The Adams Family and the Washingtons: A Political Friendship

TOPICS: 50 Years of Editing, Founding Era Politics, Guest Contributor

By Neal Millikan, Digital Projects Editor at The Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society
January 22, 2019

John Adams, engraving after the portrait by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society began in 1954, and from its inception, the Washingtons have played key roles in the volumes we have published. The very first volume of Adams Family Correspondence includes a letter written by John Adams in 1775 from the Continental Congress to his wife Abigail Adams at home in Braintree, Massachusetts. In the letter, John introduced the new commander in chief: “I can now inform you that the Congress have made Choice of the modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous and brave George Washington Esqr., to be the General of the American Army, and that he is to repair as soon as possible to the Camp before Boston. This Appointment will have a great Effect, in cementing and securing the Union of these Colonies.”1 The following month, Abigail wrote to her husband after meeting America’s new military leader in person: “I was struck with General Washington. You had prepaired me to entertain a favorable opinion of him, but I thought the one half was not told me. Dignity with ease, and complacency, the Gentleman and Soldier look agreably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feture of his face.”2 Thus began a friendship between the Adamses and the Washingtons that would continue for the rest of their lives.

From 1789 to 1797, during George Washington’s presidency and John Adams’ vice presidency, the two families enjoyed a warm relationship in New York and then in Philadelphia. Abigail Adams “lived in habits of intimacy and Friendship”3 with Martha Washington, and the two women would “visit each other often,”4 take excursions together, and happily discuss their mutual interest in grandchildren. They dined at one another’s homes when in the same town and corresponded when apart. Abigail described Martha as “one of those unassuming Characters which Creat Love & Esteem, a most becomeing plasentness sits upon her countanance, & an unaffected deportment … renders her the object of veneration and Respect.”5 And she praised President Washington, finding him “polite with dignity, affable without familiarity, distant without Haughtyness, Grave without Austerity, Modest, Wise, & Good.”6

Abigail Adams, after the portrait by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

During his presidency George Washington played a pivotal role in jumpstarting the diplomatic career of John and Abigail’s eldest son, John Quincy, by appointing him minister to the Netherlands in 1794. Martha wrote to Abigail that same year that his “abilities, exerted in the road in which he is now placed, affords him the fairest prospect rendering eminent services to his country; and of being, in time, among the fore most in her councils.— This I know is the opinion of my Husband.”7 From his position at The Hague, John Quincy made good use of his time, sending insightful letters to his family regarding the political situation in Europe. The vice president often shared these letters with the president. Towards the end of Washington’s presidency, Abigail wrote to Martha offering her “gratefull acknowledgments … for the Honorable notice he has taken of My Family and particularly for the appointments with which he has honourd my Son” and for “the Satisfaction which he has repeatedly exprest of” John Quincy’s “publick conduct.”8 While Washington admired his diplomatic aptitude, John Quincy likewise revered the president, even naming his firstborn child George Washington Adams. After his son’s baptism, he wrote to his brother Thomas Boylston Adams that the name was chosen to honor Washington’s “public character” and to show respect for the individual who was “next to my own father, the man upon earth to whom I was indebted for the greatest personal obligations.”9

As wife of the vice president, Abigail took her social cues from the original “first lady.” Upon assuming that position herself in 1797, she wrote to her friend Martha, inquiring after “those Rules which you prescribed & practised upon as it respected receiving & returning visits.”10 Martha responded: “It is very flattering for me, my dear Madam, to be asked for rules … With in your self, you possess a guide more certain than any I can give, to direct you:— I mean the good sence and judgment for which you are distinguished.”11

John Quincy Adams, engraving by Thomas Bonar. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Volume 14 of Adams Family Correspondence, which will be published this year, includes letters relating to a death of a member from each family: George Washington as well as John and Abigail’s middle son, Charles Adams. When George died on December 14, 1799, Abigail wrote a letter of condolence to Martha: “permit a Heart deeply penetrated with Your loss, and shareing Personally in Your Greif; to mingle with You the Tears which flow for the Partner of all Your joys and sorrows.”12 Martha responded: “May you long very long enjoy the happiness you now possess and never know affliction like mine.”13 After Charles’ death the following year, Abigail took refuge in a visit to Mount Vernon “Where at the Pressing invitation of Mrs Washington I had been to pass a couple of day’s…. the Sight of an old Friend, and the cordial reception I met With from every branch of the family, served to Sooth my Heart.”14

While there are no extant letters between Martha and the Adams family after 1800, the two families remained on good terms. Upon his return to the United States after serving as a diplomat in Europe for seven years, John Quincy, his wife Louisa Catherine, and their infant son George Washington Adams visited Martha at Mount Vernon in October 1801. John Quincy noted in his diary that he and his family spent time during this visit with the extended Washington family, including George Washington Parke Custis, Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, and her husband Lawrence Lewis, thus extending the bonds of friendship into the next generation of both families.15

 


1. John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 17, 1775, Adams Family Correspondence, 1:215-17.

2. Abigail Adams to John Adams, July 16, 1775, Adams Family Correspondence, 1:245-51.

3. Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, Aug. 29, 1790, Adams Family Correspondence, 9:94-95.

4. Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, Oct. 11, 1789, Adams Family Correspondence, 8:420-22.

5. Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, July 12, 1789, Adams Family Correspondence, 8:388-92.

6. Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, Jan. 5, 1790, Adams Family Correspondence, 9:1-3.

7. Martha Washington to Abigail Adams, July 19, 1794, Adams Family Correspondence, 10:214-15.

8. Abigail Adams to Martha Washington, [Feb. 9, 1797], Adams Family Correspondence, 11:552-53.

9. John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, May 5, 1801, in Dorothie Bobbé, ed., Mr. and Mrs. John Quincy Adams: An Adventure in Patriotism (New York, 1930), 113.

10. Abigail Adams to Martha Washington, [Feb. 9, 1797], Adams Family Correspondence, 11:552-53.

11. Martha Washington to Abigail Adams, Feb. 20, 1797, Adams Family Correspondence, 11:570-71.

12. Abigail Adams to Martha Washington, Dec. 25, 1799, Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

13. Martha Washington to Abigail Adams, Jan. 1, 1800, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

14. Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, Dec. 21, 1800, Adams-Cranch Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

15. John Quincy Adams, [Diary entry for Oct. 27 and 28, 1801], The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection (Massachusetts Historical Society), 24:343, http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/