By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers
He was mischievous and fond of pranks, long walks through the Massachusetts countryside, and nights full of dancing. He was uncommonly handsome, had a mess of brown curls on top of his head, and was exceedingly popular with the young women of Quincy. Abigail often found herself daydreaming of his “rosy cheeks” and “Sparkling Eyes.” His name was John Adams.
No, not the John Adams who signed the Declaration of Independence—his grandson and namesake, John Adams II. If one could handcraft the ideal grandson for Abigail Adams, one could scarcely do better. He shared his grandmother’s passionate enthusiasm for his native land, especially Massachusetts, shared his grandfather’s name, and was even born on the Fourth of July. When he was very young, he thought all the festivities were to celebrate his birthday—to the great amusement of his grandmother. Even by his twelfth birthday, Abigail was not ready to let the joke go. “You notice Your Birth day, and say you are twelve years old. I do assure you Sir, it was celebrated here, not withstanding Your absence as usual; with the ringing of Bells public orations, military parade and Social festivals.”
Abigail and John’s extant correspondence amounts to twenty letters. It is clear from internal references to other letters that they exchanged many more. The richest portion of their correspondence took place between 1815 and 1817, while John was living in Ealing (west London) with his parents, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams. His younger brother, Charles Francis, had spent six of his eight years traveling Europe with their parents, and his older brother, George, appeared to John to be adjusting well. John Adams II, who had only lived with his parents full time for the first two years of his life before they left him in Quincy in the name of public duty, struggled terribly to adjust, as his letters to his grandmother reveal.
If anyone in his family understood what it meant to be stranded in London and longing for Massachusetts, it was his grandmother. There is a striking resemblance between the letters Abigail wrote home during her husband’s tenure as the first American minister to the Court of St. James and the letters she received from her homesick twelve-year-old grandson. Just as Abigail frequently requested local gossip and updates on all her friends and relations when she was abroad, she supplied John with stories and trivialities: “The young Masters and misses had a fine Ball at Hingham, and wanted you, who love dancing so well,” she once reported.
John gloomily replied, “I do not like England near so well as America nor do I think I should like any country so well as my native Country. Oh how I wish I was in America with my Parents at Quincy with you . . . I should have been very glad to have been at the Ball at Hingham with my old acquaintances.”
Abigail obviously missed him just as much, writing, “I love the Chamber where you used to play your pranks, Study Your lessons and take Your repose.” She told him that she had preserved the room exactly as he had left it, as if he could walk back into the room at any moment. “The cain You used to take Your walks with from Hingham, I have placed in my closset . . . your military accourtrements are Still preserved as they were.”
Poignantly, Abigail often closed her letters to her grandson with concern that, considering her age and health, she would never see him in person again. In 1817, John Quincy Adams was recalled from England to serve as President James Monroe’s secretary of state. Now fourteen, John Adams II, his two brothers, and his parents returned home to Quincy, where they spent the summer living at the Old House with John and Abigail. “Be assured,” John Quincy’s father had written to him before their voyage to America, “it will be the most joyful part of my Life to receive and enjoy you all with open Arms.”In 1818, the final year of Abigail’s life, her beloved grandson was never farther away from her than the eight-mile carriage ride to Boston Latin School. Whether eight miles or 3,300 miles, Abigail reminded John that, “You know not . . . how very near my heart you are.”