John Adams and the Spirit of Democracy

Joseph McMillan
Joseph McMillan
Total Posts:  7658
Joined  08-06-2004
09 September 2006 08:54

I recently ran across several references to a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail that is a telling commentary on the attitudes of some people toward heraldry in the early republic.  Not very edifying for those of us who lean more toward Washington’s opinion, unfortunately:


As I’ve written in the Adams article in the Presidential arms series, John Adams had long used the arms of his mother’s family, which he differenced to reflect his own diplomatic career following the Revolution.  As he moved into national electoral politics, however, he clearly became uneasy about how personal heraldry might be perceived by the public as a throwback to monarchical rule.  His qualms can be in correspondence between John and Abigail in the months leading up to his inauguration as President in early 1797. Adams had been stung by the campaign invective portraying him as a pompous would-be aristocrat and even a pro-British monarchist. Thus he was determined not to give his critics additional ammunition through his personal style, one of his key concerns being that the carriage used at the inaugural ceremony be sufficiently dignified without being open to accusations of ostentation. One idea that Abigail suggested was that he bring her personal carriage down from Boston.  This carriage, as was customary for those who had arms, had those arms emblazoned on it.  Adams wrote to her on February 2, 1797, to close the discussion:
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I had before bespoke a new Chariot here [in Philadelphia], and it is or will be ready: so that there is an End of all further Enquiries about Carriages. I hope as soon as the Point is legally settled you will have your Coach new Painted and all the Arms totally obliterated. It would be a folly to excite popular feelings and vulgar Insolence for nothing.
I’ve updated the Adams article to include this episode.