“The country is much varied”

Abigail “Nabby” Adams was the firstborn offspring of John and Abigail Smith Adams. They called her “Nabby” when she was a child, and the name stayed with her. Apparently she was an attractive young woman with long red hair, blue eyes, and a clear complexion. When she was eighteen she was courted by Royall Tyler, but her parents disapproved of him, and Nabby was whisked away by her mother in 1784 to join her father in Britain where he was serving as the ambassador of the newly independent United States. As her family hoped, the long-distance relationship between Nabby and Royall did not survive.

The family traveled to France in August, and Nabby kept a journal in which she recorded her first impressions of the country. Following is an excerpt describing the trip to Paris after they came ashore on the 9th.

At two, we set off . . . on a journey of two hundred miles. The laws of this country are such as oblige every person who travels in a coach, to make use of six horses. We were equipped with six horses for our carriage, and a cabriolet with three horses, for our two servants. The harness is not superior in any respect, to what we use in America for our carts and ploughs. . . . [We] exchange horses at every post, which is a distance of six miles, or sometimes a post and a half, or two posts at a time. On Tuesday we travelled four posts after dinner, and lodged at Boulogne, a small village, the Inn kept by an English family. The house was not as much Anglaise as I could have wished. There is certainly a great difference in favour of England; the country is by no means equal to it; the soil does not appear so rich and luxuriant, or so well cultivated; the villages are the most wretched of all the habitations of man; it is not one time in ten that I have seen a glass window, nothing but wood. We dined in our carriage; mamma and myself were not out of it from six in the morning, until four in the afternoon.

The country is much varied; in some places you see a great appearance of cultivation and improvement, in others you have a fine prospect of the country around, and some very fine scenes of natural beauty; in others, it appears like a barren uncultivated spot. there is the appearance of more industry here than in England, by the flocks of men, women and children that are out in the fields at their labours; whole families, whole towns, I should suppose by their numbers, some reaping and gathering in the fruits of the year, while others were preparing the ground, sowing seed for a future crop. The country bears to-day a more pleasing aspect than yesterday; the villages are by no means superior, such places I never saw before, or like unto them. The streets are very narrow and dirty, the houses low and heavy; the outside seems to be of a kind of clay, and the roofs are covered with thatch; it has a heavy appearance. The difference is not more striking in any other object, than in the countenances of the people. The English seem formed for some exertion in almost any way we should choose; but these people do not appear sensible to any passions or affections whatever. The difference is striking in the postillions. The English have a sprightliness and alertness suitable to the employment; but in these, there is a heaviness, dirtiness, and no elasticity. . . .

To-day we have been obliged to travel . . . eighty-seven miles, in order to arrive at a place where we could be accommodated with lodging; it was 9 o’clock before we stopped for the night, which was at Amiens. The laws of this nation are so severe as to oblige every one who enters it to follow their customs in everything, particularly in dress, or they render themselves ridiculous. For this reason, every kind of article which they manufacture themselves, is prohibited from entering the kingdom without paying a duty. To prevent this the[r]e are custom-house officers almost at every town, who demand a search of your baggage, although it consist only of your own private clothes. But it is very seldom that they will not be satisfied with half a crown, instead of being a farther trouble to you. . . . We have been stopped several times, but always found them ready to be bought. . . .

We have taken a house at Auteuil, near Paris, very large and very inconvenient—about fifty little apartments [rooms], so small, most of them, as to be inconvenient for lodging. There is a large room to receive company in, and a dining room; all the bed-rooms are above stairs. There is a spacious garden.

More to follow.

The passages are from the Journal and Correspondence of Miss Adams, daughter of John Adams, Second President of the United States. Written in France and England, in 1785. Edited by her daughter (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1841), pages 8-11 and 14. They can be read online HERE. The illustration is by Rufus Griswold, The Republican Court, or, American Society in the Days of Washington. New and rev. ed. (New York, 1856), plate opposite 91. First ed., 1855.

posted September 4th, 2014 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Americans Abroad, France, Paris, Smith, Abigail "Nabby" Adams, Travel


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