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at the touch of emergency. The anticipation of evils
makes her doubt a little. "If danger comes near my
dwelling, I suppose I shall shudder." 40 But when her
husband writes to her, " In case of real danger, of which
you cannot fail to have previous intimations, fly to the


woods with our children/ 41 we know, we see, that she
would have had perfect presence of mind either to fly
or to remain, as the wisest courage might dictate. "I
am not suddenly elated or depressed, " 42 she says ; and
again, " I am not apt to be intimidated." 43 Though she
was far from given to self -commendation, she declares
solemnly that if the men are not able to perform their
duty to their country, the enemy will find the women
to be a veritable race of Amazons. Nay, she even goes
forth as a spectator and enjoys one of the most fierce,
intense excitements known to man, the vision of a field
of battle. " I have just returned from Penn s hill, where
I have been sitting* to hear the amazing roar of cannon,
and from whence I could see every shell which was
thrown. The sound, I think, is one of the grandest in
nature, and is of the true species of the sublime." 44

Do not, however, set this lady down as one who would
have taken a bloodthirsty delight in bull-fights or the
prize ring. If she hearkened with a thrill of awed
pleasure to the booming of cannon, it was because they
were fired in defense of her country and of liberty. She
knew well what her friends and fellow citizens were
fighting for, and if she took a passionate interest in
the struggle, it was because her whole heart and hopes
were fixed upon the end of it. Her husband s letters


to her contain much lucid statement and analysis of
the methods and aims of the Revolution, and hers are
scarcely behind his in clear understanding and intensity
of purpose.

She thought much, and thought with broad intelli
gence on general political questions, liked to talk of
them, liked to write of them. "Well, you tell H. she
must not write politics; now it is just as natural for
me to fall upon them as to breathe." 45 She has no
illusions about democracy, or about human nature,
speaks at times even with cynical insight of its failures
and defects. The lamentable inconsistencies of states
manship are not hidden from her. How many who
were fighting for American freedom at that day had
! the courage to cry out that it was absurd for men who
kept slaves to take up arms and fight battles in the name
of liberty? Mrs. Adams had that courage. 48

Yet, in spite of the selfishness of politicians and the
inadequacy of human ideals, this wise and energetic
woman never faltered for a moment in her devotion
to the cause of her country, never wavered in her hope.
The warmth and the glory of her enthusiasm must have
been a splendid comfort to her husband and to all who
knew her. Her passion does, indeed, occasionally de
generate into bitterness against her enemies. Alas, we


do not need recent examples to show us that this is too
easy with even the wisest and the noblest. " Those who
do not scruple to bring poverty, misery, slavery, and
death upon thousands will not hesitate at the most dia
bolical crimes," she writes ; " and this is Britain." 47 But
she has the same noble scorn for folly and meanness
on her own side. " If our army is in ever so critical a
state, I wish to know it. . . . If all America is to be ruined
and undone by a pack of cowards and knaves, I wish
to know it. Pitiable is the lot of their commander." 48
And her words of counsel, of confidence, of inspiration,
are never wanting. Her young brother-in-law longs to
enter the army. She pleads and reasons with his
doubting mother to make her permit it. Her husband
is involved in an endless tangle of difficulty and danger.
She would not have him shun an hour of it. "You
cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive
spectator; but if the sword be drawn, I bid adieu to
all domestic felicity, and look forward to that country
where there are neither wars nor rumors of war, in
a firm belief, that through the mercy of its King we
shall both rejoice there together." 49 Nor does she urge
others to sacrifices which she is unwilling to make her
self. Foreign luxuries? Let them go. Plain milk
makes as good a breakfast as sugared coffee. Not


one of the comforts to which she has been accustomed
but she will cheerfully renounce. If the men are taken
from the fields, the women will do the work for them.
She herself doubts her strength for digging potatoes,
but she can gather corn and husk it. What she can
do, she will do, that her children and her children s
children may be free.


MRS. ADAMS S interesting combination of a true
woman s gentleness and sensibility with the masculine
qualities called for by her time is best studied, as some
of the preceding quotations indicate, in her relation to
her 5 husband. To understand this relation fully, it is
necessary to have some idea of his very marked and
peculiar character. He was, then, a man of broad in
tellectual power, of keen insight into political and moral
problems, of energetic and self-sacrificing patriotism.
He commanded the respect of all men by his dignity,
his courage, his sincerity of speech and action, his en
tire honesty. But men did not love him; for he had
not tact; he had not social charm; he bristled with ego
tism, and, like many egotists, he was morbidly sensitive
and showed it. I do not know any one quotation that
much better depicts the man than the following: "I


have a very tender, feeling heart. This country knows
not, and never can know, the torments I have endured
for its sake. I am glad it never can know, for it would
give more pain to the benevolent and humane than I
could wish even the wicked and malicious to feel." 50
Try to imagine Washington saying that.

Also, John Adams was a man who found fault with
everything, and therefore naturally he found fault with
his wife. Even his praise too often savors of patronage
and his advice is apt to carry a strong taint of criti
cism. Occasionally he flings out in undisguised dis
pleasure. Though she was the last person to complain
of her health, he cannot resist a sarcasm about it : " My
wife has been sick all winter, frequently at the point
of death, in her own opinion." 51 Her indiscretion in
money matters, though at a time when discretion was
almost impossible, provokes him to sharp reproof.
" How could you be so imprudent? You must be frugal,
I assure you." 52 But the best is the incident of the
young coach horses, driven imprudently to church and
causing a most indecorous disturbance there. Mrs.
Adams was not present herself, but she authorized the
proceeding, and the husband notes, in hot wrath, "I
scolded at the coachman first, and afterwards at his
mistress, and I will scold again and again; it is my


duty." 63 Perhaps a husband to whom scolding is a
duty is even worse than one to whom it is a pleasure.

Nevertheless, this husband, who could scold and be
imperious and even tyrannical, like others, adored and
reverenced and obeyed his wife, like others. How pretty


are his compliments to her wit and intelligence, though
he veils them under sarcasm. Of a certain acquaint
ance he says: "In large and mixed companies she is
totally silent, as a lady ought to be. But whether her
eyes are so penetrating, and her attention so quick to
the words, looks, gestures, sentiments, etc., of the com
pany, as yours would be, saucy as you are this way,
I won t say." 54 And there is no trace of sarcasm in
the ample admission to his son that in all the vicissi
tudes of fortune his wife had been his help and com
fort, while without her he could not have endured and
survived. In a letter written to his granddaughter the
same enthusiasm appears, even more nobly. He com
pares his wife to the heroic Lady Russell, who stood
by her husband s side in times equally troublous. " This
lady," he says, "was more beautiful than Lady Rus
sell, had a brighter genius, more information, a more
refined taste, and [was] at least her equal in the virtues
of the heart." 55

An extensive correspondence, covering many years,


reveals to us fully Mrs. Adams s relations with this
companion of her long life, reveals her love and anxiety
and devotion and enthusiasm for the man to whom
she early gave her whole heart and from whom she
never withdrew it for a moment. As he rises in the
world, becomes a guide and a leader, a prominent citi
zen, a great historical figure, she accompanies him in
spirit always, with watchful care, with fruitful caution,
with delicate suggestion. She sighs over the necessi
ties of state which part her from him. She slights, as
we all do, great gifts of fortune that we have, and
deplores those that are denied her. She hoped to have
married a man, not a title, she says. A humble, pri
vate station with a husband would have been sweeter
than grandeur without one. Yet we know well enough
that she would not have had him lose an inch of for
tune for her comfort, and never woman developed more
fully the grace and ease and dignity which great station
requires than did she. The letter she wrote him on
the day of his inauguration as president has been often
cited and deserves citation. It is a noble letter. " My
feelings are not those of pride or ostentation, upon the
occasion. They are solemnized by a sense of the obli
gations, the important trusts, and numerous duties con
nected with it. That you may be enabled to discharge


them with honor to yourself, with justice and impar
tiality to your country, and with satisfaction to this
great people, shall be the daily prayer of your A. A." 56
And as she was perfectly adapted to share her hus
band s greatness, so she accepted with equal composure
and dignity his comparative failure and downfall She
did not seek honors and glories, she says, and she is
quite content to part from them. A peaceful life at
Quincy, with the man she loves, is all she ever asked
for, and nothing can be more delightful than to have
it given back to her. We know how much of sincerity
there is in such declarations and how much of credit
able and fine mendacity. In Mrs. Adams they were
probably as sincere as they ever are. She was a sincere
woman. But though she was perfectly ready to accept
her husband s defeat, she could not quite forgive those
who, in her opinion, had conspired against him and be
trayed him. Toward such political enemies her lan
guage is not wholly free from a certain ungracious,
if pardonable, acerbity. Thus, she says of one who
should have been beneath her contempt, "I hear that
Duane has got hold of my letter to Niles, and spits
forth vulgar abuse at me ... but the low sarcasms
of these people affect me no more at this day than the
idle wind." 67


Even in regard to Jefferson her animosity was long
a-dying. In early days she had known him well and
admired and loved him. Then the fierce political con
test which made him her husband s successor parted
them. Between the two men the feud was soon for
gotten, and the long correspondence of their old age,
crowned by their deaths on the same anniversary of
American independence, is one of the striking traditions
of our history. But Mrs. Adams forgave more slowly
than her husband. When Jefferson, who had always
admired her and who spoke of her as " one of the most
estimable characters on earth," 58 finally made a direct
appeal to their former affection, she answered him with
courtesy, but with a clear, vigorous, burning logic that
showed how deep and unhealed the old wound was:
Jefferson s conduct, she says, she "considered as a
personal injury." Then she ends, as a Christian should :
" I bear no malice. I cherish no enmity. I would not
retaliate if it was in my power." 59 But nobody is left
in a moment s doubt as to what she felt.

Through all these accidents and floods of fortune it
is easy to observe how great at once and how unob
trusive was Mrs. Adams s influence over her husband.
She never dreamed of any vulgar domination, or de
sired it. She knew well the limits of her activity and


his and respected them. Her advice, when given at
all, was given discreetly, tentatively, and, without being
in any way enforced, was left with time to prove its
value. Time did prove its value, and in consequence
the recipient of it came to look for more and to depend
upon it more than he knew, perhaps more than even
she herself knew.

Yet in all that concerned their personal relations, as
indeed in all that concerned human nature, her knowl
edge was far finer and more delicate than his. It was
just this exquisite comprehension of his character and
temperament that made her counsel of such constant
utility. To be sure, her means of information were
greater, as well as her faculty of insight. He had little
reserve, with her at any rate, spoke out his needs and
hopes and discouragements, made plain his strength and
weakness, unrolled his heart like a scroll before her
searching and tender scrutiny. This she could not do.
She felt more than he those mighty, subtle barriers
which seal the tongue and make it incapable of utter
ing what it yearns to utter. In one of her letters occurs
this simple statement which says so much : " My pen is
always freer than my tongue. I have written many
things to you that I suppose I never could have
talked." 60 Yet even her pen is tongue-tied in compari-


son with his. Therefore it is evident that much of her
is beyond his divination, while she sees clear into every
corner of his heart, understands what affection there
is, what power there is, what weakness there is, under
stands just exactly the weight and significance there
is in those scoldings delivered again and again from a
sense of duty. Must we add that she saw all this partly
from finer vision and partly from greater eagerness,
while he saw not only all he was fitted, but also all that
he desired, to see?

For she was a woman, and her love was her whole
soul; and it is a delight, after all these strayings in
masculine by-paths, to return to the woman in her. She
writes long letters on great matters, domestic difficul
ties, foreign levies, questions of policy, questions of
state; but always in some brief sentence there is the
heart of the letter and the heart of the woman. It is an
noying sometimes to stiff, starched John. " I shall have
vexations enough, as usual," he writes. " You will have
anxiety and tenderness enough, as usual. Pray strive
not to have too much/ 61 When there is prospect of their
letters being captured by the British and printed, his
comment is, that they would both be made to appear
very ridiculous. 82

Ridiculous ! What does she care for being ridiculous?


This is the man she worships and she wants him. At
the very suggestion of his being ill, ten thousand hor
rors seize upon her imagination, and she says so. All
he writes of state matters is very well. She is glad
to hear it, hungers for it. But she hungers far more
for those little tokens of tenderness which he has no
time for giving. " Could you, after a thousand fears
and anxieties, long expectation and painful suspense, be
satisfied with my telling you that I was well, that I
wished you were with me, that my daughter sent her
duty, that I had ordered some articles for you, which
I hoped would arrive, etc., etc.? By Heaven, if you
could, you have changed hearts with some frozen Lap
lander, or made a voyage to a region that has chilled
every drop of your blood/ 63 Love her, oh, yes, she
knows he loves her, after his fashion, but why doesn t
he say so, after her fashion? "Every expression of
tenderness is a cordial to my heart." 64 " I want some
sentimental effusions of the heart." 65 The language
is the language of Addison, but the want is the want
of Eve forever. It murmurs through these letters of
war and business like a touch of birdsong on a field of

Then, when we have got it thoroughly into our heads
that this was a woman and a lover, we can end with


her own splendid answer appropriate at this day as
it was at that when she was asked how she bore
having Mr. Adams absent for three years in his coun
try s service. "If I had known, sir, that Mr. Adams
could have effected what he has done, I would not only
have submitted to the absence I have endured, painful
as it has been, but I would not have opposed it, even
though three years more should be added to the num
ber (which Heaven avert!). I feel a pleasure in being
able to sacrifice myi selfish passions to the general good,
and in imitating the example which has taught me to
consider myself and family but as the small dust of the
balance, when compared with the great community." 6<J




Sarah Alden Bradford

Born in Boston, July 31, 1793.

Married Rev. Samuel Ripley, 1818.

Lived in Waltham, Massachusetts, 1818-1846.

Lived in Concord, Massachusetts, from 1846

until her death.

Husband died, November 24, 1847.
Died in Concord, July 26, 1867.





FEW American women of to-day know of Mrs. Samuel
Ripley, but a sentence from Senator Hoar s "Autobi
ography " will give her a favorable introduction : " She
was one of the most wonderful scholars of her time, or
indeed of any time. President Everett said she could
fill any professor s chair at Harvard." To this we
may add the testimony of Professor Child, whose au
thority no one will question : " The most learned woman
I have ever known, the most diversely learned perhaps
of her time, and not inferior in this respect, I venture
to say, to any woman of any age/

It seems worth while to hear a little more about her,
does it not?

From her childhood she had a passion for books and
study. Every available minute was snatched for them,
and some that were not available. " I never go to Boston
or anywhere else, my passion for reading increasing
inversely with time," she writes when little more than a
child. In the early years of the nineteenth century,


when she was growing up, New England was not very
favorable to the education of girls nor was any other
place. But she was fortunate in having a father
Captain Bradford, of Duxbury who was a scholar
as well as a sea captain, and who loved her and liked
to indulge her fancies.

" Father, may I study Latin ? " she asked him.

"Latin! A girl study Latin! Certainly. Study
anything you like/

Whereupon she compares him, greatly to his advan
tage, with another father who endeavored to convince
his daughter that "all knowledge, except that of do
mestic affairs, appears unbecoming in a female/

Becoming or not, all knowledge was acceptable to her.
She studied Latin until she could read it like a modern
tongue, Greek the same, also French, German, and Ital
ian. She did this largely alone, German without any
assistance whatever, persisting incredibly, " working still
at an abominable language without being sensible of the
least progress," she complains. Nor did she confine
herself to languages. Her zeal for mathematics and
philosophy was fully equal. Most of all, perhaps, she
loved the sciences; and chemistry, astronomy, and
especially botany, were a delight to her from youth
to age.


Nor did she take her study of languages as a task
simply, as an end in itself, as so many do. It was but a
means, a greater facility for getting at the thoughts of
wise men and past ages. She read Latin and Greek
widely as well as thoroughly. Tacitus and Juvenal must
have furnished odd reflection for a schoolgirl, and it is
not every infant of fourteen who regales her imagina
tion with the novels of Voltaire.

Naturally such solitary reading in a child of that age
had something academic about it, and the intellectual
enthusiasm of her early letters abounds in pleasing sug
gestions of copy-book moralities. Yet the keen, vigorous
insight often breaks through, even here. Conventional
habit might lead an ordinary student to moralize on
death ; but few ordinary students would generalize their
botanical observations into the remark that soon "our
bodies, transformed into their airy elements, maybe con-,
verted into the jointed stalk of the rank grass whicK
will wave over our graves." Pretty well for a girl of
sixteen !

And though she studied rules and learned traditions,
and so early laid over her spirit a mighty mass of au
thority, she did not propose to be in any way a slave to
it. When rules vex her, she cries out against them. For
instance, she could never spell, and why should she? "I


wish the free spirit were not trammeled by these con
founded rules." Also, while she studies for study s
sake, and could hardly be expected, in the early days, to
interest herself too much in the why of it, you get sin
gular hints of penetration where you least look for
them. She asks herself whether her devotion to the
Classics springs " from pride of learning in your humble
servant or intrinsic merit in Cicero, Virgil, and Tacitus."
The question is one that many an older scholar might
put with advantage.

It is, above all, in the line of religious speculation that
one examines most curiously Sarah s gradual change
from a conventional acceptance of what is taught her
to fierce, independent thinking for herself. She was
brought up on by no means narrow lines of orthodoxy.
But in her early letters there is a serious and earnest
acceptance of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity
and a loyal effort to apply them. Gradually this unques
tioning submission yields to the steady encroachment of
the spirit of inquiry, the " dread of enthusiasm, of the
mind s becoming enslaved to a system perhaps errone
ous, and shut forever against the light of truth." With
the process of years the emancipation grows more
marked, until little of the old faith is left but the
unfailing habit of its goodness.


Do not, however, for a moment suppose that this
studious and thoughtful childhood was altogether lost
in bookishness, that Sarah was, in youth or in age, a
stuffy pedant. She was never that in the least, at any
time of her life; never gave that impression to any one.
She was at all points an energetic, practical, efficient,
common-sense human being. She did not indee d have
the eager life of sport and diversion that the girl of
to-day has. No girl had it then. There was no tennis
or basket-ball, not even skating, or swimming, or riding.
These things would not have been ladylike if they had
been possible. Instead of them, there were only long
walks in the Duxbury woods, the rich, wholesome flavor
of the New England autumn : " The great pear tree at
the gate, full of orange pears ; the ground strewed with
golden high-tops ; the girl in the corn-barn paring apples
to dry; the woods filled with huckleberries."

Also, there were the pressing cares of daily life, where
mouths were many and means were little. Sarah had
her full share of these and met them with swift and
adequate efficiency. It is true, she groans sometimes
over "that dreadful ironing day," and rebels a little
when "Betsey, teasing to know how the meat is to be
dissected," interferes with letters filled with Greek poets
Roman historians. But she comes right down to


earth and stays there, heats the irons, dissects the meat,
sweeps the parlor, at proper times takes an apparently
absorbed interest in shopping and ribbons and furbe
lows, as a normal girl should.

Even her abstruser preoccupations are put to prac
tical use. The oldest of a large family, she imparts her
own acquirements to those who come after her, not mak
ing any one the scholar she herself was, but giving them
all an education exceptional in that day or any day.
Also, she gave them more than book-education ; for the
early death of her mother left her at the head of the
household, and she attended to every ciuty as if her
beloved books did not exist at all. Nor was she moved
by the sense of Huty only, but by tenderness and affec
tion, as appears charmingly in the words written by
her father to her mother from oversea: "Tell Sarah
(oh, she is a seraph!) that I thank her with my tears

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Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 2 of 14)