This small pastel portrait of
John Thaxter Jr. was the son of John Thaxter and Anna Quincy Thaxter of Hingham; his mother was a sister of Abigail Adams' mother, Elizabeth Quincy Smith. Graduating from Harvard in 1774, Thaxter immediately became a clerk in John Adams' law office, roomed in Adams' house, and after Adams' departure for the First Continental Congress, began tutoring young John Quincy Adams. Thaxter continued his legal studies in Massachusetts until December 1777, when, with John Adams' endorsement, he journeyed to Congress to seek the post of secretary to the president. In January 1778 he accepted a clerkship in the office of the secretary to Congress, which he held until September. He then returned to Massachusetts, again boarded with Abigail and her family over the winter, and tutored Charles and Thomas Boylston Adams for the next year.
In November 1779, John Thaxter accepted John Adams' offer to be his private secretary during Adams' second diplomatic mission. After their departure for Europe with John Quincy and Charles Adams, Abigail wrote: “Mr. Thaxter too, who has lived in the Family near 6 years and was like a Brother in kindness and Friendship, makes one of the absent Family” (vol. 3:236–237). Thaxter served John Adams in France and the Netherlands, to Adams' great satisfaction, and offered occasional assistance in the education of John Quincy and Charles Adams, until his return to America with the completed treaty of peace with Great Britain, which he delivered to Congress in November 1783.
In May 1784 John Thaxter moved to Haverhill to set up a law practice. There he married Elizabeth Duncan in 1787, and passed the last seven years of his life. He continued his close friendship with John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas Boylston Adams, who were all studying with their uncle, the Reverend John Shaw, in Haverhill xiin the mid-1780s, but his correspondence with John and Abigail Adams became infrequent after his return to America. He died in 1791, less than a year after the death of his infant son, John Adams Thaxter, leaving his wife and infant daughter, Anna Quincy Thaxter.
John Thaxter was not one of the Adams' more gifted or concise correspondents, but he wrote frequently and reported on many events involving the Adamses that other correspondents ignored. In their voluminous correspondence, Abigail treated Thaxter almost like another son. He returned a filial affection, and regarded her as his closest confidant. For the entire period from 1774 through 1783, he was on the most intimate terms with each member of the Adams family.
Two likenesses of Thaxter are known to have been made. The first, a miniature that he considered no likeness, was executed in Paris in 1780 (to Abigail Adams, 19 September 1780, vol. 3:418). With some misgivings, Thaxter sent it to his sister Celia in Hingham in 1781, but he enjoined her never to wear it or show it to any one (to Celia Thaxter, 21 December 1780, 24 May 1781, Thaxter Papers, MHi). Whether through a delay in receiving Thaxter's May letter, or deliberate disregard of his request, Celia or another Thaxter did show this miniature to friends, and Abigail Adams thought it a poor likeness indeed (John Thaxter to Celia Thaxter, 9 October 1782, same; vol. 4:348–349). This miniature has not been found.
The second likeness is the pastel portrait reproduced here, which Thaxter liked better and sent to Celia, in care of Abigail Adams in the late summer of 1782, saying that anyone who chose could wear this portrait, but that “they will be soon tired, for Glass, Frame &ca, would be a little weighty: and besides, . . . it would not be borne by a silk Ribband” (9 October 1782, Thaxter Papers, MHi). Abigail, however, liked the portrait no better than the miniature (to Thaxter, 26 October 1782, below).
Thaxter's extensive correspondence with the Adamses, from 1775 to 1788, is in the Adams Papers and in small collections of Thaxter papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Boston Public Library. The Thaxter Papers at the Society also contains over fifty letters written between 1778 and 1791 to his father, his sister Celia, and other family members.
From a Private Collection, photograph courtesy of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in Rhode Island Portrait Index.