Jodi will be speaking at the 2013 Historical Novel Society conference on the "American Experience" panel on Sunday morning, June 23rd. To read more about her work, go to www.jodidaynard.com.
Things you never learned in School about our Founding Fathers and Mothers.
Things you never learned in School about our Founding Fathers and Mothers.
Tiny Houses, Big Dreams: After reading the letters of Abigail and John Adams, I was expecting to find that they lived in a fine house, one befitting a distinguished lawyer and his family. I was struck dumb when I saw the cramped, rustic abode in which this illustrious pair lived so much of their lives.
The dichotomy between the physical meanness and the intellectual exaltedness of the Adamses moved me. It drove home the wildly idealistic nature of their dream of independence from Britain. And yet, two hundred and thirty-one years after the enormous edifice of British rule has toppled, these humble farmhouses remain.
Money Matters: The State of Continental currency.
Writing The Midwife’s Revolt, I understood that money was scarce, and that my midwife would have to barter her services for food and other goods. But I didn’t really understand why. The story of Continental paper money is amusing, in a tragi-comic way: the Continental Congress needed money to pay for the war, so they produced it in great quantities. Unfortunately, the money was not backed by anything—not gold, not silver, certainly not taxes. No, it was backed by hope and prayer: hope that God was on our side, prayer that He would let us win the war. Only then might our states squeeze enough taxes out of its citizens to pay back the debt.
What’s more, these bills were easy to forge, and their growing worthlessness was hurried along by British and Tory counterfeiters like Mr. Stephen Holland, who makes an appearance in my novel.
Here is an example of one of these worthless bills, beautifully designed by Paul Revere: notice that it’s dated 1779. It is made out for eight pence and gives the bearer the right to redeem it eight years later. With any luck, the bearer would be dead by then.
Abigail Adams: “Farmeress” or First Lady?
Reading the letters of Abigail’s letters, I was able to infer some interesting things about her. For this discussion, I will refer to her letter of May 14, 1776, to John Adams, who was then in Philadelphia.
May 14, 1776
I set down to write you a Letter wholy Domestick without one word of politicks or any thing of the Kind, and tho you may have matters ofinfinately more importance before you, yet let it come as a relaxation to you. Know then that we have had a very cold backward Spring, till about ten days past when every thing looks finely. We have had fine Spring rains which makes the Husbandary promise fair -- but the great difficulty has been to procure Labourers. There is such a demand of Men from the publick and such a price given that the farmer who Hires must be greatly out of pocket. A man will not talk with you who is worth hireing under 24 pounds per year. Col. Quincy and Thayer give that price, and some give more. Isaac insisted upon my giving him 20 pounds or he would leave me. …I am still in quest of a Man by the year, but whether I shall effect it, I know not. I have done the best I could. We are just now ready to plant, the barly looks charmingly, I shall be quite a Farmeriss an other year.
Our Little Flock send duty. I called them seperately and told them Pappa wanted to send them something and requested of them what they would have. A Book was the answer of them all only Tom wanted a picture Book and Charlss the History of king and Queen. It was natural for them to think of a Book as that is the only present
they everPappa has been used to make them.
Adieu -- Yours,
First observation: poor Abigail couldn’t spell. But then, nobody could back then. The men, given at least some formal education, fared slightly better, but there were no standards with regard to punctuation and capitalization. Thus, Everything, especially Nouns, always seemed slightly larger than Life!
Abigail took pride in her farming. In boasting to John that she will be “quite a little farmeress,” she wishes not only to relieve his anxiety about her but to assure him that she’s on board with a popular value at that time: homespun self-sufficiency. What money she has is nearly worthless; her farm hand’s an incompetent drunk. But, by golly, she is going to get the job done—singlehandedly, if necessary.
Finally, Abigail had a wonderful way of needling John Adams. Unlike even some of the world’s greatest statesmen, she was fearless of him. Her letter concludes with a transparent reproach: that he is forever buying books for the children, when presumably they would like something less intellectual now and then.
George Washington, Terrorist
The discovery that amazed me, however, was not Abigail’s letter of March 31st but another, penned on the same day. This second letter was written by His Excellency George Washington to his brother John, and presents an eerie correspondence with Abigail’s own. Writing from Boston, Washington writes,I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable 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.
March 31, 1776 …all those who took upon themselves the Style, and title of Government Men in Boston, in short, all those who have acted an unfriendly part in this great Contest have Shipped themselves off in the same hurry, but under still greater disadvantages than the King's Troops have done; being obliged to Man their own Vessels (for Seamen could not be had for the Transports for the Kings use) and submit to every hardship that can be conceiv'd. One or two have done, what a great many ought to have done long ago, committed Suicide.While I knew Washington to have little sympathy for traitors, and hung people without a shred of remorse, I was shocked to discover just how venomous he could be. His was a steely radicalism that shared more with the likes of Robespierre or even Bin Laden than, say the compassionate and inwardly conflicted Abraham Lincoln. I was soon to find reverberations of Washington’s radicalism rippling out from the epicenter: in confiscation acts that took Tories’ homes and goods, in the banishments and death threats. As the war progressed, these acts took on the dangerous cast of ideological fundamentalism.
The Oyster that Ate Manhattan
On a lighter note, the abundance of New England’s wildlife at the time is astonishing. Clearly, we fought not only for independence but for the primacy of our species in this relatively new land: bears occasionally roamed the farms of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Oysters were so large that a couple could feed on a single one for dinner.
Lobsters the size of human beings were reported. Indeed, lobster was so abundant in New England waters that savvy servants wrote it into their contracts that they were not to be fed lobster more than twice a week. In January of 1779, in Braintree, the crow population grew so large that the air looked like something out of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Braintree’s selectmen offered its citizens 6 shillings for an old crow and 2 for a young one. By May, that offer had risen to 30 shillings for an old crow. This fact appears in a few scenes of my novel.
I conclude my wildlife section with a recipe from Revolutionary War Period Cookery, by Robert W. Pelton. It was John Adams’s favorite oyster recipe, and calls for a quart of shucked oysters. Skip it if you are not rolling in cash!
Chicken and Oysters – An Adams Family Favorite
½ cup butter
½ cup flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup spinach, chopped
¼ tsp pepper
4 cups cooked chicken, diced
4 cups cream
1 quart oysters, drained
1 cup celery, chopped fine
Put butter in cast iron skillet and melt. Add salt, pepper and cream. Blend well. Slowly stir in flour so as not to lump. Then add spinach and cooked chicken pieces. Mix everything thoroughly. Lastly add the oysters. Let mixture simmer until oysters are nice and plump. Sprinkle over nicely with fine chopped celery and serve immediately.
Finally, a fact that moved me most of all to discover was the physical intimacy of the time. Individuals did not feel entitled to have a great wall of space around them, as we do now. Coaches, church pews, markets, and beds were shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. Men and women had few issues with touching, kissing, and sleeping with someone of the same sex. Tolerance for odors was certainly much higher than ours—people generally bathed once a month, washed their clothing once a year. Beds were expensive and families often slept in one bed, as did travelers. Life stank.
And on this note, I’ll close with a famous story about the time John Adams and Ben Franklin were forced to share a bed while traveling from Philadelphia to Staten Island. Here is an excerpt from John Adams’s journal entry:
Sept. 6, 1776
The Taverns were so full We could with difficulty obtain Entertainment. At Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me, in a Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window….
… The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep…
I have often conversed with him since on the same subject: and I believe with him that Colds are often taken in foul Air, in close Rooms: but they are often taken from cold Air, abroad too. I have often asked him, whether a Person heated with Exercise, going suddenly into cold Air, or standing still in a current of it, might not have his Pores suddenly contracted, his Perspiration stopped, and that matter thrown into the Circulations or cast upon the Lungs which he acknowledged was the Cause of Colds. To this he never could give me a satisfactory Answer. And I have heard that in the Opinion of his own able Physician Dr. Jones he fell a Sacrifice at last, not to the Stone but to his own Theory; having caught the violent Cold, which finally choaked him, by sitting for some hours at a Window, with the cool Air blowing upon him.
For me, this letter reveals so much: not just about John Adams’s thorny character but about the profound closeness that could be achieved at the time. It wasn’t a good closeness; it wasn’t a bad closeness. It was an “I love you/hate you/accept you/you’re in my face” kind of closeness that is unmistakably real, unmistakably human, and that I feel, in this age of Tweetchats with cyber-strangers, more than a little nostalgic for.
The physical intimacy of these two outsize personalities is the stuff of high comedy to us now. Adams professes boredom with Franklin’s harangue, but that doesn’t mean he let the matter drop. No, he continued to argue with Franklin—for years—about the cause of the common cold. And when he reveals that Dr. Franklin finally succumbed to a bad one from “sitting hours at a window, with the cool Air blowing upon him,” his glee is obvious. John Adams always had to have the last word. And he always did—unless he happened to be speaking to his wife, Abigail.
Jodi Daynard is the author of The Midwife's Revolt, a novel, and The Place Within: Portraits of the American Landscape by 20 Contemporary Writers. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, The Harvard Review, Harvard Magazine, The Boston Globe, Agni, The New England Review, and elsewhere. She taught writing in the Expository Writing Program at Harvard University, at M.I.T., and in the MFA program at Emerson College. The Midwife's Revolt was published by Opossum Press in January 2013 ($18.95 trade pb / $4.95 ebook, 440pp).