By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers
When John Quincy Adams was 59 years old, he wrote a nostalgic letter to his cousin William Cranch in which he pined for their shared childhood. This led me to wonder something—if you were an Adams kid, what did you do for fun?
John Adams’s absence from his family during this period provides a rich correspondence with their mother, Abigail, throughout which she describes the health and development of their “Little folks.” From Abigail’s letters, the children’s later reminiscences, and their skills evident as teenagers and adults, we can glean that Nabby, John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas passed most of their time with some combination of reading, shooting, chess, playing the flute, ice skating, keeping doves, and dancing.
When she wasn’t needed for household chores, Nabby could be found reading, playing cards, and gossiping with her cousins about their crushes. It is also probable that she accompanied her younger brothers when they went fishing, as she later describes fishing with John and Abigail while in England, or when they went on long walks, as her father believed in fresh air and exercise for young girls. Along the way, Nabby also must have become proficient in chess, as in 1786 her husband admitted to losing a game of chess to her.
Like their elder sister, John Quincy and Charles loved to read. When John wrote home from Philadelphia and asked the children what presents they would like him to send home, Abigail replied, “I call[ed] them seperately and told them Pappa wanted to send them something and requested of them what they would have. A Book was the answer of them all only Tom wanted a picture Book and Charlss the History of king and Queen. It was natural for them to think of a Book as that is the only present Pappa has been used to make them.” As they grew older, John Quincy and Charles went for long walks and swims together, went shooting and ice skating, and took flute and dancing lessons.
Thomas, the youngest, enjoyed many of the same amusements of his older siblings, as evidenced by the necessity of abstaining from ice skating when he sustained a broken ankle. The “innocently playful” Thomas had an especially soft spot for animals. His aunt reported to Abigail, “Tom, a Rogue loves his Birds and his Doves, makes bad Lattin and says as he grows older he shall grow wiser.” When Thomas returned to live with Abigail, his aunt continued to send him reports of the animals. At fourteen, Thomas still appeared enamored with his pets, though John Quincy steered him towards more serious matters. His aunt wrote, “Thomas is A fine Lad, and does not run so often to look of his Doves in studying Hours, since Mr Adams has been here.”
Though it appears inconceivable to have a normal childhood when the enemy army is a few miles up the road, ten-year-old John Quincy confessed to his father that his thoughts were “running after birds eggs play & trifles,” and five-year-old Thomas couldn’t wait until his father returned home so that they could get back to playing “jail.” It seems that even when the world is turning upside down and countries are being crafted, a kid is still a kid. Even an Adams kid.