The documents selected for "One President's Adolescence" span the years 1773 to 1782, a crucial time in the life of both young John Quincy Adams and of the young republic. A brief chronology accompanying this unit (which can also be reached through the main portal page) places significant events in American history alongside milestones in JQA's life:

1773-1786: John Quincy Adams/America Chronology

Biographies of John Quincy Adams and of his father and mother are available at the Adams Papers website:

John Quincy Adams: Biographical Sketch
John Adams: Biographical Sketch
Abigail Adams: Biographical Sketch

Although Adams lived into the 1840s and in his later years remained active as a congressman and as an attorney who successfully defended the mutinous slaves of the schooner Amistad, such post-Revolutionary accomplishments are beyond the limits of the present unit.

Tips for Reading the Primary Documents:

To add emphasis to the events unfolding in the letters, the present tense is used in the background information for each section.

Students should be encouraged to read both the original and the transcription of each letter. Handwritten documents provide a fascination lost in an age of word processors.

The language is challenging, and dictionaries may be needed to understand certain passages.

Reading aloud can be a powerful means to develop the voices in the unit.

Spelling and grammatical inconsistencies are found in many of the letters. Even future presidents and their families err in the most ordinary ways, although it should also be pointed out that dictionaries (let alone spell checkers!) were scarce and that Noah Webster had not yet issued his famous Spelling Book, which would subsequently regularize American usage.

Main Themes Developed in the Unit:

What are the issues faced in childhood and adolescence? The letters and diary entries provide a powerful means of comparing an eighteenth-century childhood with that experienced by students of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

John Quincy Adams was not an average "kid." He was exceptionally intelligent, and his family, although not wealthy, provided him with many unusual, and some unique, opportunities. As the oldest son, he took on many adult responsibilities when his father was away from home working for independence in Philadelphia. During most months between 1774 and 1777, he was chief assistant to his mother, Abigail, as she ran the family farm and cared for his younger brothers. Most of JQA's writing postdates his father's return from the two Continental Congresses, when the boy accompanied John Adams on his diplomatic voyages to Europe, but it is important to note that JQA spent important, formative periods without his father.

Despite their distant temporal setting, the letters and diary entries collected in "One President's Adolescence" cover a surprising range of familiar issues, including sibling relations, homesickness, prejudice, procrastination, and parental concerns about the negative influence of popular entertainment.

How can an adolescent spend his or her youth to the greatest possible advantage? Because youth is fleeting and, as Abigail Adams repeatedly warns her son, every moment is precious, JQA and his parents seek that delicate balance between activities that enrich and those there merely amuse.

In their correspondence with their son, Abigail and John continually demonstrate their understanding that JQA's present experiences are shaping his character as well as his opportunities for the future. They are zealously committed to preparing the boy for adulthood, specifically for a life of service to his country. Like most parents, they have different emphases as they oversee their son's development. John is more focused on intellectual content; Abigail's chief concern is morality.

JQA's opportunities come at a price: he misses out on the companionship of his age mates back home, and his foreign experiences put him out of sync with his American peers. Is he pursuing the right course? Are the trade-offs worth it? Did JQA feel the same kind of pressure from his parents that today's youth experience from theirs? How do the circumstances differ? How does our view of youth differ from that held in the eighteenth century?

What is an individual's connection with history? John Quincy Adams's childhood and adolescence sharply intersected with the emergence of the United States. While he was keenly aware of current affairs, he was actually just living his life. Are youth today similarly positioned?

Although the Adams family writings collected in "One President's Adolescence" are intrinsically interesting, their importance in the larger frame of American history is never far below the surface of the personal. Students often view the history of the Revolutionary era as predetermined. They think an independent, democratic United States is an inevitable consequence of the events they see unfolding in their history books. The eyewitness accounts written by someone their own age help debunk this notion.

John Quincy Adams spent so much of his childhood immersed in the events of American independence that he was forever molded by them. A true child of the Revolution, he observed the Battle of Bunker Hill, and he experienced the terror of living in a land occupied by a hostile force. He met Benjamin Franklin and John Jay in Paris, and he assisted his father by copying some letters during the delicate negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Paris. His attitudes about these events, reflected in his diary and letters, are undigested. And precisely because they are undigested, they place the reader in the present moment. As they learn to appreciate how JQA viewed his role in current affairs, students may develop sensitivity to their own roles in their global, historic moment.

Suggested Lesson Plans:

Computer Lab or Hard-Copy Jigsaw

Introduction: Students discuss their prior knowledge of the Adams family. They may also be assigned the brief biographical sketches and the chronology mentioned above.

Pair or individual work: Individual sections or portions of them are assigned and completed as either class work or homework. Students may be assigned any or all of the three types of questions provided in each section.

Regroup: Students report back to the group what they have learned about JQA. They may be asked to read and answer the assigned questions. Discussion can be organized around the three themes elaborated above. For a possible extension of this presentation, students can be asked to read a brief passage selected for its dramatic content.

A Chronological Study of John Quincy Adams's Adolescence

Introduction: Students discuss their prior knowledge of the Adams family. They may also be assigned the brief biographical sketches and the chronology mentioned above.

Individual or group work: This unit may be assigned in chronological order from sections 1-10. Content questions may be assigned for homework, and the broader questions may be used for class discussion or writing activities.

Also in class: Students may be assigned to read selections from the primary documents dramatically and then explain their content. Dictionaries will be needed for this activity.

Selected Sections

In accord with teacher or student interest, individual sections can be selected for examination. For instance, a class may elect to examine only the sections on parental relations or on adapting to a new land.

Alternative/ Supplemental Approach

Ask students to bring to class letters (or diary entries) from their own families as a point of comparison to the letters written by John Quincy Adams. Examine similarities and differences.

Opportunities for Extension at the Massachusetts Historical Society

When JQA returned to Massachusetts in 1785 after his extended stay in Europe, he encountered an altered commonwealth. Its economy, culture, and especially its politics had undergone rapid change. What had his home state become?

Teachers are encouraged to select a small delegation (seven students or fewer) to visit the Massachusetts Historical Society to examine primary documents that help to reveal the character of Massachusetts in the 1780s. Documents from this era include diaries, letters, maps, broadsides, and newspapers. To receive more information about this unique opportunity for students of American history, please contact Jayne Gordon at or phone 617-646-0519.

How To Obtain an Answer Key:

Suggested answers to all questions are available for teacher use. Please e-mail your name, department, school address, and telephone number to or send a written request to Educating Youth, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02215. The answer key will be forwarded by e-mail or, if you prefer, regular mail.

Primary Readings and Their Length:

Use the information below to gauge the length of reading assignments for individuals, pairs, or the whole class. For jigsawing activities, use the estimates to break sections into chunks manageable within times allotted and ability levels.

1. The Future President Takes Up His Pen. Three primary documents. Approximately 25 lines.

2. Father John Adams Advises His Ten-Year-Old Son. Two primary documents. Approximately 27 lines.

3. Father and Son Undertake Difficult Voyages Together. Can be broken into two portions:

The first voyage. Three primary documents. Approximately 26 lines.
The second voyage. Three primary documents. Approximately 18 lines.

4. JQA Settles into Life in a Foreign Land. Four primary documents. Approximately 45 lines. Can be broken into two portions:

Documents 1 & 2. Approximately 25 lines.
Documents 3 & 4. Approximately 20 lines.

5. Mother Abigail Advises Her Son from across the Atlantic. Three primary documents. Approximately 45 lines. Can be broken into two portions:

Document 1. Approximately 25 lines.
Document 2. Approximately 20 lines.

6. JQA Begins a Diary That Goes on for the Next Sixty-Eight Years. Four primary documents. Approximately 43 lines. Can be broken into two portions:

Documents 1 & 2. Approximately 23 lines.
Documents 3 & 4. Approximately 20 lines.

7. JQA's Parents Plan for Their Thirteen-Year-Old Son's Progress. Three primary documents. Approximately 53 lines. Can be broken into two portions:

Documents 1 & 2. Approximately 30 lines; the second is a direct reply to the first.
Document 3. Approximately 23 lines.

8. One Diplomat Advises Another: Important Messages from the Second President of the United States to the Sixth. Four primary documents. Approximately 47 lines. Can be broken into two portions:

Document 1. Approximately 24 lines.
Documents 2, 3, & 4. Approximately 23 lines.

9. The Adams Family Communicates across Great Distances. Six primary documents. Approximately 84 lines. Can be broken into two portions:

Documents 1-3. Letters from JQA to siblings. Approximately 34 lines.
Document 4. Letter from Abigail to JQA regarding his sister. Approximately 14 lines.
Documents 4 & 5. Letters from Abigail 2d to JQA. Approximately 36 lines.

10. JQA Offers Unseasoned Views of Some of the "Lesser" Peoples of Europe. Four primary documents. Approximately 59 lines. Can be broken into two portions:

Documents 1 & 4. Approximately 29 lines.
Documents 2 & 3. Approximately 30 lines.

Return to main page.