Adams Family Correspondence, volume 7

John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams 2d, 18 May 1786 JQA AA2


John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams 2d, 18 May 1786 Adams, John Quincy Adams, Abigail (daughter of JA and AA)
John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams 2d
Cambridge, Friday, May 18, 17861

I received this afternoon your No. 11 and I never received a letter which caused such a variety of sensations. I will only say, that I received the profile with pleasure, and the person for whom it was taken will for the future be very dear to me.

It is very disagreeable to be continually making apologies for having nothing to write; but it is really so, I am more than ever out of a situation to write anything that you can think worth reading. I have heretofore sometimes had recourse to giving you sketches of character, and sometimes to moralizing, but I am now deprived even of those sources. Pedants like most of the characters among the government of our college, and of boys, as a great part of the students are, could afford you but a pitiful entertainment, and you have given me such a rap on the knuckles with respect to proverbs and wise sayings, that I must take care how I show my gravity. I believe, upon the whole, that the philosophy of Democritus, who laughed at all the world, was preferable to that of Heraclitus, who was always weeping. The follies of the world made one very unhappy, while they rather increased the enjoyments of the other;2 for my part, when I reflect upon all the plans and schemes, the ceremonious nothings, the pompous trifles which men are always employed about, it sometimes raises a smile, and sometimes a sigh, when I behold vices and follies which lessen the natural dignity of human nature and which injure society, then I cannot restrain my indignation; but when they are only such as the little greatness of a self-conceited coxcomb, or such as have their source in vanity, I can then indulge all the ludicrous ideas which naturally arise in my mind; these have sometimes assisted me to fill up a letter to you; but as to proverbs and wise sayings, I am not ambitious of producing any. I will endeavor henceforth to change my style, and follow your example, in employing satirical irony, and leave you to your own reflections.

Tuesday, 23d.

I have, in former letters, given you a short sketch of the characters of two or three members of this government. The next that comes in course is Mr. R., the tutor of my own class.3 This man, too, like all the rest, is very much disliked by the scholars. He has a great deal of modesty, and this is a disadvantage to him here. He is pas-167sionate and vindictive; and those are qualities which do not fequently inspire love or esteem. In short, our four tutors present as ridiculous a group as I ever saw. They appear all to be in a greater necessity of going to school themselves than of giving instruction; and one of them, at least, is below par as to genius. He is, however, the best of the tutors. He possesses a sweet simplicity, which creates a great deal of mirth among the students; and as he has observed that the other tutors command respect by maintaining an awful distance between themselves and the students, he likewise assumes an air of dignity, which is quite becoming. You would suppose that this immense distance between tutors and scholars was impolitic; but in fact it is quite the contrary. Were these gentlemen to be frequently in company with some of the good scholars among the students, the comparison would be too much to their disadvantage not to be mortifying and humiliating.

We have been in somewhat of a bustle this day. The parts for next commencement were given out this morning. It is curious to observe how the passions of men are adapted to the situations in which they are placed. You must know that about two-thirds of every class have to read syllogisms when they take their degrees. Now, these syllogisms are held in abomination by the students, because the other parts are commonly given to the most distinguished scholars. A syllogism is considered as a diploma, conferring the degree of dunce to all to whom it is given.4 All the senior sophisters have been waiting the giving out of the parts for three weeks, with as much impatience and anxiety as if their lives and fortunes depended upon it; and there are not, I suppose, now more than half-a-dozen in the class that are satisfied. This time twelve-months the case will be the same with the class to which I belong. But I must inform you, that the president, who distributes the parts, is by no means infallible; that he gives good parts sometimes to bad scholars, and syllogisms to good ones. So, you must not hastily conclude that I am a fool, or an ignoramus, in case I should have to read a syllogism; which, for two or three reasons, I think is probable enough. But it is not necessary to look so far before us.

Saturday, 27th.

I have been thinking, I believe a full hour what to say to you, and am now as much at a loss as when I first began.

I have been out of town but once this quarter,5 and I see no company out of college. I have nothing to draw me from my studies, 168(but the college exercises,) and I keep as close to them as I can conveniently; but it is the same thing continually repeated, and can therefore furnish very little matter for a journal.

The next character, which follows in course among the governors of the college, is the librarian, Mr. W.6 He is a man of genius and learning, but without one particle of softness, or of anything that can make a man amiable, in him. He is, I am told, severe in his remarks upon the ladies; and they are not commonly disposed to be more favorable with respect to him. It is observed that men are always apt to despise, what they are wholly ignorant of. And this is the reason, I take it, why so many men of genius and learning, that have lived retired and recluse lives, have been partial against the ladies. They have opportunity to observe only their follies and foibles, and therefore conclude that they have no virtues. Old bachelors too are very apt to talk of sour grapes; but if Mr. W. ever gets married, he will be more charitable towards the ladies, and I have no doubt but he will be more esteemed and beloved than he is now, he cannot be less.

Wednesday, 31st. Election day.

This, you know, is the only day in the year, which resembles what in France is called a jour de fête. Almost all the college went to Boston. I have no great curiosity to see such things and therefore remained at home. The elections have been in general the same with those of the last year, excepting that in Boston they have turned out Mr. Hitchborne from the House of Representatives, and Mr. Lowell from the Senate.7 This is supposed to be in consequence of some writings which have appeared in the newspapers under the signature of Honestus, against the lawyers. They were written by Mr. Benjamin Austin, a merchant, and it is supposed will considerably injure the practice of the law. They are intended to rouse and inflame the passions of the people. His proposals are in general as extravagant and absurd as they can be, yet to a certain degree they have been successful, and they may be still more so.8

Saturday, June 10th.

This day Mr. Williams closes his course of lectures on Natural Philosophy. He has given us of late two or three lectures upon fire, containing a system of his own with respect to Northern Lights. This is a phenomenon which has never yet been well accounted for. This new system is specious and may lead to further discoveries on 169this subject. Mr. Williams is more generally esteemed by the students, I think, than any other member of this government. He is more affable and familiar with the students, and does not affect that ridiculous pomp which is so generally prevalent here. The only complaint that I have heard made against him was of his being too fond of his ease, and unwilling to make any great efforts for acquiring a perfect knowledge of the branch which he professes. I believe he is a very good man, but I must see more proofs of genius than I have yet observed before I shall think him a great man.

I am very glad his lectures are over. The weather is now so warm that to be shut up in a room with a hundred people, is enough to stifle one. At one of the lectures, two or three days since, Thompson, the most distinguished character in the senior class, fainted away, and has been ill ever since.9

As to news, I can only inform you of two marriages and one courtship. I have heard Mr. G. is humbly paying his addresses to your friend Miss Q. So, you see, I shall probably be supplanted, notwithstanding my prior claim, and he has great advantages over me, as it is against the law for me to look at a young lady till the 20th of July, 1787,10 and then I suppose it will be too late. Indeed, I am almost determined to write one of your lamentable love songs, talk of flames, darts, perjured vows, death, and so on, according to custom. Death, you know, in romances and love-songs, is one of the most busy actors. When lovers are happy, they say death only can part them; when they are unsuccessful, death is always ready immediately to relieve them from pain. In short, death appears to be a jack-of-all-trades, but I have never been able to discover who or what he is. However, I don't see why I should not invoke him, upon occasion, as well as any body; for in poetry he is the most innocent being on earth.

Saturday, June 17th.

This day the bridge between Boston and Charlestown was completed. An entertainment was given upon the occasion by the proprietors, to six hundred people, on Bunker's Hill. It is the anniversary of the famous battle fought there. It is better, to be sure, that oxen, sheep, calves, and fowls be butchered than men; and it is better that wine should be spilled than blood; but I do not think this was a proper place for revelling and feasting. The idea of being seated upon the bones of a friend, I should think would have disgusted many. Such feelings may be called prejudices, but they are 170implanted by nature, and cannot, I think, be blamed.11 You will see in the papers how the poets have been exerting their talents upon the occasion. I have seen five different sets of verses, not one of which has escaped the simile of the Phoenix rising from its own ashes, applied to Charlestown.

I have written to papa and mamma lately. You will present my duty to them.

Yours, J. Q. Adams

MS not found. Printed from (AA2, Jour. and Corr. , 3:112–120.)


JQA probably began the letter on Thursday the 18th, the day he received AA2's letter No. 11, not found ( Diary , 2:35).


Greek philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus, known respectively as the laughing and weeping philosophers (Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d edn., 1996).


Nathan Read.


For JQA's additional comments on the disdain with which class members viewed the syllogistics, see Diary , 2:37–38.


JQA and Leonard White went to Boston for the day on 4 May (same, 2:27).


James Winthrop, Harvard 1769, was college librarian 1772–1787. Winthrop held numerous judicial appointments, ending his public career as chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas. He never married ( Sibley's Harvard Graduates , 17:317–329).


Benjamin Hichborn, Harvard 1768, a Boston lawyer and John Lowell, Harvard 1760, formerly of Newburyport, a justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals (same, 14:650–661, 17:36–44).


Benjamin Austin Jr., a Boston merchant, published a series of articles in the Independent Chronicle between March and June under the name of Honestus that assailed the Commonwealth's legal system and demanded the abolition of the professional bar ( DAB ).


Thomas W. Thompson of Boston was assigned the premier part, the English oration, at the upcoming commencement but because of illness was unable to attend the ceremony. Thompson studied law with JQA in Theophilus Parsons' Newburyport office, settled in New Hampshire, and served in that state's legislature as well as in the U.S. Senate (JQA, Diary , 2:37–38, 275; Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774–1927, Washington, 1928).


The approximate date of JQA's graduation from Harvard.


JQA viewed the Battle of Bunker Hill with AA from a vantage point atop Penn's Hill in Braintree in 1775. The brutality of the conflict and the death of family friend Dr. Joseph Warren deeply affected him. He repeated his distaste for the revels on the site of the battlefield in his Diary entry on this day and disapprovingly noted that “to crown the whole, The head of the table, was I hear placed on the very spot where the immortal Warren fell” ( Diary , 2:50–51). For JQA's reminiscences of 17 June 1775 and his lifelong displeasure with celebrations connected to the day, see vol. 1:223–224.

Elizabeth Cranch to Abigail Adams, 20 May 1786 Cranch, Elizabeth Norton, Elizabeth Cranch AA


Elizabeth Cranch to Abigail Adams, 20 May 1786 Cranch, Elizabeth Norton, Elizabeth Cranch Adams, Abigail
Elizabeth Cranch to Abigail Adams
My dear Aunt Braintree May 20th 1786

We have sat off our English Friends1 for Boston. Mama has accompanied them; Sister Lucy has gone to your deserted habitation, and taken our Boy with her to clean the closets, rub the furniture &c. The dampness for want of Fires being kept in the Rooms moulds the things very much, and makes the Paper peal off, and it 171requires considerable care, to keep them in tolerably good order. And here is your Eliza left entirely alone. I would recollect my thoughts and arrange them in some degree of order if possible, but they have been so confused for some time past that I fear tis impracticable; The arrival of my Cousins this week, the reception of Letters from you by Lyde and Cushing,2 who came in this week also, together with the intelligence relative to my Cousin contain'd in yours, has quite turned my head, and I feel now as if I had just awoke from a dream.

You think some of my Letters must have miscaried as you have recd. none since that by Mr Wilson; Tis no wonder my Aunt should be loth to suppose her Neice capable of so great neglect, as she must prove herself to be, when she makes the mortifying confession, that She has not once written since that time! I will not attempt an apology: my future attention, must prove, my penitence and reformation.

I did not return from Haverhill, till the 17th of April, only a Visit of 7 months,! two of which I spent with my dear and amiable Aunt. I have pass'd the Winter very happily: Society and Amusements pleasing; Friends, attentive and sincere; Health my companion doubly pleasing, as long unenjoy'd; A heart (usually) at ease, and a mind perfectly disposed to relish and enjoy, all the good or pleasure which the bountiful hand of Heaven is pleased to spread before me; with all these blessings, why Should not I be happy? My Cousin JQA—s company afforded me much pleasure, he was very good to visit us often at Mr Whites. He is a great favourite with that family, I believe Mr W—— (natturally indifferent) never paid so much attention to any Person before; or felt a greater esteem. And as for my Friend Peggy, if she had not have lost her heart before,3 She would have stood no chance of securing it this winter. O! tis a comfortable thing to have ones heart secure, either in our own possession, or in the hands of one, who will treat and value it as their own.

You have puzzled us my dear Aunt most amazingly with respect to my Cousin; I want to write to her, but for my heart I dont know how to address her; whether as Mrs S——h Mrs H——p——s, or Miss A. I hope however, notwithstanding all changes, I may still call her my Friend, and be acknowledg'd as hers. Yesterday Mama recd. a small parcel from you containing a Crape Apron, and a peice of Ribbon wound upon a visiting Card. Curiosity induced some of us to read it. It was read and thrown by, I took it, and said instantly, it is my Cousins writing—what should she fill up a Card for Mr and Mrs Smith for? 172and who are they? Upon the whole we concluded it must be, even herself and Husband, and that this ingenious scheme for informing us of her marriage was of my good Aunts inventing. To finish the matter, we put the Card up in our post Office (by the side of my picture you know) and placed it before a Letter directed to Mr T.—— which was deposited their till his return, supposing He could very easily discern if it was her writing—was it cruel? Compassion! tenderness! Generosity! all, all forgive us if it was! The temptation was irisistable: perhaps, he knew it all before, and perhaps we are mistaken, another person may write exactly like my Cousin.4

You enquire, how your fruit Trees flourish. Phoebe says the Peach trees are decaying, the others are in good condition. The Laylocks are just opening, and have grown very much.

The grass Plot before the house looks most delightfully green. I went and stood at the door the day before Yesterday, and could not help thinking, how often you had ocupied the same place and with how much satisfaction you used to observe the dayly increasing Verdure; Could you my dear Aunt look upon it now do you think, with the same pleasure you formally did? Your Cottage then had charms and its appearance was equal or superior, to any in the Village; Could you return to it now, and after comparing it with the splendor and elegance of your present habitation, still pronounce it pleasing, still find it the abode of contemtment, of rational enjoyment and domestick peace? O! if you could how happy should We be! I took some encouragment to hope from one expression in your last Letter to me, that you did think of returning. You say “how shall I leave your Cousin?” Unpleasing as the Idea is to me of her settling so far from us, your connecting it, with the truly pleasing one of your return, divested it of some of its dissagreableness and rendered it more surportable; but I must hope it will not be always. I cannot, cannot, consent to it! I am sure she cannot be so happy in Europe. Tho the possessing the sincere and affectionate attachment of one worthy Heart, may be to her the first of blessings, yet, how much more might enjoy that here, in the midst of friends interested for her and who would greatly encrease her happiness, by being the pleasd witnesses of it. She must indeed return.

You inquire about the flower seeds, you was so good as to send me. They came too late for planting last year; I sent for them to Haverhill this winter, to take out some for Mr Dalton, who has a beautiful Garden at Newbury.5 The remainder I put up in my Trunk to bring home, but to my great dissapointment I cannot yet get it 173brought from H——. I am very much affraid they will be too old, I shall however try them in Pots, and distribute, some to my Friends who are curious in that way. Mr Apthorp6 makes great dependance upon rearing some of them. He has had a very pretty Fence before his House since you went away, and made the enclosure look very neat and elegant.

I hope you will congratulate us upon the probability of a new Fence to Our Garden. Mr A—— has long been ashamed of ours, for us, and indeed we have stood in need of one. It is to be like Genll. Warrens, the materials for it are gatherd togather in the Yard, as also for a new Barn, which is as far advanced as framing.

I am exceedingly obligd to you my dear Aunt, for your kind attention to me and my Sister, we shall ever retain a grateful remembrance of your goodness. Mama informs you of all the News. She writes so largely, that she leaves very little for me to say. I have read the Poem you was so good as to send me and am much pleasd with—but accidentally, I suppose, in the sewing, 4 Pages are wanting, just at the conclusion. I was very sorry as it leaves it quite unconnected.

I hope you will be so good as to continue to write to me. Your Letters in some measure compensate for, and fill up that dreadful Chasm which your absence makes, in our enjoyments and which would otherwise be quite insuportable. Please to offer my respectful and affectionate regards to my Uncle. I shall write my Cousin by the next Vessel, which will sail a few days, after this. I have not had but one Letter from her since her Brothers arrival—tis Strange!

I am my dear Aunt with the Sincerest Love & gratitude your obligd & Affectionate Neice Eliza Cranch

RC (Adams Papers); endorsed: “Betsy Cranch May 20th 1786.”


See Richard Cranch to JA, 20 May, below.


AA2 to Elizabeth Cranch, 14 Feb.; AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 21 March and 6 April; AA to Elizabeth Cranch, 2 April; and AA to Lucy Cranch, 2 April, all above.


Peggy White lost her heart to Bailey Bartlett; the two married on 21 Nov. (Vital Records of Haverhill Massachusetts to the End of Year 1849, 2 vols., Topsfield, Mass., 1910–1911, 2:329).


The visiting card was not an announcement of AA2's marriage. The William Smiths of Clapham left the card at Grosvenor Square. See AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 4 July, below.


Elizabeth Cranch sent the flower seeds to Ruth Dalton, daughter of Tristram Dalton, a Newburyport merchant and one of JA's classmates at Harvard. Dalton served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, 1782–1785, and Senate, 1786–1788, as well as the U.S. Senate, 1789–1791. At one time the wealthiest citizen of Newburyport, Dalton lost his fortune and ended his days as surveyor of the port of Boston.

Dalton's countryseat, Spring Hill, located on the Merrimack River, was admired by many for its terraced garden, fruit trees, hot house, dairy, and picturesque view of 174the surrounding countryside (Ruth Dalton to Elizabeth Cranch, 8 April, MHi: Jacob Norton Papers; Sibley's Harvard Graduates , 13:569–578; Eben F. Stone, “A Sketch of Tristram Dalton,” Essex Inst., Hist. Colls. , 25:1–29 [Jan.–March 1888]; Recollections of Samuel Breck with Passages from His Note-Books (1771–1862), ed. H. E. Scudder, Phila., 1877, p. 97–99).


James Apthorp (1731–1799), the Cranch family's neighbor (John Wentworth, The Wentworth Genealogy: English and American, 3 vols., Boston, 1878, 1:519–520). For JQA's thoughts on Apthorp, see Diary , 1:329–331; 2:247, 267.