John Adams wondered how RI slept soundly after burning of Gaspee


An observation by John Adams, years before he became president and less than six months after the burning of the British revenue cutter Gaspee, will go up for auction after years of languishing in an old scrapbook. The auction is Jan. 16 at 5 p.m. at the Masonic Temple at 1515 Ten Rod Road in North Kingstown.

Auctioneer William Spicer said the page, from a letter dated Dec. 26, 1772, was brought to his attention by a “picker” who discovered it while going through a scrapbook acquired from a Rhode Island estate. Spicer did not name who had owned the book but said, according to people he has shown it to, the letter appears to be authentic.

To the untrained, the letter is difficult to read, although the mentioning of the Gaspee is obvious. Further, since it appears to be the last page of a longer letter, there is no knowing to whom it was addressed. The date and Boston appear on a separate fragment in the same handwriting.

While Spicer didn’t have answers to what Adams was referring to other than the Gaspee, local historian Henry Brown not only provided a transcription of the page, but also why he believes Adams wrote it.

“I believe this note from John Adams to William Elliot was in response and in part to the announcement to appoint a commission; composed of Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton; Daniel Horsmander, Chief Justice of New York; Frederick Smyth, Chief Justice of New Jersey; Peter Oliver, Chief Justice of Massachusetts; Robert Auchmuty, Judge of the Admiralty, to inquire into the destruction of the Gaspee,” Brown wrote in an email. Brown said the commission convened in Newport at the Colony House. The Saturday, Dec. 26, 1772 edition of the Providence Gazette and Country Journal called the commission, “a court of inquisition more horrid than that of Spain or Portugal, is established within the colony, to inquire into the circumstances of destroying the Gaspee schooner; and the commissioners of this new-fangled court, are vested with most exorbitant and unconstitutional power.”

Frequently referred to as “the first blow for freedom,” because it preceded the more famous Boston Tea Party, the Gaspee, which was being used to stop and inspect colonial ships and tax their cargo, was in pursuit of the colonial packet Hannah when it ran aground off Namquid Point [later named Gaspee Point] on June 9, 1772. When word that the vessel was helpless reached Pawtuxet, a group set off to burn her. The burning prompted an inquiry and the British King George III offered a handsome reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. The reward went unclaimed.

Evidently, Adams and others were not as daring as Rhode Islanders, or perhaps as independently spirited. Brown, who concludes that the name “Wm Elliot,” which appears with a postscript, was the recipient of the letter. Brown provided this transcription:

“Boston Dec 26 1772 We are all in a fury here about the Dependency of the governor and the Dependency of the Judges, the Commission for trying the Rhode Islanders for Burning the Gaspee. I wonder how your Colony happens to sleep so securely in a whole skin, when her sisters are so worried and tormented!I am with much respect your old Friend& humble servant

JOHN ADAMSWM ELLIOT+ The Fools call it the Independency of the Gov[erno]r, Judges etc” Information about the auction can be found on the website,, and entering Bill Spicer’s name.


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