Adams Family Advice upon Commencement

By Amanda A. Mathews, Adams Papers

When 20-year-old John Quincy Adams graduated from Harvard in 1787, both John and Abigail Adams, like all parents, had plenty of advice for the young man about to embark on legal studies and adulthood. Writing from London, where he was serving as the first American Minister to Great Britain, John Adams advised his son on practical and specific habits to improve in his chosen profession. “When you Attend the Superiour Court,” the father and lawyer counseled, “carry always your Pen and Ink & Paper and take Notes of every Dictum, every Point and every Authority. But remember to show the same respect to the Judges and Lawyers who are established in Practice before you, as you resolved to show the President Tutors Professors, and Masters and Batchelors at Colledge.”

Abigail Adams, on the other hand, offered more general words of motherly wisdom to guide him on his life’s journey and finding that essential balance:

I congratulate you upon your Success at Commencment, and as you have acquired a reputation upon entering the stage of the World, you will be no less solicitious to preserve and increase it, through the whole drama. . . . it is natural to the humane Heart to swell with presumption when conscious of superiour power, yet all humane excellence is comparative, and he who thinks he knows much to day, will find much more still unatained, provided he is still eager in persuit of knowledge. Your Friends are not anxious that you will be in any danger through want of significant application, but that a too ardent persuit of your studies will impair your Health, & injure those bodily powers and faculties upon which the vigor of the mind depends. Moderation in all things is condusive to human happiness, tho this is a maxim little heeded by Youth, whether their persuits are of a sensual, or a more refined and elevated kind.

In this commencement season, parents everywhere are giving important advice to their freshly launched adult children, but the advice serves a dual purpose, for, in helping their children achieve all they can, as Abigail noted upon hearing of the success of her son at Harvard, “there is no musick sweeter in the Ears of parents, than the well earned praises of their children.”