history through the remarkable lives of one of the country’s most beloved couples—the Adams’s. Exploring the historical significance of a partnership that spanned over five decades, the book details the love they shared for each other and the country. We hope this blog can be a helpful historical resource for learners of all ages.
1. What are the chances that the two leading architects of the American republic should both die on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence?
When a former president dies, it jolts the country—especially if he is well-liked, and highly-regarded.
In 1826, John Adams, 90, and Thomas Jefferson, 83, were known to be in declining health, but when they died on July Fourth, the news shocked the country; their deaths coincided with an event that they—and America—wanted to celebrate: the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Suddenly, the anticipated national mood of merriment turned mournful and morose.
The odds of their dying on the same day were low—1 in 365— according to historians, but because the double tragedy was wrapped into that date and occasion—194 years ago—certain circumstances created conspiracy conjecture; mystery; and mystique:
…A coincidence/freak occurrence?
…A last shared gasp of life from two Founding Fathers?
2. Is there any evidence that both clung to the idea of living to that milestone despite their maladies?
Afterwards, acclaim and accolades came from all directions.
Daniel Webster, the former congressman, and Secretary of State to Presidents William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Millard Fillmore, spoke of the deaths as a phenomenon; a “striking and extraordinary” coincidence—with evidence of “divine design at work.” Webster wondered how two events of such gravity would be absorbed by the country, because he considered the lives of Adams and Jefferson gifts from Providence.
Jefferson allegedly stretched his mortality by foregoing his usual dose of laudanum on the night of July 3. Strategically, the decision might have compromised his pain, and likely, torqued his will, in exchange for a few extra hours of existence—enough to nudge him into the Fourth.
In his eulogy, Virginia Governor John Tyler, the future 10th president, divulged that Jefferson had spoken often about his desire to die on July Fourth, implying—perhaps—that the timing of his—or their—denouements had not been wholly accidental.
Adams’s granddaughter reported that their doctor was administering an experimental medicine to her grandfather that would extend his life up to two weeks, or—extinguish it—within twenty-four hours:
“Even those quite unconnected to the deaths wondered if something more sinister, or planned, had been afoot.” (History.com news)
But, John Randolph, a Virginia planter, former congressman, and senator; friend and second cousin to Jefferson, balked—especially at the euthanasia scenario attributed to Adams:
“Euthanasia, indeed…They have killed Mr. Jefferson, too, on the same day, but I don’t believe it.”
After eighteen decades, supporters of the sinister scenario still dismissed the vanilla veracity on record. Then, in a 2005 piece for the Bulletin of the Historic Society, Margaret P. Battin mentioned a possible “silent conspiracy among physicians, family members and other caregivers to help their patient ‘make it’ to the 4th, where the effort came to an end once the day had been reached.”
Five years later, President James Monroe passed on July 4th; about that, the perplexed press could only postulate, “Again our national anniversary has been marked by one of those events, which it may be scarcely permitted to ascribe the chance.”
3. What is the nature of their last extant letters to one another?
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a relationship that was complicated—and sometimes thwarted by—oversized personalities, tempestuous temperaments, and potent political convictions.
Early on, Adams and his wife, Abigail, had a cordial relationship with Jefferson, but after his wife, Martha, died in 1782, they formed a friendship, and hosted him in their home, frequently.
Adams later confided to him, “intimate Correspondence with you…is one of the most agreeable Events in my Life.” [sic].
But, within a few years, the friends would become fierce foes.
When Adams succeeded George Washington as president (1797-1801), Jefferson became his vice president; [the first and only time in which a presidential/vice presidential ticket was comprised of two different parties].
Adams was a Federalist, who favored a strong central government, while Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, preferred the governing powers to remain with the states.
It was a divergence neither could ditch.
As the 1800 election neared, Jefferson and his constituency revved up their rhetoric, activated the Adams animosity, and accused him of a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman;” meanwhile, the president and his allies predicted that a Jefferson victory would cause “chaos [to] envelop the country, complete with ‘dwellings in flames, female chastity violated, and children writhing on the pike.”
Jefferson carried most of the votes, but, just barely; despite their animosity, Adams and Jefferson continued to correspond until 1804; then, all communication stopped.
After his loss, Abigail and John left for Massachusetts without attending Jefferson’s inauguration; they did not intend to associate with him, ever again, but when Jefferson’s daughter, Polly, died in 1804, Abigail gave in to the “powerful feelings” of her heart, and sent him a note.
Jefferson responded affectionately, but not without reminding Abigail about her husband’s “personally unkind appointment” of the “midnight judges” at the end of his term; Abigail, always the loyal wife and partner, retorted with her own charge: he had condoned James Callender’s [newspaper editor, political writer] “lowest and vilest Slander” against John Adams.
Four more letters passed between them–without any deactivation of their differences.
Finally, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father, and a friend to Adams and Jefferson, orchestrated a reconciliation in 1812. The following year, with mutual trust restored, Adams wrote to Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”
In their final 14 years, they exchanged 158 letters about politics, history, philosophy, family life, and the North-South fissures which foreshadowed the Civil War.
Remembering–and absorbing–Martin Luther King Jr’s words during an earlier time of strife.
Of the 44 men who have served as President (remember, Grover Cleveland served twice) so far, 31 had some type of military experience, either in active service, in the reserves or in a militia. In fact, 12 Presidents held the title of General during their careers.
And among these leaders, three men, George Washington, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower, held the rank of General of the Army, the highest military rank obtainable in their times.
Here is a quick look at these leaders, and a few others with interesting military connections.
1. George Washington was still in the army at the time of this death. George Washington served with distinction in the French and Indian War, and led the Continental Army. But he came out of retirement after he left the White House, in case the United States went to war with France in 1798. He held the rank of senior officer of the Army when he died in 1799.
2. James Monroe, Revolutionary War hero. Monroe was a young officer in Washington’s army when it crossed the Delaware River and attacked Trenton in late 1776. Monroe was seriously wounded leading an assault on an artillery position but survived. His active military service ended a few years later when he decided to study the law under Thomas Jefferson.
3. Andrew Jackson, a fighting President. Jackson served as a messenger during the Revolutionary War at the age of 13 and was captured by the British. He later led regular army and militia forces in three wars, including a victory over the British at New Orleans in 1815 that made him a national hero.
4. William Henry Harrison, mostly known as a war hero. Harrison only served 30 days as President when he died in 1841, but he was the second biggest hero of the War of 1812, next to Jackson. Harrison was the protégé of General Anthony Wayne and his victory over the British at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 was his biggest in the war, not the more famous campaign at Tippecanoe.
5. Abraham Lincoln spent three months in the military. Lincoln volunteered to fight in the Black Hawk War of 1832, and he was elected as captain of his militia unit. Lincoln didn’t see active fighting, but he was tasked to bury the war dead, an experience that deeply influenced the future President.
6. Ulysses Grant, the first President from West Point. That doesn’t sound unique but only three Presidents were educated at military academies: Grant, Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter. Future President Grant served under another future President, Zachary Taylor, during the Mexican-American War, and Grant modeled his leadership skills on his experience with Taylor.
7. William McKinley, the last President to serve in the Civil War. Seven future Presidents served in the military, in some capacity, during the Civil War. McKinley was the last President who was a Civil War veteran. He fought bravely during his time in the Army and had his horse shot out from under him in one skirmish.
8. Harry Truman fought in World War I. Harry Truman was the only President to serve on the battlefield during World War I; Dwight Eisenhower served stateside during the war. Truman commanded an artillery unit in France and saw battle, including offering support for George Patton’s tank brigade.
9. Bush and Kennedy, World War II heroes. Both future Presidents were involved in well-known incidents. John Kennedy’s patrol boat was cut in half by a Japanese ship in the Solomon Islands; George H.W. Bush was shot down in the Pacific, survived and flew a total of 58 combat missions. A total of eight Presidents served in some capacity during World War II.
10. John Adams, unsung hero. Adams didn’t serve in the military during the Revolutionary War, but he played a major role in organizing and equipping the war effort by acting as a de facto Secretary of War. Adams also pushed for Washington to be named as commander of the army. And he fought alongside sailors who captured a British ship near Spain, with his son John Quincy Adams also on board.
Happy Memorial Day from the Grateful American Foundation.
This is the first part of a continuing series of blog posts with author David Bruce Smith about Abigail and John Adams. Historic Deerfield’s resident historians will pose questions to Smith, who is the author of Abigail & John, a nonfiction children’s book that offers readers the opportunity to view prominent scenes in American history through the remarkable lives of one of the country’s most beloved couples—the Adams’s. Exploring the historical significance of a partnership that spanned over five decades, the book details the love they shared for each other and the country. We hope this blog can be a helpful historical resource for learners of all ages.
1. While John Adams was certainly a Founding Father, was he a good parent, and what is known about his parents?
John Adams was the son of John Adams, Sr., a genial multitasker, who was a farmer, cordwainer, lieutenant in the militia, and an active councilman. He had a loving relationship with his son, but in that orb, his wife, Susanna Boylston Adams, fell short. She was a socialite of sorts, with unpredictable emotions that overflowed, disrupted the house, and frightened her three boys. Today, many people would probably agree she was a manic depressive–the illness she seemed to have passed on to her son, the prickly president-to-be.
Abigail was the “antidote” in John’s life; she managed his moods, and enabled his political progression; without her, it is unlikely he would have made it to the White House.
As a parent, John juggled the colliding responsibilities of an ascending politician, long absences from the family, and a particularly passionate partnership with his wife. Abigail permeated nearly all parts of his personality, sometimes to the exclusion of others. She was John’s best friend and lover; sole confidante; and most valued advisor.
As a couple, they lived many stories: Abigail raising the children alone on the farm without any slaves-an unpopular position for the time; surviving the death of their daughter, Susanna; Abigail choosing to inoculate herself, and the children with a smallpox vaccine that could have killed them all.
Although John missed out on a decade’s worth of milestones in their lives, Abigail removed his remoteness with loving, informative letters. The two exchanged more than 1,000–from their years of courtship, to her 1818 death.
Abigail and John were undeniably in love—perhaps too much; the children — and less so, John Quincy—had compromised lives.
Early on, Abigail and John earmarked John Quincy for greatness; from childhood to adulthood, he was prodded, pushed, and parentally prepared- for politics –and the presidency. It was a life he might not have wanted, but he was going to have it.
Abigail “Nabby” Adams: She married her father’s secretary during his years as the ambassador to Great Britain. Colonel William Stephens Smith was ten years her senior; a kind man, who was never satisfied in his various jobs, he spent more than he made, and bankrupted his family in an early 1800s real estate speculation. She died from breast cancer in 1813 at the age of 48.
Charles Adams, a graduate of Harvard, Adams moved to New York to work in the office of Alexander Hamilton, but after he was appointed Secretary of Treasury, Adams switched to another legal office. He passed the bar in 1792 and married the sister of Nabby’s husband. Eventually, Adams became an alcoholic, had numerous affairs, and died at age 30; disowned by his father, diseased by cirrhosis of the liver, and destitute.
Thomas Adams: John Quincy did not believe his brother had the capabilities to practice law, competently, so he settled in Quincy, Massachusetts, and became the town’s representative to the state’s legislature. Later, he was appointed chief justice of Circuit Court of Common Pleas in the Southern Circuit of Massachusetts.
An alcoholic like Charles, Thomas died in 1832 at the age of sixty.
2. Who was “X Y Z,” and why wouldn’t Adams tell his people who they were?
When France went to war with Great Britain in 1793, George Washington declared a position of neutrality. The following year, the United States and Britain negotiated the Jay Treaty; it was intended to settle some of the ripples between the two countries, but France, feeling betrayed and excluded, retaliated by commandeering American ships.
Washington dispatched Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, [later Madison’s foe in the 1808 presidential election], to stabilize the situation, but Paris refused to receive him.
After Adams rose to the presidency in 1796, he sent a three-man delegation to France–Pinckney, John Marshall [later appointed Chief Justice by Adams], and Elbridge Gerry [Madison’s second term vice president, who died in office]-to restore peace, but Foreign Minister Charles de Talleyrand, put them off, and ordered his representatives to inform the Americans: a meeting was possible only if he was paid a hefty bribe, and France received a substantial loan.
Gerry allegedly responded, “No! No! Not a sixpence!”
Once these warped words reached America, the country’s rage ramped up, and Congress demanded the release of the diplomats’ reports; but when Adams handed over the documents, the names of the French agents had been substituted with the letters, “X Y Z” to diffuse the delicate dilemma, but the strategy backfired.
Now, at the very edge of a material conflict, Adams formed the Department of Navy, and Congress authorized the construction of warships; by July of 1798, American attacks on French vessels were being sanctioned-if necessary, but the seas remained still.
Meanwhile, the president’s popularity soared; he had kept the country out of battle, and the undeclared “Quasi-War”, was ended with the 1801 ratification of the Treaty of Mortefontaine.
By Michael Paulson for The New York Times
May 12, 2020
It’s going to be quite a while before anyone sees “Hamilton” onstage again.
But there’s now another option: Disney announced Tuesday that it plans to stream a filmed version of the stage production beginning July 3 on Disney Plus.
The plan is a pandemic-prompted shift: Just three months ago, Disney announced that it was preparing the film for release on Oct. 15, 2021.
But the cancellation of all live performances, as well as the uncertain appeal of movie theaters, led the company to fast-track the film, moving up the release date by 15 months.
“In this very difficult time, this story of leadership, tenacity, hope, love & the power of people to unite against adversity is both relevant and inspiring,” Disney executive chairman Robert Iger said on Twitter.
The movie consists largely of filmed performances, featuring the original Broadway cast, shot at the Richard Rodgers Theater in June 2016. The film, like the stage production, is directed by Thomas Kail; Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the musical, stars in the title role.
The release date is not accidental: the musical depicts the American Revolution, and July 4 is Independence Day in the United States.
“Hamilton,” about the life and death of Alexander Hamilton, who was the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury, has been a huge blockbuster since opening on Broadway in 2015. The show won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama, as well as 11 Tony Awards, including the prize for best new musical.
The show has grossed $650 million on Broadway, where it has been seen by 2.6 million people. And, before live performances around the world were shuttered in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, it was also playing in London and several North American touring productions.
Disney Plus, with more than 50 million subscribers, has been one of the bright spots in the ailing Disney empire, which, because of its dependence on theme parks and moviegoing, has been hit hard by the pandemic.
This is not the first time Disney has changed its streaming plans as it adapts to a marketplace transformed by this unexpected moment: in March the company began streaming the animated film “Frozen 2” three months earlier than planned, citing “this challenging period.”
This is also not the only Miranda movie affected by the pandemic: a feature film adapted from his earlier musical, “In the Heights,” has been delayed. Originally scheduled to be released next month, the film is now set to be released a year later, on June 18, 2021.
In addition, Hulu is planning to stream a documentary feature about Freestyle Love Supreme, the rap improv group co-founded by Miranda, Kail and Anthony Veneziale, beginning June 5. The documentary, titled “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme,” is directed by Andrew Fried.