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Abigail Adams letter found stashed in desk

A letter written by Abigail Adams in 1788, before her husband became president, was discovered in a desk drawer recently. A letter written by Abigail Adams in 1788, before her husband became president, was discovered in a desk drawer recently. (Massachusetts Historical Society)
By Ben Wolford
Globe Correspondent / June 15, 2011

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Abigail Adams, wife of the second US president, penned one last letter before sailing home to Braintree in 1788 after several years in Europe.

Historians never knew the letter was written, but earlier this year it was found in the family papers of a Boston lawyer.

Much of what is known about the Adamses has been gleaned from thousands of letters Abigail and John Adams wrote to each other. In the newly discovered letter, Abigail Adams shares personal news and her thoughts on politics on the eve of returning from her husband’s ambassadorship in London.

“Any Abigail Adams letter is a treasure,’’ said Edith B. Gelles, a senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She has studied the Adamses for nearly four decades.

Gelles called Abigail Adams’s letters “the best record we have’’ of women’s lives during the Revolutionary War period.

As she readied for the monthlong voyage home from London, 43-year-old Abigail Adams dashed off one last message to her uncle, Dr. Cotton Tufts, in Weymouth, who often handled her business affairs while she was away.

How the centuries-old letter ended up in a Yarmouth Port desk drawer is a mystery.

Lawrence T. Perera, a trust and estate lawyer who works in Boston, said he discovered it there in January, tucked in a drawer of his late mother’s desk. He had been sifting through some of the remaining possessions of his father, who died in 1999, when he came across an old manila envelope.

Inside was an assortment of old family documents, along with the letter.

“It’s very, very lucky that we found it at all,’’ Perera said. “In looking through that [envelope] we found this handwritten letter that was in beautiful condition.’’

It had been in his parents’ possession, but he was unsure how they came to own it. He guesses that his father or his aunt, an artisan furniture collector, acquired it from a dealer.

Perera gave the letter to the Massachusetts Historical Society after the society verified it as an original. The society announced the acquisition Thursday.

Although the content of the letter does not change the fundamental understanding of the second first lady, it illuminates the thoughts of a woman in transition, historians said.

She and John Adams were at the end of more than four years living in Paris and London. Two of Abigail Adams’s sisters and two of her children awaited her return. Soon, John Adams would be elected vice president under George Washington.

Nonetheless, it was painful to leave. Abigail Adams came to enjoy European culture and the mansions she lived in, said John P. Kaminski, an Adams scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I find it the most troublesome removal I have ever made,’’ she wrote in the letter, dated March 2, 1788.

Frequently, Adams’s letters surface when private collectors put them up for sale, and most of those are already known to scholars, said Margaret A. Hogan, a managing editor at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

But a previously unknown letter turning up is far more rare — maybe once every five years, Hogan estimated.

Hogan said Abigail Adams wrote about 2,500 letters in her life, perhaps 100 of them to Tufts.

The new letter includes her characteristic astute commentary on European politics, including a lament to Tufts that foreign leaders had yet to take the new American nation seriously. She concluded her assessment: “Our Government should assume a New & more respectable form.’’

She also directed Tufts to “pay the Freight and all other charges’’ for a shipment of sherry wine.

“I hope e’er long to have the pleasure of drinking some of it with you,’’ she wrote.

Ben Wolford can be reached at bwolford@globe.com.