Object of the Month

The Education of John Adams

Letter from John Adams to Thomas Dawes, 28 July 1821

Letter from John Adams to Thomas Dawes, 28 July 1821


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  • In this letter dated 28 July 1821, 86-year-old John Adams recalls his impressive education in a letter to Judge Thomas Dawes. Written in a shaky hand, the one-page note begins with Adams's early educational experiences and goes on to list the dates when he completed his degrees and became a barrister. Adams concludes the letter by correcting an apparent misconception that he received his legal training from noted Boston attorney Jeremiah Gridley. Adams attributes the mistake to the role Gridley played in his admittance to the Boston bar, subjecting Adams to a "painful, troublesome and distressing" examination prior to supporting him before the Court.

    Early Education

    Although the first instructor John Adams names in his letter to Dawes is his Latin school instructor, Joseph Cleverly, Adams's earliest teachers were his parents and a neighbor who ran a dame school across the street from his childhood home. Many New England children of Adams's time acquired an informal, rudimentary education in such settings, attending schools in their local communities where they learned basic reading and writing skills. Under the subsequent tutelage of Master Cleverly, young John's education began to diverge from that of many of his peers. Latin school was a place to prepare for college--to read Cicero, learn Latin, Greek, and arithmetic, and master English grammar and composition. There, perhaps in part because of his instructor, whom Adams would later describe as "the most indolent Man I ever knew," young John applied himself more to flying kites and playing marbles than excelling at his schoolwork. At age fourteen, John asked to be transferred to a nearby private school run by Joseph Marsh, the son of the Adamses' former minister, and it was there that John discovered his love of learning. Just over a year later, in 1751, Master Marsh declared his pupil ready for Harvard.

    Harvard Days

    In eighteenth-century British America, a college education was a luxury and quite rare. Only one in six hundred people in the British colonies had the privilege of attending an institution of higher education in the years before the Revolution. When Adams entered Harvard, at the time comprising just a hundred students, it was one of only four colleges in existence in the American colonies, along with Yale, William and Mary, and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), which had opened just five years earlier. The College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) and King's College (now Columbia) were chartered during Adams's time at Harvard in 1754 and 1755, respectively. Becoming a part of this elite community allowed men like Adams to build social, professional, and political networks that would benefit them throughout their lives. During his years at Harvard, which he remembered fondly, Adams continued to study mathematics, British and classical history, science, philosophy, and Latin and Greek. He ranked at the top of his class academically. Although John's father hoped his son would become a clergyman, by the time Adams left Harvard he had other plans in mind.

    Legal Training

    Adams graduated in 1755 hoping to enter the legal profession but needing to find a way to raise the fee necessary to pay an established attorney for his training. Several weeks after Harvard commencement, Adams, not yet twenty years old, traveled westward to Worcester, Massachusetts, where he taught school--and not very enthusiastically--as a way to raise money. The following year, he began his legal training, teaching by day and working at night, with Worcester attorney James Putnam. As a law clerk, Adams did assigned readings, copied, researched, and gained practical day-to-day experience. When Adams returned eastward seeking admission to the Suffolk County Court, he found himself at Jeremiah Gridley's door. Gridley was the most successful and well-known Boston attorney of his generation and trained the other accomplished lawyers--James Otis Jr., Benjamin Prat, and Oxenbridge Thacher--mentioned in Adams's letter to Dawes. After several hours of memorable and intense interrogation, Gridley agreed to present Adams for admission before the bar. Commencing his practice as an attorney in 1758, Adams was sworn in before the Superior Court in 1761 and became a barrister a year later. As he became active in public life, Adams would find dozens of fellow lawyers among the signers of the Declaration of Independence and framers of the U.S. Constitution.

    Letters from the Adams-Hull Collection on Exhibit

    John Adams's letter to Thomas Dawes is one of a collection of 99 manuscripts generously donated in December 2006 to the Massachusetts Historical Society by Catherine Hull, a direct descendant of John Adams. Selected letters from the Adams-Hull collection currently appear in an exhibit at the Historical Society that will be on display and open to the public through the end of June 2007.

    Suggestions for Further Reading

    Cremin, Lawrence A. American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

    Gawalt, Gerard. The Promise of Power: The Emergence of the Legal Profession in Massachusetts 1760-1840. Westport, Conn. and London: Greenwood Press, 1979.

    Kaestle, Carl F. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

    Middlekauf, Robert. Ancients and Axioms: Secondary Education in Eighteenth-Century New England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.

    Robson, David W. Educating Republicans: The College in the Era of the American Revolution. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.