By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers
When Louisa Catherine Johnson wrote to her then-fiancé John Quincy Adams on March 20, 1797, she desired to impress him with her reading of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son. The reaction she received was not the reaction she expected.
Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield
(National Portrait Gallery, London)
Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son is a compilation of 448 letters from Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694–1773), to his son, also named Philip (1732–1768), from the time the boy was five until his death. The letters contain lessons on subjects such as history and mythology in the boy’s youth, but the older he gets, the more the lessons relate to what Stanhope constantly refers to as, “the useful and necessary art of pleasing.” When the boy was eleven, Stanhope wrote that he desired he should be “as near perfection as possible” as “never were such pains taken for anybody’s education” and as his opportunities for knowledge and improvement were unparalleled. “The smallest inattention, or error in manners, the minutest inelegancy of diction, the least awkwardness in your dress and carriage, will not escape my observation,” Chesterfield wrote to his son. Understandably, Philip felt the need to keep secrets from his father. Upon his death from edema in 1768, Chesterfield discovered that Philip had been secretly married for ten years and had two sons. While Chesterfield provided for Philip’s two sons during what remained of his life and in his will, he neglected to leave Philip’s wife Eugenia anything, prompting her to publish over thirty years of his letters to his son. The collection of letters, published in 1774, attracted a great deal of notice in Britain and across the Atlantic.
Over twenty years after their original publication, Louisa wrote to her fiancé that she thought the letters “very good” but asked for John Quincy’s opinion on the book. John Quincy responded that he was never permitted to read the letters in his youth and harbored “too much contempt” for the principles within to have dedicated time to its perusal in his adulthood. Furthermore, he told her Chesterfield had a “stain of depravity which pervades all his ideas of morality” and that could only generate an “accomplished knave.” He advised her to read Samuel Johnson instead and leave Chesterfield’s “fraud” and “baseness” alone. (There is a 1779 copy of Stanhope’s work in the Stone Library at Peacefield with John Quincy’s bookplate attached.)
Undoubtedly, John Quincy’s fervent ideas about the book he claimed not to have read came, in part, from his parents. When his mother Abigail requested a copy in 1776, his father dissuaded her, telling her she wouldn’t want it as the letters were, “stained with libertine Morals and base Principles.” Abigail accepted her husband’s advice but got her hands on a copy four years later. After perusing the letters, she agreed that Chesterfield was filling his son’s mind with “the most immoral, pernicious and Libertine principals.”
Though John Quincy was no stranger to a father’s care, attention, and critiques, his relationship with his father little reflected the relationship of the Stanhopes. While John Adams urged his son to study the history of revolutions, Chesterfield outlined the proper way to bid farewell to mistresses. Chesterfield was, and urged his son to be, a chameleon in the world, a far cry from John Adams, the possibly uprooted but never swayed oak. In fact, Chesterfield’s instruction was so opposed to John Quincy’s lifestyle that he admitted to Louisa he felt as though Chesterfield were “personally satyrising” him.
John Quincy’s reaction to the text perhaps realizes his father’s April 15, 1776 wish that his children should “wear mean Cloaths, and work hard, with Chearfull Hearts and free Spirits” and that they would “scorn Injustice, Ingratitude, Cowardice, and Falshood. Let them revere nothing but Religion, Morality, and Liberty.” Nowhere did John Adams mention the useful and necessary art of pleasing.