The Double Life of James Wilkinson

By Sarah Hume, Editorial Assistant 

In 1797, a Kentucky merchant named Elijah Waters came forward with an important, yet extreme, claim: Gen. James Wilkinson, second in command in the Northwest Territory, was a spy. He was trading secrets to Spain.

Waters wasn’t the only one to make such allegations. For years, rumors had circulated about Wilkinson’s connection to Spain. Even Gen. Anthony Wayne, his commanding officer, accused Wilkinson of spying and led an investigation against him. Allegations were so widespread that John Adams wrote, “scarcely any Man arrives from that neighbourhood, who does not bring the report along with him.” (John Adams to James Wilkinson, 4 February 1798).

When General Wayne died on 15 December 1796, it seemed time for Wilkinson to escape suspicion. And yet rumors of treason continued and Wilkinson refused to lay low. Instead, he asked John Adams to continue the investigation.

“Prosecution is in the grave with General Wayne,” Wilkinson wrote in his 26 December 1797 letter, “but the Door is still open to investigation, & I most earnestly wish an enquiry into my Conduct Military & political, indeed the vindication of my own aspersed reputation.”

An excerpt from James Wilkinson’s letter to John Adams, 26 December 1797. The Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Adams replied to Wilkinson on 4 February 1798, saying he did not believe either Waters’s claim or other allegations.

“We may be nearer than we suspect to another tryal of our Spirits; I doubt not yours will be found faithful,” Adams wrote. “I shall give no Countenance to any Imputations unless accusations should come, and then you will have Room to justify yourself; But I assure you I do not Expect that any Charge will be seriously made.”

Wilkinson never received an indictment from Adams. He went on to be trusted by the next two presidential administrations and died in 1825 having never been confirmed a spy. Only later would historians uncover his treasonous activities.

Like much of Adams’s correspondence in the Papers of John Adams, this brief exchange captures a moment of dangerous precipice. Had Wilkinson been more successful, he may have forever changed the American narrative. Exchanges between Wilkinson and Adams highlight the advantage we have as scholars: we know the end of the story. Reading correspondence allows us to see from an eighteenth-century vantage point instead. And though Elijah Waters may be only a passing reference in correspondence, history ultimately proves him right in the case of General James Wilkinson.

The correspondence between James Wilkinson and President John Adams will be included in the forthcoming volume 22 of the Papers of John Adams to be published Fall 2024.

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

The Petition, Part I

By Miriam Liebman, Adams Papers

For the upcoming Papers of John Adams, vol. 24, I have been working to identify a group of women who sent Pres. John Adams a petition in 1799 or 1800 (the exact date still needs to be further researched; maybe I will discuss the process of redating documents in a future post!). These 72 women wrote this petition on behalf of men charged with crimes of “sedition and misdemeanors” for their participation in Fries’ Rebellion in March 1799. The rebellion started in resistance to a new federal tax law and other federal laws including the Alien and Sedition Acts. If you are interested in reading the whole petition alongside the women’s signatures, it is available on the American Philosophical Society’s website. The women wrote as “mothers and wives petitioning for fathers for husbands and for children” acknowledging that while it was uncommon for women to send such a political petition in their position as mothers and as wives they were not “overstepping” their role. In many ways, they embodied the ideal of Republican Motherhood, which you can read more about in my last blog post.

While the petition does not contain the names of the men, we do learn that these women wrote on behalf of more than thirty men imprisoned in the “Gaol of Philadelphia.” General William MacPherson who led the federal forces against the rebellion returned to Philadelphia with 31 prisoners, who were potentially the subjects of this petition.[i] The text of the petition says that they included a list of the prisoners and their punishments, but that document did not seem to survive. They asked John Adams to pardon the prisoners for their crimes, sentences, and fines.

This document is unique in that it is signed by over seventy women, whose names often do not make the history books. Over the past few months, I have started the process of identifying these women and what brought them together to write and sign this petition.

Searching for these women in traditional sources has proved challenging for a number of reasons. First, women’s names were often not recorded in censuses or city directories in the late eighteenth century, unless they were widows. Second, for birth and death records, I need to account for whether the women were married or single at the time they signed this petition. Most married women changed their last name when they got married. My strategy has been to start with the more unique names since I have a greater chance of identifying them.

For example, one of the petitioners signed her name “E. Vredenburgh.” While she did not provide her first name, her last name seemed unique enough that a limited number of results would appear when searching her name. I first searched the Philadelphia Directory for both 1799 and 1800. While she did not appear in either directory, someone named Isaac Vredenburgh was listed at 74 Market Street. I then searched newspapers to see if she was mentioned anywhere. There was an advertisement in the Philadelphia Dunlap’s Daily Advertiser, 19 September 1795, announcing that she was moving her shop from one address to 74 Market Street and provided her first name, Esther. Now that I had her first name, I turned to to see if I could find out more about her. Isaac Vredenburgh’s will, which was on the website, listed Esther as his wife. I was also able to locate her grave on and found out she died on 25 July 1810. These are some of the most helpful sources when trying to confirm the identity of these women. I am still trying to figure out how this petition came to be and how it brought this group of women together.

 As I was finishing up this blog post, I came across another blog post from the American Philosophical Society on this petition and their journey identifying these women. Hopefully between these two projects, we will successfully be able to identify all 72 women and give them their place in the history books.

I hope to update you all here in a few months where my research has taken me and how much more I have learned about these women.

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.

[i]Newman, Paul Douglas, “The Federalists’ Cold War: The Fries Rebellion, National Security, and the State, 1787–1800,” Pennsylvania History 67 (Winter 2000), p. 29.

The Dark Side of Republican Motherhood

By Miriam Liebman, Adams Papers

In the period following the American Revolution, Republican Motherhood, or the civic virtue of raising good republican children to serve the new nation as engaged citizens, defined many American women’s roles in the early United States. During his presidency, John Adams received several letters from women embodying this role. While most historians of Republican Motherhood focus on the positive side to that role, the letters to John Adams highlight both a darker side and more complex understanding of this concept: mothers willing to sacrifice their children for the future of the nation.

In one such letter on 11 August 1798, Abigail Cunningham, of Lunenburg, Massachusetts, used examples from both Ancient Greece and the Bible to describe the sacrifice she would make as a mother for her beloved nation. As a mother, she raised her sons to go to the front lines explaining, “if they ware Calld to Action, in defence of their Country, to Count not their Lives Dear in Defience of Foreign influence, and Defence of their Countrys Cause.” And if they were to die fighting for the United States, she would respond like mothers in Ancient Sparta, “who suspended their Lamentations for the Loss their sons, or Husbands till thay examined their clothing, to see wheither the shot went in Behind or Before,” to learn whether they died fighting or retreating. She also proposed responding like Abraham in the Bible, “who Led his Beloved son to the Alter,” calmly and with composure.

Other women took a different approach from Abigail Cunningham. In the summer of 1798, Judith Sargent Murray, author and advocate for women’s rights, wrote to John Adams seeking a position in a government post for her nephew. For Murray, raising virtuous citizens meant actively participating in the government. In the early United States, elite women often wrote with patronage requests for their male relatives. Writing her nephew’s praises, she described him as having “attachment to regularity, good order, the laws and constitution of the United States is unequivocal.” It was also a way to have a steady career. While Murray wrote the letter with this patronage request, she left it to her husband to follow up when he planned to visit John Adams in a few days’ time. She wrote again in March 1799 to inquire further into her request for her nephew that she made the previous summer.

Some women wrote letters advocating on their own behalf and seeking a better life for themselves. For example, Adams also received a letter from Isabella McIntire seeking financial relief. She wrote, “the persuasion I have of your goodness and humanity has tempted me to apply to for a little assistance a Few Dollors will be a relief to a truely distressed Female.”

An excerpt from Margaret Smith’s letter to John Adams, 25 April 1799. The Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

From the opposite perspective, Margaret Smith of Kentucky, a widow, writing on 25 April 1799, decried President Adams’s desire to have a standing army. For her, a standing army was the opposite of republicanism. She called on him to join with her and others for “peace and good order and pray for the anihilation of the army that is already raised and that a stop may be put to such daring encroachments on the liberties of the people.” Her husband died fighting in the American Revolution. For her, raising her children to live as good, stable citizens who could provide for themselves was her version of being a good republican mother. She explained that her greatest wish for her children was that “they live vïrtuous eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of their own labor.” In her eyes, the only reason to have a standing army was for instituting an authoritarian government. She also decried the Jay Treaty with Great Britain and believed many who fought in the American Revolution on the side of the patriots have since become corrupted. She even planned to publish this letter to John Adams in the local newspaper if she did not hear from him by 1 August. The Kentucky Gazette does not appear to have published this letter. It is possible that Smith did not go through with her threat or that John Adams responded to her letter.

Among the many letters John Adams received over the course of his presidency, these are a few from women advocating for their visions, hopes, and wants for the new United States adding to our understanding of women’s experiences in the late 18th-century United States.

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.

Dickens the “literary Monster” comes to D.C.

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

In 1842, just shy of his thirtieth birthday, Charles Dickens undertook his first tour of America. He and his wife, Catherine, arrived in Boston in January. “I can give you no conception of my welcome here,” Dickens wrote on 31 January. “There never was a King or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by crowds, and entertained in Public at splendid balls and dinners, and waited on by public bodies and deputations of all kinds. . . . If I go out in a carriage, the crowd surround it and escort me home.”

Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams, concurred with Dickens’s summary, writing from Boston to his mother in D.C., “Society here is in a state of ferment at the appearance of Mr Dickens the celebrated Boz. He is lionized at a rate beyond the imagination of a moderate man to conceive.” Though his wife and children were ardent fans, Charles admitted, “I did not know before that Mr Dickens was so great a man but that is my fault in not keeping pace with the age.” He teasingly warned his parents to brace for impact because the whirlwind of Dickens was headed to Washington. (John Quincy seemed to do just that, cramming in a last-minute reading of The Pickwick Papers.)

Catherine Dickens, c. 1848 (NPG D35175)

Dickens stopped at New York City on his way south, where he made the acquaintance of prominent businessman (and host of the Knickerbocker group) Charles Augustus Davis. Davis enjoyed a twenty-year acquaintanceship with John Quincy Adams, and, at Dickens’s urging, he immediately set about laying the groundwork for an introduction.

Davis sent a flurry of letters to the Adams home pleading Dickens’s case: “I have seen much of him & I am charm’d with him— he is as delicate minded & pure in spirit as a Young Girl— I want him to know you & I will Esteem it a favor if you will allow me to give him a Letter to you— he will be most happy to make your personal acquaintance.” When this received no reply, he sent another, “He will take great pleasure in making your personal acquaintance and I am quite sure that you will find this pleasure mutual. for my own part I can only say that my intercourse with him is mark’d down as among the brightest & most agreable moments of my life.”

After Davis’s third imploring letter, Louisa responded that they should be glad to host Mr. Dickens and his lady.

On 10 March, his first morning in the capital, Dickens made it his mission to meet Adams. In his diary that night, Adams recorded, “Mr Charles Dickens and his wife called and left cards, and a Letter of introduction from Mr Charles A. Davis of New-York.” When Dickens found Adams was not home, he followed him to the House. “Mr Nathaniel Tallmadge one of the Senators from New-York, came into the house with Charles Dickens and called me out from my seat and introduced him to me.” The 30-year-old Dickens viewed 74-year-old Adams with a deep reverence—particularly for his abolitionist activities. In his Travels in America, Dickens not-so-subtly alludes to “An aged, grey-haired man, a lasting honour to the land that gave him birth, who has done good service to his country, as his forefathers did, and who will be remembered scores upon scores of years after the worms bred in its corruption are but so many grains of dust.”

Left: Charles Dickens, Frederic G. Kitton, 1842 (Bonhams)
Right: John Quincy Adams, Philip Haas, 1843 (National Portrait Gallery)

Louisa wrote to her daughter-in-law Abigail Brooks Adams to describe what happened next. Louisa invited the Dickenses “to take a seat in our Pew at Church and afterwards to dine with us sociably at 1/2 past 2. The invitation was declined; and I thought that I should see nothing more of the literary Monster. The day after; a Note was brought to me stating, that Mr. & Mrs. Dickens being very sorry that they were engaged out to dine; if it was agreeable to me they would come and take a Lunch at my Dinner, and thus have the honour to pay their respects to the family of Mr. Adams.”

John Quincy noted in his diary that, “They are so beset with civilities, and kind attentions, that they have not a moment of time to spare, and it was only by snatching an hour from other engagements that they could see us at all— Dickens’s fame has been acquired, by sundry novels and popular tales . . . more universally read perhaps than any other writer who ever put pen to paper— He came out in the January steamer to Boston, and his reception has transcended that of La-Fayette in 1824.”

The dinner was a success. Louisa wrote, “We had as pleasant an off hand dinner as you can well imagine— Dickens is an unpresuming lively and agreeable man, and seemed perfectly delighted with the coversation of his Host; and by the time they left us . . . you would have supposed we had been long acquainted.”

Dickens was equally impressed. To a friend in England, he wrote, “Adams is a fine old fellow—seventy-six years old, but with most surprising vigour, memory, readiness, and pluck.”

On their way out of the city, Charles and Catherine Dickens stopped to bid farewell to the Adamses. Catherine even asked John Quincy if he would write a poem for her, which he gladly did:

There is a greeting of the heart
Which words cannot reveal—
How, Lady, shall I then impart
The Sentiment I feel?

How, in one word combine the spell
Of joy and sorrow too;
And mark the bosom’s mingled swell
Of welcome!—and Adieu!

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.

Teaching the Family Tradition: George Washington Adams and John Adams II Learn to Write and Preserve Letters

By Miriam Liebman, Adams Papers

In the summer of 1809 as John Quincy Adams prepared to set sail for St. Petersburg, Russia where he would serve as U.S. minister until 1814 with his wife Louisa Catherine and their son Charles Francis, he made plans for his two older sons, George Washington Adams and John Adams II, to stay with family in Quincy, much to his wife’s protest. While John Quincy had spent brief periods away from his children when he served as a U.S. Senator for Massachusetts in Washington, D.C., this would be the longest and furthest away he would be from his two older sons.

While he was in Russia, John Quincy wrote letters to his sons, who were now eight and six years old, for the first time. Previously, he would include brief notes or pieces of advice to them in letters addressed to either his wife or parents. As with his other letters from Russia, these were long letters filled with information and advice. In the letters to his sons, he focused on their education, writing, and penmanship, all highly valued skills by the Adams family. He also reminded his sons of their place in the world. He wrote, “you should each of you, consider yourself, as placed here to act a part— That is to have some single great end or object to accomplish; towards which all the views and all the labours of your existence should steadily be directed.”

Within these letters, he explained to his sons the family mandate: writing and recording one’s correspondence. This family practice went back to when his father, John Adams, first wrote of this idea to his mother Abigail Adams, on 2 June 1776 explaining how he had not kept a record of his correspondence and now purchased a folio book to keep track of his letters. John Adams did not wait long to pass this now family tradition on to John Quincy Adams. On 27 September 1778, John Quincy, while abroad in Europe, wrote to Abigail Adams about how his father taught him this same mandate. He wrote, “My Pappa enjoins it upon me to keep a journal, or a diary, of the Events that happen to me, and of the objects I See, and of Characters that I converse with from day, to day.” As he was only eleven years old at the time, he continued, “altho I am Convinced of the utility, importance, & necessity, of this Exercise, yet I have not patience, & perseverance, enough to do it so Constantly as I ought.”

detail of a handwritten letter
John Quincy Adams’s letter to his son George Washington Adams, 3 September 1810.

John Quincy did not wait until his sons were eleven years old to teach them the family practice and used his letters to his sons from Russia to introduce them to the family mandate. John Quincy provided practical advice for how George Washington Adams should keep track of his letters, a key part to preserving and recording one’s letters. The first step, according to John Quincy, was to keep all the letters he received from his parents. As part of this step, he advised his son to follow his lead and number the letters he sends. John Quincy wrote, “I have therefore numbered this letter at the top, and will continue to number those that I shall write you hereafter— Thus you will know whether you receive all the letters that I shall write you, and when you answer them you must always tell me the number or the date of the last letter you have received from me—.” In case George Washington Adams was not sure what his father meant, John Quincy told him to ask his uncle Thomas Boylston Adams how to number them, but also how to endorse and file them. He then suggested storing them in “some safe place” so that he could read them again if he wanted.

John Quincy provided similar instructions to John Adams II. Upon receiving his first letter from his second son, John Quincy “marked it down, number one, and put it upon my file.” While not providing the same detailed instructions, which George Washington Adams likely explained to his younger brother, John Quincy did have similar expectations that his second son would write him letters demonstrating his improved penmanship. He noted that since this began their individual correspondence, he noted it as number one, and that he was “very well pleased that you have resolved to keep your own file; and hope that it will be followed by an entertaining and instructive correspondence between us.”

John Quincy Adams’s letter to his son John Adams II, 15 June 1811.

With these letters sent to his sons thousands of miles away, John Quincy began to teach the next generation of Adamses the important family tradition of writing, recording, and preserving correspondence.

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.

“Continual calms, and contrary winds”: JQA’s Tedious Transatlantic Trek

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

In the summer of 1785, John Quincy Adams was trapped on a ship slowly making its way across the too-still waters of the Atlantic. The eighteen-year-old was leaving behind Europe, his parents, and his friends, to return to Massachusetts and to his father’s alma mater, Harvard College.

Four days into his journey, on 25 May, Adams bemoaned relentless seasickness, static landscapes, and indifferent companions. “The Events that happen on board a Vessel are very seldom interesting, and the life we lead is very lazy and tiresome. Our Company on board . . . is not in general such as I should have wished.”

One of the crew, Mr. Well de Singler, was the same age as John Quincy, but friends they were not. “His manners are by no means agreeable. . . He is full of his knowledge, and does not doubt but he is the most learned man on board though the youngest. He commonly engroces the conversation wherever he is, and maintains his opinion in the most positive manner, upon any subject whatever. His principles are to fight with every body, and upon the most trivial occasions; he even gives to understand, that if opportunities fail, he takes care to create them. He pretends to be of noble birth and affects to despise every body who is not noble. In short I think it an unlucky circumstance that I am obliged to remain with him during 50 days.”

If the lack of agreeable company and interesting sights weren’t enough to make the journey feel endless, nature itself was against him. On most days the wind stood completely still and they made very little progress. When the wind did blow, it blew “directly contrary” to what the sails needed. “Our Wind has been very low for several days. 15 or 20 leagues a day is the utmost extent of our route,” Adams lamented to his diary.

Twenty-three days into the voyage, cabin fever had set in in a big way. “This forenoon,” Adams wrote, “we saw something at Sea, but we could not distinguish what. Some said it was a very large piece of wood. Others, were of opinion, that it was a boat overset. It pass’d at a small distance, and amused us for half an hour. At Sea, such is the continual sameness of the surrounding objects that the smallest trifle becomes interesting.”

Halfway through the odious odyssey, Adams and his fellow passengers had had enough of the baking sun. “We would willingly agree to have less Sun, and more wind,” he complained. “This evening, as we were near the tropic one of the officers, according to the custom universally established, of wetting all the persons on board who have not cross’d the tropic, sprinkled us with a little water.”

To break up the monotony, “one of the passengers, who is fond of such amusements; as the french in general are; returned the officer’s Compliment, with an whole bucket of water.”

detail of a handwritten letter
John Quincy Adams’s diary entry for 20 June 1785

“This was as a signal to us all,” John Quincy recorded. He and all the other passengers—scholars, physicians, merchants, and officers, Dutch, Swedish, French, and American—“immediately form’d two parties, and we were all, officers and passengers, wet from head to foot before we ended. I believe more than 200 buckets of water were spilt upon the deck in the course of the evening. One of the passengers alone receiv’d thirty buckets.”

If you think connecting with his inner child and having a water fight was out of character for John Quincy Adams…you’d be right. “Such a diversion is not very instructive nor very agreeable, but may be pass’d over for once: I hope it will not be repeated.”

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 digital publishing collaborative, the Primary Source Cooperative.

John Adams’ Secretary of War

By Rhonda Barlow, Research Associate

When John Adams became president of the United States, he inherited George Washington’s cabinet, including Secretary of War James McHenry. Adams has been criticized for not replacing immediately the inept McHenry with someone competent and loyal. But shortly after Adams took the oath of office, McHenry sent the new commander-in-chief a brief letter and a huge bundle of papers.

Handwritten letter on sepia-toned paper
James McHenry to John Adams, 13 April 1797

“Conceiving it proper that you should be informed of the arrangements, regulations and instructions, relative to the most important objects in the department of War, I have caused the same to be copied, and herewith respectfully submit them,” wrote McHenry.

On his own initiative, McHenry surveyed the holdings of his department, made judgments about what was most important, and despite the heavy workload he and his clerks faced, had copies made for John Adams.

To help the new president navigate over 150 pages of documents, McHenry included a 2-page table of contents, a handy overview listing the letters to former president George Washington; instructions and negotiations with Native Americans, including the Cherokees and the Creek Nation; information on fortifications; and regulations governing salutes. Because there was not yet a separate department for the navy, McHenry also included the status of the frigates that were being constructed at Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore, as well as that of one for the Dey of Algiers.

handwritten document
Table of Contents created by James McHenry, 1797

Although we do not have a letter John Adams wrote thanking McHenry for his industriousness, or commenting on these documents, we do know he received them, for they are part of the Adams Papers archive at the Massachusetts Historical Society. In fact, because of a disastrous fire in the offices of the War Department in 1800,  McHenry’s initiative gives historians a treasure trove of what would have otherwise been destroyed. Perhaps historians should be asking, not why didn’t John Adams replace James McHenry in 1797, but why would he?

The upcoming volumes of The Papers of John Adams are an exciting opportunity for a fresh look at the Adams Presidency.

“Some parts of the Instruction…are not the most suitable to their sex”: JQA’s Reflections on Young Noble Women’s Education in St. Petersburg

By Miriam Liebman, Adams Papers

On the morning of 21 February 1811, John Quincy Adams, Louisa Catherine Adams, and other members of the diplomatic corps in St. Petersburg attended the public examination for the young women at the Institute of the Order of St. Catherine, which was located on the Fontanka River in St. Petersburg. John Quincy recounted this event a few days later in a letter to his mother Abigail Adams on 26 February. He explained that there were four classes of students, who began their education between the ages of six and ten years old and upon completing their education, they took a public examination, which occurred over the course of two days in February every other year. For the exam, the students “dressed alike, in a plain white muslin gown, with a scarlet ribband round the waist. Those who had distinguished themselves by peculiar merit wore nosegays of lilies of the valley at the breast.—They were all extremely graceful—Some of them had fine forms; but there was scarcely a beautiful face in the whole number.”

The school was under the patronage of the Empress Mother Maria Feodorovna, who invited the members of the diplomatic corps to attend. JQA noted in his Diary that the royal family, however, was not present at the event. The first day of the examination consisted of many subjects, including religion, philosophy, geography, history, and Russian history. The second day of the exam, which the Adamses attended, covered math, German, French literature, experimental philosophy, and the arts, including music, singing, and dancing.

An excerpt from John Quincy Adams’s Diary describing the public examination at the Institute of the Order of St. Catherine.

The foreign ministers who attended did not just watch the examination but participated in it as examiners. While John Quincy did not understand the arithmetic portion of the exam since it was conducted in Russian, when it came time for French language, “One of the Ladies brought me a French Book, and translated into Russian a passage at which I opened it for her—I presume she performed it well, but if she was qualified for her task, I was not so for mine…I saw that she read French with perfect ease, but the language into which she rendered it might have been Sanscrit or Chinese for aught I knew.” He was more “at home” for the portion of the exam on French literature and found the experimental philosophy portion to be “at least amusing.” This was followed by an exhibition of the young ladies’ art, including drawings and embroideries, and concluded with the portions on singing and dancing.

Despite the long examination, John Quincy believed that not many of the students were “so learned, or even so accomplished, as these exhibitions would seem to import.” He also lamented about how many of the subjects were not adequately taught to young men. He concluded, “Yet with every allowance which ought to be made for the varnish of a public exhibition, I know not how it would be possible to make more judicious or more excellent provisions for the Education of young Ladies of rank and fortune in this Country than we find here exemplified.”

Louisa offered a perspective of her own. She later noted in her diary, “None of them are handsome…The performance of their Religious duties is strictly attended to and their long fasts reduce them so much that they look like Skeletons– Of course their complexions suffer.” Louisa’s more sympathetic perspective may have been influenced by her experiences boarding in a convent in Nantes during the American Revolution when she was four years old and then a boarding school in London after the war ended. While she did not enjoy her time at the boarding school in London, she had a passion for reading. She described in her memoir, Record of a Life that she was not privileged to learn many subjects because “Many of the modern studies not then being thought requisite in the education of Women and being thought to have a tendency to render them Masculine.” While her education was mostly limited to arts and a rudimentary education in reading and writing, she did have the privilege to be tutored by a woman, Miss Young, who was trained in classical education. Louisa reflected quite positively on this moment of her education and viewed Miss Young with the highest respect and was grateful for the opportunity to learn and converse on such “masculine” topics. The value Louisa placed on education remained with her throughout her life and was something she and John Quincy prioritized as parents.

An American Prince in London: John Quincy Adams Meets Prince Saunders

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Prince Saunders (or Sanders, c. 1775–1839) was an author, educator, and statesman whose work took him to Britain and Haiti. Saunders spent his early life as a teacher in New England. His words and influence provided the necessary funds to build the Abiel Smith School, the oldest public school in the United States built for the sole purpose of educating African American children and now the Boston location of the Museum of African American History.

In 1815, Saunders and Baptist minister Thomas Paul sailed for London to meet with abolitionists William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. While on board, Saunders befriended two young men—14-year-old George Washington Adams and 11-year-old John Adams II, the two elder sons of the U.S. minister to Britain, John Quincy Adams.

A week after their arrival in London, Saunders visited his young friends. “Mr Saunders, a black man, who has been some years a Schoolmaster at Boston, and who came from America in the same vessel with my sons, called and paid me a visit this morning,” John Quincy Adams recorded in his diary on 2 June 1815.

Black and white image. Portrait of a Black man. His left arm is resting on some books on a table and his hand is resting against his face.
Prince Saunders, from the “Haytian Papers”

Saunders became a frequent visitor to the Adams home throughout the following years. He regularly took the boys to church with him, and they passed intellectually inspiring evenings at his lodgings. A teacher to his marrow, Saunders took the boys—including seven-year-old Charles Francis Adams—along on many educational field trips, including to the Foundling Hospital in London and to Lt. John Clarkson’s estate in Purfleet for a meeting of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. On 22 July 1815, John Quincy Adams recorded, “Mr Sanders came back with our three boys, very much gratified with their visit to Mr John Clarkson at Purfleet— Mr Sanders dined with us.”

Saunders often stayed for dinner, deepening his relationship with John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams. On 26 July 1815, Saunders came to the Adams residence in Ealing to speak to John Quincy Adams. He “asked my opinion, and advice, about his project of going to St: Domingo— The primary object is to introduce the systems of schooling according to the plans of Bell and Lancaster, into that Island— Petion has sent over here to request that some person should be sent out to his part of the Country, for that purpose— Christophe, is represented, as equally earnest for the establishment of schools within his territory.”

Adams refrained from advising Saunders, perhaps not wanting to influence any international schemes in the name of the United States government. Nevertheless, Saunders continued to socialize with the family.

On 17 April 1816, Prince Saunders took a walk with John Quincy. “I had much Conversation with him upon the subject of his visit to Hayti, as he calls it, or St: Domingo, and found he was in the highest degree delighted with his new connection there, with king Henry (Christophe) of whom he spoke in high terms of praise and admiration; but he was very reserved, with me, in speaking of his own present Mission, and of his future views.”

George, John, and Charles spent the next few days in London with Saunders. On 20 April 1816 they returned home “much gratified with their visit.” John Quincy noted that, “Mr Sanders has been much more communicative with them about his Mission to Hayti, than he was to me. He is to be ordained a Priest of the Church of England; and then to be consecrated a Bishop of Hayti, according to the rites of the Church of England. He is also to be made Duke of Cape Henry.”

Image of a painting in a gold frame. The painting depicts a Black man dressed in a black and red Court dress of Haiti.
William Armfield Hobday, Portrait of Prince Saunders, c. 1815, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Saunders had an incredible talent for bringing together luminaries—aristocrats, abolitionists, authors, botanists, chemists, generals, politicians, professors, patrons, artists, editors, and musicians. John Quincy and Louisa Catherine were invited to several soirees at Saunders’s home on Everett Street. On 27 July 1816, the Adamses encountered “a Portrait of Mr Sanders, in a splendid fancy dress, or the Court dress of the kingdom of Hayti, hung up over the Sopha. It had been brought home from the Painters while we were at dinner.” Adams recorded in his diary that “Mr Sanders is to embark for Hayti the tenth of next Month; but is to return here again next Winter.”

Adams gave his final mention of Saunders on 13 October 1818: “On returning to my lodgings I found there Mr Prince Sanders the black man; who has returned from his establishments in the kingdom of king Henry of Haÿti. I asked him if he intended to return thither, to which he did not think proper to give a direct answer. . . . He appeared to be labouring however with the project of colonizing Hayti from the free people of colour in the United States. He admitted that the Government of King Henry was of rather an arbitrary character, and in respect to personal liberty and security was susceptible of some improvements. He spoke however very guardedly and with great reserve. I gave him my opinion of king Henry’s government very freely. Our conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the hour for my departure—”

John Quincy, Louisa, and their sons were leaving to return to the United States so that Adams could take up his appointment as Secretary of State. That interrupted conversation was to be their last. Prince Saunders spent the rest of his life traveling between England and Haiti, dying in Port-au-Prince in 1839.

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 digital publishing collaborative, the Primary Source Cooperative.

Take a Hike!: Adams Advice for the New Year

By Gwen Fries, The Adams Papers

Every January we’re bombarded with advertisements for the sneakers, the stationary bike, or the protein shake that’s going to transform our lives. The strange New Year’s cocktail of hope and shame leads many to splurge on workout gear and gym memberships only to abandon them a week or two later. If that’s you, you’re in good company. In 1756 John Adams admitted to his diary, “I am constantly forming, but never executing good resolutions.”

May I suggest you look to the Adamses rather than advertising executives as you plan your 2023? The Adamses were concerned with their health too, but they took a simpler, more attainable approach that didn’t cost a dime. John Adams wrote.

“Neither medicine nor diet nor any thing would ever succeed with me, without exercise in open air: and although riding in a carriage, has been found of some use, and on horseback still more; yet none of these have been found effectual with me in the last resort, but walking.”

Over the years John and Abigail Adams suggested walking as a cure for headaches, stomachaches, weight gain, weight loss, anxious hearts, tired eyes, overwork, and the winter blues.

“Our Bodies are framed of such materials as to require constant exercise to keep them in repair, to Brace the Nerves and give vigor to the Animal functions. thus do I give you Line upon Line, & precept upon precept,” Abigail wrote to her son John Quincy in 1787. “A Sedantary Life will infallibly destroy your Health,” she cautioned her eldest son, “and then it will be of little avail that you have trim’d the midnight Lamp. In the cultivation of the mind care should be taken, not to neglect or injure the body upon which the vigor of the mind greatly depends.”

Part of a handwritten letter on yellowed paper. Several lines of text and the closing of the letter are visible.
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 December 1798 (Adams Family Papers)

Walking on a treadmill will benefit the body, but a walk in the fresh air will benefit the soul. “Exercise and the Air and smell of salt Water is wholesome,” John Adams wrote in his diary. “Take your fresh Air, and active Exercise regularly,” he encouraged his son. Even in the middle of winter, walking outside can bolster the spirit. “Cold clear Air” had the ability to give “a Spring to the System,” Adams believed.

Whatever you choose to do this year, be gentle with yourself. Let the tender advice John Adams gave his son serve you as well:

“Take care of your Health. The smell of a Midnight lamp is very unwholesome. Never defraud yourself of your sleep, nor of your Walk. You need not now be in a hurry.”

You’ve got all of 2023 before you. You need not be in a hurry.

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.