“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:

handwriting, letter
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.

Nearly Seven Decades of “Journalizing” Available through the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary

By Karen N. Barzilay, The Adams Papers

“There has perhaps not been another individual of the human race of whose daily existence from early childhood to four score years has been noted down with his own hand so minutely as mine.”

Diary, 31 October 1846

Five years ago, I joined a team of transcribers, editors, and digital production specialists preparing the diaries of John Quincy Adams for online publication. At the time, high quality scans of each manuscript page of the diary were available through the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website, but without transcriptions, they were only date, not keyword searchable. Our goal was to provide verified transcriptions of the diary free to the public, complete with headnotes and other features, to benefit students, scholars, and other users interested in the Adams family specifically and the Early Republic more generally.

Producing a digital edition of this diary has been no small task. John Quincy Adams started keeping a journal in 1779 at age 12 and wrote almost continuously for the rest of his long life, nearly up until his death in early 1848 at age 80. There are 51 volumes of diary entries—a total of over 15,000 manuscript pages. Today, transcriptions of nearly 12,000 of those pages are available online, covering the years 1789 to 1848. On our website, you can view the original manuscript page images and transcriptions side by side. They are fully searchable and we hope people will spread the word about this helpful digital resource.

The John Quincy Adams Digital Diary is truly a collaborative project; my primary role has been to verify the transcriptions, which involves carefully comparing each manuscript page of the diary with a typed transcript for accuracy. This process is performed twice, by two different editors, to ensure that the final version you find online is as faithful as possible to the original. As with the Adams Papers printed editions, we strive to produce authoritative versions of these manuscripts for general use. It is detail-oriented work and can be tedious, but historians are nosy and always looking for an excuse to read old diaries and letters.

My dissertation was on the First Continental Congress of 1774, so for many years John Quincy Adams existed in my mind only as a little boy, the son of John Adams who was left behind in Massachusetts when his father departed for Philadelphia and who watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from Penn’s Hill in Braintree alongside his mother, Abigail Adams. During my work on the Adams Family Correspondence series back in the 2000s, the project was publishing documents from the 1790s, when John Quincy was a young, single lawyer in Boston eager to make a name for himself.

During my time working on the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary, I have had the opportunity to follow John Quincy through the rest of his extraordinary life, from his years as a diplomat in Europe to his service as secretary of state, from his presidency through his long tenure in the House of Representatives. It was painful to read about his heartbreaking personal losses, including the deaths of his parents, whom he dearly loved, all of his siblings, three of his four children, and two cherished grandchildren. It was rather dull, to be honest, when John Quincy became obsessed with various countries’ standard weights and measures in the 1810s and when he described at length the varieties of trees he planted in his garden in the 1830s. Recently, I’ll confess that it was with some sadness that I verified the transcriptions of the diary written in 1847 and 1848, just before John Quincy’s death, most of which were dictated by John Quincy and penned by another granddaughter, Louisa, due to his unsteady hand.

handwritten pages
The first (left) and last (right) dated diary entries written by John Quincy Adams.

John Quincy Adams encountered a staggering array of familiar historical and literary figures during his life and he knew personally many of the people we associate with both the American Revolution and the Civil War. He had dinner with George Washington in 1794, shortly after Washington appointed him minister to the Netherlands, and he served briefly in Congress with future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and with Abraham Lincoln, who was on the committee that made arrangements for Adams’s funeral. Along the way John Quincy heard Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard, had lunch with Charles Dickens, and interacted with thousands of other more “ordinary” men and women of diverse backgrounds. The diary is a who’s who of late 18th-century and early 19th-century America and a window into the many political, cultural, and technological changes transforming the young nation during that period. Fortunately for us, John Quincy was self-disciplined when it came to his daily “journalizing” and his diary has survived the passage of time.

Work on the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary continues. We invite you to explore the site and follow our progress.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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.”

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.