The Adamses Return to Peacefield

By Hobson Woodward, Series Editor, Adams Family Correspondence

John Adams traded the political tumult of Washington, D.C., for the songs of birds in the fields of his beloved Massachusetts homestead of Peacefield in February 1801, leaving behind the demanding routines of the presidency to tend crops by day and read and write letters in the evenings. The same was true of Abigail Adams, who no longer hosted leevees for the capital elite as first lady and returned home to oversee her Quincy household of servants. Abigail settled a bit more uneasily into her new routine, as shown by her writings in the latest publication by the Adams Papers editorial project: volume 15 of Adams Family Correspondence. Abigail’s efforts to transition to a new phase of life included working through a subject that gnawed at her a bit—the family’s long and complicated relationship with Thomas Jefferson, the man who just defeated her husband in a fraught election to become the nation’s third president.

The documentary evidence of Abigail’s extended “exit interview” with Jefferson began when she was still first lady with a “curious conversation” they had over dinner in the closing days of her husband’s administration, an exchange she transcribed and sent to her son Thomas Boylston Adams. The two talked party politics and foreign policy, but she demurred when Jefferson attempted to raise the topic of the election. Abigail had no such compunction when she wrote an essay on politics soon after returning to Peacefield, a document that is featured in this volume of Adams Family Correspondence. Two written works prompted the drafting of the essay—a letter from her son John Quincy Adams to his father laying the son’s vision of the debt owed his father by the nation for a lifetime of public service. The second was the inaugural address of Thomas Jefferson. Writing as “a Lover of Justice,” Abigail denounced the positive press coverage of Jefferson’s address, excoriated John’s most virulent critics, and drew on the language of her son’s letter to laud the accomplishments of her husband’s presidency. The piece was apparently never published and it’s not clear whether Abigail penned it for personal or public purposes, or both.

The papers left behind by the Adams family, a centerpiece collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society accessible to the world through an ever-expanding array of digital portals, reveal that three years later Abigail found closure of sorts in an exchange of letters with Jefferson. The renewal of correspondence between the two in 1804 began with little expectation of political debate, when Abigail sent Jefferson a letter of condolence upon the death of his adult daughter, Mary Eppes. Years earlier the Adams matriarch had cared for Mary as a child and she offered Jefferson the empathy of a parent who had herself lost an adult child with the 1800 death of Charles Adams. Jefferson responded with a letter of thanks that ruminated on his friendship with Abigail and John, mentioning almost as an afterthought that their friendship endured despite John’s “personally unkind” appointment of Federalist judges in the closing weeks of his administration. Abigail responded that she had not intended to delve into politics, but Jefferson’s comment took “off the Shackles I should otherways have found myself embarrassed with.” The result was an exchange that would extend to seven letters, in which the two talked out their differences. Abigail defended John’s judicial appointments as his constitutional duty, moving the conversation to her displeasure with revelations that Jefferson had made payments to notorious Adams critic James Thomson Callender. What Abigail characterized as subsidies to an unprincipled newspaperman, Jefferson cast as unrelated charitable assistance to an indigent immigrant. Abigail couldn’t help but point out that Callender had recently turned on Jefferson. “The Serpent You cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him,” she wrote. The correspondence concluded after Abigail broached Jefferson’s failure to renew John Quincy’s appointment as a federal bankruptcy commissioner, a reappointment opportunity Jefferson claimed had escaped his notice. Abigail then ended the exchange on a friendly note.

handwriting, letter
Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 1 July 1804, draft, Adams Family Papers, MHS

By the time Abigail was querying Jefferson on John Quincy’s public service opportunities, the Adams son had long since moved on. The bankruptcy commission had been a Boston assignment while he resided in the city as a member of the state legislature. John Quincy had since become a U.S. senator and argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., placing him at the center of political life as the most prominent member of a new generation of Adams public servants. John Quincy didn’t have to wait long to face some of the political turmoil experienced by his father. The first major item on the agenda after his swearing in was the Louisiana Purchase. John Quincy first angered Democratic-Republicans by joining in opposition to the purchase, then set off Federalists by voting to fund the purchase on the presumption that a constitutional amendment would be simultaneously considered. The Senate refused to bring the constitutional issue to the floor, prompting John Quincy to oppose later Louisiana bills. Son wrote to mother that acting independent of party was akin to standing “between two rows of batteries directly opposite to and continually playing upon each other, and neither of which consider me as one of their soldiers.”

handwriting, letter
John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams, 22 December 1803, Adams Family Papers, MHS

John Quincy was not the only member of his family getting used to life in Washington, D.C. When he returned to the United States in the fall of 1801 after seven years as a diplomat in Europe, he was joined by his wife, Louisa Catherine Adams, and their infant son, George Washington Adams. Louisa Catherine grew up in England as the daughter of an American father and British mother, and she brought the experience of London society and Berlin court life to bear in her new position as the wife of a United States senator. Louisa Catherine emerges in volume 15 of Adams Family Correspondence as a fresh voice, keeping her mother-in-law informed of the latest developments in parlor politics in the nation’s capital, one of several members of the next generation of the Adams family who will join the conversation as the publication of family letters continues.

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

“My conscience presses me on”: John Quincy Adams and the Amistad Case, 1839–1842

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

Transcriptions of more than 1,400 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 1839 through December 1842 and chronicle Adams’s involvement with the Amistad court case as he also continued serving in the United States House of Representatives.

In July 1839, fifty-three Africans revolted aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad as they were being transported by their enslavers from Havana to another Cuban port. During the revolt, the Africans killed the ship’s captain and another crew member, demanding to be returned to Mendiland (now Sierra Leone). However, the remaining Amistad crew were able to divert the vessel from its course. On 24 August a U.S. revenue cutter seized the Amistad off Long Island and brought it into the port of New London, Connecticut. The Africans were imprisoned at New Haven, Connecticut, while their case moved through the U.S. District and Circuit Courts.

woodcut print, man, chair, table
John Quincy Adams, woodcut of a painting by Alonzo Chappel

While he offered opinions and advice on the Amistad case as early as September 1839, John Quincy Adams did not take a formal role until a year later. Abolitionists visited the former president at his home in Quincy on 27 October 1840 and convinced him to join the Amistad defense team when the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court. In his diary, Adams noted his reluctance to provide further legal counsel. “I endeavoured to excuse myself upon the plea of my age and inefficiency—of the oppressive burden of my duties as a member of the House of Representatives, and my inexperience after a lapse of more than thirty years . . . before judicial tribunals.” However, the abolitionists “urged me so much and represented the case of those unfortunate men as so critical, it being a case of life and death, that I yielded.”

The trial opened in February 1841. John Quincy Adams began his oral arguments for the defense on the 24th, speaking for “four hours and a half, with sufficient method and order to witness little flagging of attention, by the judges or the auditory.” Pleased with his performance, he modestly assessed: “I did not I could not answer public expectation—but I have not yet utterly failed.” Adams returned to the court on 1 March to conclude his argument on behalf of the Amistad Africans and spoke for another four hours. The court’s opinion, delivered on 9 March, ruled that the Africans were free and could return home.

printed page
Title page of John Quincy Adams’ Amistad argument before the Supreme Court, 1841

As he revised for publication his oral arguments in the Amistad case, John Quincy Adams mused in his diary on the current state of the emancipation cause in the United States. “The world, the flesh, and all the devils in hell are arrayed against any man, who now, in this North-American Union, shall dare to join the standard of Almighty God, to put down” the issue of slavery. He lamented that his own physical infirmities prevented him from doing more to further the cause. “What can I, upon the verge of my seventy-fourth birth-day, with a shaking hand, a darkening eye, a drowsy brain, and with all my faculties, dropping from me, one by one, as the teeth are dropping from my head . . . what can I do for the cause of God and Man? for the progress of human emancipation? . . . Yet my conscience presses me on.” The following year, Adams recorded that his continued opposition to slavery produced considerably different reactions in the North and South. While northerners routinely wrote to him asking for an autograph, the letters he received from southerners often contained “insult, profane obscenity and filth.”

For more on John Quincy Adams’s life, navigate to the entries to begin reading his diary. The addition of material for the 1839–1842 period joins existing transcriptions of Adams’s diary for his legal, political, and diplomatic careers (1789–1817), his time as secretary of state (1817–1825), his presidency (1825–1829), and his early years in the House of Representatives (1830–1838) and brings the total number of transcriptions freely available on the MHS website to more than 9,800 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 was provided by the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund, with additional contributions by Harvard University Press and a number of private donors. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in partnership with the National Historical Publications and Records Commission also support the project through funding for the Society’s Primary Source Cooperative.

“How will he support life without her”: John without Abigail

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Abigail Adams’s death on 28 Oct. 1818 represented a cosmic shift in the Adamses’ universe. As her daughter-in-law Louisa Catherine Adams explained, Abigail was “the guiding Planet around which all revolved, performing their separate duties only by the impulse of her magnetic power.”

Though her death touched every member of the family, John Quincy Adams, then in Washington, D.C., knew his 83-year-old father would be the most affected. On 1 November, having received notice that his mother was gravely ill, he wrote in his diary, “Oh! what must it be to my father, and how will he support life without her who has been to him its charm?”

The next day, John Quincy received confirmation of his mother’s death. He retired to his chamber to weep and then reflected on what this loss would mean to his father.

“She had been fifty four years the delight of my father’s heart; the sweetener of all his toils—the comforter of all his sorrows; the sharer and heightener of all his joys— It was but the last time when I saw my father that he told me . . . that in all the vicissitudes of his fortunes, through all the good Report, and evil Report of the World; in all his struggles, and in all his sorrows the affectionate participation, and cheering encouragement of his wife, had been his never failing support; without which he was sure he should never have lived through them.”

John Quincy wrote to his father, lamenting their mutual loss and assuring his father it was “the dearest of his wishes to alleviate” John’s pain. “Let me hear from you, my dearest father; let me hear from you soon.” On 3 November, John Quincy repeated to his diary, “It is for him, and to hear from him that my anxiety now bears upon my mind.”

letter
John Adams to John Quincy Adams, 10 Nov. 1818

On 10 November, John Adams responded to his “ever dear, ever affectionate, ever dutiful and deserving Son.” He wrote that “The bitterness of Death is past. The grim Spector So terrible to human Nature has no Sting left for me.” Knowing John Quincy was agonized to be separated from his father at such a painful juncture, John reassured him that “the Sympathy and Benevolence of all the World, has been Such as I Shall not live long enough to describe” and that his “consolations are more than I can number.”

John Quincy wrote to his last-surviving sibling, Thomas Boylston Adams, on 22 November. “I have received a short Letter from our dear and honoured father, and have heard from various quarters of the fortitude with which he has met the most distressing of calamities. Knowing his character as I do this was what I expected.” John Quincy confided to his brother that he still fretted for their father. “The struggle which is not apparent to the world, is not the less but the more trying within— Watch over his health, my dear brother with unremitting, though if possible to him imperceptible attention. Assist him with unwearied assiduity in the management of his affairs; and always according to his own deliberate opinions and wishes.” He stressed this last point. “Let the study of every one around him be to gratify his wishes, according to his ideas, and not according to their own.”

Indeed, John Adams had lost the person who most carefully watched over his health and affairs, but it was the loss of Abigail’s constant company and conversation John felt most severely. Though Adams put on a brave face for his family—his letters from this period are filled with levity and self-deprecating jokes—his boredom and loneliness saturate the page.

John Quincy couldn’t leave Washington, so he dispatched his eldest son, George Washington Adams, to Peacefield during Harvard’s winter break. “He is fond of your company,” John Quincy wrote to his son. “You can render yourself very serviceable to him; and . . . you can be in no possible situation better adapted to the improvement of your heart and the cultivation of your Understanding than with him.”

In December 1818, the bereaved patriarch and his grandson embarked on a project that thrills the heart of this editor. The two Adamses tore Peacefield apart in search of family papers. “Trunks Boxes Desks Drawers locked up for thirty Years have been broken open because the Keys are lost. Nothing Stands in my Way. Every Scrap Shall be found and preserved.”

letter
John Adams to John Quincy Adams, 24 Dec. 1818

 

Though John Adams had been kicking around Peacefield since 1801, it was the loss of Abigail that stimulated this frenzied search. Perhaps her death made him reflect on his own mortality and legacy. Perhaps he just needed a project to keep him busy. But I wonder if the quest to find old family letters wasn’t a grieving widower seeking the company and conversation of his dearest friend.

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. Major funding for the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary was provided by the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund. Harvard University Press and a number of private donors also contributed crucial support.

Plant Antics of the Adams Family in the MHS Archives

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

When I look through the archives of the MHS, I find myself laughing a lot. Not everything is funny, of course, but enough to remind you that these towering figures from history were, in fact, human beings that made mistakes and experienced awkward situations, just like anyone else. I’ve gathered a few stories revolving around plants that I hope you enjoy as much as I do.

In his diary on 6 June 1771, John Adams recounts what I took to be an exaggerated and funny tale about eating fruit, told by his friend Mr. William Barrell. In the end, Adams moralizes that it’s a wholesome way to eat:

“Barrell this Morning at Breakfast entertained Us with an Account of his extravagant Fondness for Fruit. When he lived at New market he could get no fruit but Strawberries, and he used frequently to eat 6 Quarts in a Day. At Boston, in the very hottest of the Weather he breakfasts upon Water Melons—neither Eats nor drinks any Thing else for Breakfast. In the Season of Peaches he buys a Peck, every Morning, and eats more than half of them himself. In short he eats so much fruit in the Season of it that he has very little Inclination to any other Food. He never found any Inconvenience or ill Effect from fruit— enjoys as much Health as any Body. Father Dana is immoderately fond of fruit, and from several other Instances one would conclude it very wholsome.”

More from John Adams, this time when he was in Paris on 7 December 1779 on a diplomatic mission, when he had an unfortunate experience with caustic nut oil:

“Yesterday the Chevr. de la Molion gave me some Nuts which he call’d Noix d’Acajou. They are the same which I have often seen, and which were called Cooshoo Nuts. The true name is Acajou Nuts. They are shaped like our large white Beans. The outside Shell has an Oil in it that is corrosive, caustic, or burning. In handling one of these Shells enough to pick out the meat I got a little of this oyl on my fingers, and afterwards inadvertently rubbing my Eyes, especially my Left, I soon found the Lids swelled and inflamed up to my Eyebrow.”

If you have ever handled spicy food then rubbed your eye, I know you are cringing as much as I did when I read that!

Abigail Adams is famous for inoculating her children for smallpox while her husband was away at the Continental Congress in 1776. This was cutting edge medicinal science at the time. So, when her mother-in-law  took to carrots as a way to heal an arm sore, she did not believe it would work. However, in this letter to John on 21 February 1796, she remarks on the potential of carrots to heal this type of malady, perhaps as a joke.

“Tho I have not seen her since, I saw her Arm last week. There is not the appearance of a Soar upon it. It is matter of surprize and proves the powerfull efficacy of carrots in such cases as the rose kind.”

On 18 October 1820, John Quincy Adams was enjoying an evening with friends, including a beautiful young woman, when he was teased and challenged to come up with a poem about myrtle and geranium leaves for an album they were creating together. However, he disappointed the group, as he was unable to come up with anything imaginative on the spot. Afterwards, Adams notes that what was especially mortifying for him was the young woman’s impression of him as a man with an “inability” to produce a poem. Although he admits “I produce no impromptus,” later that night, he did write a poem for his friends to place in the album:

“Leaves of unfading verdure! here remain!
Myrtle of beauty! still thy place retain!
Still o’er the page, your hope-ting’d foliage spread;
Imprison’d still, your genial fragrance shed.
But Oh! could language, worthy of the theme,
Give instant utterance to fond fancy’s dream;
When your frail forms, her gentle hand shall raise,
The page should blossom with perennial praise:
A sweeter fragrance than your own should rise”

The Adams family may have been prominent, learned, worldly, and presidential, but these stories revolving around plants found in the MHS archives, are examples of the ways they could also be simply human. Perhaps what we can learn from the above is to always eat your carrots and fruit, and be careful which nut shells you handle—or, at least, don’t rub your eye afterwards!

“To My Brother Tommy”: John Quincy Adams and His Youngest Sibling

By Lucy Wickstrom, Adams Papers Intern

Like many younger siblings, Thomas Boylston Adams experienced a combination of gratitude and annoyance at his older brother John Quincy’s protectiveness. In the autumn of 1794, they voyaged together to Europe, where John Quincy was to work as foreign minister to the Netherlands with Thomas as his secretary. As they approached the chalky cliffs of Beachy Head, Thomas climbed to the highest part of the ship’s mast in order to get a better view — a stunt the twenty-two-year-old only felt comfortable performing because his brother was not “upon Deck.” In his diary (M/TBA/1, Adams Papers), Thomas confessed, “I should hardly have done it in his presence lest his fraternal solicitude about my discretion and safety” cause an embarrassing scene for them both. Thomas admitted that he felt “grateful for his tenderness…on many occasions,” but could not help but wonder why John Quincy seemed to think he lacked his own sense of “self preservation.”

portrait of a person
Twenty-three-year-old Thomas Boylston Adams in a 1795 miniature painted by a friend named Mr. Parker, while Thomas was in Europe with John Quincy. 

John Quincy’s concern for his youngest brother would not subside. After four years in Europe together, during which Thomas had been his brother’s “constant companion,” the younger Adams sailed back to the United States to resume his law practice in Philadelphia – a decision which his concerned sibling had some thoughts about, as well. “I do not think…his inclination…suited to the contentious part of that profession,” John Quincy wrote to their mother shortly after parting ways with Thomas. He saw in his younger brother an incredible mind and talent, who could be a “valuable…citizen of his Country,” but believed that law may be too fierce a profession for Thomas’s more sensitive nature. John Quincy’s judgment proved prophetic, as Thomas struggled to find much success as a lawyer, instead preferring to spend his time writing and publishing political pieces for Philadelphia newspapers and the literary journal Port Folio. He even wrote to his father, John Adams, on 22 October 1799 (Adams Papers) that he feared his “strong natural want of confidence” in himself ensured his failure in the field of law.

Whether Thomas was ever aware of that prescient piece of “fraternal solicitude” is unclear, but he certainly continued to reap the benefits – and, presumably, the inconveniences – of John Quincy’s anxiety for the rest of his life. And after a varied career in the early part of the nineteenth century that included service in local politics, on the Massachusetts state legislature, and as a circuit court chief justice, the youngest Adams sibling began to give his brother significant cause for worry. “If in any instance I have…wounded your feelings I am sorry for it,” the elder Adams wrote gently in 1818, entreating Thomas “to be kind to yourself.”

Thomas was showing signs of having inherited the same struggle that plagued both his maternal uncle and his brother Charles before him, as alcohol addiction damaged his health and put a strain on many of his familial relationships. The youngest Adams sibling, formerly applauded by relatives and acquaintances for his genial personality, became what his nephew Charles Francis Adams described as “a bully in his family” through the effects of his disease. Disliked, feared, or ignored by many of his loved ones, Thomas retained a consistent ally in John Quincy, who provided financially for not only his younger brother but Thomas’s wife and six children, as well. It was, according to John Quincy, merely his “brotherly duty of kindness.”

One of the first extant letters from John Quincy Adams to his youngest brother was penned in Paris, where the ten-year-old had traveled with their father, and addressed “To My Brother Tommy.” John Quincy reminded his five-year-old sibling that, difficult as it may be to accept, “Providence…has seperated us so that we cannot expect to see one another very soon.” Yet after the separations of their childhood, the brothers were hardly ever apart: partners in business, intimate confidants, close companions — and, finally, provider and dependent.

handwritten text, letter
In his diary entry for 17 March 1832, John Quincy Adams writes of receiving the news that his “dear and amiable brother” had died.

And when, on 12 March 1832, Thomas Boylston Adams died, his devoted sibling — now the only surviving child of John and Abigail Adams, the last remaining member of his famous immediate family — turned to his trusty diary to mourn the “dear and amiable brother” whom he loved.

Lucy Wickstrom interned with the Adams Papers in fall 2021. She is a graduate student at Tufts University, where she is pursuing her master’s degree in history and museum studies, with a special interest in early U.S. history and all things Adams family.

“No election or appointment . . . ever gave me so much pleasure”: John Quincy Adams as a member of the United States House of Representatives, 1830–1838

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

Transcriptions of more than 2,500 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 1830 through December 1838 and chronicle Adams’s experiences serving in the United States House of Representatives.

John Quincy Adams left the presidency on 4 March 1829 believing that his tenure in public service had ended, yet uncertain how to fill his days. When on 17 September 1830 congressman Edward Everett approached Adams to see if he would again stand for office, the statesman was unsure how to respond. He recorded in his diary: “To say that I would accept, would be so near to asking for a vote, that I did not feel disposed to go so far— I wished the People to act spontaneously; at their own discretion.” Upon learning of his congressional election, Adams commented that “My Election as President of the United States was not half so gratifying to my inmost Soul— No election or appointment conferred upon me ever gave me so much pleasure.”

large domed building with people and horses
View of the Capitol of the United States, by Joseph Andrews, 1834.

Adams took his seat in the House of Representatives in December 1831, representing the Plymouth district of Massachusetts in the 22d Congress. During his first years of service in that legislative body, Adams became chairman of the Committee on Manufactures, helping to compose the compromise tariff bill of 1832. He was also involved in the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, producing a minority report in support of the bank after traveling to Philadelphia as part of a House committee to inquire into its affairs. And he became increasingly interested in the Anti-Masonic political party, unsuccessfully standing as their Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate in 1833.

Adams subsequently served in the 23d through 25th Congresses, and it was during this period that he gained the sobriquet “Old Man Eloquent” for the speeches he gave against slavery and the annexation of Texas. He regularly presented antislavery petitions that he received from across the nation. When the House voted to pass a Gag Rule in May 1836 that would table all petitions relating to slavery, he was outraged: “On my name’s being called . . . I answered I hold the Resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States—of the Rules of this House and of the rights of my Constituents.” Although the Gag Rule passed, Adams continued to present the antislavery petitions he received. His actions led southern congressmen in 1837 to draft a resolution of censure against him, the vote of which failed. Adams noted in his diary that his defense of the right of petition at that time so consumed him that it was “The first time for more than forty years” that he had “suffered a total breach in my Diary for several weeks— At one of the most trying periods of my life.”

The other national issue that consumed John Quincy Adams during these years was protecting Englishman James Smithson’s $500,000 bequest to the United States. Adams chaired the House committee that created a bill stating that the national government would apply the bequest to the founding and endowment of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, D.C. He marveled that a foreigner should provide the means to found in America “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” and he believed that this was “an event in which I see the finger of Providence compassing great results by incomprehensible means.”

silhouette of a man
Silhouette of John Adams 2d (1803–1834).

John Quincy Adams lost two close members of his family during these years: his brother Thomas Boylston Adams died on 13 March 1832, and his middle son John Adams 2d passed away on 23 October 1834. After his son’s death, Adams found himself, “In a state between stupefaction, and a nervous irritation aggravated by the exertion to suppress it.” He became the legal guardian of his son’s two daughters, Mary Louisa Adams and Georgeanna Frances Adams, and his pecuniary duties toward his brother’s and son’s widows and children created significant financial responsibility for the congressman.

He and his wife Louisa Catherine Adams welcomed five new grandchildren into their family during this period, bringing the total to six. In his free time, he continued to walk, swim, and garden. He also found time to compose the 2,000-line poem “Dermot MacMorrogh, or The Conquest of Ireland,” which met with lukewarm reception from reviewers. As he entered his seventies, John Quincy Adams came to increasingly rely on his only surviving child, Charles Francis Adams, for financial and familial advice. “All my hopes of futurity in this world are now centered upon him,” Adams wrote.

For more on John Quincy Adams’s life, read the headnotes for the 1830–1834 and the 1835–1838 periods, or, navigate to the entries to begin reading his diary. The addition of material for the 1830–1838 period joins existing transcriptions of Adams’s diary for his legal, political, and diplomatic careers (1789–1817), his time as secretary of state (1817–1825), and his presidency (1825–1829), and brings the total number of transcriptions freely available on the MHS website to more than 8,300 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 was provided by the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund, with additional contributions by Harvard University Press and a number of private donors. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in partnership with the National Historical Publications and Records Commission also support the project through funding for the Society’s Primary Source Cooperative.

Who Did John Adams Like?

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Every time I write a blog post or teach a workshop and mention John Adams’s complicated relationship with Benjamin Franklin or mistrust of Alexander Hamilton, some member of the public will invariably scoff, “Who did John Adams like?”

I’m always taken aback by this attitude. “He liked lots of people!” I protest. In fact, the word that jumps to mind when I think of John Adams is “gregarious.” Adams loved to tell stories, crack jokes, and debate the topics of the day. He preferred his house bursting at the seams with children, grandchildren, and friends. Adams was a member of various dinner clubs and societies and well into old age welcomed curious citizens into his home for a friendly chat.

So how have we collectively developed an image of a scowling, curmudgeonly John Adams with a strong dislike of everyone besides Abigail? Probably because for many of us—myself included—our first introduction to John Adams was through a screaming Paul Giamatti in HBO’s John Adams or a sniping William Daniels in 1776. (And his reputation surely hasn’t been helped by the demonic “Welcome, folks, to the Adams Administration” voiceover in Hamilton that makes audience members feel they’ve left the sunshine days of President Washington behind and are advancing through the open gates of Hell.)

Adams undeniably spewed enough venom to inspire scriptwriters to cast him as the exasperated, irritated comic relief—the late Bob Dole called him the “eighteenth-century Don Rickles.” But imagine if the memory of you that is passed down to posterity consisted only of the words you used while venting to a trusted friend after a particularly stressful day (or even what you wrote in your diary). Adams is often remarkably generous in his descriptions of his contemporaries, so why are we only familiar with the insults? It may be because Adams’s gripes are funny, snappy, and eminently quotable. Posterity likely wouldn’t remember a lengthy diatribe against Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, but we can forever associate him with his two-word title, the “piddling Genius.”(See also: Hamilton as the “bastard brat of a Scotch Pedler,” etc., etc.)

Detail of a handwritten letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1 March 1796

Another reason we tend to view John Adams as unsociable is that the people he liked best aren’t preserved in the pantheon of American political history. Adams cared for two things: his family’s peace and happiness and his country’s peace and happiness. He had, in effect, sacrificed the former for the latter, and thus jealously guarded the latter. Where we see serene and omniscient statesmen, Adams saw self-absorbed, blundering politicians undermining his life’s work. (I think most of us agree that a mistrust of politicians is probably wise. In his line of work, it’s remarkable Adams found so many people he did like.) While serving as Vice President, John wrote home to Abigail: “I hate Speeches, Messages Addresses & answers, Proclamations and such Affected, studied constrained Things— I hate Levees & Drawing Rooms— I hate to Speak to a 1000 People to whom I have nothing to Say.”

Adams’s idea of contentment was sitting at his fireside after a long day’s work on his farm, surrounded by family and lifelong friends, speaking freely. “Formalities and Ceremonies are an abomination in my sight. —I hate them,” a 34-year-old John Adams confided to his diary. He was not to change his mind. Though he did acquire true friends during his political career—Benjamin Rush comes to mind—most of Adams’s nearest and dearest were Quincy farmers, in-laws, and former law students.

Detail of John Adams's diary entry for 30 June 1770
John Adams’s diary entry for 30 June 1770

If John Adams were half the curmudgeon he’s made out to be, I wouldn’t delight in sitting down each day to read his letters. But he’s kind and affectionate, witty and wise, candid, (sometimes exasperating), generous, and supremely lovable. And so, I delight.

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.

“My dear Daughter”: John and the other Abigail Adams

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

The first extant letter from John Adams to his daughter was written on 19 Sept. 1774, when Nabby was nine years old. He opened the letter by praising the “Improvement in your hand Writing and in the faculties of the Mind” but quickly transitioned into talking about her brothers, filling the page with advice he wanted Nabby to convey to them.

We don’t have any evidence of how Nabby may have reacted to this snub—if she perceived it as such—but John Adams’s next extant letter provides some clarity. In it, Adams encourages his daughter to be “more attentive than ever to the instructions and examples of your mamma and your aunts. They I know will give you every assistance in forming your heart to goodness and your mind to useful knowledge, as well as to those other accomplishments which are peculiarly necessary and ornamental in your sex.”

Aha. Adams had suggestions of books to fill his sons’ time and of virtues to fill their heads. He was consciously raising lawyers and future statesmen to take over the governance of the nation he was trying to build. But when it came to a quiet nine-year-old girl, he was stumped. What was her future? To become a wife. What advice could he give her? Take after your mother.

He even seemed to have had trouble finding things to correct in her character. “I shall not lay down any rules for your behaviour in life,” he wrote on 2 Dec. 1778, “because I know the steadiness of your mind, your modesty and discretion.” John’s inability to think up advice for his daughter led to some painfully dry letters like this one from 1777 where he described attending a Scots’ Presbyterian Church service. (This may interest scholars of religion. It probably did not interest an eleven-year-old girl.)

Abigail Adams Smith, miniature portrait on porcelain tile by an unidentified artist, [18--]
Abigail Adams 2d, known to her family as “Nabby.”
On the rare occasions he saw an opportunity to correct Nabby, he overcompensated, like in this 26 Sept. 1782 letter in which he overreacts to Nabby asking for a small present. “Taste is to be conquered, like unruly appetites and passions, or the mind is undone,” he wrote. “There are more thorns sown in the path of human life by vanity, than by any other thing.”

His message was taken to heart. In her next letter to him, Nabby wrote, “I assure you my Dear Sir that I have suffered, not a little mortification, whenever I reflected that I have requested a favour of you that your heart and judgment did not readily assent to grant. Twas not that your refusal pained me, but the consciousness that there was an impropriety, in my soliciting whatever you should consider incompattiable to comply with. It has rendered me so througherly dissatisfied with my own oppinion and judgment, that I shall for the future take care to avoid the possibility of erring in a similar manner.”

Even John Adams knew he had overreacted, backpedaling with, “I know your disposition to be thoughtful and serene, and therefore I am not apprehensive of your erring much in this way” and closed the letter by assuring Nabby of his “inexpressible tenderness of heart” for her.

Ironically, it was his daughter, the person he seemed to find it hardest in all the world to advise, to whom he gave the best advice: “To be good, and to do good, is all We have to do.”

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

 

Sympathy for the Devil: John Quincy Adams’s Brush with Aaron Burr

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

It was an open secret that the Adamses were no fans of Alexander Hamilton. Senator John Quincy Adams couldn’t even be prevailed upon to wear crape, join in a funeral procession, or “join in any outward demonstration of regret” after Hamilton’s untimely death. When chastised by his wife, JQA responded that he “had no respect” for the fallen statesman.

Nor did he much respect the man who had stood opposite Hamilton in the early hours of 11 July 1804, and his respect for Burr only plummeted further when Burr dared to return to his station as President of the Senate. Adams admitted he had kept Burr “at arms length the whole Session of Congress,” feeling it “a cruel degradation to the Body itself, to have for a President at such a time, and on such an occasion, a Man under a legal accusation of Murder.” Adams “could not forgive him for taking the Seat.”

Detail of letter from John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams
 John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 1 April 1805 (Adams Papers)

When the second session of the Eighth Congress came to a close on 3 March 1805, Burr gave a farewell address—“the last act of his political life,” as Adams thought—and John Quincy left the Senate Chamber for home, convinced he had seen the last of Burr.

On 19 March, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine boarded a ship in Baltimore, sweating in the unseasonably warm weather, two sick and fitful toddlers in their arms, ready to get the trip over with and reach their next destination of Philadelphia. (When they later arrived in Philadelphia, the Adamses’ old friend Dr. Benjamin Rush diagnosed the boys with chicken pox and whooping cough.) An overwhelmed Louisa Catherine recorded in her diary that “the Children were both quite unwell and of course very troublesome It was the first time that I had the entire charge of them.”

One can imagine the sinking of already low spirits when the Adamses got on board and were greeted by Aaron Burr. Having been much affected by Hamilton’s demise, Louisa confided to her diary that she “felt a sort of loathing for this Col Burr.”

Within a few hours, Louisa—and everyone else on board—had fallen under his spell. “He appeared to fascinate every one in the Boat down to the lowest Sailor and knew every bodies history by the time we left— He was politely attentive to me . . . At Table he assisted me to help the Children with so much ease and good nature that I was perfectly confounded.”

Detail of letter from John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams
John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 1 April 1805 (Adams Papers)

When relaying the event to his brother, John Quincy wrote, “Whether the original seducer of mankind, has embodied himself in the person of the little ex-vice, I am not competent to pronounce— This I will say; that I defy Man, Woman or Child, so to withstand the powers of his fascination, as to part from him after such a transitory association, without feelings of good-will towards him.”

After a particularly rough passage—so rough, in fact, that at one point Louisa rolled out of her high berth and onto the floor—the Pennsylvania soil was a sweet sight to the passengers. Taking pity on the sleep-deprived parents of fussy young children, Burr swooped in, taking little John Adams II in one arm, taking Louisa’s luggage in the other hand, and offering her his arm to disembark. John Quincy followed behind them, George Washington Adams in his arms, his jaw on the gangplank.

“It was all done with so little parade and with such entire good breeding that it made you forget that he was doing any thing out of the way,” Louisa recalled. “He talked and laughed all the way and we were quite intimate by the time we got to Philadelphia where he called to see us, and this the first and last occasion on which I ever saw this celebrated man.”

After two weeks’ rumination, John Quincy summed up the experience by writing, “I had not strength of mind enough to retain in their full inflexibility the resentments even of Virtue— I felt a degree of compassion for the Man, which was almost ready to turn to Respect— He was more than barely civil to me and my family— I could not help feeling for him in return more kindness, than I was willing to acknowledge to myself—infinitely more than I suffered myself to shew him; and perhaps more than is justly consistent with that character which on a cool and distant estimate I cannot help believing to be his.”

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.

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.