THE trip to Boston in the summer of 1813 was one of the happiest events of Van der Kemp’s long eventful life. It was an escape from unpleasant worries about the unhappy War of 1812, and it was almost a convention of educated, enlightened, and wonderfully pleasant people. In addition, he was the honored guest and the center of attention wherever he went.
The idea originated in his correspondence with John Adams and a growing acquaintance with Abigail. In 1809, two of Abigail’s letters were published. Van der Kemp chanced upon them and read them with great pleasure. He praised her writing to John and thereby touched his friend deeply.
There have been few ladies in the world of a more correct or elegant taste. A collection of her letters, for the forty-five years that we have been married, would be worth ten times more than Madame de Sevigne’s though not so perfectly measured in syllables and letters, and would, or at least ought to put to the blush Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and all her admirers. So much you will say, for conjugal complaisance. So much, I say, for simple justice to her merit.1
Van der Kemp said he had been totally unaware of Abigail’s writing. “Could it be known in the Western woods?” He was “buried in a corner of Oldenbarneveld” where friends sometimes passed him by. He asked to be informed when more of Abigail’s letters were published. Van der Kemp considered them far superior to Lady Montagu’s letters, in which he “searched in vain for that placid modesty—that sweetness of manners—that pleasing timidity and delicacy which adorn every female beauty and virtue, and conquer our hearts involuntarily—”2
Early in 1811 Van der Kemp wrote that he would like to go visiting for his health, and casually remarked that he wished it could be to Quincy. Adams was pleased with the idea. He thought Van der Kemp would enjoy his library and some of the surrounding scenery. He assured him “the comforts of life” would be offered; the Adamses were “little concerned with the luxuries.” Apparently he too was thinking of a trip, possibly to central New York. He asked how far Van der Kemp lived from Lebanon in the vicinity of Hamilton where Adams’ daughter, Abigail Smith, had her home.3
Van der Kemp learned from Peter Smith that the daughter lived in his general area of Peterboro and that he understood Mrs. Adams planned to visit her daughter during the summer. Van der Kemp said he would go to Lebanon and pay his respect to Mrs. Adams, even if the roads were bad,4 but Abigail was not able to make the trip.
Later in the year Adams sent two volumes of the proceedings of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston to Lebanon to be forwarded to Van der Kemp, and Abigail sent two volumes of John Quincy’s lectures.5 Van der Kemp wrote a special note of thanks to Abigail, including a prediction that John Quincy would become president.6
The correspondence between the two friends in Oldenbarneveld and Quincy showed an increasingly warm interest in each other’s life and family. Early in 1813 Adams wrote, “Oh! that my situation in Life would permit me to undertake a Pilgrimage to Oldenbarneveldt!” He said he would like to stop there both coming and going to Lebanon. He would see and adore Mrs. Van der Kemp again and would delight in the gardens of Mappa.7 But Adams was seventy-seven, and traveling by stage was too strenuous for him. He said if Van der Kemp would come to Quincy, he would show him “a pretty Hill, and what might be made a pretty Farm, the Athenaeum in Boston and a Botanical Garden at Cambridge; and a friendly heart.”8
In the summer Adams wrote that both his philosophy and religion were being sorely tried. His only daughter, come from Lebanon, was in the next room on her deathbed. Abigail was worn down “with care, exertion and anxiety.” In the midst of this a disease had struck his own eyes. Now he had just been informed Samuel Eliot had sent for Van der Kemp to come visit his son, Charles Eliot, who was dying of consumption. Samuel was wealthy and could pay the expenses.
In spite of their sorrows, Adams rejoiced at the prospect of seeing his old friend. “If you come this way, no Man will be more glad to see you than the Hermit of Quincy, though amidst all the Afflictions of his Household.9
Van der Kemp set out by stagecoach in the middle of August. It could have been a journey of sadness, yet Van der Kemp’s encouraging manner, his wit and energy, his intelligent conversations, and his warm appreciation of the kindness of his friends left them all in better spirits.
Two letters to his daughter give some of the details of the enthusiasm and the pathos that enfolded Van der Kemp.10
Your letter afforded me an inexpressible pleasure—I was just returned from Cambridge. Judges, Lawyers, Ministers, Doctors come and see me as if I was indeed something, and know not that my goodwill is my principal merit, while it is to the partiality of my friends that I am indebted for the rest…. Saturday and Friday night Dr. Thatcher [sic], Channing, Holley visited me.
Samuel Cooper Thacher was a graduate of Harvard, one of the editors of the Monthly Anthology which Van der Kemp read, and at this time pastor of the (Unitarian) New South Church, following Dr. John T. Kirkland in that position when the latter became president of Harvard. He was a close friend of the late Joseph S. Buckminster, a correspondent of Van der Kemp. William Ellery Channing was pastor of the (Unitarian) Federal Street Church at this time. Horace Holley was also a Unitarian minister of Boston.
Mr. Eliot [Samuel] took a walk with me to show me a part of the city—I must tell you in one word the city and the country and the inhabitants exceed far the most glowing and partial expectation—it is impossible to form of it an adequate concept. I must say come and see. Mr. Holley introduced me in the Athenaeum [private reading club and library of these educated men] and shewed the Library of John Quincy Adams of several thousand volumes. Sunday I heard Mr. Holley. After church Dr. Freeman and Mr. Carey visited me.
Dr. James Freeman was pastor of King’s Chapel, Boston, from 1787 to 1826 and was the first to use the designation Unitarian. The Reverend Samuel Carey was his assistant and colleague at this time. Freeman wrote articles and sermons and was a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, to which Van der Kemp belonged, and of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Monday Mr. Eliot carried me with his carriage to Quincy—it was there a house of mourning indeed—I was received with affectionate tenderness as a beloved Brother could be—I was there at home again. Mr. Eliot returned. There again Adams brought me in the afternoon with his coach to a neighbouring Doctor and shewed me the environs.
When Van der Kemp stepped inside the Adams home, he failed to recognize Abigail, not having seen her since 1788. She was “a little mortified that he could not trace one line of a countanance he formerly knew” even though she knew “Grief had changed me since you saw me last and carefull—with Times deformed hand hath written strange the features o’er my face.” But Abigail was well pleased with their guest.
For myself, I have so long known you, as the invariable Friend; and correspondent of my Husband; that every Sentiment of my Heart, was a veneration for your tallents, and respect for your Learning. I expected a feast of Reason—but that flow of soul, so nicely blended with a delicacy of perception, “which feels at each touch” was more than I had anticipated! and Mr. Vanderkemp now stands before me—not the recluse bookworm, but as the man of profound Learning as the polite Gentleman, whose modesty will not permit him to estimate his own worth.11
The moments and hours of good fellowship flew by and Van der Kemp found time to introduce only a few of the subjects on which he hoped to have Adams’ comments. He had time only to glance at the Adams library and forgot even to look at his rare books. He apologized for talking too much and with too much spirit. “You know the impetuosity of my manhood—in my old age I am carried away by the same resistless torrent …”12 They discussed their basic religious beliefs and found they were much alike.13 Adams said, “In the heavenly doctrine of Christianity, reduced to its primitive Simplicity, you and I agree, as well, I believe, as any two Christians in the World.”14
The morning after Van der Kemp arrived, John Adams got out his carriage and took Van der Kemp to visit the Josiah Quincys before going on to Samuel Eliot’s house. Van der Kemp and Quincy were attracted to each other at once. Quincy was a studious man, only forty-one years old at the time of Van der Kemp’s visit. He was a strong Federalist, and Francis had to promise to return to the Quincy home for a longer visit because they had so many ideas they were eager to share. Quincy had served in Congress where he was a member of the Essex Junto. He opposed the War of 1812 but supported the war effort. He confined his activities to Massachusetts after the war, serving in the legislature, in the Constitutional Convention, as mayor of Boston and as president of Harvard. Mrs. Quincy was the former Eliza Susan Morton of New York City.
Tuesday afternoon new visitants and invitation to see the pourtrait of Buckminister at Sam. Dexter’s. Wednesday Mr. Tyng [Dudley], Brother in law of Mrs. Eliot, brought me in his carriage to Cambridge where I was introduced again to numbers, saw a large and exquisite Library, was placed in the procession [at the Harvard commencement] with distinction, in the church occupied no less honourable place, heard all the performances, dined at the college and drank tea by the President Kirk-land who introduced me to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and a host of Doctors. I was present again at the solemnities in the morning, and dined at the President’s, where among the guests was Judge Smith, late Governor of New Hampshire, several Judges, and a brother of Abbot [Abiel] of Coventry.
Van der Kemp was especially impressed with the cordiality of President Kirkland. He was the son of that Samuel Kirkland who had served with the Oneida Indians as a missionary and founded the mission school that became Hamilton College. John Kirkland was born in the Mohawk Valley in the old Herkimer mansion. He was educated at Harvard, became a clergyman and was called to the presidency of Harvard in 1810. Van der Kemp later wrote how President Kirkland called on him and persuaded him to go to the commencement so that he was able to enjoy his company for two days.15
Samuel Dexter was secretary of war under Adams and was otherwise a prominent lawyer, statesman and writer. Dudley Atkins Tyng was born Atkins but added the last name when he inherited the Tyng wealth. He was a lawyer, served as collector of Newburyport, and became reporter of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and editor of the Reports.
After dinner he [Abbot] too came to see me. Towards evening old Mr. Eliot came with his carriage to bring me to Boston. Norton had been my guide and companion.
Andrews Norton helped found the General Repository and Review to which Van der Kemp contributed. Norton became librarian at Harvard in 1813 and became a lecturer on theology through a bequest of Samuel Dexter. Norton was a close associate and friend of Charles Eliot.
Messrs. Savage, Abbot of Boston, Dr. Prince of Salem, another of Exeter, Messrs. Everett, Prof. Peck and Ware; (by the latter I breakfasted), were among the principal of my new acquaintances.
John Lovejoy Abbot was pastor of First Church in Boston and had been librarian at Harvard before Norton. Ashur Ware was a professor of theology at Harvard. Professor Peck had the wonderful botanical garden that Adams had promised to show Van der Kemp. Edward Everett had been graduated from Harvard in 1811 and was already a promising minister.
Charles [Eliot] was yesterday, as a mark of particular esteem, unanimously chosen at Cambridge a member of the P.b.k. [Phi Beta Kappa] Society an honour seldom or never bestowed out of the college. Today I must dine with Mr. Eliot’s son in law—I had an urgent invitation of Dr. Morse [Jedidiah].
A week or so after the first letter, Van der Kemp wrote again to his daughter, picking up the thread of exciting events as before.
Tomorrow I leave Boston—Friday morning I left Mr. and Mrs. Adams. Col. Smith [Adams’ son-in-law] brought me home. My worthy friend was much affected at my departure, as it is presumptive that we shall see one another no more. He failed not once to remember Mappa and your Mother at Olden Barneveld, and regretted more than once that you or she had not accompanied me.
After his return home, Adams wrote that if Van der Kemp had come as a traveler, the Adams house would have been his home and the Adams friends would have been the visitor’s companions. He said that Abigail shared his feelings. Adams recognized that his wife had changed much since Van der Kemp last saw her in 1788. “Whatever changes in her en bon point, her bloom, her vivacity, her figure or her graces you may have perceived there has been none in her Friendship her Esteem her Affection or may I say Admiration for you.16 He wrote to Jefferson:
Theognis and Plato, and Hersey and Price, and Jefferson and I, must go down to posterity together; and I know not, upon the whole, where to wish for better company. I wish to add Vanderkemp, who has been here to see me after an interruption of twenty-four years.17
Abigail wrote to Van der Kemp “of the high gratification his visit to Quincy afforded his ancient Friends.” They only regretted he could spare so little time.18
Mrs. Eliot rejoiced at my return, it was a day later. My new friends renewed their visits, Chief Justice Parsons, Messrs. Lowell and Norton. In the afternoon Mr. Eliot ordered his coach to have me brought again to Cambridge with his brother [in law] Tyng to see Prof. Peck’s cab[inet] of Nat. Hist. and Hortus Botanicus. In the evening I saw Charles. Saturday I dined with Mr. Eliot at his son in law’s, Sunday morning I went with Mr. and Mrs. Eliot and daughters to Lowell’s church and partook of the Lord’s Supper, while I heard in the afternoon President Kirkland, who visited me during intermission.
There is no longer any hope of Charles Eliot’s recovery. I shall see Charles’ sister at Springfield and stay there one day, after this visit I must stay one day with your friend Sophia Childs.18
Van der Kemp found his visit to Charles Eliot very sorrowful. He did not recover quickly from the experience, even though he knew his visit brightened young Charles and was deeply appreciated by his parents. Samuel Eliot, the father, wrote to Adams that the short acquaintance made him believe Van der Kemp’s heart was as good as his head was powerful.
Your thirty years knowledge of him has not indeed deceived you Sir, & he is truly what you lately denominated him—“a salt mountain”—& a few such would preserve a world! I bless God that I have the honor & happiness of knowing such a man!19
Charles Eliot died two weeks later.
On his return Van der Kemp was hospitably received at Springfield, Stockbridge and Pittsfield by relatives of his new friends and by the family of Dr. Timothy Childs. Van der Kemp and these new acquaintances “canvassed and reviewed” many interesting topics but not nearly all that the visitor might have wished.20
The trip was a great success. Van der Kemp impressed the Unitarian clergymen, the Eliots and their friends, and above all the Adamses. John said the visit was “universally agreeable” and that even “the disciples of Calvin, Sandiman and Hopkins” preserved a “respectful silence.”21
Abigail became very ill later in the year of a “pulmonary fever,” probably a result of all the sickness in the family during the year and her efforts to nurse them all. She improved and Van der Kemp suggested she follow “Paul’s prescription.” “Let her take a glass generous wine—this shall renew the elasticity of the vital springs. We can not do this by proxy—or I should not object to submit to this penance in her place.”22
In February Abigail was well enough to write to Van der Kemp, chiefly about the status of learned women, a subject which had been discussed by John and Francis in their letters and probably again discussed by the three of them in the Adams home.
Ever since your letter to the President, of December last, I have had a great inclination to address a letter to Mr. Vanderkemp; and, being now confined to my chamber, by an attack of the rheumatism, I find a leisure hour to address my friend in his solitude.
And in the first place, to put him perfectly at his ease, I assure him that I make not any pretensions to the character of a learned lady, and therefore, according to his creed, I am entitled to his benevolence. I can say with Gay’s hermit,
“The little knowledge I have gained,
Is all from simple nature drained.”
I agree with Mr. Vanderkemp, that, in declaring his opinion, he has expressed that of most gentlemen, the true cause of which I shall trace no farther than that they consider a companion more desirable than a rival. In reading the life of Madame de Stael, I learn that it was her superior talents and learning, perhaps too ostentatiously displayed, which produced that coldness, estrangement, and unhappiness, which marred all her pleasure with the Baron de Stael, soured every domestic enjoyment and was the occasion of that sarcastic question to her by the Emperor Bonaparte. Upon some occasion, she had solicited an interview with him, and recommended to him some measure for him to pursue. He heard her, but made her no other reply than this: “Madame, who educates your children?”
I like your portrait of female excellence….
There are so few women who may be really called learned, that I do not wonder they are considered as black swans. It requires such talents and such devotion of time and study, as to exclude the performance of most of the domestic cares and duties which exclusively fall to the lot of most females in this country. I believe nature has assigned to each sex its particular duties and sphere of action, and to act well your part, “there all the honor lies.”
Have you seen John Randolph’s letter and Mr. Lloyd’s reply?
Present me in friendly terms to Mrs. Vanderkemp. Tell her, I wish we were neighbours. I should then have a pleasure which our residence in the country deprives us of, that of the society and converse of a gentleman of taste, science, and extensive information; and, although much of his learning might be above my comprehension, his benevolence, politeness, and urbanity would render it grateful, and be in unison with the good-will and friendship entertained for him by
Of course, Abigail’s modesty prevented her from being ostentatious about her learning, although she was an accomplished writer. Her letters to Van der Kemp include a perceptive discussion of the Dutch situation and a considerable variety of other topics, usually enlivened with anecdotes. Because Van der Kemp was also modest, she tried to assure him of his high standing. She reported to him that Mrs. Josiah Quincy was his “warm and respectfull friend” and ultimately it was to this lady that Van der Kemp gave Abigail’s letters for proper keeping. When John was ill and Abigail needed assurance as to her husband’s religion, Van der Kemp wrote to her that he was persuaded that “practice not Speculation makes the Christian.”
When Van der Kemp suffered from his recurrent headaches and became very depressed, Abigail wrote that he should cultivate cheerfulness of mind since that acted like a medicine. Surely he was too much of a philosopher and Christian to let the “Nubs and stings of outrageous fortune” deprive him of his sense of humor. “Why then my good Sir do you so often suffer the glooms of imagination to take such fast hold of you?” Then she added a little poem in translation of one of Pindar’s gems.
Care to our coffin adds a nail, no doubt
And every grin so merry draws one out
I own I like to laugh and hate to sigh
And think that risibility was given
For human happiness by gracious heaven
And that we came not into life to cry.
Enjoy, be lively, innocent adore
And know that Heav’n hath not one angel more,
In consequence of groaning nuns and friars.24
Of all the friends Van der Kemp saw on his visit, Abigail was the closest in understanding.