Home Maine John Adams in Maine: ‘The Sharpest Thorn on which I ever set my foot’

John Adams in Maine: ‘The Sharpest Thorn on which I ever set my foot’


Beginning in 1765, John Adams made annual trips to Maine to argue cases before the courts at York, Falmouth (now Portland) and Pownalborough (now Dresden). The trips show the trajectory of Adams’ career from struggling, young lawyer to confirmed rebel and politician.

On his first trip to Pownalborough, Adams established his reputation by winning a case. Mainers then viewed him as an able lawyer, and one willing to travel as far as Maine to pursue a case. The 1765 journey, Adams noted in his autobiography, was both profitable and painful.

John Adams


John Adams in Maine

Describing the trip, he wrote: “I was taken ill on the road and had a very unpleasant excursion. It is unnecessary to enlarge upon the fatigue and disgust of this journey. It was the only time in my life when I really suffered for want of provisions.

“From Falmouth now Portland in Casco Bay, to Pownalborough there was an entire wilderness, except North Yarmouth, New Brunswick and Long Reach. At each of which places were a few Houses. In general it was a wilderness, encumbered with the greatest number of trees, of the largest size, the tallest height, I have ever seen.

“I reached Pownalborough alive, and gained my cause much to the satisfaction of my client and returned home. This journey, painful as it was, proved much for my interest and reputation, as it induced the Plymouth Company to engage me in all their causes, which were numerous, and called me annually to Falmouth Superior Court for ten years.”

john adams in maine courthouse

,  Pownalborough Courthouse – still standing and open to the public

Adams recorded details of his journeys in his letters and his autobiography. They tell the story of a young lawyer fixated on his wealth, or lack thereof, yet married to the cause of American liberty. That position that helped ensure his income would remain modest.

Adams, a circuit rider, traveled on horseback or in a wagon from court to court. At the time, a judge would get an assignment to travel to the more remote portions of Massachusetts, to which Maine then belonged. Lawyers would then accompany him to represent the interests of the parties involved in the cases.. The trip to Maine took place in early July.

Frustration and Triumph

Adams represented clients in all sorts of cases, from criminal matters to civil and maritime proceedings. Untangling land disputes in Maine represented his most lucrative work. Occasionally, as in 1769, he would brag in his letters to Abigail about his triumphs. “We have lived through the heat, and toil, and confusion of this week. We have tried three of the Kennebec Proprietors actions and have been fortunate enough to obtain them all.”

Peacefield, an Adams home in Braintree

Yet his writing also reflects his frustration at life away from his beloved home in Braintree, Mass.

“There are about 60 or 70 actions now remaining on the docket, and when we shall get loose from this town I can’t yet foresee. However, I am determined not to stay at York Court and therefore shall be at home, the latter end of the week after next. If I can be at home sooner I shall.”

At one point, he notes, the vagabond life of a traveling lawyer is not for him.

“What plan of study reading or reflection, or business can be pursued by a man, who is now at Pownalborough, then at Martha’s Vineyard, next at Boston, then at Taunton, presently at Barnstable, then at Concord, now at Salem, then at Cambridge, and afterwards at Worcester. Now at Sessions, then at Pleas, now in Admiralty, now at Superior Court, then in the Gallery of the House. What a dissipation must this be? Is it possible to pursue a regular train of thinking in this desultory life? — By no means. It is a life of here and everywhere, to use the expression that is applied to Othello by Desdemona’s father. Here and there and everywhere, a rambling, roving, vagrant, vagabond life. A wandering life.”

Fatigue, Vexation, Labor, Anxiety

And in a letter about his 1771 journey to Maine to his wife Abigail, he complains:

“This has been the most flat, insipid, spiritless, tasteless journey that ever I took, especially from Ipswich. I have neither had business nor amusement, nor conversation. It has been a moping, melancholy journey upon the whole. I slumber, and mope, away the Day.  Tyng, Tyler, Sewall, Lowell, Jarvis were all characters which might have afforded me entertainment, perhaps Instruction, if I had been possessed of spirits to enjoy it.”

Abigail Adams, 1766 (Benjamin Blythe)

Abigail Adams, 1766 (Benjamin Blythe)

In Sewall, Adams had a personal friend and political enemy. Jonathon Sewall had been appointed attorney general of Massachusetts, and he offered his friend John Adams an appointment, as well, on behalf of the royal governor. Sewall and Adams had been classmates and friends, but Sewall had become a staunch Tory. Adams, meanwhile, declined to join the government that he had grown to dislike more and more. Yet the decision came with a cost, and Adams often took note of how his friends profited because of their attachment to the government, while he struggled.

“I was first sworn in 1758. My life has been a continual scene of fatigue, vexation, labor and anxiety,” he wrote Abigail from Maine in 1774. “I have four children. But I had a pretty estate from my father; I have been assisted by your father. I have done the greatest business in the Province.”

And, he wrote, “I have had the very richest clients in the Province: Yet I am poor in comparison of others.”

Lean Expectations

The year 1774 would mark a turning point for Adams. He had been chosen as a representative to the Continental Congress. Though he didn’t necessarily know it, the Maine journey in the summer of 1774 would be his last.

The state of the economy was dire, and it was evident in the court proceedings. Writing from Ipswich on his way north, he notes:

“I had a tolerable journey hither, but my horse trotted too hard. I miss my own mare — however I must make the best of it…There is but little business here, and whether there will be more at York or Falmouth is uncertain, but I must take the chance of them.”

His arrival in Falmouth (Portland) confirmed his fears. “This tedious journey will produce me very little profit. I never saw Falmouth before with such lean expectations and empty pockets.”

As on all his trips, Adams spent his time in Falmouth in 1774 socializing with his fellow lawyers – an activity he believed helped improve and inform his practice. Strolling the streets of the city and up Munjoy Hill, the significance of times was not lost on him.

Bird’s-eye view of Casco Bay

Adams describes one bittersweet walk with his old friend Sewall. As the two looked across Casco Bay, Sewall tried one last time to turn Adams away from the patriot cause and toward the crown.

John Adams in Maine, A Sharp Thorn

“Mr. Sewall invited me to take a walk with him, very early in the morning, on the great hill. In the course of our rambles, he very soon began to remonstrate against my going to Congress. He said that “Great Britain was determined on her system; her power would certainly be destructive to me, and to all those who should persevere in opposition to her designs.” I answered “that I knew Great Britain was determined on her system, and that very determination determined me on mine; that he knew I had been constant and uniform in opposition to all her measures, that the die was now cast; I had passed the Rubicon; swim or sink, live or die, survive or perish with my country, was my unalterable determination.”

“The conversation was protracted into length, but this was the substance of the whole. It terminated in my saying to him, ‘I see we must part, and with a bleeding heart I say, I fear forever; but you may depend upon it, this adieu is the sharpest thorn on which I ever set my foot.’

Sewall would leave America in 1775. Adams and Sewall would reunite for a friendly visit in 1788 in London while Adams served as American ambassador.

This story last updated in 2022.

Images: Casco Bay Geo. H. Walker & Co & Maine Central Railroad Company. (1906) Birds eye view of Casco Bay, Portland, Maine, and surroundings. [Portland: Maine Central R.R] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/80693592/.


Sean Colby January 22, 2017 - 8:07 pm

Brunswick not New Brunswick.

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