Nabby and John Quincy Adams: Life Strangers

by Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Three days before her second birthday, Abigail Adams 2d, or “Nabby,” received the perfect birthday present—a little brother named John Quincy. As she remembered it, the love was instant, and history is on her side. The first mention of John Quincy Adams in the Adams Family Papers is an account given by Abigail of a two-year-old Nabby rocking a two-month-old JQA to sleep, singing, “Come pappa come home to Brother Johnny.”

During the next decade the siblings lost two little sisters, gained two brothers, and lost their father to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Yet, in the midst of revolution and war, they still found time to be children—trading books, going fishing and ice skating, taking long walks, and gossiping about their cousins. Then in February 1778 their father was sent to Paris, and he decided to take ten-year-old John Quincy with him.

Over the next six years, Nabby felt the loss of John Quincy’s company severely. Nabby wrote to her brother, “I cannot bear the idea of growing into life strangers to each other,” adding, “Indeed, it sometimes seems to me as if you were lost.” To her cousin Elizabeth Cranch, Nabby admitted, “I do not talk upon the subject, but there is not a day passes over my Life but this subject occupys my thoughts, and disbelieve it if you please, I can seldom reflect upon it without tears.”

Abigail Adams Smith
Miniature of Abigail Adams Smith

After years of waiting, Nabby and her mother set sail for London to reunite with John Quincy. On 30 July 1784, nineteen-year-old Nabby was in the middle of a letter to her cousin when she wrote, “This moment a servant tells me that my Brother has arrived and has stoped at the next house to dress. Why has he done this. He knowns not the impatience of his sister.” Abigail later related: “His sister he says he should have known in any part of the World,” and added, “Were I not their Mother, I would Say a likelier pair you will seldom see in a summers day.”

Less than a year later, JQA had to return to the United States to prepare for Harvard. Nabby lamented, “He is gone—alas to my sorrow—for I lost in him all the Companion that I had—and it is not possible his place should be supplyd.”

Determined to be “life strangers” no more, John Quincy and Nabby kept up their correspondence, writing uncommonly long letters to each other in which they covered all topics—particularly gossiping about the people with whom they came into contact, royalty included. Nabby and John Quincy shared a somewhat snarky sense of humor, and their letters were considered too candid even for John and Abigail’s eyes. Abigail wrote to her son, “Your Sister has written you so many pages that I suppose she has not left me any thing material to write to you but. . .I am very rarely honourd with a sight of any of them.”

Nabby told JQA of her daydream that she would settle in New York near her husband’s family “and have you one of these Days come as a Member from the Massachusetts to Congress. We should be quite at home again.”

A shifting capital dashed Nabby’s daydream, but John Quincy and Nabby never became strangers again. JQA was a devoted uncle to Nabby’s children, and Nabby nursed John Quincy’s wife through bouts of illness and difficult childbirths.

Their 46-year friendship confirmed Nabby’s prediction that she made in the same letter where she fretted they were becoming strangers: “There is no higher pleasure, no greater happiness, than a family bound by the ties of love, and cemented by the bonds of affection, where each for the other feels more than for himself, and where the chief end and aim is to render each other happy: this I wish may be our situation; it will; and the advantages arising will be mutual.”

I Lived like John Quincy Adams for a Week (and This is What I Learned)

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

It is an oft-repeated maxim that “what we love we shall grow to resemble.” Well, I love John Quincy Adams, and in the past few years I’ve noticed several of his habits cropping up in my life. Thinking that all of his habits are good, I made the decision that for one week I would live as closely as I could to the way JQA lived.

Knowing a week wasn’t enough time to kick start a political career, I went to John Quincy’s diary and looked at a more leisurely time in his life—July 1803. In July, he summarized his daily routine thusly: “Rise between 5 and 6. Bathe and walk about two hours— Read or amuse myself with George untill 9. Breakfast— At Market— Read or write untill 2. p.m. Dine— Read again untill Sunset— Walk an hour. Lounge away the time untill 10.”

Detail of diary entry of John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams’s diary entry summarizing July 1803.

That sounded doable. Keeping in mind that I have seven hours a day of mandated Adams time (How cool is that?!), I sketched out this daily schedule for myself.

5:00 a.m. — Wake and study the Bible
6:00 a.m. — Walk
7:30 a.m. — “Bathe”
8:00 a.m. — Read John Tillotson’s Sermons
9:00 a.m. — Work
2:00 p.m. — Lunch
3:00 p.m. — Work
5:00 p.m. — Read William Winterbotham’s View of the United States
7:00 p.m. — Walk
8:00 p.m. — Dinner and “lounge”
10:00 p.m. — Sleep

We know from an 1811 letter to his son George that John Quincy read the Bible cover-to-cover once a year, spending approximately an hour every morning in meditation. In July 1803 John Quincy also read John Tillotson’s Sermons to further nurture his spirit, so I did too.

The morning walk was easy enough to duplicate, but skinny dipping in the Charles is now frowned upon. Since JQA’s morning swim was as much about healthy circulation as it was about exercise, I substituted an ice cold shower. (If you can recall Janet Leigh’s shrieks in the Psycho shower scene, you have an idea of how that went.)

Adams also noted that he was reading William Winterbotham’s An Historical, Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical View of the American United States, which is available to read online. Like JQA, I allowed Winterbotham to fill my evenings (and was as antsy as a Labrador to get out for my evening walk). Of course, one cannot imitate John Quincy Adams without meticulously keeping a diary, so I ended each day with pen in hand.

What was it like to be John Quincy Adams? Exhausting, if my experience is anything to go on. I wanted to weep every time I finished work and had to open Winterbotham. It took substantial willpower to step into a cold shower each morning. Even so, I would recommend the experiment to anyone.

Purposefully recreating his actions allowed me to understand Adams in a way I never had, and it reminded me of the best thing about John Quincy—his industry was always for others.

He pored over religious readings to keep his moral compass calibrated so that he could act justly throughout the day. He used exercise as a tool to help him focus. (I can’t convey the level of mental clarity after a long walk and cold shower. You’ll have to try it.) Once grounded and focused, he studied his country so that he could serve it effectively.

As I lived the life of 36-year-old Senator Adams, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the advice a ten-year-old JQA received from his mother: “Improve your understanding for acquiring usefull knowledge and virtue, such as will render you an ornament to society, an Honour to your Country, and a Blessing to your parents.” No wonder Abigail was so proud.

Uniting the States

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

The Papers of John Adams, Volume 20, spans a formative era in the development of our federal government, stretching from June 1789 to February 1791. We used 301 documents to tell the legislative story of the first federal Congress, foregrounding John Adams’s creation of the office of the vice presidency amid the nation’s struggle to implement the new U.S. Constitution. With outliers North Carolina and Rhode Island repeatedly delaying ratification of the Constitution, Congress battled through three busy sessions of debates. Meeting for the first time in New York City’s half-built Federal Hall, congressmen tussled over how to collect revenue and where to locate the national capital. They spent weeks filling posts, and setting up the key departments of state, treasury, and war. John Adams’ ever-candid comments reveal firsthand the challenges of that inaugural Congress.

Equally perplexing—and challenging—to John Adams was the scope of his new federal role. The U.S. Constitution said little about what a vice president’s powers were, and so Adams was largely left alone to interpret the charge. Here’s what we learn in his letters: From his earliest days in office, Adams etched out clear boundaries for the vice president’s powers. He forwarded a flood of patronage requests to George Washington. Adams focused his energy on presiding over the Senate, where he broke several major ties amid rising partisan conflict. Overall, Adams found his Senate duties “Somewhat severe—sitting just in the same place, so many hours of every day.” Though he could be petulant about the daily grind of politics, Adams was optimistic about the “National Spirit” of his colleagues, who were constructing the tripartite federal government that he had long envisioned. Whether or not the union would hold, as regional interests repeatedly impeded congressional action, remained Adams’ chief concern. As he told one friend, “There is every Evidence of good Intentions on all sides but there are too many Symptoms of old Colonial Habits: and too few, of great national Views.”

View up Wall Street by Archibald Robertson
Archibald Robertson, “View up Wall Street with City Hall (Federal Hall) and Trinity Church, New York City,” ca. 1798

Volume 20 places John Adams and his family in New York City, and, by the book’s end, in Philadelphia. After a decade in Europe and a few months of semi-retirement in rural Quincy, Adams acculturated to new habits. His trusted circle of regular correspondents changed. For example, in Volume 20, the Adams-Jefferson correspondence recedes. We see more exchanges with Dr. Benjamin Rush, Henry Marchant, John Trumbull, and with the vice president’s son, John Quincy. Busy compiling his Discourses on Davila in the spring of 1790, John Adams renewed old friendships on the page and reflected on his law career. I want to emphasize here that every Adams Papers volume is foundational. We are especially grateful to the editors of the Legal Papers, who have helped us to identify Adams’ allusions, reflections, and rivals at the bar.

Time for a sneak peek! One of the more remarkable letters that we published in Volume 20 is Benjamin Franklin’s last letter, of February 9th, 1790, to his fellow revolutionary and former colleague. For longtime readers of the Adams Papers and fans of American history, this letter is a fascinating bookend to a fractious friendship. Franklin enclosed a 5 February 1790 letter from James Pemberton, a well-known Philadelphia Quaker and antislavery activist, as well as a 3 February 1790 petition from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The Society asked Congress for the abolition of slavery and an end to the slave trade. While Adams never replied to Franklin, the vice president did heed the request and laid the petition before the Senate. Despite heated debate, no substantial action was taken by Congress regarding what Adams called “the Quaker petition.”

April 1790 skit by John Adams
John Adams, “Dialogues of the Dead,” ca. 22 April 1790, Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society

But John Adams did pause to reflect on the passing of Benjamin Franklin. Just as his Discourses on Davila began to appear in the American press, Adams’s writing took a more fanciful turn. Following Franklin’s death, Adams memorialized the milestone in a playful skit, titled “Dialogues of the Dead.” We do not see a lot of “creative writing” in John Adams’s papers, so this is a unique treat. Adams’s scene stars a cast of characters in conversation [Charlemagne, James Otis, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Frederick II (the Great)] as they await Franklin’s arrival in the afterlife.

Though it seemed like a quirky choice for the author of serious works like the Defence of the Constitutions, Adams’ sardonic salute showed his Harvard-trained classical roots. In content and style, Adams emulated the Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata’s Dialogues of the Dead. Adams riffed on Franklin’s science experiments and took a few jabs at his statesmanship. He observed that Franklin “told some very pretty moral Tales from the head—and Some very immoral ones from the heart.” For such a breezy and colorful bit of writing, Adams certainly worked hard to get it right; the manuscript bears plenty of his edits and deletions. We are proud that John Adams’s previously unpublished “Dialogues of the Dead,” along with a previously unpublished draft for a 33rd essay intended for his Discourses on Davila, will both appear in Volume 20.

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.

“How are your nice Feelings affected by the Times?”

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

The news is scary. In the midst of global pandemic, an economic crisis, and nightly images of police brutality, we keep hearing the same question over and over: What do I tell my children?

This is not a new question. Every time John Adams sat at his writing desk in Philadelphia, quill in hand, he contemplated what to say to his “little flock.” He knew they had the violence of war on their doorstep, and the smallpox virus was creeping ever closer. “My Anxiety about you and the Children, as well as our Country, has been extreme,” he confided to Abigail on 24 July 1775.

John recognized that his children were exceptionally lucky to have a mother like Abigail to explain, care, and console, but he was still their father. In his letter to Abigail of 2 June 1775, John wrote, “My Dear Nabby, and Johnny and Charley & Tommy are never out of my Thoughts.”

letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 2 June 1775.

Adams encouraged his children to communicate with him, telling them he longed “to share with your Mamma the Pleasures of your Conversation.” Sometimes he invited the children to lead the conversation and tell him what they were experiencing. On 17 March 1777, he asked his son Charles, “What Subject do your Thoughts run upon these Times. You are a thoughtfull Child you know, always meditating upon some deep Thing or other. Your Sensibility is exquisite too. Pray how are your nice Feelings affected by the Times?”

John also reminded his children that God was watching over them, and that they could trust Abigail to keep them safe. “I hope you and your Sister and Brothers will take proper Notice of these great Events, and remember under whose wise and kind Providence they are all conducted. Not a Sparrow falls, nor a Hair is lost, but by the Direction of infinite Wisdom. Much less are Cities conquered and evacuated,” he wrote to John Quincy on 18 April 1776. For the baby, Tommy, John simply wrote, “Be always dutifull and obedient to your Mamma.”

John Adams encouraged conviction and virtue in his elder children, writing John Quincy what books to pull out of the family library to prepare for a life of public service and responsible citizenship. “Public Virtues,” he wrote to Abigail on 29 Oct. 1775, “and political Qualities therefore should be incessantly cherished in our Children.” For Tommy, who was too young to understand what was happening, John focused on love and play. “Tell Tom, I would give a Guinea to have him climb upon my shoulder, and another to chase him into his Jail.”

Letter from John Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 29 Oct. 1775

John Adams, like every parent, had many anxieties and aspirations for his children. He urged Abigail to “elevate the Minds of our Children and exalt their Courage; to accelerate and animate their Industry & activity— to excite in them an habitual Contempt of Meanness, abhorrence of Injustice and Inhumanity, and an ambition to excell in every Capacity, Faculty, and Virtue.”

To his daughter, Nabby, Adams provided his most succinct advice for navigating tumultuous times: “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.

Living in an Epidemic: What Did Abigail Do?

by Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Abigail Adams knew what to do. Whether her correspondent was nursing a broken heart or a broken arm, Abigail had the cure. She penned thousands of letters throughout her life offering advice on matters spiritual, botanical, financial, medical, and political.

But what would Abigail Adams do in the midst of a pandemic? Fortunately, with the trove of letters Abigail left us from the 1776 smallpox epidemic, the question is not “What would Abigail do?” but rather “What did Abigail do?”

First, Abigail kept herself informed and was proactive. Abigail had already lived through a smallpox epidemic in 1764 and knew the importance of staying ahead of the disease. On 17 June 1776, she wrote to John that inoculation was beginning. “Dr. Bulfinch has petitiond the General Court for leave to open a Hospital some where, and it will be granted him. I shall with all the children be one of the first class you may depend upon it.”

Letter written by Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 29 July 1776

Second, Abigail heeded the advice of medical professionals. Doctors encouraged patients to remain in peak physical form to fight the disease. “We are ordered all the Air we can get,” Abigail wrote on 29 July. “[We] abstain from Spirit, Salt and fats, fruit we Eat, all we can get, and those who like vegetables unseasond may Eat them, but that is not I.” In the same letter, Abigail lamented that their isolation was extended several weeks by the doctor’s uncertainty that the inoculation took with each child, but she trusted his judgment. “This doubtfull Buisness is very dissagreable as it will detain us much longer, but there are several instances now of persons who thought they had had it, and were recoverd, and lived away freely, and now are plentifully dealt by.”

Third, Abigail sought solace when the stress got to be too much. This solace mainly came in the form of candid letters to her husband. “This Suspence is painfull,” she wrote on 30 July. “Tis a pestilence that walketh in Darkness.” She was homesick and stir-crazy and longed “for the sweet air of Braintree.” On 1 August, she acknowledged that “I forget one day what I wrote the day before. This small pox is a great confuser of the mind, I am really put to it to spell the commonest words.”

Letter written by John Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 10 Aug. 1776

John empathized, writing on 23 July, “You will find several dull Hours, and the Children will fatigue you.” On 10 August, he wrote, “This Suspence and Uncertainty must be very irksome to you. But Patience and Perseverance, will overcome this, as well as all other Difficulties. Dont think of Time, nor Expence.”

Abigail kept herself informed, was proactive, and monitored her physical and mental health. But above all, Abigail wrote. During the two months that Abigail and the children were isolated with smallpox, Abigail wrote more than 15 letters to John detailing their experience. “I believe you will be tired of hearing of small pox,” Abigail wrote to John on 29 July. She filled page after page with information not only about herself, but about their neighbors, their servants, and what information she received from the outside world.

Because of Abigail, we can feel and know what it was like to live through the smallpox epidemic in 1776. The MHS invites you to bear witness to history the same way Abigail did. Tell us about your experience living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Historians of the future will thank you. Someday someone might even write a blog post about you.

From Diplomacy to “Defence”

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

For John Adams, the end of the American Revolution ushered in a difficult peace. This saga plays out in the 301 documents that compose Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams, now available in our free Adams Papers Digital Editions, chronicling his public life from December 1785 to January 1787. His tenure as the first American minister to Britain from 1785 to 1788, which he seized on as his dream job—and a post that Adams heavily lobbied for in congressional circles—felt fruitless by late December 1785. After months of court presentations and dinner-table diplomacy, Adams could not persuade the British ministry to settle prewar debts, restore lost property, or normalize commercial relations. His face-to-face encounters with the British ministry ground to “a full stop.” With trademark candor, Adams reported home that King George III was too “obstinate” and possessed an “habitual Contempt of Patriots and Patriotism,” while the new prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, “oscillated like a Pendulum” on key questions of foreign policy. Adams projected that Anglo-American relations would continue suffering in a state of “contemptuous silence” and neglect.

John Adams by Copley
John Adams, by John Singelton Copley, 1783, Harvard Art Museums

The British newspapers made it worse. Editors printed a series of attacks and misrepresentations of both American news and John Adams that his wife Abigail denounced as “false…false as Hell.” A turning point came in February 1786. The British rejected Adams’s memorial requesting their evacuation of posts on the American frontier. Adams, left to uphold a treaty that he never found satisfactory, saw that he was mired in a system that stonewalled American interests. This type of diplomatic toil, Adams wrote to friends back in New England, was akin to “making brick without straw.” By January 1787, Adams had resigned his commissions, ready to return home after a decade’s worth of service. What, then, did he really accomplish in Europe?

Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams tells us a new story. For, between 1778 and 1788, as he moved from The Hague to Auteuil and from London to New York, John Adams formed an extraordinary and little-known record of cultural diplomacy. First, he recruited allies and funds to the American cause. Then Adams urged them to amplify the history and culture of the new nation. Europe’s “Men of Letters…who are possessed of the best Hearts and most virtuous Principles, are anxious to assist Us in the great Work We have to do,” he wrote to the Scottish educator George Chapman in 1785. Entrusted with dual commissions to manage Dutch loans and craft commercial agreements with the nations of Europe and North Africa, Adams stuck to congressional instructions. He worked on negotiations related to Anglo-American economic relations, as well as proposed treaties with Morocco (successful) and Portugal (not). We used annotation and illustrations to narrate his work, including an image of a rare, Arabic-language manuscript in the Adams Papers.

Sidi Haj Taher Ben Abdelhack Fennish to the American Commissioners
Sidi Haj Taher Ben Abdelhack Fennish to the American Commissioners, [28 June 1786]
Diplomacy, for Adams, was personal and political in scope. He sought to repair Anglo-American relations, one person at a time. He hired an old loyalist friend in exile, John Jeffries, to serve as the family doctor and care for his first grandson. And as he labored over his seminal, three-volume schematic of tripartite federalism, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, Adams wrote letters of introduction for New England merchants. Though he did not bend the congressional instructions that prevented him from giving legal advice, Adams used his post to nurture national needs. He leaned heavily into promoting American whale oil, mainly to aid his debt-ridden friends in New England, then weathering Shays’ Rebellion. Adams was beset by transatlantic tides of paperwork: loyalist pleas and immigration inquiries flooded his desk. Still, he regularly made room for more correspondents and contacts. Not always patiently, the American minister sat for a small army of artists including John Singleton Copley. An advocate of the growing American Republic of Letters, Adams built bridges of correspondence between learned and scientific societies. Thanks to his work, Harvard scholars shared their finds with London’s Royal Society and with French surgeons. American students traded star sightings and observations with the Palatine Academy of Science in Mannheim. Firmly, Adams tugged Europeans’ attention toward the “first fruits” of independent America.

Literature and religion were intellectual pursuits that Adams enjoyed dabbling in. History was his passion. Three years’ posting to London planted Adams in scenery that he had only read about. On his days off, Adams tore through England’s landmarks. He made quick tours of the countryside with Abigail or Thomas Jefferson in tow. He relished seeing the cottage where Shakespeare metered his sonnets, and he breathed in the lush green estates of landed gentry. Ever a fitful diarist, John Adams recorded the sites with Whiggish approval of the country seats’ symmetrical topiary, classical statuary, and working farms. In his letters home, John focused on historic sites. He explored key episodes of the English Civil War through visits to the battle sites of Edgehill and Worcester. Adams, ever forthright and opinionated, was more of a tourist than a diplomat on such trips. At the latter venue, Adams felt “provoked” to remind the local residents that “this is holy Ground, much holier than that on which your Churches stand.”

Title page of Defence
John Adams, Defence, Title Page

There was more to John Adams’ life than diplomacy. Volume 18 reveals the fiftysomething minister in a moment of change. He witnessed the marriage of his daughter, Abigail 2d, to William Stephens Smith; promoted the ordination of American Episcopal bishops; and made his final tours of Europe. During his time in London, he also drafted the first volume of his Defence. With his mission at a standstill, he had ample time to devote to the task. Adams’ opening salvo pieced together or silently quoted from historical examples, mainly drawn from case studies of Italian republics, to show that balanced government prevented civil war. Adams argued that America needed such a structure in order to sustain the hard-won republic. To learn more about his blueprint for the nation, you can start reading Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams here.

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.

“A worm preying upon the vitals of the Administration”: John Quincy Adams on William Harris Crawford

By Neal Millikan, Series Editor, Digital Editions

During President James Monroe’s administrations, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) served alongside Secretary of the Treasury William Harris Crawford (1772–1834), one of the men against whom he would vie for the presidency in the election of 1824. Adams’s Diary offers his private musings on and feelings toward his fellow cabinet member and political opponent; it also gives tantalizing glimpses of Adams’s deteriorating opinion of Crawford.

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams engraving by Francis Kearney, circa 1824

On February 3, 1819, Adams recorded in his Diary his current view of the treasury secretary: “Crawford is not a worse man, than the usual herd of ambitious intriguers. Perhaps not so bad as many of them— I do not think him entirely unprincipled; but his ambition swallows up his principle.” However, two years later in his entry for March 3, 1821, Adams’s tone was far more cynical: “Crawford has been a worm preying upon the vitals of the Administration within its own body.” Adams also noted “the emptiness of the Treasury, and Crawford’s utter inability to devise any other source of Revenue but loan upon loan.”

Engraving of William Harris Crawford
William Harris Crawford engraving by S. H. Gimber, no date

Like Adams, Crawford sought to attain the presidency in the 1824 election, but a stroke in the fall of 1823 kept him out of politics for several months. Adams was elected president in February 1825 and subsequently offered the treasury secretary the opportunity to remain in his cabinet position, but Crawford declined. On December 14, President Adams learned a shocking piece of information about Crawford, which he recorded in his Diary. According to a clerk in the Treasury Department, “all personal communication between Mr Monroe and Mr Crawford had ceased” toward the end of Monroe’s presidency. Curious as to the cause of this breach, Adams asked his secretary of the Navy, Samuel Southard, “if this fact had been known to him.” Southard, who had visited the White House shortly after the argument occurred, stated that he “found Mr Monroe walking to and fro across the room in great agitation.” Crawford had recommended certain customs officials for office to whom Monroe objected. Crawford then “said petulantly; well—if you will not appoint the persons well qualified for the places, tell me whom you will appoint; that I may get rid of their importunities.” Monroe then “replied with great warmth; saying that he considered Crawford’s language as extremely improper, and unsuitable to the relations between them.” At this point, Crawford “raised his Cane, as in the attitude to strike, and said ‘you damned infernal old Scoundrel’— Mr Monroe seized the tongs at the fire-place for self-defence; applied a retaliatory epithet to Crawford and told him he would . . . turn him out of the house.” Adams then told Southard: “if I had known it at the time, I should not have invited Mr Crawford to remain in the Treasury Department.”

@JQAdams_MHS Celebrating 1 Decade of Diary Entries on Twitter!

by Alexandra Bush, Digital Production Assistant

Screenshot of JQA Twitter page
@JQAdams_MHS Twitter Page

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of the @JQAdams_MHS Twitter feed, which tweeted its first entry from John Quincy Adams’ line-a-day diary on 5 August 2009! The MHS staff has diligently posted one entry every day since, exactly 200 years after each was recorded by JQA, e.g. posting his 5 August, 1809 entry on 5 August, 2009 and so on. Since then we have accompanied him through all manner of wild weather, meetings, portrait sittings, evening walks, trips abroad, political debates, astronomical observations, and more. While JQA’s line-a-day entries aren’t exactly verbose, they provide an evocative look into his daily life.

The journey began in 2009, or 1809 for JQA, on the eve of his tenure as the United States’ ambassador to Russia, where he dined with Czar Alexander I and negotiated and signed the Treaty of Ghent. Next we followed him to London upon his appointment as envoy and ambassador to Great Britain in 1815/2015, marking the beginning of a years-long string of complaints about the dreary weather. JQA became Secretary of State to President James Monroe in 1817/2017, whereupon he returned to Washington, D.C. These past few years have seen JQA firmly establishing his presence in the capitol; assisting in matters of international relations, helping to formally define the borders of the United States, and baring his soul to the world every summer morning during his nude Potomac swims. What’s in store for the future? Only time—or our meticulously digitized, transcribed, and fully searchable web database of each of his diaries from 1779 to 1848—will tell.

Our followers’ impressions of JQA’s succinct line-a-day entries are one of the best parts of this venture. It is wonderful to see how words written 200 years ago can still be impactful today.

@Loiarchives writes:
@JQAdams_MHS Dear JQA, why do I find your tweets so calming? 

@SpiritbearNY writes:
Huh. He felt about his journal, which consumed his mornings, the way many of us feel about our use of social media. At least he was documenting history, though, not rage tweeting about his political enemies. 🙄

@fararelliott writes:
I love JQA – a bath is essential to celebrating Independence Day.

@k59griffie writes:
Another luscious word from the diary of @JQAdams_MHS : “underwitted.” He has given me two great words:  vagarious and underwitted.  I am happy.

Sometimes, though, the voice of a long-dead historical figure on a modern social media site can be a little confusing.

@AngusDoubleBeef asks:
Is this really John Quincy Adams or like a fan account?

Regardless of your views on the possibility of tweeting from beyond the grave, we encourage anyone with a Twitter account to follow @JQAdams_MHS. Join us as we finish out his Secretary of State years and celebrate his presidency in 2025! None of this would have been possible without the tireless work of the members of the Adams Papers Editorial Project, whose long hours of transcription provide us with a constantly growing source of fascinating JQA writings. You can find images and transcriptions of JQA’s diary including line-a-day entries, long-form entries, drafts, and more, on the MHS website. See full page images here http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/php/ and transcriptions of long entries here https://www.masshist.org/publications/jqadiaries/index.php.

Abigail Adams’s “favorite Scotch song”

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Have you ever wondered what Abigail Adams’s favorite song was? Or maybe you wondered if John and Abigail had a song that was their song. A series of letters written between 1778 and 1787 seems to provide the answer.

Abigail Adams had an established affinity for “Scotch” songs. She was moved by the “Native Simplicity” of the lyrics and thought they had “all the power of a well wrought Tradidy.” While John was overseas serving as a commissioner at Paris, Abigail and her two youngest sons, Charles and Thomas, were fending for themselves in one of the severest winters Braintree had ever known. Abigail’s daughter, Nabby, was staying in Plymouth with friends, and her eldest son, John Quincy, was in France with his father.

“How lonely are my days? How solitary are my Nights?” Abigail wrote to her husband on 27 December 1778. “Secluded from all Society but my two Little Boys, and my domesticks, by the Mountains of snow which surround me . . . I am solitary indeed.” Someone Abigail identified only as a young lady found her in the midst of “a Melancholy hour” and decided to sing to her to cheer her up. That was when Abigail first heard the song “There’s Nae Luck about the House”—a song she would fondly cite again and again over the years.

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams
Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 27 December 1778

The traditional song, attributed to Jean Adam, tells the story of a wife excitedly greeting her seafaring husband, or “gudeman,” after he’s been “awa’.” Abigail, deeply moved by the sentiments of the song, begged for the music. Her son Charles, then eight years old, learned the song so that he could sing it and console Abigail whenever she needed.

Abigail enclosed the music in one of her letters to John, telling him “It has Beauties in it to me, which an indifferent person would not feel.” She drew out several couplets that she found particularly relatable: “His very foot has Musick in’t, As he comes up the stairs” as well as “And shall I see his face again? And shall I hear him speak?”

On 13 February 1779, when John received the music in France, he was similarly affected. “Your scotch song . . . is a charming one. oh my leaping Heart.”

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 13 February 1779

Abigail’s affection for the song was shared with her dearest friends. On 15 March 1779, Mercy Otis Warren wrote to her, “You May feelingly join with me and the Bonny Scotch Lass, and Warble the Mournful Chorus from Morn to Eve. Theres Little pleasure in the Rooms When my Good Mans awaw.”

In 1785, when Abigail tried to illustrate to her teenaged niece Lucy the importance of expressing genuine sentiments simply, she referenced the song again. “It is that native simplicity too, which gives to the Scotch songs a merit superior to all others. My favorite Scotch song, ‘There’s na luck about the house,’ will naturally occur to your mind.”

A year later, while living in London, Abigail learned that her family back home in Massachusetts “were all turning musicians.” Her niece was becoming adept at the harpsicord, her nephew had taken up violin, and John Quincy and Charles were learning the flute. “Our young Folks improve fast in their musick,” her sister reported in May 1786. “Two German Flutes, a violin and a harpsicord and two voices form a considerable concert.”

Though she was now reunited with her husband and daughter, Abigail’s family was still separated by the Atlantic Ocean. “Here you would have felt a pleasure which you never experienc’d in a drawing Room at St James,” her sister wrote on 14 July 1786. “To vary our Scene musick is often call’d for . . . and then my sister how do I Wish for you. No one ever injoyd the pleasures of young People more than you use’d too.”

Abigail couldn’t join their late night concerts by the fire, but she came up with a way to make her presence felt. In the winter of 1787, she received a letter from home: “The musical society at Braintree return their thanks for those Scotch Peices of Musick whih you so kindly Sent them.”

“Aut Ceasar aut Nullus”: The 1796 Presidential Election and Abigail Adams’ Latin Motto

Rhonda Barlow, The Adams Papers

Unlike the Harvard-educated men in her family, Abigail Adams did not spend years of her life learning Latin. When John Adams wrote to her and used Latin phrases, he often included the English translation. Once, after quoting several lines of the Roman poet Horace, he advised her to have John Quincy translate it for her. Yet in 1796, when it was unclear who would succeed George Washington as president, Abigail declared, “Aut Ceasar aut Nullus, is my Motto tho I am not used to quote lattin or spell it.”

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14 Feb. 1796, Adams Papers

“Either Caesar or nobody.” Abigail’s long correspondence provides clues to how and why she developed this motto. When Abigail read Plutarch’s Lives, the descriptions of the “tyranny, cruelty, devastation and horrour” of the Roman emperors gave her nightmares. She observed that just as Satan “had rather Reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” Julius Caesar would “rather be the first man in a village than the second in Rome.” She remarked that “to be the first in a village, is, preferable to the second in Rome and, is one of the first Maxims in the Catalogue of Ambition.”

When Abigail opened a 20 Jan. 1796 letter from John and read that George Washington would not seek a third term, she wrote back the next day, “My ambition leads me not to be first in Rome,” but “as to holding the office of V P, there I will give my opinion. Resign retire. I would be Second under no Man but Washington.” John also reported on the sectional divisions in Congress, and a possible compromise between “the Southern Gentry” and “the Northern Gentlemen” which would result in Thomas Jefferson becoming president and Adams remaining vice president.

But Abigail was having none of it. Writing to John on 14 Feb. 1796, she declared: “The Southern Gentlemen think I believe that the Northern Gentleman are fools, but the Nothern know that they are so, if they can believe that Such bare faced Dupery will succeed.” As long as Washington was president and Martha Washington first lady, she “had no desire for the first,” but if the Washingtons sought retirement, then, “Aut Ceasar aut Nullus, is my Motto tho I am not used to quote lattin or spell it.”

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1 March 1796, Adams Papers

John responded with a Latin motto of his own on 1 March 1796: “I am quite at my Ease— I never felt less Aniety when any considerable Change lay before me. aut transit aut finit— I transmigrate or come to an End. The Question is between living at Phila. or at Quincy. between great Cares and Small Cares.” John’s stoical acceptance of his fate belied his own ambition.

Aut Ceasar aut Nullus: Abigail issued her challenge to Congress and the nation. John won the election, and she became the first woman in Rome.

Julius Caesar bust
Bust of Julius Caesar, Vatican Museums