That Actually Happened – John Adams and Benjamin Franklin Slumber Party

It’s kind of adorable. (And a nice contrast to some of the grisly things that have been featured in this series so far.) The nutshell version is that one time, in the middle of a diplomatic mission to talk to Lord Howe during the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams ended up sharing a tiny bed in a tiny room in a tiny inn together, and argued about whether night air makes you sick. Of course this ends with a massive scientific lecture by Benjamin Franklin while John Adams falls asleep from sheer boredom. We know this actually happened, because John Adams kept a diary. Read the entry here. It’s an absolute treasure trove of historical details that might otherwise be skipped over. I bet you didn’t even know that there was this (failed, obviously) attempt to broker peace in the middle of the Revolution. I’ll go over some choice passages:

Monday September 9, 1776.
Resolved, that in all Continental Commissions, and other Instruments where heretofore the Words, “United Colonies,” have been used, the Stile be altered for the future to the United States.
Dang, guys, this is when they named the United States. It takes them a few months to get to it, actually, from the Declaration of Independence in July. There’s a definite sense that this new country and government thing is literally being made up as they go along.

On this day, Mr. Franklin, Mr. Edward Rutledge and Mr. John Adams proceeded on their Journey to Lord Howe on Staten Island, the two former in Chairs and the last on Horseback; the first night We lodged at an Inn, in New Brunswick.
By “Chairs” he means sedan chairs like this one:
Lady in a sedan chair, with two porters lifting the chair.

This is a much later sedan chair, and it’s from Turkey, but litters just like this one were very popular forms of transportation in the 1700s. When it’s set on the ground on its feet, the passenger gets in and out through the door in front. It was easier to get through narrow streets in an urban environment, and it was more comfortable if you didn’t want to be jostled around in a carriage, or didn’t feel well enough to ride a horse or walk.

Since John Adams is on a horse, and the other two are in sedan chairs, this gives us even more information. They’re traveling far enough that you would ride rather than walk, and obviously more than one day’s journey away, if they had to stay in an inn. John Adams is feeling fine, because he’s riding a horse. Maybe since they’re in sedan chairs, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge are both unwell, and indeed, Benjamin Franklin was known to have gout in addition to the fact that he was about seventy at the time. (Interesting aside about sedan chairs: although the sedan chair is almost extinct in the United States, this is not the case in other places, for example some versions of traditional Chinese weddings practically require one, leading to wedding sedan chair rental companies.) We can ALSO infer that there’s more than just these three people on this diplomatic mission, since somebody else has to carry the sedan chairs, at least.

On the Road and at all the public Houses, We saw such Numbers of Officers and Soldiers, straggling and loytering, as gave me at least, but a poor Opinion of the Discipline of our forces and excited as much indignation as anxiety.
So, the Continental Army is in horrible shape, in terms of actually staying an army. Yikes.

The Taverns were so full We could with difficulty obtain Entertainment. At Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me, in a Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window.
Not even a fireplace. I hope the bedcover was warm, at least.

Portrait of a frowzy looking John Adams.

John Adams. I wanted to go with lesser-known images for this one. You already know these people from the (idealized) portraits on the money.

The Window was open, and I, who was an invalid and afraid of the Air in the night blowing upon me, shut it close. Oh! says Franklin dont shut the Window. We shall be suffocated. I answered I was afraid of the Evening Air.
Huh. So, Adams isn’t feeling so good, either. This is one thing you learn when you get into history in depth: everybody was sick all the time, and health was an absolute obsession. This fear of the “Evening Air” is about the Miasma Theory of disease, which was a medical belief that sickness was caused by bad air, especially air at night. (We have a fossil of this in the name for the disease malaria – mal aire, bad air.) Note that neither Adams nor Franklin feel the need to explain any of this or point out that bad air makes you sick, and that the ensuing epic lecture is about what kind of bad air makes you sick, since everybody is certain that it’s true. Bacteria and viruses haven’t been discovered yet.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, in 1777.

Benjamin Franklin just one year after the events of the entry, in 1777.

Dr. Franklin replied, the Air within this Chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than that without Doors: come! open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds. Opening the Window and leaping into Bed, I said I had read his Letters to Dr. Cooper in which he had advanced, that Nobody ever got cold by going into a cold Church, or any other cold Air: but the Theory was so little consistent with my experience, that I thought it a Paradox: However I had so much curiosity to hear his reasons, that I would run the risque of a cold. The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together: but I believe they were equally sound and insensible, within a few minutes after me, for the last Words I heard were pronounced as if he was more than half asleep….
Awwwwww. That’s downright adorable. As you can tell, two centuries ago in the just-barely-a-thing-that-day United States, snuggly sleeping arrangements between adults were commonplace, especially if you’re squished into a small room with one bed and a super-enthusiastic scientist. Franklin getting cranked up about Night Air is also a reminder that he was rockstar-famous before the revolution due to his experiments with electricity and involvement in the scientific community. Franklin also wrote an academic essay about farting.
Figures for the patent for the Franklin Stove.

“Bad Air” aside, you do have to know a thing or two about ventilation to improve the wood burning stove. Above: figures for the patent for the Franklin Stove.


It’s worth it to read the whole diary entry, which features more discussion of Evening Air and the common cold, as well as an incredibly polite hostage situation:
There were a few Circumstances which appear neither in the Journals of Congress nor in my Letters, which may be thought by some worth preserving. Lord How had sent over an Officer as an Hostage for our Security. I said to Dr. Franklin, it would be childish in Us to depend upon such a Pledge and insisted on taking him over with Us, and keeping our Surety on the same side of the Water with Us. My Colleagues exulted in the Proposition and agreed to it instantly. We told the Officer, if he held himself under our direction he must go back with Us. He bowed Assent, and We all embarked in his Lordships Barge. As We approached the Shore his Lordship, observing Us, came down to the Waters Edge to receive Us, and looking at the Officer, he said, Gentlemen, you make me a very high Compliment, and you may depend upon it, I will consider it as the most sacred of Things. 
This is what it looks like when all sides of a dispute completely agree on what the rules of conflict are (even a full-on war). No misunderstandings, no messy misinterpretations (NSA classic example linkage!). Adams, Franklin, and Rutledge didn’t bring the hostage along with them because they thought that they were safe, instead, they thought that Howe might be ruthless enough to not honor the agreement anyway (“it would be childish in Us to depend on such a Pledge”), and that they had a chance to make a very generous gesture of trusting Howe without actually placing trust in him by bringing the hostage back to him rather than leaving the hostage at camp. It was also really gutsy to go through with the meeting anyway. But, Howe saw that them bringing the hostage back was very generous decision, and decided to honor it by not arresting them after the conference failed. (“Gentlemen, you make me a very high Compliment, and you may depend upon it“)  It all looks very gracious on the surface, but by everyone making such a show of this graciousness and generosity and honor, it safeguards norms of behavior that make it possible to get business and diplomacy done.

That’s what etiquette does, actually. The purpose of etiquette is to give people a common framework around which to structure their interactions so that they can be sure that their own relationships and interests are protected, and they know exactly where they stand with each other.