The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“What does Massachusetts have to do with … the French Revolution?”: Brown Bag Lunch Talk

On Tuesday, 1 March, Sara Martin and Sara Sikes of the Adams Papers gave a presentation on the Adams family’s perspective of the French Revolution, as chronicled in their correspondence. During that period of upheaval in France (the 1780s and 1790s) the Adams’ network of family and friends extended up and down the Eastern United States and across the Atlantic in both Britain and on the European continent. Abigail (Nabby) Adams Smith was living with her family in London; John Quincy and Thomas Boylston Adams were in The Hague; and Charles Adams spent considerable time with his father, John Adams, in Philadelphia where John was serving as Vice President in the Washington administration. The correspondence during this period is particularly rich as the family endeavored to keep in touch with one another, across geographic distance.

Sara Martin and Sara Sikes observed how the Adams family privileged first-hand accounts of the turmoil over published newspaper reports, despite the fact that personal letters often took months to travel across the Atlantic – at times not arriving at all. Nabby would write home to her parents describing the first-hand accounts of friends in London who had been in Paris during the Terror, while Abigail wrote to her daughter about the public support in the United States for the revolutionaries. Members of the Adams family publically and privately expressed their disapproval of the way in which the French Revolution so quickly devolved into violence. In reflecting back upon both the American and French revolutions in later years, John Adams wrote to his friend Benjamin Rush, “Have I not been employed in mischief all of my days?”

Discussion following the presentation centered on the question of differences between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. Specifically, participants wondered what about the French Revolution was different enough from the American Revolution that one led to continued violence and ultimate failure of the revolutionaries while the other succeeded in establishing a viable government following the war with England. It was suggested by several present that a rebellion by colonists against the metropole is fundamentally different than an uprising of citizens against an established government in their own nation.

“What does Massachusetts have to do with … the French Revolution?” was part of an ongoing series highlighting collections at the MHS that contain material on unexpected topics. The next installment will take place on Tuesday, March 15, at 12:00pm and is titled: What does Massachusetts have to do with ... Tahiti, Pirates, and Graham Crackers? The event is free and open to the public. Bring your lunch; beverages will be provided.

permalink | Published: Thursday, 10 March, 2011, 8:00 AM