John Quincy Adams from Law Student to Lawyer

(January 1789 to August 1794: Newburyport and Boston)

Over these five years, John Quincy Adams (JQA) progressed from being a law student to becoming a practicing attorney. He also pursued an active social life. A keen, if sometimes caustic, observer of the people he met, JQA recorded impressions both in his diary and in poetry. He also privately agonized over when and how he would achieve financial independence and public prominence. While his law practice barely removed him from economic dependence on his parents, President George Washington recognized his potential and in 1794 nominated him to the diplomatic post that changed the trajectory of his life.

In July 1790 JQA completed his legal studies at Newburyport, under the guidance of Theophilus Parsons, and the Massachusetts Bar admitted him. Health issues, especially insomnia and eye problems, hampered his progress. In August, after considering Newburyport and Braintree, he opened his law practice at Boston, with an office in his father John Adams’ (JA) Court Street house. JQA lost his first case before the Court of Common Pleas in October. The few expansive diary entries in this period reveal a young man with an unsettled frame of mind. “I have not had a moment of Time to spare . . . Yet I have had nothing to do. . . . My present situation is not over eligible: how to improve it is the subject which most employs my mind.”

John Adams by Blyth, ca. 1766John Adams

Abigail Adams by Blyth, ca. 1766Abigail Adams

For most of 1789 through 1791, JQA’s diary was predominantly brief, single line entries, despite his intentions to write more. In September 1789, promising a renewed effort as a diarist, he blamed a lapse of long entries on poor health, indolence, and his opinion that “The events which have occurred . . . have not been sufficiently interesting to induce me to regret” that he had “omitted to record them.” This attempt lasted less than two weeks. Again, in April 1791, he started “once more an undertaking, which indolence has so often rendered abortive.” This new journalistic vigor lasted a week. The occasional expanded entries during these years were predominantly character portraits of his contemporaries, including his evaluation of the young women he encountered. Some of these comments on women were prose variations of his satirical poem “A Vision,” which he completed in June 1790.

JQA gained his first public acclaim during these years not as a lawyer, but as a writer. Beginning in the summer of 1791, he published letters in the Boston press under various pseudonyms, and by the end of 1793 he had gained international recognition from these writings. Between 3 June and 27 July 1791, he penned eleven letters in the Columbian Centinel under the pseudonym “Publicola” in response to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. They were reprinted in New York and Philadelphia and later published in Great Britain. In December 1792 he contributed three letters, again to the Columbian Centinel, as “Menander,” to support theater in Boston and oppose the state anti-theater ordinance banning productions. The statute was repealed in 1793.

In 1792 JQA expanded his regular diary entries to short paragraphs, with an occasional lengthy introspective offering concerning his continued dissatisfaction with the “state of useless and disgraceful insignificancy which has been my lot for some years past.” Despite this despondency, he mentioned more legal work, including his contribution to the successful petition of the town of Quincy to be separated from Braintree.

Engraving by S. Hill, after W. Peirpont"View of Faneuil-Hall, in Boston, Massachusetts"

By 1793 JQA’s reputation and stature in the Boston community won him the honor of delivering the city’s Fourth of July oration. After rewriting it at least three times and repeatedly rehearsing it before friends, he modestly noted that “the performance” was “well received.” Beginning 30 November that year, he published five letters as “Columbus” against Edmund Charles Genet, the French minister to the United States, and other pro-French elements who opposed President Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation. When a series of articles by Massachusetts Attorney General James Sullivan (“Americanus”) challenged him, JQA responded with four letters as “Barneveld.” His diary reflects an evolution of his interests: “Very busy for the public, in a manner that will be of no avail to me” and “Still perplexing myself with political affairs.”

JQA claimed that he wrote the “Columbus” and “Barneveld” pieces as a public service and to improve his reputation in Boston, not to seek patronage. Regardless of his motives, on 3 June 1794 he received a letter from his father alerting him that President Washington had nominated him as U.S. minister resident to the Netherlands. Fearing nepotism, JQA consulted JA, who assured him “that he had never uttered a word . . . that a public office should be conferred upon me.” JQA traveled to Philadelphia in July to consult members of the administration and receive his instructions and credentials. He returned to Boston on 21 August. After making the necessary preparations for himself and his brother Thomas Boylston Adams (TBA), who went as his secretary, they sailed 17 September on the Alfred, the first available vessel for London.

Oil on canvas attributed to Jane Stuart,George Washington

Publicly, JQA flourished during these years; privately, he experienced his first romantic relationship that ended in heartbreak. Mary Frazier, the daughter of a Newburyport merchant, became the object of JQA’s affection. Their relationship lasted until late 1790 when Mary’s family demanded an engagement, which JQA’s father forbade at that time. Almost fifty years later JQA recounted in his diary: “Four years of exquisite wretchedness, followed this separation, nor was the wound in my bosom healed, till the Atlantic Ocean flowed between us.”

Selected Bibliography for Further Reading

William J. Cooper, The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics, New York, 2017.

Robert Abraham East, John Quincy Adams: the Critical Years, 1785–1794, New York, 1962.

Fred Kaplan, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, New York, 2014.

Phyllis Lee Levin, The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams, New York, 2015.

David F. Musto, “The Youth of John Quincy Adams,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 113:269–282 (August 1969).

William G. Ross, “The Legal Career of John Quincy Adams” Akron Law Review, 23:415–453 (March 1990).

Harlow G. Unger, John Quincy Adams, Boston, 2012.