“My life has been spent in the public service”: John Quincy Adams’s Final Years, 1843–1848

By Neal Millikan, Series Editor for Digital Editions, The Adams Papers

Transcriptions of more than 1,700 pages of John Quincy Adams’s diary have just been added to the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary, a born-digital edition of the Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The new material spans the period January 1843 through February 1848 and chronicles the final years of Adams’s life, including his continued service in the United States House of Representatives.

Slavery was the political issue that continued to vex John Quincy Adams. He reflected on the subject in his diary in August 1843: “Before my lamp is burnt out, I am desirous that my opinions concerning the great movement throughout the civilized world for the abolition of Slavery should be explicitly avowed and declared— God grant that they may contribute to the final consummation of that event.” One of his major contributions to this cause was his work to defeat the House’s Gag Rule, which prevented petitions regarding slavery from being discussed in that legislative body. On 3 December 1844 Adams introduced a resolution to repeal the Gag Rule, thereby restoring the freedom of petition and debate in the House. After an eight-year battle, he triumphed; the House finally adopted the resolution that same day.

For years, Adams had also opposed the annexation of Texas, rightly believing that its admission to the union would tip the balance of power between slave and free states. He watched morosely in February 1845 as a joint resolution on annexation passed in Congress. Texas subsequently joined the Union as a slave state. The following year, when fighting broke out along the contested U.S.-Mexico border, Adams voted against the declaration of war in the House, describing the conflict as “this most unrighteous War” and asserting that the “lying preamble” to the bill that claimed Mexico initiated the conflict was “base, fraudulent and false.”

painting, portrait, man
Portrait of John Quincy Adams, painted by Nahum Bell Onthank (1823-1888)

More satisfying, Adams’s life-long pursuit of knowledge received just reward during this period. His “aspirations of Science, limited only by the scanty spark of ethereal fire” in his soul were realized in 1843 when he traveled to Ohio to support of one of his long-standing passions—astronomy. He spent months preparing the speech he was invited to give at the laying of the cornerstone for the Cincinnati astronomical observatory. “My task is to turn this transient gust of enthusiasm for” astronomy “into a permanent and persevering national pursuit which may extend the bounds of human knowledge.”

Since 1836 John Quincy Adams had championed the preservation and protection of the bequest James Smithson left to the United States, having either chaired or been a member of the select congressional committee on the Smithsonian fund. He ultimately hoped those funds would be utilized for a national research institution. In August 1846 he elatedly noted the signing of the Smithsonian Bequest Act “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men” by President James K. Polk.

Old photograph, man
Carte de visite of daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams by Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries

Adams easily won re-election as the representative of the 8th Massachusetts congressional district in November 1846. On the 20th he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while walking in Boston. For the rest of the year, he convalesced at his son Charles Francis Adams’s home. He returned to Washington, D.C., on 12 February 1847 and was greeted by a standing ovation when he resumed his seat in Congress the following day. A year later, on 21 February 1848, John Quincy Adams collapsed on the floor of the House. He was moved to the office of the speaker, where he died two days later. Adams aptly described the trajectory of his life when he wrote in July 1845 that it had “been spent in the public service.”

By the time of his death, Adams’s diary encompassed 68 years of entries and contained over 15,000 manuscript pages in 51 diary volumes. Adams himself best explained the importance of his diary in the following entry: “There has perhaps not been another individual of the human race of whose daily existence from early childhood to four score years has been noted down with his own hand so minutely as mine.”

For more on John Quincy Adams’s life, read the headnote for the 1843–1848 period, or, navigate the entries to begin reading his diary. The addition of material for the 1843–1848 period joins existing transcriptions of Adams’s diary for his legal, political, and diplomatic careers (1789–1817), his time as secretary of state (1817–1825), his presidency (1825–1829), and his previous service in the House of Representatives (1830–1842). It brings the total number of transcriptions freely available on the MHS website to 11,600 pages. The Adams Papers editorial project continues to work toward making more of the diary accessible online.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding for the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary was provided by the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund, with additional contributions by Harvard University Press and a number of private donors. The Mellon Foundation in partnership with the National Historical Publications and Records Commission also supports the project through funding for the Society’s Primary Source Cooperative.

A Massachusetts Yankee in Queen Charlotte’s Court

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

In 1815, when John Quincy Adams began his tenure as U.S. minister at the Court of St. James, King George III had for several years past been declared unfit to rule, and his eldest son was serving in his stead. The Regency Act of 1811 had vested the power of the Crown in the Prince of Wales, but in terms of etiquette—essential to a diplomat—Queen Charlotte was still the one to impress.

On 8 June 1815 Adams contacted the assistant Master of Ceremonies, Robert Chester, to get a refresher on royal protocol and court presentations. Adams was no stranger to court life, but with an indisposed king, his not-quite-widowed queen, nine surviving princes and princesses, and a Prince Regent and his daughter to consider, the protocol was perplexing. “I asked whether it was usual for the foreign Ministers to be presented separately to the Princes of the Royal family,” Adams recorded in his diary, “and when and to whom visits of form were to be paid— He said that after having an Audience of the Queen, and not until then, it would be proper to call at the Residences of all the Princes.” Chester guessed that Charlotte would return to London in the course of a week and would give the Adamses an audience then.

Adams was barred from visiting the other princes’ residences until he had presented himself to the Queen, but he was invited to Carlton House for an audience with the Prince Regent. Chester added that should Adams run into any of the Regent’s brothers at Carlton House, he was permitted to make a personal presentation.

painted portrait
George, the Prince Regent, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. National Portrait Gallery, London

After waiting an hour and a half, Adams was introduced into the Prince’s closet. “He stood alone; and as I approached him, speaking first, said, ‘Mr Adams, I am happy to see you.’” Adams presented him with a letter from the U.S. government. “The Prince took the Letter, and without opening it, delivered it immediately to Lord Castlereagh.” The Prince Regent asked about the elder John Adams as well as John Quincy’s impressions of Ghent. Castlereagh tactfully drew the conversation to a close, and they withdrew from the chamber. Adams was then introduced to the Duke of Clarence—the future William IV—making that two future kings in one levee.

But it was not kings he needed, it was the Queen. Nearly five months later, John Quincy and his wife Louisa were still waiting for an audience. On 26 October, Adams knocked flat with a painful inflammation in his eye, Queen Charlotte finally held a drawing room. Adams had to beg out due to his infirmity.

At the close of 1815 and the start of the new year, John Quincy was still waiting for an audience. On 31 January 1816, Adams heard that Charlotte was in London, “but not for the transaction of business.” His hopes were raised on 1 March when the newspapers announced that the Queen would hold a drawing room within the week. John Quincy immediately reached out to Lord Castlereagh, seeking an introduction for himself and for Louisa to Her Majesty. Castlereagh dashed his hopes, revealing that the announcement was mere gossip. To add insult to injury, later that week John Quincy was passed on the road by Queen Charlotte on her way back from Windsor.

Two weeks later, the happy news finally arrived: “The Queen will hold a Drawing-Room, next Thursday, the 21st. at 2. O’Clock at Buckingham House.” Preparation began immediately.

Early in the morning on 21 March, John Quincy and Louisa traveled to London to dress for their presentation. There was one final hitch. John Quincy discovered his audience was scheduled after the drawing room, meaning he could not attend with his wife. “Mrs: Adams would have been obliged to go alone, would be a stranger there,” Adams recorded in his diary. “I concluded to go with her and wait.”

John Quincy waited downstairs for more than two hours. “While I was there, the Duke and Duchess of York, passed through it, going by a private passage, to the drawing-room, and the Duke of Sussex, and the Duke and Princess Sophia of Gloucester, in coming from it. The Duke of Sussex stopped and spoke to me.” Adams had heard positive things about Sussex and was favorably impressed, even sharing a laugh with the Queen’s sixth son.

Queen Charlotte, by Samuel William Reynolds, after Henry Edridge. National Portrait Gallery, London

Finally Adams’s moment had come. “The Queen was standing about the middle of the Chamber. Just behind her at her right hand stood the Princess Augusta, at her left the Princess Mary—further back several Ladies in waiting, and the Duke of Kent in Military Uniform.” Adams performed his prepared speech. Charlotte asked after John Quincy’s health, and ever the keen botanist, inquired about the climate of the United States. “She asked me whether I was related to the Mr Adams who had been formerly the Minister to this Country, and appeared surprized when I answered that I was his Son,” Adams wrote. “She forgot that I had given her the same answer to the same question twenty years ago; and had apparently no recollection that I had ever been presented to her before.”

The introduction made, Adams could perform his diplomatic duties unhindered. He immediately visited the residences of the Duke of York, the Duke of Cumberland, the Duke of Gloucester, and the Duke of Clarence. He routed his carriage past Kensington Palace so he could also call at the apartments of the Duke of Kent and of the Duke of Sussex.

A few weeks later, on 4 April, John Quincy was able to attend his first drawing room. “The forms of this presentation are different from those of the Circles on the Continent,” Adams noted. “The Queen does not go round the Circle. She takes a stand, before a Sopha— The persons attending the Drawing Room, go in from the adjoining Hall; go up to her and are spoken to her in succession, after which they pass onto the Princesses and Princes who stand at her right hand, each of whom speaks a few words, and then the person files off by another door, and goes down Stairs to go away.”

His first drawing room done, Adams returned to his lodgings, changed out of his fancy clothes, and settled down to something much more to his taste—a stack of Boston newspapers.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding of the edition is currently provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute.

Louisa Catherine Adams: “I was a Mother ”

By Sara Martin, Editor in Chief, The Adams Papers

On 8 July 1801 Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams stepped aboard the ship America in Hamburg. She was ill, worried for the son she birthed less than three months earlier, and sailing toward an America she knew only as “the land of my Fathers.” Volumes 15 and 16 of the Adams Family Correspondence, two forthcoming volumes in the Adams Papers series, chronicle the exciting and daunting changes in Louisa’s life during the first decade of the nineteenth century. She met the Adams family in the United States, carved a place for herself and her husband, John Quincy Adams, in Washington society, and most importantly embraced motherhood.

Miniature portrait of Louisa Catherine Johnson
Louisa Catherine Johnson,
miniature, circa 1792

The daughter of an American father, Joshua Johnson, and English mother, Catherine Nuth Johnson, Louisa was born in London on 12 February 1775. She received her education in France, after her family fled to Nantes during the American Revolution. Returning to London after the war, Joshua Johnson became the U.S. consul at London in 1790, and the Johnson household served as a center for Americans in the British capital. When John Quincy Adams arrived in bustling city in late 1795, he was welcomed into the Johnson home and found the three eldest Johnson “daughters pretty and agreeable.” Louisa captivated his particular focus, and the couple was engaged before John Quincy returned to his diplomatic post at The Hague in late May 1796. More than thirty letters exchanged during their courtship are included in volumes 11 and 12 of the Adams Family Correspondence and are available online through the Adams Papers Digital Edition.

Following the couple’s July 1797 marriage, they moved to Berlin, where John Quincy spent more than three years as the U.S. minister to Prussia. The young diplomat successfully negotiated a new treaty with Prussia but found many of his other duties onerous. Neither he nor Louisa relished the constant whirl of Berlin’s lavish court life, and they escaped the capital when they could, enjoying trips to Dresden and Töplitz and making an extensive tour of Silesia. Louisa’s health in this period was precarious. She experienced several miscarriages before the birth of the couple’s first child, a son named George Washington Adams, in April 1801. “I was a Mother—God had heard my prayer,” Louisa recalled in her autobiography years later.

So it was with a great deal of trepidation that Louisa boarded the America for America in July 1801. After “Sixty long and wearisome days” the family arrived in Philadelphia that September. Louisa spent several weeks visiting her family in Washington, D.C., before traveling to Quincy to meet her in-laws. “Quincy! What shall I say of my impressions of Quincy,” Louisa recalled of her introduction into the Adamses’ community. “Had I steped into Noah’s Ark I do not think I could have been more utterly astonished.” With her cosmopolitan upbringing in Europe, Quincy society seemed foreign. She often felt herself on the outside, looking in.

With John Quincy’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1803, Louisa returned to Washington, a city she found charming on her first arrival in 1801: “I am quite delighted with the situation of this place and I think should it ever be finished it will be one of the most beautiful spots in the world.” The close proximity to her family held great appeal, and she remained in the capital during the 1804 recess, while John Quincy visited his parents in Massachusetts. The situation was reversed in 1806 and 1807, when Louisa stayed in Boston while John Quincy returned to his post in the capital.

Louisa’s frequent letters during these periods of separation discuss a wide range of activities, from what she was reading and who she was visiting to what was going on in Congress and Washington society or locally in Massachusetts. Tender moments between husband and wife are joined by periods of miscommunication and disagreement. But much of Louisa’s letters are filled with commentary about their children, for they welcomed a second son, John Adams, in July 1803, and then another, Charles Francis Adams, in August 1807.

Letter from Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams
Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams, 9 July 1804

“I feel oppressed with such a heavy weight of care when I look at our lovely children separated as I am from you my life is a scene of continual anxiety,” Louisa wrote on 9 July 1804. “You know how fondly I doat on my Children you may therefore rest assured they shall be watched with the fondest care and every thing that is possible for a mother to do shall be done to promote their welfare during your absence.” Much of Louisa’s anxiety pertained to the children’s health. In a 4 October 1801 letter she noted a “terrible eruption” on George’s skin but was relieved when it “proved to be nothing more than bug bites.” She also commented on common illnesses from teething and seasonal complaints, along with the challenges in getting the children inoculated.

Louisa was delighted—and occasionally exasperated—by her sons’ antics. “George . . . says you are very naughty to go away and leave him he does teaze me so when I write I scarcely know what I am doing,” she wrote on 20 May 1804. And in January 1807 she reported that while John eagerly anticipated the return of his “very good Papa” it had “been impossible to prevail on him to go to school.” George, on the other hand, boasted that he “believed he was too clever” for his schoolmaster.

Letter from Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams
Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams, 21 January 1807

As the first decade of the nineteenth century drew to a close, Louisa returned to Europe with John Quincy. With her children always centermost in her thoughts, this time she looked longingly back toward Massachusetts, where she left her two oldest children under the care of the Adamses . But that is a story for a later Adams Papers volume.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

Nabby and John Quincy Adams: Life Strangers

by Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Three days before her second birthday, Abigail Adams 2d, or “Nabby,” received the perfect birthday present—a little brother named John Quincy. As she remembered it, the love was instant, and history is on her side. The first mention of John Quincy Adams in the Adams Family Papers is an account given by Abigail of a two-year-old Nabby rocking a two-month-old JQA to sleep, singing, “Come pappa come home to Brother Johnny.”

During the next decade the siblings lost two little sisters, gained two brothers, and lost their father to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Yet, in the midst of revolution and war, they still found time to be children—trading books, going fishing and ice skating, taking long walks, and gossiping about their cousins. Then in February 1778 their father was sent to Paris, and he decided to take ten-year-old John Quincy with him.

Over the next six years, Nabby felt the loss of John Quincy’s company severely. Nabby wrote to her brother, “I cannot bear the idea of growing into life strangers to each other,” adding, “Indeed, it sometimes seems to me as if you were lost.” To her cousin Elizabeth Cranch, Nabby admitted, “I do not talk upon the subject, but there is not a day passes over my Life but this subject occupys my thoughts, and disbelieve it if you please, I can seldom reflect upon it without tears.”

Abigail Adams Smith
Miniature of Abigail Adams Smith

After years of waiting, Nabby and her mother set sail for London to reunite with John Quincy. On 30 July 1784, nineteen-year-old Nabby was in the middle of a letter to her cousin when she wrote, “This moment a servant tells me that my Brother has arrived and has stoped at the next house to dress. Why has he done this. He knowns not the impatience of his sister.” Abigail later related: “His sister he says he should have known in any part of the World,” and added, “Were I not their Mother, I would Say a likelier pair you will seldom see in a summers day.”

Less than a year later, JQA had to return to the United States to prepare for Harvard. Nabby lamented, “He is gone—alas to my sorrow—for I lost in him all the Companion that I had—and it is not possible his place should be supplyd.”

Determined to be “life strangers” no more, John Quincy and Nabby kept up their correspondence, writing uncommonly long letters to each other in which they covered all topics—particularly gossiping about the people with whom they came into contact, royalty included. Nabby and John Quincy shared a somewhat snarky sense of humor, and their letters were considered too candid even for John and Abigail’s eyes. Abigail wrote to her son, “Your Sister has written you so many pages that I suppose she has not left me any thing material to write to you but. . .I am very rarely honourd with a sight of any of them.”

Nabby told JQA of her daydream that she would settle in New York near her husband’s family “and have you one of these Days come as a Member from the Massachusetts to Congress. We should be quite at home again.”

A shifting capital dashed Nabby’s daydream, but John Quincy and Nabby never became strangers again. JQA was a devoted uncle to Nabby’s children, and Nabby nursed John Quincy’s wife through bouts of illness and difficult childbirths.

Their 46-year friendship confirmed Nabby’s prediction that she made in the same letter where she fretted they were becoming strangers: “There is no higher pleasure, no greater happiness, than a family bound by the ties of love, and cemented by the bonds of affection, where each for the other feels more than for himself, and where the chief end and aim is to render each other happy: this I wish may be our situation; it will; and the advantages arising will be mutual.”

“How are your nice Feelings affected by the Times?”

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

The news is scary. In the midst of global pandemic, an economic crisis, and nightly images of police brutality, we keep hearing the same question over and over: What do I tell my children?

This is not a new question. Every time John Adams sat at his writing desk in Philadelphia, quill in hand, he contemplated what to say to his “little flock.” He knew they had the violence of war on their doorstep, and the smallpox virus was creeping ever closer. “My Anxiety about you and the Children, as well as our Country, has been extreme,” he confided to Abigail on 24 July 1775.

John recognized that his children were exceptionally lucky to have a mother like Abigail to explain, care, and console, but he was still their father. In his letter to Abigail of 2 June 1775, John wrote, “My Dear Nabby, and Johnny and Charley & Tommy are never out of my Thoughts.”

letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 2 June 1775.

Adams encouraged his children to communicate with him, telling them he longed “to share with your Mamma the Pleasures of your Conversation.” Sometimes he invited the children to lead the conversation and tell him what they were experiencing. On 17 March 1777, he asked his son Charles, “What Subject do your Thoughts run upon these Times. You are a thoughtfull Child you know, always meditating upon some deep Thing or other. Your Sensibility is exquisite too. Pray how are your nice Feelings affected by the Times?”

John also reminded his children that God was watching over them, and that they could trust Abigail to keep them safe. “I hope you and your Sister and Brothers will take proper Notice of these great Events, and remember under whose wise and kind Providence they are all conducted. Not a Sparrow falls, nor a Hair is lost, but by the Direction of infinite Wisdom. Much less are Cities conquered and evacuated,” he wrote to John Quincy on 18 April 1776. For the baby, Tommy, John simply wrote, “Be always dutifull and obedient to your Mamma.”

John Adams encouraged conviction and virtue in his elder children, writing John Quincy what books to pull out of the family library to prepare for a life of public service and responsible citizenship. “Public Virtues,” he wrote to Abigail on 29 Oct. 1775, “and political Qualities therefore should be incessantly cherished in our Children.” For Tommy, who was too young to understand what was happening, John focused on love and play. “Tell Tom, I would give a Guinea to have him climb upon my shoulder, and another to chase him into his Jail.”

Letter from John Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 29 Oct. 1775

John Adams, like every parent, had many anxieties and aspirations for his children. He urged Abigail to “elevate the Minds of our Children and exalt their Courage; to accelerate and animate their Industry & activity— to excite in them an habitual Contempt of Meanness, abhorrence of Injustice and Inhumanity, and an ambition to excell in every Capacity, Faculty, and Virtue.”

To his daughter, Nabby, Adams provided his most succinct advice for navigating tumultuous times: “To be good, and to do good, is all We have to do.”

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

“Pockey Companions”: Getting Inoculated in the 18th Century

by Dr. Talya Housman, Threadable Books

“I intend next week (Thursday) to be inoculated by Doctr. Joseph Gardner at Point Shirley…it would be a singular pleasure to me if you and I could be pockey Companions.”[1]

– Jonathan Sewall to John Adams, 15 February 1764.

We don’t have a response from Adams to his good friend Sewall’s offer to get inoculated together, but Adams did get inoculated against smallpox in April of 1764. What did the process of getting inoculated look like in 1764?

Adams’s inoculation did not look so different from our shots at the doctor’s office today. He described the process in a letter to Abigail: “Dr. Perkins demanded my left Arm and Dr. Warren my Brothers. They took their Launcetts and with their Points divided the skin for about a Quarter of an Inch and just suffering the Blood to appear, buried a Thread about  a Quarter of an Inch long in the Channell. A little Lint was then laid over the scratch and a Piece of a Ragg pressed on, and then a Bandage bound over all.”[2]

Following the procedure, the patients would carefully monitor their symptoms to see if and how they developed smallpox. After five days of watching, Adams updated Abigail: “We have compleated five days, and entered two Hours on the sixth, since Innoculation, and have as yet felt no Pains, nor Languors from Pox or Medicine, worth mentioning. Indeed what the others have suffered is a mere Trifle.”[3]

However, only eight days later Adams explained that he had not written to Abigail for the last eight days due to “an Absolute Fear to send a Paper from this House, so much infected as it is, to any Person lyable to take the Distemper but especially to you.” Not only was Adams infected himself, but “every Room in the House, has infected People in it, so … there is real Danger, in Writing.”[4] Adams’s fear of sending mail might ring familiar to many of us frantically researching how long Coronavirus lives on paper vs. cardboard vs. plastic to see when we can interact with our mail, packages, and groceries.

Another familiar concern is infecting loved ones. “For all the Mountains of Peru or Mexico I would not,” Adams wrote to Abigail, “that this Letter or any other Instrument should convey the Infection to you at unawares.”[5]

John Adams letter
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Smith, 26 April 1764

Thankfully Adams developed, by both his own account and those of others, a light case which earned him immunity without too much pain.[6] He recovered quickly and returned to Braintree in early May. Abigail had missed Adams terribly. On hearing the news of Adams returning to Braintree, Abigail, then in Weymouth, wrote “Welcome, Welcome thrice welcome is Lysander [her nickname for Adams] to Braintree, but ten times more so would he be at Weymouth, whither you are afraid to come.—Once it was not so. May not I come and see you, at least look thro a window at you?”[7] Abigail’s desire to see Adams through a window mirrors the news stories of cranes raising people to look in on their loved ones at nursing homes and friends parking in cars next to each other to talk through their windows.

It’s been over 250 years since John Adams was inoculated against smallpox during the outbreak of 1764. Today we are faced not with smallpox, but with coronavirus. We do not yet have a vaccine, but we, like Abigail, miss our loved ones. We, like John Adams, fear passing contagion to our loved ones. We find ways to respond to crisis and disease that are not only despair, resourcefulness, and charity, but also, like Jonathan Sewall’s offer of “pockey companionship,” wit, camaraderie, and a bit of snark.

Dr. Housman’s first book project uses digital tools to explore sexual crime in seventeenth century England. She has written on numerous historical topics including slavery, suffrage, religious freedom, industrialization, charitable giving, and pandemics for various public history organizations. 

[1] Jonathan Sewall to John Adams, 15 February 1764 in Papers of John Adams, Vol. 1. [link]

[2] John Adams to Abigail Smith, 13 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

[3] John Adams to Abigail Smith, 18 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

[4] John Adams to Abigail Smith, 26 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

[5] John Adams to Abigail Smith, 26 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

[6] John Adams to Abigail Smith, 26 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1; Cotton Tufts to Abigail Smith, 19? April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

[7] Abigail Smith to John Adams, 9 May 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

Living in an Epidemic: What Did Abigail Do?

by Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Abigail Adams knew what to do. Whether her correspondent was nursing a broken heart or a broken arm, Abigail had the cure. She penned thousands of letters throughout her life offering advice on matters spiritual, botanical, financial, medical, and political.

But what would Abigail Adams do in the midst of a pandemic? Fortunately, with the trove of letters Abigail left us from the 1776 smallpox epidemic, the question is not “What would Abigail do?” but rather “What did Abigail do?”

First, Abigail kept herself informed and was proactive. Abigail had already lived through a smallpox epidemic in 1764 and knew the importance of staying ahead of the disease. On 17 June 1776, she wrote to John that inoculation was beginning. “Dr. Bulfinch has petitiond the General Court for leave to open a Hospital some where, and it will be granted him. I shall with all the children be one of the first class you may depend upon it.”

Letter written by Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 29 July 1776

Second, Abigail heeded the advice of medical professionals. Doctors encouraged patients to remain in peak physical form to fight the disease. “We are ordered all the Air we can get,” Abigail wrote on 29 July. “[We] abstain from Spirit, Salt and fats, fruit we Eat, all we can get, and those who like vegetables unseasond may Eat them, but that is not I.” In the same letter, Abigail lamented that their isolation was extended several weeks by the doctor’s uncertainty that the inoculation took with each child, but she trusted his judgment. “This doubtfull Buisness is very dissagreable as it will detain us much longer, but there are several instances now of persons who thought they had had it, and were recoverd, and lived away freely, and now are plentifully dealt by.”

Third, Abigail sought solace when the stress got to be too much. This solace mainly came in the form of candid letters to her husband. “This Suspence is painfull,” she wrote on 30 July. “Tis a pestilence that walketh in Darkness.” She was homesick and stir-crazy and longed “for the sweet air of Braintree.” On 1 August, she acknowledged that “I forget one day what I wrote the day before. This small pox is a great confuser of the mind, I am really put to it to spell the commonest words.”

Letter written by John Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 10 Aug. 1776

John empathized, writing on 23 July, “You will find several dull Hours, and the Children will fatigue you.” On 10 August, he wrote, “This Suspence and Uncertainty must be very irksome to you. But Patience and Perseverance, will overcome this, as well as all other Difficulties. Dont think of Time, nor Expence.”

Abigail kept herself informed, was proactive, and monitored her physical and mental health. But above all, Abigail wrote. During the two months that Abigail and the children were isolated with smallpox, Abigail wrote more than 15 letters to John detailing their experience. “I believe you will be tired of hearing of small pox,” Abigail wrote to John on 29 July. She filled page after page with information not only about herself, but about their neighbors, their servants, and what information she received from the outside world.

Because of Abigail, we can feel and know what it was like to live through the smallpox epidemic in 1776. The MHS invites you to bear witness to history the same way Abigail did. Tell us about your experience living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Historians of the future will thank you. Someday someone might even write a blog post about you.

“Planted by my hand”: John Quincy Adams, Arborist

by Neal Millikan, Adams Papers

Today, 22 April, is Earth Day, and in honor of this event, we will explore John Quincy Adams’s post-presidential stint as a horticulturalist. When Adams left the White House in March 1829, he believed he would spend the rest of his life in idle retirement at Peacefield, the family home in Quincy, Mass. By November, Adams worried in his diary that “my occupations are engrossed for transitory purposes . . . I am losing day after day without atchieving any thing.” The following summer he sought to remedy this situation by establishing an “orchard” or “plantation,” and by 17 June 1830, Adams’s diary noted that he had planted walnuts, oaks, chestnuts, elms, and a variety of “fruit-trees” including peaches, apples, plums, and apricots, “which I have attempted to raise from the stone and seed.”

John Quincy Adams relished the work outdoors. His diary entry for 4 August revealed his devotion to this task: “Every plant that I raise from the seed takes hold of my affections; and when it perishes by a stroke of the Sun . . . or a voracious insect, I feel a disappointed hope.” Like today’s gardener, he battled pests invading his plants; Adams noted in his diary that he was plagued with “Wasps, flies, black ants, Squash bugs, Turnep worms, and insects numberless.”

Double-Blossom Peach” by A. S. Adams
Watercolor drawing of a “Double-Blossom Peach” by A. S. Adams, April 3, 1828. Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society

Adams became fascinated with studying the development of his seedlings. He recorded in his diary on 15 October: “The more time and toil I spend upon this Nursery, the more it takes possession of me.” In that diary entry he also summarized his gardening activities over the previous months: “I have passed nearly two hours of every fair day in the Nursery— Have dug, and manured and planted with my own hands, in the hope of having the next Spring and Summer a thick and various crop of fruit and forest trees to observe and preserve so far as may be found practicable.” While John Quincy realized many of his seedlings would perish, “if I can save and raise even one in a hundred of them, my labour will not be lost.”

By November, John Quincy Adams had finished setting out his plantings for the season and wrote in his diary on the 27th about his future expectations for his endeavors, hopeful that “in the twentieth century . . . my Grand-children may live to see, an Apple-tree from a seed planted by my hand.” Adams was proud that his land in Quincy was “now pregnant with at least ten thousand seeds of fruit and forest . . . and in a century from this day may bear timber for the floating Castles of my Country, and fruit for the subsistence health and comfort of my descendants.”

Valentine’s Day the Adams Way

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

This is your official warning—Valentine’s Day is just over two weeks away. Maybe you’re in charge of planning festivities; maybe you’re looking for a subtle way to remind the person who is in charge. Either way, read on.

If there’s one thing my time with the Adams Papers editorial project has taught me, it’s that the answers to all of life’s questions can be found within the collection. Since the project contains three central power couples—John and Abigail, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine, and Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks—I knew the outline of a perfect Valentine’s Day date was scattered across those quarter of a million manuscript pages.

John and Abigail liked nothing more than to sit together by a crackling fire, languorously paging through the newest additions to their ever-growing private library. “I read my Eyes out, and cant read half enough neither,” John wrote to his like-minded wife on 28 Dec. 1794. “The more one reads the more one sees We have to read.” John and Abigail’s letters are full of quotes and beloved bon mots, and they would swap book recommendations, yearning to hear the other’s opinion. If you and your partner are all about that hygge lifestyle, swap books, get a fire roaring, put your feet up, and sink into a soft chair. Let others fight for those hard-to-get dinner reservations. (Bonus points if you indulge in another of John and Abigail’s favorite things: hot chocolate!)

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 28 Dec. 1794

John Quincy and Louisa Catherine shared an affection for music. Louisa was a harpist and singer, and John Quincy played the flute. John Quincy’s first impressions of Louisa were of her musical ability, as she always sang and played for him when he visited her family in London. “Memory often repeats to my Fancy, every strain which was once performed by you; it gives an Echo still returning to my ear, to every sound uttered by your voice, or called forth by your fingers,” John Quincy wrote to her on 6 March 1797. Valentine’s Day is the perfect excuse to get dolled up and take the music lover in your life to a symphony, choral concert, or opera.

Photograph of Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks Adams
Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks Adams, 1883. Photograph by Marian Hooper Adams

Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks were collectors by nature. Their free time was filled with antiques shopping, and Charles was a regular at auctions. Charles collected rare coins, and Abby was delighted by knick-knacks of all kinds. They enjoyed traveling together, taking in landscapes, wandering through art galleries, and tasting local cuisine. “My Wife went in to make her purchases at the shop, the usual tax for curiosity in travelling,” Charles Francis recorded in his diary on 19 July 1836. If you and your date are always up for a daytrip, why not spend your Valentine’s Day as tourists, exploring boutiques and gift shops somewhere new?

It doesn’t matter how you celebrate this February 14th so long as you spend the day with your Dearest Friend.

John and Abigail Adams’s customary salutation
John and Abigail Adams’s customary salutation.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

“A worm preying upon the vitals of the Administration”: John Quincy Adams on William Harris Crawford

By Neal Millikan, Series Editor, Digital Editions

During President James Monroe’s administrations, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) served alongside Secretary of the Treasury William Harris Crawford (1772–1834), one of the men against whom he would vie for the presidency in the election of 1824. Adams’s Diary offers his private musings on and feelings toward his fellow cabinet member and political opponent; it also gives tantalizing glimpses of Adams’s deteriorating opinion of Crawford.

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams engraving by Francis Kearney, circa 1824

On February 3, 1819, Adams recorded in his Diary his current view of the treasury secretary: “Crawford is not a worse man, than the usual herd of ambitious intriguers. Perhaps not so bad as many of them— I do not think him entirely unprincipled; but his ambition swallows up his principle.” However, two years later in his entry for March 3, 1821, Adams’s tone was far more cynical: “Crawford has been a worm preying upon the vitals of the Administration within its own body.” Adams also noted “the emptiness of the Treasury, and Crawford’s utter inability to devise any other source of Revenue but loan upon loan.”

Engraving of William Harris Crawford
William Harris Crawford engraving by S. H. Gimber, no date

Like Adams, Crawford sought to attain the presidency in the 1824 election, but a stroke in the fall of 1823 kept him out of politics for several months. Adams was elected president in February 1825 and subsequently offered the treasury secretary the opportunity to remain in his cabinet position, but Crawford declined. On December 14, President Adams learned a shocking piece of information about Crawford, which he recorded in his Diary. According to a clerk in the Treasury Department, “all personal communication between Mr Monroe and Mr Crawford had ceased” toward the end of Monroe’s presidency. Curious as to the cause of this breach, Adams asked his secretary of the Navy, Samuel Southard, “if this fact had been known to him.” Southard, who had visited the White House shortly after the argument occurred, stated that he “found Mr Monroe walking to and fro across the room in great agitation.” Crawford had recommended certain customs officials for office to whom Monroe objected. Crawford then “said petulantly; well—if you will not appoint the persons well qualified for the places, tell me whom you will appoint; that I may get rid of their importunities.” Monroe then “replied with great warmth; saying that he considered Crawford’s language as extremely improper, and unsuitable to the relations between them.” At this point, Crawford “raised his Cane, as in the attitude to strike, and said ‘you damned infernal old Scoundrel’— Mr Monroe seized the tongs at the fire-place for self-defence; applied a retaliatory epithet to Crawford and told him he would . . . turn him out of the house.” Adams then told Southard: “if I had known it at the time, I should not have invited Mr Crawford to remain in the Treasury Department.”