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Adams, Thomas Boylston (1772-1832)
Group of Five Autograph Letters Signed written by Thomas Boylston Adams to his parents, John and Abigail Adams, while he was in Europe, serving as secretary to his brother, Ambassador John Quincy Adams, 1796-1797

quarto, five letters, 19 pages, in very good, clean and legible condition.

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The collection includes three letters by Adams to his mother Abigail, and two to his father, then serving as Vice President and President of the United States. The letters written by Thomas in the Hague and London, report on events in Europe, French intrigue in America and Florida, the Citizen Genet affair, he writes his father concerning Washington’s Farewell Address and reaction to it in Europe, the effect of the French Revolutionary War, the views of the new American Republic, news of his brother, John Quincy Adams, and his own feelings about the United States, and much more.

The letters are dated June 29, 1796 (to Abigail), August 27, 1796 (to Abigail), November 26, 1796 (to the Vice President), December 21, 1796 (to Abigail) and October 3, 1797 (to the President). Four of the letters are docketed by Abigail Adams in the upper left corner of the first page.


Thomas Boylston Adams (1772-1832)

Thomas Boylston Adams was the third son and youngest child of John and Abigail (Smith) Adams. He was born on 15 September 1772 and was baptized in the First (Congregational) or North Precinct Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, five days later. Named for his great-great-grandfather, the young Thomas Boylston Adams impressed the family with his early talent for Latin and what his aunt Elizabeth Smith Shaw called “a more martial, and intrepid Spirit.” Early on, she wrote to Abigail, Thomas Boylston showed “a love for Business, and an excellent faculty in dispatching it. Indefatigable in every-thing that shall render him a useful member of Society, and independent of the World.”

    In September 1774, two years after his birth, his father was appointed one of the delegates to the First Continental Congress from Massachusetts Bay. In 1784, his mother traveled to Europe to accompany her husband on his diplomatic missions including while he was U.S. Minister to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. While both of his parents were abroad, Thomas lived with relatives in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

    Thomas graduated from Harvard College in 1790 where he studied law according to his family's wishes. His elder brother, John Quincy Adams, however, did not believe he possessed sufficient skills to practice law successfully, but Thomas went to Philadelphia and engaged in further legal studies with Jared Ingersoll.

    Thomas accompanied his brother, the future President John Quincy Adams, on John Quincy’s first diplomatic mission to Europe as his secretary in 1794 when John Quincy was appointed Ambassador to the Netherlands, and Thomas also acted as his secretary when he later became Ambassador to Prussia. The two brothers made excellent co-workers, and although he often suffered from bouts of acute rheumatism, Thomas Boylston Adams found time for ice-skating, museum trips, and a steady whirl of social engagements during his brief diplomatic career. “He has ever been a faithful friend, and kind companion, as well as an industrious and valuable assistant to me,” John Quincy wrote of Thomas Boylston when his brother departed for America in 1798.

    Thomas Boylston continued to practice law after his return to America, he spent time in Philadelphia with his father and eldest brother, when his father was President, and served very briefly as his father’s secretary in 1800, after the death of George Washington.

   Between 1802 and 1803, Thomas Boylston Adams pursued his literary ambitions, secretly teaming with Joseph Dennie to edit the national magazine Port Folio and recruiting John Quincy Adams as the main contributor. 

    By 1805, Thomas Boylston’s professional success at the bar allowed him to support a family, and he married Ann (Nancy) Treat Harrod of Haverhill, Massachusetts on 16 May 1805. Nancy was the daughter of Haverhill innkeepers Joseph and Anna Harrod. She was born on 25 April 1774(?). Her father ran a tavern called the Mason’s Arms, a popular local gathering site that provided lodging to prominent guests like President George Washington, who visited in 1789. Shortly after Thomas Boylston returned to America in 1798, he struck up a correspondence with Ann, and by 1802, his mother Abigail Adams felt she knew Ann well enough to approve of the match.

    After their marriage, in 1805, the couple settled in Quincy, Massachusetts and Adams served as his town's representative to the Massachusetts legislature from 1805 to 1806. Four years later, Adams was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1810. The couple had four sons and three daughters, but none of them had children: Abigail Smith, Elizabeth Coombs, Thomas Boylston, Frances Foster, Isaac Hull, John Quincy, and Joseph Harrod.

    Like the rest of his family, Thomas Boylston cultivated deep civic ties, variously serving as member of the Quincy town and school visiting committees, town treasurer, supervisor of schools, director of the Boylston Market Association, and trustee of Derby Academy in Hingham. In 1811 he was appointed chief justice of the circuit court of common pleas for the southern circuit of Massachusetts.

    Thomas Adams’s plan to combine legal work and farming was largely unsuccessful, due to his frequent illness and, like his brother Charles Adams (1770-1800), his struggles with alcoholism. He left Quincy with his family in the spring of 1829, but he remained involved in preserving the family legacy. From 1827 to 1830, he served as clerk, secretary, and chairman of the Adams Temple and School Fund Supervisors.

    Thomas Boylston Adams died deeply in debt on 13 March 1832, in Quincy. His wife Ann Harrod Adams died of complications from breast cancer on 3 September 1845.

Sample Quotes from the letters follow:

June 29, 1796 written from The Hague to Abigail Adams:

“My Dear Mother,

  I have paid to this villain climate more than the customary tribute which it exacts from strangers in general, and though I happily survived the trial, it cost me a severity of suffering, greater than any former experience of my life. It was exactly such a combination of inflammatory Rheumatism & bilious intermittent fever which brought you so low in your last illness at Philadelphia, aggravated however by a malignity of exciting causes which abound so much in this Country. It seems to be my destiny, to encounter dreadful fits of sickness every five or six years of my life, and the last always seems more unsupportable than the preceding. … My physician however, though a Levite by Religion, was possessed of a very Christian temper, and afforded me every assistance which humanity of his profession could require of him. … the only Society of this place is among the few families that remain of the Court party. They are by no means social, however, but from the little I have mixed with them, I have been able to discover that they would have liked me much better if my political opinions had been more congenial with their own. Chagrin & mortification at the reverse of their prospects make them shut their doors and their windows against any person who does not come to gratify their spleen by berating the present administrators of power, or to solace their passions by the detail of some disaster, real or fictitious, which is said to have happened to the cause of their mortal enemies, the Republicans. The stately domes of the former Nobility & Gentry who resided here, are either entirely deserted by their proprietors, or if still inhabited strike the eye of a stranger more like religious Cloisters, than as the dwellings of people connected with this world. One would imagine they were doing penance thereby to recommend themselves more effectually to a supernatural interposition to restore them to the dear loved dignity and power of which they have been robbed.

     The families and connections of the people now in power, as well as their adherents have never been remarkable for gaiety or splendor, very few of them have a permanent residence here, and having a greater share of the characteristic manners of the Dutch than those of the Orange party, they rather avoid than seek familiar intercourse with foreigners.

     Such are some of the traits in the character and temper of the people with whom I have resided nearly two years. You may readily conjecture, that attractions of Society to be met with here do not enter into the inducements I may have for remaining in Holland some few months longer. It was fully my intention to have taken leave of it the ensuing Autumn, if my Brother had not returned. He may be removed else where ere long, and then I shall have no occasion to think twice what rout to take. Other circumstances may concur to shorten the period of my stay in Europe, and should the “event” [probably John Adams’s election to the Presidency] which you mention to be in contemplation in our own country be realized, its result will very probably determine me to return at all events, and as soon as possible. From the date of my brother’s return here – perhaps- if peace continues between us and England, I may eventually embark thence. Time must shape all these plans & arrangements which have nevertheless already occupied much of my reflections.

    Whenever I arrive in my native land again, the former station will be resumed, though to say truth I do not like the people of Pennsylvania so well as those of New England. There is less original character, less purity of manners among all classes, except the Quakers, then is found in the neighborhood of my origin, but the State itself offers better prospects for a young man, and, its politics which will eventually be directed by the general interests of the Union,  will suit me better, than a contracted spirit, which too partial a regard for local interests is very apt to produce. An American who has been only six weeks in any part of Europe, is disposed to consider even a Virginian as a Countryman and will necessarily have a degree of regard for him upon that principle. I put an extreme case, the better to illustrate the force of National sentiment. There are I believe many honest men, good citizens and excellent patriots who originated in that state – everybody knows there is one in whom all these qualities and many more are concentered [George Washington]. His single reputation, like Christian charity, hides and cancels a multitude of sins and follies which some of his countrymen seem well inclined to commit…”

August 27, 1796 written from The Hague to Abigail Adams:

“My dear Mother,

   … I am indebted to you, my dear Mother, for several sketches of our domestic affairs which have given me alternate pleasure and pain, but which in my returns to you I have not particularly noticed. What a striking illustration of the absurd instability of popular opinion is exhibited in the progress of the six months opposition to the British Treaty, and the six weeks repentance by way of atonement for it! Can it be the love of contention for its own sake which induces men to espouse a quarrel which is directed against the success of an object, that they really wish may succeed? Or is it a kind of torpid  listlessness which makes men dumb as advocates of a good cause and inactive spectators of such as seek to ruin it; suffering opposition to assume a consistency & a shape which nearly baffles all attempts to defeat it when it has reached the very borders of success. Such in several instances has been the operation of momentous concerns in which individuals and the public were alike interested. To what hair-breadth escapes, the existing peace honor & prosperity of our country must be attributed! A majority in our representative council well disposed to put them all at stake for the paltry pretext of an alleged usurpation of prerogative in the other branches of the Government. In the list of yea’s and nays upon the question of appropriations I remark a strange inversion of names, in the two columns. For example, when I find the name of Gregg, a member of the Pennsylvania seat, upon the yea side, my astonishment is great, but, that courage and independence enough should be found among the Virginia Representation, to produce an affirmative vote, exceeds all the extravagant examples that have ever been recorded as the effects of credulity. On the other hand, when the names of three Massachusetts men strike my eye on the Nay side, I lament their apostacy, at the same time that I sincerely rejoice at the public record of their shameful subserviency. At a future day I believe it will be a useful instrument in the hands of a less dependent rival, and will operate as a positive pretention to the confidence of their Constituents.  A Varnum in exchange for a Dexter I fain would hope that this rape upon public judgment will not be durable.

     The call for papers relative to the Negotiation, which was made by the House of Representatives previous to this appropriation law, and the fact of the President’s refusal to answer the call by a compliance, were first communicated to me by Mr. Marshal the husband of my old flame Miss M. Without waiting like a cautious politician or a reserved diplomat to sound the opinion of my informer, I very aristocratically exclaimed, perhaps presumptiously, “The President has done right.”  “Let the House refuse the supplies if they please, the responsibility rests with them, for all consequences that may result from withholding them. I doubt whether they will have the courage to meet them.” The abruptness of this declaration would hardly admit a subsequent recantation, even had I been disposed to make any. But I must own that for some time after, when the numbers were compared of pro’s and cons, my conjectures as to the issue of that struggle for prerogative wavered between hope and apprehension. Happily victory as declared herself in favor of Constitutional privileges as I pray she may always do, from whatever quarter the invasion may arise.

     We have the New York Herald as late as the 25th of June, and have searched them all over to find some account of the evacuation of the posts, but scarcely a word is said upon the subject. This obstinate silence upon an event so considerable as that is construed by us into favorable symptoms, it is at least productive of a negative considence that no real obstruction has been thrown in the way of a seasonable delivery. The publication of several authentic letters, which we find in these papers, has served to elucidate many plots in the French system as it respects our Country, which before were but simply seen, and that only through the fallacious and often erroneous medium of combining facts and occurrences which have no apparent affinity or connection. We perceive that the share which the Western Insurrection had in the vast plan of intrigue, hatched in the Committee of public safety at Paris in the days of Brissot, and exported in the vessel of which Genet was supercargo, landed in the southernmost extremity of our Continent, and there hawked about to obtain champions for an expedition against Florida under a French Commission, is at this day no mystery in the U.S.

    We perceive that the negotiation for exchanging with Spain that portion of the island of St. Domingo which was ceded by that power as the price of peace with France for Florida is well known among you and should that negotiation be successful, it is not difficult to discover what use will be made of a footing upon our territory. That there are secret agents and abetters of this scheme in different parts of Europe who call themselves American citizens there can be no doubt. Col. Fulton lately came over from the seat of Government with voluminous dispatches for the Minister of the United States at Paris, from private correspondence. For a result of all these things we must look to time.

    The French order to their commanders of armed vessels, to capture neutral, alias, American vessels charged with enemy’s property was issued it seems in the West Indies, long e’re it was made public in Europe. Why, if it be not expressly pointed against American navigation, was it first divulged in the West Indies, where all our commerce must pass & repass. I long to hear in what light the orders are viewed by our people.

    In my last letter I gave you some intimation of my intentions respecting my future home, and placed the probability of my remaining here, another year, upon the contingency of my Brother’s permanence at this place. A destination more honorable to himself, better proportioned to his talents, if not more useful to the public service, is since assigned him…”


November 26, 1796 written from The Hague to John Adams:

“My dear Sir,

     … Your letters have a further claim to my thanks, by the style of partiality which prevails in them when you notice my communications. I can only hope the judgment which pronounces upon their merit may not inspire the author, with notions too favorable to his own productions. Without proper deductions however this might possibly be the case, but my innate veneration for that judgment suggests the share of allowance which must be made when it is exercised in a cause to which myself am party.

      December 12th It seldom happens that I can begin and finish a letter of my own at one sitting, official business often intervenes and supercedes of course all attention to private exercises… in addition to which I have passed nearly a week at Amsterdam with my Brother where his business called him and where he still is.

    On our way to Amsterdam we spent a few hours with Mr. Luzac1 at Leyden who received us with great kindness & hospitality. We found him occupied with his usual labor as Superintendent of the Gazette which comes from the press of his Brother, and which amidst all the variety of changes & revolutions that have agitated Europe for seven years past, still preserves the character for accuracy & authenticity, and maintains its rank as the most classical periodical production of the past century. In a former letter I mentioned to you the harsh treatment which Mr. L. had received from the late States of Holland, at the instigation of the French Directory. It was true as I stated that he was prohibited from having any share in the management of the Gazette, during the exercise of his Professorship in the University, but after that office was taken from him, he was at liberty to resume the humbler though perhaps not less useful task of an Editor.

    The conversation which we had with Mr. L. was unrestrained and to me it was instructive. I admired his fluency and the accuracy of his expression which had it been employed in delivering a lecture to his pupils could not have required a greater precision of style. He spoke much of America, enquired the state of our affairs, and seemed to take much interest in the details of our Government, which he has not hesitated to tell the public very lately he considers to be the best modeled & most wisely administered of all the establishments or civil associations known at this day. It will not be difficult for you to conceive why this eulogium should appear at this particular conjuncture nor will it surprise you to hear that to numbers in France and this Country such an encomium is particularly obnoxious. To such as esteem unity and indivisibility to be the first requisites of a perfect Government, a recommendation of the American System is little less than Treason, or at least n high misdemeanor contra majestatem populi. To such however whose opinions of Federalism are not of the present day’s growth, who have not been terrified or disgusted at the name, notwithstanding the hard and opprobrious terms which have been lavished upon it, to such as are free to think and will think freely, the Constitution under which our Country is now governed, is still held in repute. This class of people is more numerous than is generally supposed, especially in this Country. It is not possible for men to renounce their habits of thought and action with the same facility as they would put off an old garment, but the doctrine of Revolution and the Apostles who preach it are far from recognizing the existence of any such difficulty. To them everything is possible that power & force can effect, and it imports them little by what title such a power is held.

    It may be noticed as a proof of the attachment which still prevails in this Country towards a Confederate Republic that a majority of the Constitutional Committee were in favor of retaining that form in preference to that of unity which is so powerfully recommended by their Allies the French, and the Constitution was thus reported. It was made a question during several days in the National Assembly whether the plan reported was worthy of being deliberated upon, or discussed before that body. The members from the province of Holland were unanimously opposed to it, but their numbers did not equal the remainder who voted in its favor, and accordingly it was decided to be a subject of deliberation. But a pretext was soon raised for appointing a new Committee of ten persons to prepare a kind of Supplementary plan, which is to make some arrangements with regard to the finances of the Country, which are said not to be sufficiently provided for in the first. But a short time is allowed to this Committee for the accomplishment of their labor, and the Constitution is to be held in advice until that shall be completed.

     It affords the highest satisfaction to learn from your letters that public affairs have assumed an appearance of durable tranquility and a more rational complexion than they had previously borne. All eyes in Europe are turned upon the new world. To most of the Governments on this side of the water, ours is an object of equal admiration and envy. If to the wisdom and uprightness which have characterized the administration of our affairs hitherto, should be added an unshaken perseverance in the same system, we shall gradually confirm the operation of the former of these passions but without diminishing the latter. Should we commit errors therefore, it is easy to predict the degree of satisfaction which numbers would derive from them.

     The address of the President of the United States to the people of America has been read with avidity here. Many of the sentiments are too deeply founded in truth & too forcibly applicable in this Country to be relished; but it has made great impression upon the mind of many people and will not be less celebrated wherever it is known than was the address of General Washington to the American Army. I enclose to you several of the last Leyden Gazettes, which contain the current news, and in which you will observe a faithful translation of the address; you will not be at a loss to conjecture at whose instigation it is published. Several Paris papers have given a partial & mutilated sketch of it, which renders more important its appearance in a true shape…”

1.       Jean Luzac (1746-1807) of Leyden, champion of American Independence and author of a book on George Washington.

December 21, 1796 written from The Hague to Abigail Adams:

“My dear Mother,

     … The desire which your letters and those of my Father have so frequently expressed for my return home, it is my intention to gratify in the course of a few months. It seems probable at present, that my brother will continue here through the Spring, and though in that case I must leave him before the expiration of his mission here I shall probably prolong my stay beyond the period which I had meditated for my departure hence. A person to succeed my Brother here will doubtless soon be appointed and he will most likely arrive here before we quit. Who this successor will be I am unable to conjecture but I sincerely hope it may be some man of respectable talents, but above all a firm & decided character. To deal properly with these people, to maintain the harmony between the two Countries, and at the same time to yield nothing to them but strict justice, the Minister of the United States at the Hague ought to possess those qualities. The mission is one of the most delicate that we have at present, and it becomes daily more & more so. I say delicate because there is no knowing how soon the French Directory may order the Government of this Country to break of all communication with the United State, until they shall redress the wrongs of which the French Republic has reason to complain. This mode of proceding has of late become so fashionable that it ought not to surprise the most friendly Nation of the Globe, to find itself without ceremony ranked among the number of those upon which the French Directory is disposed to cast a frown of disapprobation. Through what medium must the Executive of France judge of the character of the American people if they imagine that incivility and harsh treatment will gain their affections? Such a policy is surely not founded upon accurate knowledge of the human temper. But they expect to terrify us into a subserviency to their sovereign will. This being their object, I am not for my single self averse to an experiment of that nature for I firmly believe that the success of it will be of a description to convince them of its rashness. But experience is evidently not the guide of the French Directory; had it been they would have learnt a lesson of wisdom from the result of a similar trial upon Portugal and Sweden. A French opposition paper which I meet with some times, contained a few days ago a paragraph of which the following is a translation. “It is affirmed that the Directory seems little disposed to receive Mr. Pinckney the new Ambassador of the United States of America, and that because his Government is connected in commerce with England. As whatever is too ridiculous does not merit belief, we contradict this news. None but fools require that their friends should be the enemies of their enemies. Moreover the whole world has not yet consented to divide itself between France and England.” The opinion expressed in this extract is very generally prevalent, but it appears not to be that of the Directory.

    Our anarchists have I presume already received their cue, and the whole doctrine of rewards & punishments has doubtless been rung in the ears of Government at this time!

     You doubtless see the letters of my brother to my father soon after they are received, and as he gives all the political intelligence of importance, it is unnecessary for me to repeat it to you. …

     The present is a gay winter at the Hague. Balls, Concerts Drawing rooms etc. in abundance. People have thrown aside somewhat of their buckram and seem to be convinced that melancholy is not the best remedy of itself …”

October 3, 1797 written from London to John Adams:

“My dear Sir.

    Since I came to this country, two of your kind letters have reached me, one dated in June & the other in July, the latter came by General Marshall…

    Contrary to your expectation, as well as my own, your letters find me still in Europe and about to embark in a few days with my brother upon his mission to the North. I am somewhat apprehensive from the repealed recommendations which are contained both in yours & my Mothers letters that this deviation on my part from my original purpose may not meet your approbation. I cannot say indeed that it entirely meets my own, for I had made up my mind to return home, in the course of this fall and make my permanent establishment for my future life, and my diversion from this plan has been rather a sacrifice to the earnest wishes of my brother, than to a conviction of its ultimate benefit to myself. I do sincerely wish to see once more my native land, my family and friends, but I have consented to defer the gratification for some period farther; I hope and expect it will not exceed another year, if within that period some young man can be found to take my situation with my Brother. He cannot be alone, without losing half his usefulness to his country and the service in which it employs him. I do not mean by this that the Secretary is of equal importance with the Minister, but at least an Embassy is incomplete without one.

      I feel grateful for your kind offers of a situation with you in case of my return, though I am not sure that my ambition would lead me to embrace it. Upon this subject however it is not necessary at present to decide.

     It is with regret that I learn from your letter the difficulties and embarrassments which imprudent & unsuccessful speculation has brought into the families of some of our near relations. I had not forgotten your oracular predictions upon this Subject, and the anticipation of such an issue, however painful it might have been, had in some measure prepared my mind to hear it with composure. I think I can venture to assure you Sir, that these examples and your admonitions will not be lost to experience.

     My brother has copiously detailed to you, since our residence here, every thing that relates to the political concerns of our Country. The facts are serious, & the events of which they are probably the precursors will not I trust surprise our Countrymen, or damp the ardor, with which it is their duty & their interest to meet them. Our Commissioners have reached Paris, but I do not expect that they will be there long. Since the recent revolution, every thing looks dark & hollow, & if justice be done to any earthly power by the triumphant faction in France, to accident, not design, be all the honor & all the praise.

     What sacrifices of interest our Country & fellow citizens may be prepared to make to their peace & neutrality, I am unable to conjecture; it is more easy to conceive the extent and magnitude of those which will be demanded of them. Our National dignity & honour must not look to a foreign power for patronage. …”