The Day the Vice President Showed His Strength

by Rhonda Barlow, Adams Papers Research Associate

John Adams famously described the vice presidency as “the most insignificant Office” ever devised. Less well known is why he said this or that there came a day when he revealed that the office actually mattered a great deal.

As vice president, Adams spent his days in the Senate, sitting in a chair, reading the proposed legislation, and listening to the senators’ debate. It was tiresome, boring work for a man of thought and action. “This Confinement will injure my health,” he wrote to his eldest son, John Quincy, in April 1790. After France became a republic and declared war on Great Britain, Americans, caught in the cross-fire, disagreed over the Washington administration’s official policy of neutrality. Writing to Abigail Adams on 19 Dec. 1793, John explained his role in foreign affairs as vice president:

“I am very apprehensive that a desperate Antifœderal Party, will provoke all Europe by their Insolence. But my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived: and as I can do neither good nor Evil, I must be born away by Others and meet the common Fate.”

John Adams letter
John Adams letter to Abigail Adams, 19 December 1793

During his tenure as the first U.S. minister to the Court of St. James’s in the mid-1780s, Adams tried to negotiate a commercial treaty with Great Britain. But the former mother country, able to trade freely with the disunited States, had no need for a formal agreement. By early 1794, John Jay was about to undertake a special mission to finally negotiate a treaty with Britain, but Democratic-Republicans in Congress were still pushing anti-British legislation to restrict trade. John confided to Abigail on 3 April 1794, “The Times are so critical and Parties so nearly ballanced that I cannot in honour, nor consistently with my Duty abandon my Post. There are so many wild Projects and Motions and so many to support them, that I am become of more importance than Usual.” Twelve days later, he wrote, “The Senate will now be called upon to show their Independence, and perhaps your Friend to shew his Weakness or his Strength.”

John Adams letter
John Adams letter to Abigail Adams, 15 April 1794

A bill to prohibit British imports passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 59 to 34. In the Senate, the vote was as close as could be: 13 for and 13 against. It was up to the vice president to break the tie. On 28 April, John Adams blocked the bill, and cleared the way for Jay to sail to England and into history, successfully negotiating the 1794 Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, commonly known as the Jay Treaty.

On 24 June 1795, John Adams once again sat in his chair in the Senate, and recorded the votes as the senators gave their advice and consent to the Jay Treaty by the required two-thirds majority. This new treaty not only improved relations with Great Britain, but demonstrated American independence from France. You can read more the Jay Treaty and about the ways John Adams shaped the vice presidency in the Adams Papers editorial project’s forthcoming volume 21 of The Papers of John Adams.

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, the Packard Humanities Institute, and the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams, Dog Portraitist?

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

Known to her friends and family as “Clover,” Marian Hooper Adams was born in Boston, 13 September 1843, to Robert W. Hooper, an eye doctor, and Ellen (Sturgis) Hooper, a poet and a Transcendentalist. Clover and her two older siblings were raised by her father after Ellen died of tuberculosis when Clover was only five.

Clover married historian and writer Henry Adams, great-grandson of President John Adams, in 1872. They moved to Washington in 1877, where Clover was known for her wit and celebrated salon. She took up photography in 1883 and her work as a portraitist and landscape photographer was admired within her social circle. Although asked to publish some of her photographs, she declined.

After seeing Clover’s amusing portrait of her dogs Possum, Marquis and Boojum in “Three Dogs at Tea in Garden” recently, I wondered if she had an affinity for taking photographs of dogs. And the answer is yes!

Three dogs seated on chairs at a table set for tea
The photograph that inspired this blog post: Three dogs at tea in garden, by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883-1884. This photograph features Possum, Marquis and Boojum.

Although her main subjects were mainly landscapes or portraits of her friends and family in various settings, dogs made it into these portraits ten times out of the one hundred and thirty seven photographs held in the MHS collection. In her two and a half year career as a photographer from 1883-1885, seven percent of her photographs contain dogs!

Her favorite dog to include in her portraits was Marquis, who appears in five of the ten portraits, although Boojum with three and Possum with two portraits are close runners up. What I find most fascinating about Clover’s dog portraits is their clarity. Portraiture in the 1880’s was becoming easier for the subject, as exposure, or sitting, time was down from minutes to seconds. But it could still have been up to 64 seconds depending on the time of day, year, and lens used on the camera. These long exposure times lead photographers to ask their subjects to sit very still or they must choose to take pictures while their subjects naturally repose, or rest. After viewing many of Clover’s portraits, it is clear she preferred mainly the latter and you can see why in this image of a young boy and dog in front of a windmill.

Photo of windmill with boy and dog
Windmill, boy and dog in foreground, at Falmouth, by Marian Hooper Adams, circa 1885

A blurred image shows the movement of the subject during the exposure time while a photograph was taken. And in this image where Clover took a photograph while Brooks Adams, her brother in law, was caring for a horse shows some very specific blurring.

Photo of a man, dog, and horse
Brooks Adams with horse and dog, by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883

You can see that the dogs would need to be specially trained to stay still for up to 64 seconds, which Clover may have achieved. Or the dogs may be used to being in repose with their human companions. I especially enjoy the images that look as if Clover captured a moment between the human and dog where they are relaxing with each other.

Photo of a seated man with a dog
James Lowndes at Beverly Farms, seated outdoors in wicker chair, reading book, with dog at feet, by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883

This portrait features Boojum at the feet of James Lowndes, a friend of the Clover and Henry Adams.

Photo of a man seated on steps with a dog
Henry Adams seated with dog on steps of piazza, by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883

Marquis playing with Henry Adams, Clover’s husband.

Photo of a woman seated next to a dog
Betsy Wilder seated on piazza, with dog at her feet, by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883

Dandy can be seen here relaxing while Betsy Wilder, beloved housekeeper from Clover’s youth, knits on a porch.

In the images which appear more staged, rather than at rest, you can see that the dogs are upright and either looking at the camera, or looking at their human companion.

Photo of a woman seated at the beach with a dog
Mrs. Jim Scott and dog seated by rock at east end of Singing Beach, Manchester, glass plate negative by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883

This image is from a glass plate negative, displayed in positive as the printed portrait is much more difficult to see. The subject of this portrait, Boojum, is seen quite clearly at the feet of Mrs. Jim Scott, a neighbor who came along for a day at the beach.

Photo of woman seated on steps with two dogs
Miss Langdon seated with two dogs on steps of piazza, by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883

Toto and Marquis are seen here comforting Miss Langdon, who is in mourning attire for her recently deceased grandmother, on the same porch steps which we saw Marquis playing with Henry.

Photo of a man and dog in the window of a playhouse
James Lowndes and dog in window of playhouse, by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883

Marquis is seen here relaxing, perhaps after a brisk walk, with James Lowndes. This may have been on the same day as the other image with James Lowndes.

Natalie Dykstra writes in her biography Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, “If Clover could be playful and mocking in her pictures, as with her “dogs at tea” photograph, a send-up of social convention she occasionally found tedious, she could also evoke sadness or an intense feeling of loss.”  I do feel that although the subject of dogs can be whimsical, especially for photography in the 1880’s, that their human companions mostly evoke sadness.

Photo of two dogs seated at a table set for tea
Two dogs at tea in garden, by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883

The second and last in Clover’s “dogs at tea” series features Marquis and Possum. This one has a more natural setting and no white backdrop giving the image a feeling that the viewer happened upon this tea party that was already occurring.

To read more about Marion “Clover” Hooper Adams and her photography visit the MHS online Collection Guide, see the MHS Selected Letters and Photographs, or read The Beehive blog post about those pages and the biography by Natalie Dykstra.


Further Reading:

Letters Shed New Light on Henry Adams | Beehive (masshist.org)

Clover Adams’ Memorial: From a Husband Who Would No Longer Speak Her Name – Atlas Obscura

Daily History: Transcribing JQA’s Diary

By Alyssa Machajewski, Adams Papers Intern

John Adams once suggested to his son, an 11-year-old John Quincy Adams, that he start a journal to record the events of his life. Displaying a level of discipline that must surely be genetic, John Quincy followed his father’s advice consistently for over 68 years. He kept multiple diaries, including a line-a-day version that consists of a single-line summary of each day.

Because of his busy schedule, John Quincy Adams would record this brief summary and then later write out the long-form entry using the line-a-day as reference. I can sympathize with how difficult it would be to keep up with, as I took up bullet journaling only last year (which has a similar organizational idea as JQA’s diary) and I find it exhausting.

Part of my internship experience with the Adams Papers editorial project is to help transcribe some of the 15,000+ pages of JQA’s diary. Luckily, JQA has exceptionally neat handwriting (as long as you can read cursive) and the work is really more like a puzzle that needs solving.

When I first started transcribing the diary, this puzzle was my main interest. I never expected to have anything in common with the journal content or the man behind it. I knew John Quincy Adams as a career politician, the son of a Founding Father, and a president. Surely, his daily life looked nothing like mine, but then I reached about halfway down the line-a-day diary entries for January 1795.

JQA diary
John Quincy Adams diary detail, January 1795

And I laughed; 227 years after writing it, John Quincy Adams made someone laugh. I transcribed this passage in February 2021, just as I and the rest of my home state of Texas were experiencing the coldest winter in living memory. That serendipity changed how I saw the person behind the lines of cursive. JQA became more than a distant historical figure. He was more human somehow—someone who complained about the cold.

We have our obvious differences. I am a recent college graduate and, at the time, he was the U.S. minister to the Netherlands. He lived through an invasion by the French, while I’m living through a global pandemic. However, there were parts of his life that were not difficult at all to relate to. JQA goes on walks (2 March 1795). He sometimes struggles with “Laborious and unsuccessful writing” otherwise known as writer’s block.

JQA diary
John Quincy Adams diary detail

He gets anxious when people don’t answer his letters. And, every two months or so, he buys books (I’m jealous of this frequency!) and will sometimes make a note of what he’s finished reading: “Read the private life of the Marechal de Richelieu; and Voltaire” (22 April 1795). Although we have vastly different bookshelves, I love that buying books is still worthy of a diary entry. “Attended the sale of books the whole day, purchased a considerable number. Walk in the Evening alone. Music at home.” I wonder if he’s ever slightly embarrassed that he has gone and bought more books when he knows perfectly well he has a stack of unread ones at home. Still, I can’t help but imagine him grinning as he walks down the streets of The Hague with his armful of books. It is exactly what I would do.

In the six-month span that I have transcribed so far, I can see the skills that led him to be known as a diplomatic president. He negotiated for the release of an acquaintance and French prisoner of war (14 July 1795). He also “disallowed” (i.e. kicked out) French soldiers from his house when they tried to forcibly quarter there (11 March 1795). It is the sort of thing the U.S. Constitution frowns upon and I would like to have been present for that conversation. His diary recorded the following:

The municipality this morning sent a couple of french soldiers to quarter in the house of Mr: Jehu where I am lodged. They have tried the experiment three or four times; and as often the french Commandant of the City upon my application has ordered them to allow the exemption to which the usage of Nations entitles me.

And of course he also noted important historical events, such as on 17 May 1795: “Weather beautiful. Morning and evening walks . . . The Treaty with France signed at 2. AM.”

Working through the diary now feels less like a puzzle and more like a story and a life unfolding. How lucky that we get the chance to see it. To start your own search, visit the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary!

Stories to Cheer our Spirits: Horses in the Adams Papers

By Kenna Hohmann, Adams Papers Intern

Diving into the vast collections of documents in the Adams Papers has been one of the best parts of my internship at the MHS. Over the past few months, I have endeavored to identify quotations and stories that allow for a greater understanding of and connection to the historical figures from our nation’s past. My research yielded both lighthearted moments—the Adamses’s comments on the seasons—and serious reflection—the family’s thoughts on education. A few had another theme in common— horses—a subject that because of person interest sparked my curiosity and prompted a deeper dive into the documents.

miniature portrait of Thomas Boylston Adams
Thomas Boylston Adams by Mr. Parker, 1795

The first story I found reflects the hardship that sometimes goes along with riding long distances. In the spring of 1794 Thomas Boylston Adams (1772–1832), the youngest son of John and Abigail Adams, spent five weeks traveling through Pennsylvania. Thomas Boylston was 21-years old at the time and trying his best to establish his legal career, in part by taking “a journey into the interior parts of this State upon a Circuit with the Supreme Court.” Writing to his mother in June, Thomas Boylston provided a detailed description of the country he traveled t, commenting to Abigail “The exercise of riding on Horseback so long a Journey was rather more severe than I have been accustomed to, but tho’ it took away some of my flesh, it contributed much to my health.” Thomas Boylston experienced the physical pain caused by long periods of riding but also the benefits of the trip to his health and wellbeing. As someone who has also ridden horses over long distances, I can appreciate how the soreness of riding could be overlooked due to the joy that comes from being in nature. Thomas Boylston Adams was entering a new period of his life. That excitement, along with the beautiful Pennsylvania spring and a good horse and long ride, was enough to lift his spirits.

In a twist on the theme, the second story I found came from John Adams in a February 1795 letter to Abigail Adams. Then vice president, John Adams had been in Philadelphia since the previous November, while Abigail remained in Quincy. John, along with most Americans, was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Jay Treaty from Britain, although the vice president also feared the treaty might delay his return home. “Oh my Hobby Horse—and my little Horse! I want you both for my Health And Oh my I want you much more, for the delight of my heart and the cheering of my spirits—” John frequently referred to his farm as his “Hobby Horse” and when he wanted a break from the stress of politics he turned his thoughts toward home to lift his spirits. In this selection, his love for Abigail Adams and her importance to him is on full display.

John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1 Feb, 1795
Detail of letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1 February 1795, Adams Papers

My personal interest in horses and subsequent search for related content yielded these two different but interesting anecdotes. The sweet words between John and Abigail Adams and the humorous yet earnest letter that Thomas Boylston Adams sent to his mother would not have come to my attention without my original interest in the theme of horses. Spending time with the expansive collection of the Adams Papers has been a highlight of my internship, and I would recommend that everyone take a bit of time to read a few letters! To get started, visit the Adams Papers Digital Edition.

Party Men and Congressional Pugilists: The Rise of Party Conflict during the Adams Administration

By Lauren Howard, Adams Papers Intern

“The Accounts We have of the Uneasy State of the Minds of our Countrymen: their innumerable Projects, and fluctuating Politicks are perhaps more distressing to Us, than they are to you who are on the spot… For my own Part I am too old and feeble, to fight— They must put me to death for my neutrality: for I will not be a Party Man.”

John Adams to Richard Cranch, 20 July 1787

Cartoon drawing titled "Congressional Pugilists"
“Congressional Pugilists,” political cartoon of Matthew Lyon fighting with a federalist opponent on the floor of Congress early in 1798

Despite his disdain for party politics, John Adams’s administration began with the country already divided along party and regional lines. He narrowly won the presidency by three electoral votes, although he entered office with a distinct advantage—a Federalist majority in Congress. This majority allowed a bill to be introduced and quickly signed into law. For example, the Nonintercourse Act of 1799 was introduced in the Senate on 1 March 1799 and signed two days later; “An Act to Lay Additional Duties on Certain Articles Imported” was introduced in the House of Representatives on 8 May 1800, passed and transmitted to the Senate later that day, and signed by Adams on the 13th. Despite this Federalist majority, congressional records reveal that it was also a period of increasing partisan polarization and conflict. During my internship with the Adams Papers editorial project, I used the Adams Papers Digital Edition, Annals of Congress, and the House and Senate Journals to construct a legislative calendar of the important bills passed during the Adams administration. Bill by bill, my research revealed the gradual entrenchment of party divisions. “Rivalries have been irritated to madness,” Adams wrote to Abigail Adams in February 1799, and this madness even erupted in a physical altercation in the House.

One line from a letter by John Adams to Abigail Adams
Detail of letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams in February 1799

A prime instigator of this increased factionalism was the breakdown of diplomatic relations with France. In December 1797, Abigail Adams correctly foretold, “Should we be forced into a war, which God forbid, parties would again assume a face of violence.” After initially urging diplomatic restraint and voicing a dedication to “keep the Peace with their high Mightinesses at paris,” Adams called on Congress to create a navy to protect the coast and commerce of the United States. In the wake of the XYZ Affair, the  nation was consumed by war hysteria but found itself split over the French issue. Democratic-Republicans called for a de-escalation of tensions and a halt to war preparations, while Federalists passed numerous bills to prepare the country to fight. “An Act to Provide for an Additional Armament for the Further Protection of the Trade of the United States” and “An Act for the Establishment of the Department of the Navy” passed in the Senate by large majorities and little effectual resistance from Democratic-Republicans.

Members of the House also voted along party lines on related issues. The Sedition Act passed on 10 July 1798 by a vote of 44 to 41, with 21 abstentions. All of the yes votes came from Federalists, although three crossed party lines to oppose the bill. Later, the Sedition Act was used exclusively to arrest and imprison Democratic-Republicans.

The ongoing conflict with France reinforced the party lines drawn several years earlier with Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality. As factionalism divided Congress, partisan conflict evolved beyond balloting and policymaking. On 15 February 1798, a brawl—complete with a walking stick and fireplace tongs—broke out on the House floor. On 30 January 1798 Federalist Roger Griswold insulted Matthew Lyon’s valor during the American Revolution, after Lyon declared himself a champion of the common man and accused Griswold of corruption. Lyon, a Democratic-Republican from Vermont, spat at Griswold and was charged with gross indecency by House Federalists. However, as an outraged Abigail Adams wrote, “Instead of considering what was due to the Honour of the House, as Legislatures and as gentlemen, they have sufferd narrow party views to operate.” With Federalists unable to secure enough votes to remove Lyon, Griswold took matters into his own hands and beat Lyon with his cane; Lyon defended himself with fireplace tongs. The men later apologized and retained their seats, but the incident provides valuable insight into party conflict during the Adams presidency. The fight was instigated by disagreements over Adams’s militaristic approach to Franco-American relations and debates over which party better served American interests. According to Abigail Adams, the affair also “created more warmth, more wrath more ill will, than the most momentous questions of National concern.” Thus, while Adams despised party politics, his administration further established party identities and fostered partisan conflict so intense that it erupted in legislative violence.

“The most memorable period of my life”: John Quincy Adams in Russia and Great Britain, 1809–1817

By Neal Millikan, Series Editor for Digital Editions

Transcriptions of more than 1,200 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 August 1809 through August 1817 and chronicle Adams’s experiences as a diplomat in Russia and Great Britain.

It was with a heavy heart that John Quincy Adams accepted the role of America’s first minister plenipotentiary to Russia. Taking the position would mean traveling with his wife, Louisa Catherine Adams, and his youngest son, Charles Francis Adams, but leaving behind his two eldest sons, George Washington Adams, then age eight, and John Adams, age six, to continue their education in America. Adams, a born diplomat, utilized his new post in St. Petersburg to keep abreast of the shifting European alliances during the Napoleonic Wars. He was on good terms with Emperor Alexander I, and the two men often ran into each other on their walks around the city. During their time in Russia, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams lost their only daughter, also named Louisa Catherine, to dysentery shortly after her first birthday. He agonizingly recounted her illness in his diary, recording that “Her last moments were distressing to me and to her mother, beyond expression.”

St. Petersburg, Russia
View of St. Petersburg, Russia

When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, owing to issues left unsettled after the Revolutionary War, including the impressment of American sailors, Adams watched from afar. Appointed to lead the peace commission, in April 1814 John Quincy traveled alone to Ghent, Belgium, to help negotiate a settlement with his fellow commissioners and their British counterparts. He noted in his diary: “I commenced my Journey, to contribute if possible to the restoration of Peace to my own Country.” After months of negotiation, a peace agreement was signed on Christmas Eve. As he recorded in his diary on several other occasions throughout his life, John Quincy declared this period in Ghent to be, “the most memorable period of my life.”

Adams next traveled to Paris in January 1815, where he was reacquainted with his wife and youngest son, and then on to Great Britain in May to assume his new role as U.S. minister at the Court of St. James’s. On the 25th, John Quincy had one of the most momentous reunions of his life when he, Louisa, and Charles, were reunited with George and John after almost six years apart. Adams marveled that George had “grown almost out of our knowledge” and noted that John was “yet small for his age.” According to John Quincy, Louisa was “so much overcome by the . . . agitation of meeting so unexpectedly her long absent children, that she was obliged to retire, and twice fainted.” These years in Great Britain were some of the happiest of John Quincy’s adult life; surrounded once again by his entire family, they lived in the aptly named “Little Boston” house in the London suburb of Ealing. Adams traveled into the British capital when necessary for diplomatic work and made many new acquaintances, including the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham.

John Quincy Adams received notice in April 1817 that President James Monroe had offered him the position of secretary of state. The family sailed for the United States on 15 May and arrived in New York on 6 August. Continuing on to Quincy, on the 18th John Quincy was reunited with “my dear and venerable father and mother,” John and Abigail Adams, recording his “inexpressible happiness” to find them both “in perfect health.”

For more on John Quincy Adams’s life during these years, read the headnote, or, navigate to the entries to begin reading his diary. The addition of material for the 1809–1817 period joins existing transcriptions of Adams’s diary for his early years as a lawyer and diplomat (1789–1801), as secretary of state (1817–1825), and as president (1825–1829), and brings the total number of transcriptions freely available on the MHS website to more than 5,000 pages.

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 is provided by the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund. Harvard University Press and a number of private donors also contributed critical support.

Abigail Adams: “A true friend to Matrimony”

Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

“You know I have always been a true friend to Matrimony,” Abigail Adams wrote to her friend Hannah Phillips Cushing on 1 Sept. 1804. “Upon this principle I last week parted with my most beloved domestic who was to me as a child in sickness and in Health and who had lived 14 years with me.” Abigail was referring to the Adamses’ servant Rebeckah Tirrell who married another longtime servant, Richard Dexter, at Peacefield on 23 August.

Here is where the letter gets interesting. “At the Wedding,” Abigail continued, “amongst other Guests were six couple who had lived with me during her residence with me all of whom had been married from me in that period & all but one married in my family. this I believe is rather a singular instance.”

Besides the bride and groom, the five other couples were Esther Field and John Briesler Sr. (m. 1788), Polly Doble Howard and Jonathan Baxter Jr. (m. 1797), Abigail Hunt and Ebenezer Harmon (m. 1798), Betsy Howard and William Shipley (m. 1801), and Elizabeth Epps and Tilly Whitcomb (m. 1802).

As if this occurrence didn’t have enough Upstairs, Downstairs flavor, Abigail’s letters prove that drama sometimes preceded the marital bliss. The first couple produced by the Adams household—Esther Field and John Briesler Sr.—probably caused Abigail the most grief. Field and Briesler had accompanied John and Abigail Adams to London during John’s time at the Court of St. James. They were married on 15 February 1788 at St. Marylebone church in London. Their daughter was born in May.

A frazzled Abigail confided to her sister, “I have the greatest anxiety upon Esthers account, if I bring her Home alive I bring her Home a marri’d woman.” Abigail stressed that no one outside of the family knew Esther’s situation. “I have related this to you in confidence that you may send for her Mother & let her know her situation. . . . in addition to every thing else, I have to prepare for her what is necessary for her situation.” Abigail wrote that Esther “came in the utmost distress to beg me to forgive her” and added that John Briesler, “as good a servant as ever Bore the Name,” was “so humble and is so attentive, so faithfull & so trust worthy, that I am willing to do all I can for them.”

Doing all they could included going along with a vanished marriage certificate and a revised wedding date of September 1787, according to John Quincy’s 14 Aug. 1838 diary entry.

JQA diary
John Quincy Adams’s diary entry for 14 Aug. 1838.

Abigail was willing to get involved even when propriety was not on the line. Her servant Polly Doble Howard was engaged to her sons’ servant, Tilly Whitcomb. When Whitcomb accompanied John Quincy and Thomas Boylston to Europe, Abigail passed along messages for the lovebirds. “Polly requests me to give information for her that Ten long weeks she has been constant.” (No error here. Howard was indeed engaged to Whitcomb before they broke off the engagement and she married Jonathan Baxter Jr. in June 1797. Whitcomb would marry Adams servant Elizabeth Epps five years later.)

Even in the midst of her time as First Lady, Abigail hosted weddings for her servants. To her nephew William Smith Shaw, she wrote a familiar phrase: “I am a great friend to Matrimony, and always like to promote it, where there is a prospect of happiness & comfort.” After Ebenezer Harmon and Abigail Hunt were pronounced man and wife, Abigail “regaled them with a Glass of wine, & some cake and Cheese.” Abigail went to bed while the guests were still dancing “with the pleasurable reflection of having made Several honest families happy & pleasd.”

Perhaps it was the daily example of America’s first power couple that made the idea of marriage attractive to so many of the Adamses’ servants. Whatever the cause, Abigail reflected, “My Muster role would have been double if I had taken in all those Who had married with & from me Since I became a housekeeper.”

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.

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.

After the Storm

By Sara Georgini, Series Editor, The Papers of John Adams

Campaign token
John Adams campaign token or button coat stud, [1800].
He came home in a whirlwind. His “little bark…oversett in a Squal of Thunder and Lightening and hail attended with a Strong Smell of Sulphur,” outgoing President John Adams fought the five hundred miles from Washington, D.C., to his native Quincy in two weeks flat. Traveling in early March 1801 meant a rough ride. Mud inked along the new, boggy roads, pooling in deep gulches that braked Adams’ path to a crawl. No longer the kind of celebrity who drew feasts, toasts, and fêtes, Adams plodded through dreary tavern stops. Minutes after he reached Peacefield to reunite with wife Abigail and his family, a violent storm splintered the New England sky. Gales of wind shuddered across his farm. Rain whipped down, flooding crops and confining the Adamses for several days. John Adams didn’t mind. It was “So old fashioned a storm that I begin to hope that nature is returning to her old good nature and good humour and is substituting fermentations in the Elements, for revolutions in the moral intellectual and political World,” he wrote on 31 March. Turning the page on his presidency, Adams sensed greater change was in the air.

Back at the capital, Thomas Jefferson pondered the challenge of how to lead that shift. “The storm is over, and we are in port,” Jefferson wrote to Samuel Adams on 29 March. “The ship was not rigged for the service she was put on. we will shew the smoothness of her motions on her republican tack.” The election of 1800 evolved American democracy in big ways. Electioneering dominated the press, as Adams’ Federalist Party supporters continuously clashed with their rivals, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. Both camps diverged on domestic and foreign issues; Adams’ unpopularity surged as he enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts and loudly defended the need for peace with France. As voting stretched from September to December, party cleavage ended the Federalists’ hold on a congressional majority. The whole electoral system rebooted, too. States’ methods for choosing presidential electors changed, igniting confusion and popular concern. When Jefferson tied with Aaron Burr for the top seat, the House of Representatives slogged through nearly a week of balloting to break the deadlock in the Virginian’s favor. In all the political chaos, a silver lining glimmered: Adams and Jefferson’s joint commitment to a peaceful transfer of power between parties pointed to the young democracy’s potential.

In its aftermath, citizens like Abigail Adams, Hannah Phillips Cushing, and Margaret Bayard Smith leaned in to private letters where they weighed the election’s role in history. Cushing, wife of U.S. Supreme Court justice William Cushing, lamented Federalists’ waning “judgment and prudence.” And was this election a harbinger, she wondered, of how presidents might stir public unrest through doling out highly coveted appointments? Smith, a Washington chronicler who began as a Federalist and was, in 1800, newly wed to a Democratic-Republican newspaper editor, looked for daylight between the parties’ views. She found it in the crowds at Jefferson’s inauguration, watching opponents unite to agree (at least) that the system worked fine, with a few tweaks. Jefferson, “called by the voice of his country,” still impressed Smith eight years later, when she visited him at Monticello. But what Smith noticed on the morning of Jefferson’s inauguration—the enduring trust of the people who guided the president—helped to solidify her political thought. “The political theory of republicanism, which seated power in a virtuous people, encouraged individuals to evaluate all facets of their lives along the lines of civic-mindedness, and from her earliest writings, Margaret discussed the connections she saw between political ideals and the way that people behaved,” MHS President Catherine Allgor wrote of Smith in 2012. “Intellectual, well educated, and politically aware, she made few decisions lightly.” Often minus a vote but not a voice, early American women offer us an intriguing glimpse of the election’s fallout and the nation’s future in 1801. You can explore their ideas in our free Adams Papers digital editions, available here.

Like many Americans adapting to the ebb and tide of the U.S. election cycle, Abigail Adams struggled to take the long view. Party drama would recede as a new generation of lawmakers shouldered their duties, she thought. The contours of political difference that felt so crystalline in the election’s maelstrom would soften, uniting them in common cause. “Before many more years pass away, every candid Republican will be ready to acknowledge the justice and wisdom of many measures, which party Spirit and a distorded view led them to condemn,” Abigail wrote to Hannah Philips Cushing. “They will find more Love of country, more disinterested patriotism in the measures of the federal government than they can produce, public good and not popularity were sought.” With a new president waiting in the wings for 2021, we invite you to join us for a special discussion on contested elections, featuring scholars Joanne B. Freeman, Peter S. Onuf, Rachel A. Shelden, Erik B. Alexander, and Ted Widmer on Wednesday, 6 January 2021, 5:30pm EST via Zoom webinar. You can read all about it and register to join us here.

Stepping into the Spotlight: John Quincy Adams’s Diary, 1789–1801

by Neal Millikan, Series Editor for Digital Editions

Transcriptions of more than 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 1789 through August 1801 and chronicle Adams’s experiences as a law student in Newburyport, a young lawyer in Boston, and a diplomat in the Netherlands and Prussia.

“My present situation is not over eligible: how to improve it is the subject which most employs my mind,” Adams wrote on 7 April 1791. “I have much leisure upon my hands, and my own improvement seems to be the proper object of my pursuit,” although he questioned his own “egotism” as he tried and failed to faithfully keep his journal. Adams had completed his legal studies under Theophilus Parsons in Newburyport the previous July and was been admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. Choosing to establish his office in Boston, the 23-year-old struggled to gain ground professionally even as he began to find his political voice.

In the summer of 1791 Adams responded to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man with a series of articles under the pseudonym “Publicola.” The following year brought pieces by “Menander” opposing the state anti-theater ordinance, and in late 1793 and early 1794 he earned recognition for his “Columbus” and “Barneveld” series, commenting on the behavior of the Antoine Charbonnet Duplaine, the French consul at Boston, and Edmond Genet, the French minister to the United States.

Thomas Boylston Adams by Mr. Parker, 1795
Thomas Boylston Adams by Mr. Parker, 1795

These activities found favor in Federalist circles. In May 1794 President George Washington nominated John Quincy Adams as minister resident to the Netherlands. It was the first of four diplomatic postings Adams held. He and his youngest brother, Thomas Boylston Adams, who served as JQA’s secretary, arrived at The Hague in late October. During an errand to London in 1795, John Quincy met Louisa Catherine Johnson, the daughter of U.S. consul Joshua Johnson and Catherine Nuth Johnson. After more than a year’s courtship, the couple married in London on 26 July 1797 and soon departed for John Quincy’s new diplomatic post at Berlin, where the minister successfully negotiated a new Prussian-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1799. Neither John Quincy nor Louisa relished the demands of court life with its lavish social engagements. Louisa’s frequent ill health during these years weighed on John Quincy, and he noted his feelings in his diary. After Louisa had several miscarriages, she gave birth to their first son, George Washington Adams in April 1801, shortly before John Quincy received his recall and the family returned to the United States.

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

For more on John Quincy Adams’s life during these years, read the headnotes for his early legal career and early diplomatic career, or, navigate to the entries to begin reading his diary. The addition of material for the 1789–1801 period joins existing transcriptions of Adams’s diary for his years as secretary of state (1817–1825) and president (1825–1829) and brings the total number of transcriptions freely available on the MHS website to nearly 4,000 pages. Thanks to MHS web developer, Bill Beck, the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary also now includes side-by-side viewing capability. By choosing the “transcription + image” dual mode, users can view the transcription alongside the manuscript image; or, they can still view the transcription alone. This dual-mode option appears at the top of each entry. Check it out! And let us know what you think. The tool is still in its beta phase, and we welcome user feedback. You can reach us at adamspapers@masshist.org.

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 is provided by the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund. Harvard University Press and a number of private donors also contributed critical support.