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.

Teenage Troubles and Worried Grandparents: Abigail and John Adams and William Steuben Smith

By Miriam Liebman, The Adams Papers

Abigail and John Adams became grandparents in 1787 with the birth of their first grandchild, William Steuben Smith, born to their daughter Abigail Adams 2d and her husband, William Stephens Smith. At the time, Abigail and John Adams were deeply engaged in service to the nation with the presidency still to come. Adams Family Correspondence, volume 16, the forthcoming volume in the series, includes the first correspondence between the Adamses and their grandchildren and offers significant insights into their relationship with William Steuben Smith. A previous blog post that focused on Abigail’s relationship with her grandson, John Adams II, can be found here. This post, however, focuses on their relationship with their eldest grandson.

William, who was 17 when the volume opens in late 1804, experienced some growing pains as he neared his twenties. Although many teenagers struggle to figure out their paths in life, some of William’s choices were more ill-advised than others. Growing up in New York City, he visited his grandparents with his mother, Abigail Adams Smith and sister Caroline Amelia, during the fall of 1805, returning to New York that November. A few months later, in January 1806, he became involved in Francisco de Miranda’s failed invasions of Venezuela. While William survived capture and death, his participation had significant consequences for the family. His father’s presumed involvement led Thomas Jefferson to replace William Stephens Smith as the surveyor of the port of New York. His grandson’s actions caused John Adams “great grief” and much concern among other members of the family.

Returning to Quincy and the comfort of his grandparents’ home in September 1807 after the failed mission, William Steuben taught at John Whitney’s school in Quincy. In late March 1808 despite his grandmother’s wishes that he stay longer, he traveled back to his parents in upstate New York. Both of his grandparents worried about his future.

With their many connections to people throughout the country, John wrote to his grandson about different career prospects. Meanwhile Abigail wrote to others about what she thought William Steuben should do next and whether she should write on his behalf for a commission in this army. In a letter to her daughter-in-law Louisa Catherine Adams, she explained her hope that “his engagement with Miranda would be no bar to his employment in the Army.” She continued, “He was under age and was placed with him by those in whom he naturally confided, and knew not Mirandas views.” Clearly having a fond place in his grandmother’s heart, she defended his youthful errors. Abigail described him as having “engageing Manners, and pleasent temper & disposition” and having “a Strict sense of honour and integrity.”

Abigail continued to worry about what her eldest grandson would do. She believed him to be “an amiable modest engageing Youth,” and wrote, “I hope and trust will make his way through the world with honor and integrity.” Given his role in the Miranda Expedition, Abigail blamed William Stephens Smith for ruining his son’s opportunity to be “employd under the present administration.” This only left William Steuben the option of joining his parents in upstate New York to work the land. While Abigail had her doubts that this was right for him, she told his aunt Sarah Smith Adams in early 1808 that, “he appears in good Spirits, pleasent & happy, and assured Me that he did not feel a wish to quit his Situation.”

handwritten letter
The first page of William Steuben Smith’s diary documenting his journey to Russia, Adams Papers.

In July 1809, at the end of this Family Correspondence volume, Smith’s uncle John Quincy Adams prepared to travel to St. Petersburg to serve as the U.S. minister to Russia. William Steuben wrote to him to ask about the opportunity of serving as his uncle’s secretary. After inquiring whether he could choose his own secretary, John Quincy offered his nephew the position. William accepted and remained in Europe until the spring of 1815. He documented his journey to Russia in a diary, held in the Adams Papers at the MHS. This change of fortune and new adventure for William Steuben Smith brought his grandmother “great Gratification.”

“The untitled Man to whom I gave my Heart”: John and Abigail Adams’s Courtship

By Gwen Fries, The Adams Papers

Late on the night of 25 October 1782, after company departed and children were put to bed, Abigail Adams sat down to write a letter to her dearest friend. “Look to the date of this Letter—and tell me, what are the thoughts which arise in your mind? Do you not recollect that Eighteen years have run their anual Circuit, since we pledged our mutual Faith to each other,” she asked her husband John. They were spending their eighteenth wedding anniversary apart—as they had spent their sixteenth and seventeenth anniversaries as well—because John was in Europe to negotiate a treaty.

It was always in the night, when the rest of Braintree had drifted to sleep, that Abigail felt the pangs of John’s absence most severely. In the quiet she could all but hear his footstep on the stair, coming up to bed. It had been years since she heard him laugh, and when they were young, they seemed to do nothing but laugh. She continued her letter, “It is my Friend from the Remembrance of the joys I have lost that the arrow of affliction is pointed. I recollect the untitled Man to whom I gave my Heart, and in the agony of recollection when time and distance present themselves together, wish he had never been any other.”

The house of Rev. William Smith and the birthplace of Abigail (Smith) Adams,
Weymouth, Massachusetts, [1765?]

It was a fateful day in 1759 when the young lawyer John Adams accompanied his good friend Richard Cranch to the Reverend William Smith’s parsonage to meet the girl on whom his friend was so sweet. But it wasn’t Mary, the object of their five-mile journey, who would radically change John’s life—it was her younger sister with the dark eyes and rapier wit, Abigail.

He didn’t fall in love with her immediately. She was only fourteen, after all, and his heart belonged to somebody else at the time. Still, his friendship with Cranch kept him coming back to the parsonage time and time again, and by the end of 1761, John was scribbling teasing messages to Abigail at the bottom of Richard’s letters to Mary.

John Adams to Abigail Smith, 4 October 1762. Adams Family Papers Collection, MHS.

By 4 October 1762, their relationship had changed. John wrote a letter to “Miss Adorable,” demanding “as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company . . . as he shall please to Demand.” This was only fair, he reasoned, as he had given her, “two or three Millions at least.”

Between this first extant letter and their wedding on 25 October 1764, John and Abigail exchanged more than thirty flirtatious, teasing, and charming letters—a selection of which will be on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society through February. These letters, filled with cheeky comments and inside jokes, introduce us to John and Abigail before they knew their correspondence would belong to posterity. These letters belong not to Founders with the eyes of history upon them, but to John and Abigail, two witty, besotted young people who couldn’t wait to be married.

John Adams for President

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

John Adams and the United States government face a world afire with rebellion in Volume 21 of The Papers of John Adams, which chronicles the period from March 1791 to January 1797. With the federal system newly in place, fresh challenges crept in on all sides. Adams and his colleagues struggled to bolster the nation against a seething partisan press, violent clashes with Native peoples on the western frontiers, a brutal yellow fever epidemic in the federal seat of Philadelphia, and the political effects of the Whiskey Rebellion. “I Suffer inexpressible Pains, from the bloody feats of War and Still more from those of Party Passions,” he wrote.

Gilbert Stuart, John Adams, ca. 1800/1815, National Gallery of Art

Working with President George Washington and an increasingly fractious cabinet, Adams dealt with the issues that defined U.S. foreign policy for decades to come, including the negotiation, ratification, and implementation of the controversial Jay Treaty, as well as the unsettled state of relations with revolutionary France. To the former diplomat, Europe’s abrupt descent into chaos signaled a need to uphold U.S. neutrality at any cost. “We are surrounded here with Clouds and invelloped in thick darkness: dangers and difficulties press Us on every Side. I hope We shall not do what We ought not to do: nor leave undone what ought to be done,” Adams wrote.

As most of Europe went to war, U.S. lawmakers tried to keep the nation afloat in the face of financial panic and frontier uprisings. Exploring the remainder of John Adams’ vice presidency, the 379 documents printed in Volume 21 portray a veteran public servant readying to fill the nation’s highest office. Though he wearied of the incessant politicking that came with building a government, Adams was committed to seeing his service through. “The Comforts of genuine Republicanism are everlasting Labour and fatigue,” he advised a friend in Switzerland.

U.S. Senate Ratification of Jay Treaty, 24 June 1795, with John Adams’ record of votes, Records of the United States Senate, National Archives and Records Administration.

Several big stories unfold in the second half of Volume 21. On the high seas, persistent French attacks on U.S. trade punctured the new nation’s economic hopes and shredded Franco-American relations. An unpopular new deal with Great Britain, known as the Jay Treaty, roused popular discontent. Amid all this political uproar, John Adams squared off with Thomas Jefferson and others in the presidential election of 1796. Though modern campaigning was not yet in mode, grassroots electioneering seized center stage. Partisans for both the Federalist Adams and the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson skirmished in pamphlet wars and battled in the press.

John Adams prevailed, though he did not open and count the votes of his victory until 8 February 1797. In the interim, Adams planned his first steps in office. The job had changed since 1789. He was no Washington, and John Adams’ United States looked vastly different than it had even five years earlier. Anticipating his new role, Adams turned to Harvard classmate Francis Gardner with a blend of excitement and nostalgia. “The Prospect before me, of which you Speak in terms of so much kindness and Friendship, is indeed Sufficient to excite very Serious Reflections. My Life, from the time I parted from you at Colledge has been a Series of Labour and Danger and the short Remainder of it, may as well be worn as rust. My Dependence is on the Understanding and Integrity of my fellow Citizens, for Support with submission to that benign Providence which has always protected this Country, and me, among the rest, in its service,” he wrote. We are hard at work on telling John Adams’ story of presidential service anew in Volume 23.

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 publick Power should be divided into different parts”: On the Trail of John Adams and Plato

By Rhonda Barlow, Research Associate

According to Abigail Adams, Plato was John Adams’ favorite author, and she wrote in 1784 that he was “in his easy chair reading Platos Laws.” Although John later wrote that some of the ideas of the Greek philosopher emerged from a lunatic asylum, Plato’s views on balanced constitutions resonated with the New Englander. So how did John Adams learn about them?

It is tempting to imagine the Harvard-educated lawyer absorbed in reading Plato’s complete works in the original Greek. This does not seem to be the case. Years later, Adams recalled that he read all of Plato in translation, using English, French, and Latin, and compared selections with the Greek. But his 31 March 1791 letter to Connecticut poet John Trumbull gives us a glimpse into how he actually accessed a classical author.  In his criticism of the unbalanced constitutions of revolutionary France, Adams quoted from Plato’s Laws in Latin, not Greek.

handwriting, letter
John Adams letter to John Trumbull, March 31, 1791

Adams’ Latin can be translated as, “The republics, gentlemen, of which you are members, are true republics; but those we have just been speaking of, aristocracy, democracy, and monarchy, are not republics; they are communities where one part is a slave to the other part that dominates,” and “Not one of them is a true republic; the right name is seditions. In none do we find a willing sovereign with willing subjects, but a sovereign controlling reluctant subjects by violence.”

Adams then explained, “Human passions domineer in each of the three Simple Governments. to enquire which of them is the best is only to enquire, which will produce most mischief, the Passions of one Man the Passions of the Majority of a Senate or the Passions of a Majority of the Multitude. to enquire whether a mixed Government is better than a Simple one, is to ask whether the Passions are as wise as just and as moderate as the Laws.”

Adams had a Greek and Latin parallel version, and as lawyers, he and Trumbull could be expected to be more proficient in Latin than Greek. But the quotes did not come from Adams’ parallel version, and do not follow the original Greek closely. Instead, his source was his friend Gabriel Bonnot Abbé de Mably’s Entretiens de Phocion, a dialogue highlighting ancient Athenian statesman Phocion. Not only do the two Latin quotes match exactly, but Adams quotes them in the same order. Furthermore, when writing to James Madison about balanced constitutions 27 years later, Adams repeated his appreciation for Plato and de Mably and their views on mixed governments, and this time provided page numbers:

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John Adams letter to James Madison, April 22, 1817

Accidentally his Phocion is on my Table. In the Second Conversation, p. 45 and 49, he censured Monarchy, pure Aristocracy, and popular Government, The Laws are not safe, under these Administrations… What is the Security against these dangers? According to Plato, Phocion and De Mably, “An able Mixture of all these Governments; the publick Power should be divided into different parts, capable of controuling restraining, over-awing each other; of ballancing each other, and of reciprocally moderating each other.”

Adams probably did read much of Plato’s Laws in translation, and also encountered the ancient philosopher in contemporary writers. His dedication to his own role in a mixed and balanced government while serving as America’s first vice-president is showcased in volumes 20 and 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 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.