The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

George Washington: John Quincy Adams’s “great Patron”

For as long as teenagers have had bedrooms, they’ve been pinning their role models up on the wall—a favorite singer, a beloved actor, the best ball player. When John Quincy Adams was fifteen, his bedroom at The Hague held a gilded framed picture of General George Washington. Like many of his contemporaries, John Quincy had the deepest respect for the “truly great and illustrious” Washington, a respect that endured throughout his life.

John Quincy's portrait was likely a copy of John Trumbull's 1780 portrait of Washington. 

[Accessed on 29 August 2017 at:]


Twelve years after the portrait of Washington was removed from the wall, John Quincy Adams discovered he would be returning to The Hague thanks to the general’s orders. On May 27, 1794, John Adams wrote to his wife that, “the President has it in contemplation to Send your son to Holland.” When he wrote to his son, he discussed the appointment at The Hague in vague terms, calling the nomination “the Result of the Presidents own Observations and Reflections.” The next day, John Adams penned, “The Senate have this Day unanimously advised and consent to the Appointment of John Quincy Adams to the Hague.”

Just at the beginning of his law career in Boston, John Quincy felt too young and inexperienced to deserve the honor. Nevertheless, he did not believe his father would have suggested it to the president. When he next met his father in Quincy, John Adams confirmed his hunch. “I found that my nomination had been as unexpected to him as to myself,” JQA recorded in his diary. “His satisfaction at the appointment is much greater than mine,” he confessed, writing, “I wish I could have been consulted before it was irrevocably made. I rather wish it had not been made at all.”

Despite his hesitation at being separated from his family and sent halfway across the world for a then-undisclosed purpose, the day before his 28th birthday, JQA was in Philadelphia being introduced to President Washington. “He said little or nothing to me upon the subject of the business on which I am to be sent,” JQA noted. That night JQA was invited to dine with the president, and he paid his respects to Martha Washington, delivering her a letter from his mother. Abigail wanted to acknowledge “the honor done him by the unsolicited appointment conferd upon him by the President.” She continued, “I hope from his Prudence honour integrity & fidelity that he will never discredit the Character so honorably conferd upon him. painfull as the circumstance of a Seperation from him will be to me Madam I derive a satisfaction from the hope of his becomeing eminently usefull to his Country whether destined to publick, or to Private Life.”

A week after receiving Abigail’s letter from John Quincy’s hand, Martha responded. “The prudence, good sence and high estamation in which he stands, leaves you nothing to apprehend on his account from the want of these traits in his character;—whilst abilities, exerted in the road in which he is now placed, affords him the fairest prospect rendering eminent services to his country; and of being, in time, among the fore most in her councils.— This I know is the opinion of my Husband, from whom I have imbided the idea.”

Washington may have felt confident in John Quincy’s diplomatic abilities, but the young man was less sure. As he waited for Alexander Hamilton to return to Philadelphia to deliver instructions relevant to his mission, JQA wrote to his father, expressing doubt about his unfolding career: “I have abandoned the profession upon which I have hitherto depended, for a future subsistence . . . At this critical moment, when all the materials for a valuable reputation at the bar were collected, and had just began to operate favourably for me, I have stopped short in my career; forsaken the path which would have led me to independence and security in private life; and stepped into a totally different direction.” John Quincy ended his letter by telling his father that he determined to return home and to private life in no more than three years, if Washington had not already recalled him by then. John Adams replied urging patience and flexibility. “As every Thing is uncertain and Scænes are constantly changing I would not advise you to fix any unalterable Resolutions except in favour of Virtue and integrity and an unchangeable Love to your Country.”

In 1796 John Quincy learned that his father had been elected to succeed Washington. He wrote to his mother, assuring her that he would never solicit an office from his father. He discussed the devotion he felt to his country and his plans for a private life back in Massachusetts. John Adams was so touched by the letter that he shared it with Washington. Washington communicated his reflections on the private letter to John Adams: “if my wishes would be of any avail, they shd go to you in a strong hope, that you will not withhold merited promotion from Mr Jno. Adams because he is your son.” Washington declared it his “decided opinion” that John Quincy was “the most valuable public character we have abroad,” a man who would “prove himself to be the ablest, of all our diplomatic Corps.”

When George Washington died on December 14, 1799, John Quincy received many letters offering condolences from his family, closest friends, and foreign dignitaries. Poignantly, his father, though overworked in the office of president, sent him a short note on February 28, 1800, acknowledging that John Quincy was mourning the loss of his “great Patron.” Just over a year later, John Quincy welcomed his first son, George Washington Adams


comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 12:00 AM

“A Subject Which Weighs Much Upon My Mind”: John Quincy Adams’s Work on Weights and Measures

On February 22, 1821, John Quincy Adams noted in his diary that “two of the most memorable transactions of my life” occurred that day: the ratification of the Transcontinental Treaty between the United States and Spain, and the submission of his report on weights and measures. While the treaty is remembered for orchestrating the U.S. acquisition of Florida, Adams’s work on weights and measures, which he referred to as “a fearful and oppressive task,” is largely forgotten today. 

John Quincy’s obsession with the subject began in 1810 when he was minister plenipotentiary to Russia and spent his free time researching the variations among countries’ standard weights and measures. His wife, Louisa Catherine, recorded in her diary on July 21 that he “too often passed” the days “alone studying…no article however minute escaped his observation and to this object he devoted all his time.”

A page of John Quincy's notes

 [John Quincy Adams memorandum and garden book, 1810-1845, Adams Family Papers, microfilm edition, 608 reels (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society) reel 203.]


As secretary of state (1817–1825) John Quincy had many duties, but none intrigued him more than this topic. In 1817, the Senate passed a resolution asking that office to submit “a statement relative to the standard weights and measures” within the states and foreign countries, along with “propositions…as may be proper to be adopted” in America. John Quincy assumed the position on September 22, and by October 7 he drolly noted in his diary that the subject “weighs much upon my mind.” During the summer of 1820 he would wake up early to perform tests and record his results before going to work. Adams’s final report recommended that “no innovation upon the existing weights and measures should be attempted.” He instead called for America to “declare” its official measures “as they now exist” and to give standard metal measurements to “every State and Territory.”

For all his efforts, Adams’s work was not widely read. Indeed, his own father, John Adams, referred to it on May 10, 1821, as “a Mass of historical, philosophical chemical mathematical and political knowledge” but noted, “I cannot Say and perhaps Shall never be able to Say I have read it.” Upon the completion of the work Louisa Catherine recorded in her diary: “Thank God we hear no more of Weights and Measures” [January 6], and John Quincy commented on the final report in his diary:

It is, after all the time and pains that I have bestowed upon it a hurried and imperfect work; but I have no reason to expect that I shall ever be able to accomplish any literary labour more important to the best ends of human exertion, public utility, or upon which the remembrance of my children, may dwell with more satisfaction.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 28 August, 2017, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

The only item on the calendar this week is a free tour on Saturday, 2 September, at 10:00AM

The library is closed on Saturday, 2 September, though the exhibition galleries remain open, 10:00AM-4:00PM.

The building is closed on Monday, 4 September, in observance of Labor Day. Normal hours resume on Tuesday, 5 September.

Be sure to check our online calendar to see what is coming up in the fall!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 27 August, 2017, 12:00 AM

“Look out for boms”: The Trial and Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti at Charlestown State Prison. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and anarchists convicted for killing two men in South Braintree, Mass. on 15 April 1920. Their notorious trial, described and debated by many qualified historians in the intervening decades, is still hotly contested to this day. I’d like to concentrate on the immediate aftermath of the case, as told to us by an eyewitness.


Robert E. Grant was captain of the Hyde Park (Boston) Police Department at the time of the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. The MHS holds in its collections the diaries Grant kept off and on between 1901 and 1930, which my colleague Brendan Kieran wrote about in an earlier Beehive post. Grant played a role in the Sacco-Vanzetti story primarily because the prosecutor of the case, District Attorney Frederick G. Katzmann, lived in his district.


The trial and verdict sparked protests and bombings around the world, and individuals associated with the prosecution were threatened, including Katzmann. As early as June 1926, shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti, Captain Grant dispatched a police detail to Katzmann’s home in Hyde Park.

Sent two men first and last half to watch the Katzmann house #11 Prospect Street for bombs. Sacco and Vanzetti Sympithy. [1 June 1926]


On 9 April 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death by Judge Webster Thayer of the Superior Court in Dedham, Mass. Supporters were outraged, as you can see in this broadside distributed by the International Anarchist Group.


Facing intense pressure and petitions for clemency, Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller appointed a three-man advisory committee to review the case and determine if it had been prosecuted fairly. On 3 August 1927, the committee sustained the decision of the court, and protests intensified. Throughout the spring and summer of 1927, Captain Grant and the Hyde Park police kept a watchful eye on Katzmann’s home and other hot spots. It appears they even tapped the district attorney’s phone line.

Had 3 men sent here [from other districts] for Katzman Detail this am. […] Sent to Capt Lutz [of the Riot Squad] for three Riot Guns to send to Katzman house. [I] went out to telephone Co. about quick service to Katzmans house. They told me they would do so. [4 August 1927]

Order came out noon mail that all Days Off are suspended and Night and Day men to sleep in and report back for duty on long days on Account of boms in other Cities. [6 August 1927]

Very quiet here. Capt. Lutz was out and went to the house of Katzmans to instruct the men about shot guns. They have to be told every day. [17 August 1927]


One of the jurors in the case, Lewis McHardy of East Milton, Mass., was also targeted.

Learned of the Boming of the house of McHardy one of the Sacco Jurors. Five asleep about 4 this am. None injured. House badly damaged. […] Went to Katzmans Office to talk this matter of bomming over with him. […] No arrests here or Milton on the Bomming case. [16 August 1927]


Sacco and Vanzetti lost their appeals and were executed on 23 August 1927, along with Celestino Madeiros (for another murder).

Supreme Court handed down a disision against Sacco Vanzetti for new trial and stay of sentence. Orders again came out holding all men over time at station beginning tomorrow morning. Look out for boms. [19 August 1927]

Every thing is ready for Sacco Vanzetti in the Electric Chair to night after 12 midnight. […] Saw the details at Tel building, Public Library and later at Katzman house. […] They are all ready for the Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti and Maderos at State prison. [22 August 1927]

At Station untill 12-40 am. Day men Excused. Sacco Venzetti Maderos Elicetruded at 12.27 am. […] Things very quiet here after the Execution of Sacco-Venzetti. [23 August 1927]


The MHS holds the six-volume transcripts of the case, published in 1928-1929 and given to us by Felix Frankfurter. I found, folded up in the front of volume one, the September 1927 bulletin of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. It describes injustices perpetrated against the accused men by Katzmann, Thayer, Fuller, and others, and includes an article entitled “The Hatred in High Places That Murdered Sacco and Vanzetti.”


In 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation declaring that Sacco and Vanzetti had not received a fair trial. The proclamation argued that “the atmosphere of their trial and appeals was permeated by prejudice against foreigners and hostility toward unorthodox political views,” and Dukakis encouraged the people of Massachusetts 

to reflect upon these tragic events, and draw from their historic lessons the resolve to prevent the forces of intolerance, fear, and hatred from ever again uniting to overcome the rationality, wisdom, and fairness to which our legal system aspires.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 2:36 PM

Descriptions of Eclipses: "Every body was looking and little was done"

On Monday, 21 August 2017, a solar eclipse will occur!  Many people in Boston are looking forward to 2:46 pm when they will (weather permitting!) experience what  it is like when the sun is about 60% eclipsed.

Staff of the MHS have located a few items that convey descriptions of other solar eclipses.  Please enjoy this sampler (arranged in reverse chronological order):



A description and illustration of the eclipse that was visible 29 July 1878 from Snake River Pass, Colorado appeared in Harper's Weekly.

At 3 hours 12 minutes 0 seconds the great orb looked only like the newest of new moons, and the wonderful light over all the grand landscape was not of sunlight, or moonlight, or starlight, or twilight, and an adequate description, beyond stating the tint as a peculiar lilac, is impossible.

During  totality the sharp breeze sweeping over the elevated ridges became so intensely cold that we actually suffered, and the re-appearance of the sun was hailed with pleasure.1

"The Great Solar Eclipse."  Engraving from Harper's Weekly, 24 August 1878. Vol. XXII, Number 1130, page 673.


Charles Francis Adams wrote about the eclipse he witnessed in Boston on 12 February 1831.

But as there must always be something or other to distract my attention, so today it was taken off by the eclipse of the Sun which took place about noon.  I spent some time in observing this phenomenon. The Sun was not entirely darkened as the eclipse was not total, consequently the light was but partially affected. The cold however was considerable, and the temperature did not recover it throughout the day. The sight is a splendid one…. Every body was looking and little was done. The appearance of the Streets was certainly curious. Men, Women and Boys all gazing at a spectacle the nature of which there were not many to comprehend.2



John Davis (1761-1847) describes the total solar eclipse that happened on 27 October 1780.  Davis was part of an expedition led by Samuel Williams that was so motivated to observe the eclipse they traveled to a part of Maine that was under the control of the British army.  Only a fragment of his Davis's diary survives.

Five of the company were furnished with telescopes for observation.  A few minutes before 11, we sit down to the instruments.  The seconds are counted & the minutes pronounced as they advanced….All [was]…expectation and suspense--the initial moment at length arrives, & soon after 11, the shadow is observed to touch the western limb of the sun.  The several phases of the eclipse as they appeared to the different observers were carefully noted…

The eclipse was nearly total. Objects cast no perceptible shadow. Venus appeared bright in the west.3




The eclipse of 5 August 1766 is described in a newspaper.  A Boston newspaper published on 11 August 1766 includes a short piece about the eclipse. As was common at the time, newspapers would republish news from other locations, and the heading on the piece about the eclipse is: "Portsmouth. August, 8."

Last Tuesday being fair Weather and very Hot we had a distinct View of the remarkable ECLIPSE of the SUN--At the Time of greatest Observation, it appeared larger than is represented in the Almanack--the Air was considerably darkned, so that some who did not know of the Eclipse, were surprised.4


1. "The Great Solar Eclipse," by St. George Stanley.  Harper's Weekly, 24 August 1878. Vol. XXII, Number 1130, page 675. 

2. From Charles Francis Adams diary, 12 February 1831.  The transcribed entry is available online as part of the Adams Papers Digital Editions:

3. From John Davis diary, 1780. From the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

4. From: The Boston Gazette, and Country Journal, 11 August 1766 supplement.  Online version is available within The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr.:  (see column 1)



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 20 August, 2017, 12:00 AM

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