There is something fitting in one librarian coming to the aid of another. The mystery surrounding the New York Times 1964 claim that the Adams family celebrated July 4, 1776 with “Green turtle soup, New England poached salmon with egg sauce and apple pan dowdy,” found a resolution with the detective work of New York librarian Beth Chamberlain. She pointed out that the Times article sounded remarkably similar to the American Heritage Cookbook (Simon and Schuster, 1964), but with one key difference: it was the “Adamses’ neighbors in Massachusetts” who served the menu (page 406).
There are still no answers as to what the Adamses themselves ate on July 4th. The American Heritage Cookbook refers to a June 23, 1797 letter from Abigail in Philadelphia to her sister Mary Cranch in Quincy, MA. She writes of the long hours associated with being the President’s wife,
To day will be the 5th great dinner I have had, about 36 gentlemen to day, as many more next week … then comes the 4 July which is a still more tedious day, as we must then have not only all Congress, but all the gentlemen of the city, the governor and officers and companies, all of whom the late president used to treat with cake punch and wine.
The letter, held in AAS’s Abigail Adams manuscript collection, is followed by a confirmation on July 6th that the Adamses followed Washington’s generous practice, and guests called on the first lady in her drawing room only “after visiting the president below and partaking of cake, wine & punch with him.” Abigail suffered the same situation the following hot summer, and she complained on July 3, 1798, “Tomorrow will be 4 July, when if possible I must see thousands. I know not how it will be possible to get through, live here I cannot an other week unless a change takes place in the weather.”
Correspondence to her sister Mary, running from 1784 to 1816, forms the bulk of our Abigail Adams Letters. Among the first items in the collection is a letter from July 6, 1784 written aboard the ship Active, that suggests an Independence Day feast was the last thing on her mind. As Abigail sailed towards her husband in Europe, she wrote,
I have had frequent occasion since I came on Board to recollect an observation of my best friend’s, “that no being in nature was so disagreeable as a Lady at sea,” and this recollection has in a great measure reconciled me to the thought of being at sea without him.
The July Fourths spent in Europe, as recorded in these letters, indicate the day had not yet become an event in Abigail’s mind. In 1788 both John and Abigail were focused on the recent wedding of their daughter Nabby. In 1789, her days were so busy visiting friends that she apologized for the delay in writing her sister.
The first acknowledgement of Independence Day comes from New York on July 4th, 1790,
A memorable day in our calender a church belonging to the Dutch congregation is this day to be opened and an oration delivered. This church was the scene of misery & honor, the prison where our poor Countrymen were confined, crowded, & starved during the war & which the British afterwards destroyed.
In Abigail’s letters to Mary, one finds a chronicle of the growing recognition of the Fourth of July as a holiday of importance. But there are few clues as to Abigail’s culinary preferences. Based both on our collection of letters and the digitized ones provided by the Massachusetts Historical Society, food it seems held only a minimal place in Abigail’s consciousness, at least as recorded by her correspondence. Much more important was the company she kept while dining.