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The JAMES S. COPLEY LIBRARY: MAGNIFICENT AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS: FIRST SELECTION

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Adams, Abigail, First Lady
Autograph letter signed ("A.A."), 4 pages, bifolium (9 x 7 1/4 in.; 229 x 184 mm); a few tiny scattered holes, touching about four words, minor fold separation at the bottom. Red cloth folding-case, black morocco spine in five compartments, three red morocco lettering labels.
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Adams Family Correspondence 6:64-66 (based on a draft, which doesn't include the description of the actors' costumes)

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Her first trip abroad, Abigail Adams marvels at her month-long odyssey across the Atlantic. To her cousin Hannah Quincy Lincoln Storer, she observes: "[T]hose only who have crossed the ocean ever realize the pleasure which is felt by the sight of Land. The unexperienced traveller is more sensible to this sensation than those who frequently traverse the ocean. I could scarcely realize that 30 days had removed me so far distant from my native shore ..." Between May and June of 1784, Congress elected John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson as commissioners to negotiate treaties of amity and commerce with European and North African nations.  On 20 June Abigail sailed with her daughter Nabby for England, arriving in London 21 July 1784. Since it would take her husband or her son John Quincy about six days to reach London, Abigail and Nabby filled their time by sight-seeing and exchanging visits with well-wishers. Abigail exclaims: "And is this the Country, and are these the people who so lately waged an evil war against us! were reflections which did not escape me amidst all the beauty and grandeur which presented itself to me eyes. You have doubtless heard from my friends that I was pleased with England, and I that I met with much civility and politeness there, and a large share of it from your connections."

Abigail on French customs, manners, fashion, and finery. The Adamses arrived at the Hotel Roualt in Auteuil on 17 August where they took up residence until May 1785.  The custom of the country dictated that the first visit be made by the stranger, a situation Abigail found awkward, so most of her knowledge—and skepticism—of the French derived from her observation of them at the theatres in Paris. "The dress of the French ladies is like their manners, light airy and genteel, they are easy in their deportment, eloquent in their speech, their voices soft and musical and their attitude pleasing. Habituated to frequent the Theatres from their earlyest age, they become perfect mistresses of the art of insinuation and the powers of persuasion, intelligence is communicated to every feature of the face ... so that it may with truth be said, that every man of this nation is an actor and every woman is an actress ..."

When she arrived in Europe, Abigail had read numerous plays but never seen one, as stage acting was banned in Boston. (Ironically, her son John Quincy was still protesting Boston's anti-theatre ordinances in 1792.) The opportunities to see stage plays in Paris were limitless, and Abigail soon became an enthusiast of the Opéra and the Comédie Française, in spite of the fact that she knew no French. The play she had just recently seen realistically depicted "a terrible sea-storm"; and  she confided to Hannah: "The roling of the Sea the mounting of the vessel upon the waves in which I could discern a Lady & little child in the utmost distress the terrible claps of thunder & flashes of lightning which flew from one side of the stage to the other really worked me up to such a pitch of horror that I trembled with terror."  

Abigail concludes with detailed descriptions of the performers'  costumes as well as that of the latest fashions at large. "The fashionable shape of the Ladies is to be very small at the bottom of the waist & very large round the shoulders, a wasp ... You and I madam must despair of being in the mode ... Gowns and petticoats are worn without any trimming of any kind that is reserved for full dress only, when very large hoops negligées with trains 3 yd long are worn. but these are not used, except at court & then only upon publick occasions . ... Nabby has made you a miniature handkerchief just to show you one mode, but Caps, Hats & Handkerchiefs are as various as Ladies and miliners fancies can devise."

The JAMES S. COPLEY LIBRARY: MAGNIFICENT AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS: FIRST SELECTION

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