Friendships wax and wane, but that of John and Abigail Adams with James and Mercy Otis Warren suffered a particularly virulent rupture followed by a beautiful rapprochement. While some may be familiar with the Adamses’ falling out with Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s (as they ended up on opposite sides of a widening and ugly partisan divide), they also drifted apart from their Massachusetts friends, the Warrens, at the same time. When the Adamses finally reconciled with Mercy Otis Warren in 1812, they commemorated the occasion with two pieces of jewelry that embodied their friendship.
Mercy Otis Warren, whom John Adams once called “the most accomplished Lady in America” after his wife, was a fiery and intelligent writer whose brother and husband participated in the American Revolution. While the Adamses and Warrens were close friends in the 1770s and 1780s, their friendship waned as their political ideologies differed in the 1790s. The full break came after the publication of Warren’s three-volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution in 1805 (Warren was one of the first published women in America). The Federalist John Adams strenuously objected to his Republican friend’s depiction of him and wrote her 10 letters in quick succession attacking her work. When his letters reached what the wounded Warren called “the climax of rancor, indecency, and vulgarism” in 1807, she ended the friendship. It appears that she and Abigail Adams also stopped being friends.
Five years later, Abigail Adams and several family members visited the now-widowed Mrs. Warren. What brought on this visit is unclear, although a mutual friend had been trying to bring them back together. The women patched up their friendship and Warren gave Abigail a lock of hair as a memento. Some months later, Abigail sent Warren a special gift: a gold ring with brown hair overlapping woven gray locks surrounded by 19 pearls and inscribed with the initials “JAA.” This was, Abigail wrote, “a token of love and friendship.” Abigail hoped Warren didn’t mind, but John had requested that Abigail add his hair to her own. While today the gold initials have shifted and moved the brown hair (Abigail’s) mostly out of view, John’s gray hair woven around silk cord creates a delicate ivory centerpiece for the ring of pearls (above).
Warren received this sign of reconciliation from John with delight. Wearing the ring with the hair of Abigail and “the venerable and patriotic head of the President of the United States” would be a visible reminder to Warren—and those around her—of a friendship that endured despite “partial interruption.” Just as the hair was entwined inside the ring, the Adamses were “friends who have been entwined to my heart by years of endearment.”
Mercy Otis Warren Brooch, American, 1812. Gold, pearls, crystal, gold foil, hair. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society
Abigail, too, had a sign of friendship entwined to her heart: She made a matching handkerchief pin with Mercy Otis Warren’s hair behind the initials MW and wreathed by 35 pearls. It’s worth noting that neither piece of jewelry would have elicited the disgust Americans today feel toward hair. In fact, hair was a common gift among friends and family. It was regularly set in jewelry, particularly after a loved one’s death in a mourning ring or brooch. Hair does not decay or fade, so it is a way of giving an enduring piece of oneself. In creating these two jewelry pieces, Abigail Adams made a permanent memorial to a rocky but remarkable friendship.