John Adams’ daughter in 1785 dumped the charming rake Royall Tyler to marry a dashing military hero. She may well have regretted her choice, but her secretive nature prevents us from knowing.
Abigail, or ‘Nabby,’ was the only daughter of John and Abigail Adams who lived to adulthood. She was handsome, not beautiful, and reserved. When she was 16 years old, Royall Tyler came to Braintree to practice law. He won, then lost, her heart.
What Nabby couldn’t have known was that her husband-to-be, William Stephens Smith, was a has-been at 30, and Royall Tyler would become a successful politician, professor and literary celebrity.
Royall Tyler was born June 18, 1757 in Boston, the son of a wealthy merchant. His father died when he was young. He studied at Harvard, where he squandered half his inheritance on drinking, partying and gambling. He also fathered a child with a cleaning woman.
After college, he studied law under Francis Dana, for whom a young John Quincy Adams had worked when he served as minister to Russia. Tyler then moved to Braintree, where he lodged with Abigail Adams’ sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Richard Cranch.
Tyler cut a dashing figure. He was handsome, well-mannered and dressed stylishly.
Abigail Adams found Royall Tyler charming, and believed him when he told her he had reformed. She wrote to her husband, then in Europe. The young man had ‘a sprightly fancy, a warm imagination and an agreeable person,’ she wrote, though she admitted Tyler was ‘rather negligent in pursueing (sic) his business … and dissipated two or 3 more years of his Life and too much of his fortune to reflect upon with pleasure; all of which he now laments but cannot recall.’
She also told John Adams that Royall Tyler was courting his daughter.
John Adams exploded in writing at the news. He wrote Abigail a letter in January 1783:
I confess I dont like the Subject at all. . . . My Child is a Model, as you represent her and as I know her, and is not to be the Prize, I hope of any, even reformed Rake. . . .
But Tyler persisted and John Adams eventually relented. By the spring of 1784 he won Nabby’s heart and the approval of her parents. The Adams family expected them to marry.
Nabby’s letters are lost, and she never mentioned Royall Tyler in her letters. Still, it’s possible from her mother’s writing to glean what happened.
Stories about Tyler’s college days resurfaced in Braintree, and the Adamses came to think of him as an insincere flatterer.
In 1784, Nabby sailed for Europe with her mother to join her father and oldest brother, John Quincy.
Nabby wrote letter after letter to Royal Tyler. Ships from America kept arriving without letters from him. She kept to herself her ‘fear, suspicion, doubt, dread and apprehension.’
Finally, her mother broached the subject with her. Nabby asked Abigail whether she thought someone they knew was a man of honor. Abigail responded:
I replied yes a Man of strict honour, and I wisht I could say that of all her acquaintance. As she could not mistake my meaning, instead of being affected as I apprehended she said, a breach of honour in one party would not justify a want of it in the other. I thought this the very time to speak. I said if she was conscious of any want of honour on the part of the Gentleman, I and every Friend she had in the world, would rejoice if she could liberate herself.
Nabby decided to dump Royall Tyler.
In the summer of 1785, Nabby told her mother about the break-, up, asking that ‘neither the Name or subject may ever be mentiond to her.’ She sent Tyler a Dear John letter in September that year.
Nabby’s letter devastated Royall Tyler. He took lodgings with the Palmer family in Boston, where he was consoled by Betsey Palmer. He took so much consolation from Betsey he fathered a child with her – and possibly two — while her husband was away.
Tyler then married Betsey Palmer’s daughter Mary, and they had 11 children. He took part in suppressing Shay’s rebellion, which took him to Vermont. There he became chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court and a professor of jurisprudence at the University of Vermont.
Royall Tyler became a literary celebrity as well. He wrote a comedy, The Contrast, performed in New York City before George Washington and members of the first Congress. He wrote a satirical newspaper column, published a novel, the Algerine Captive, authored legal tracts, plays, a musical, two long poems, essays and a travel narrative.
Tyler later said he only regretted his youthful profligacy to the extent it hampered his ambition later in life.
William Stephens Smith
Smith was the son of a wealthy New York merchant, a Princeton graduate and a veteran of the Revolution where he had served on George Washington’s staff. When she married him, Nabby had on idea of the downward spiral his career would take.
They married in 1786 and returned to New York, where they had four children.
Smith received appointments to several federal posts, but he dabbled in Latin American coups and speculated recklessly in land. By 1809, the family lived on a small farm in western New York State. The rest of the Adams family viewed him as hopelessly improvident.
Nabby discovered a small lump on her breast, which turned out to be an aggressive form of breast cancer. In 1811 she returned to Boston and had a mastectomy without anesthetic.
She survived the operation and returned to New York. The cancer returned, though, and she told her husband she wanted to die in her father’s house. Her wish was granted on Aug. 15, 1813.
This story was updated in 2020.