John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Lifeby Paul C. Nagel
February 21, 1848, the House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.: Congressman John Quincy Adams, rising to speak, suddenly collapses at his desk; two days later, he dies in the Speaker's chamber. The public mourning that followed, writes Paul C. Nagel, "exceeded anything previously seen in America." Forgotten was his failed presidency and his often cold… See more details below
February 21, 1848, the House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.: Congressman John Quincy Adams, rising to speak, suddenly collapses at his desk; two days later, he dies in the Speaker's chamber. The public mourning that followed, writes Paul C. Nagel, "exceeded anything previously seen in America." Forgotten was his failed presidency and his often cold demeanor. It was the memory of an extraordinary human beingone who in his last years had fought heroically for the right of petition and against a war to expand slaverythat drew a grateful people to salute his coffin in the Capitol and to stand by the railroad tracks as his bier was transported from Washington to Boston. Nagel probes deeply into the psyche of this cantankerous, misanthropic, erudite, hardworking son of a former president whose remarkable career spanned many offices: minister to Holland, Russia, and England, U.S. senator, secretary of state, president of the United States (1825-1829), and, finally, U.S. representative (the only ex-president to serve in the House). On the basis of a thorough study of Adams' seventy-year diary, among a host of other documents, the author gives us a richer account than we have yet had of JQA's lifehis passionate marriage to Louisa Johnson, his personal tragedies (two sons lost to alcoholism), his brilliant diplomacy, his recurring depression, his exasperating behaviorand shows us why, in the end, only Abraham Lincoln's death evoked a greater outpouring of national sorrow in nineteenth-century America. We come to see how much Adams disliked politics and hoped for more from life than high office; how he sought distinction in literary and scientificendeavors, and drew his greatest pleasure from being a poet, critic, translator, essayist, botanist, and professor of oratory at Harvard; how tension between the public and private Adams vexed his life; and how his frustrations kept him masked and aloof (and unpopular). Nagel's great achievement, in this first biography of America's sixth president in a quarter century, is finally to portray Adams in all his talent and complexity.
The son of President John Adams, "JQA" (as he often signed himself) seemed born to a life of brilliant public service: He served as secretary to the US envoy to Russia in 1781 at the age of 14 and acted as an assistant to the commission that negotiated the peace that ended the American Revolution. He later served as ambassador to Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain, as a US senator, as secretary of state under President Monroe, and as president (182529). Nagel acknowledges that JQA's was a "failed presidency," the result of dogged charges of a "corrupt bargain": Having lost the popular poll, he won the presidency due to the influence of Speaker Henry Clay, who was then offered the office of secretary of state. JQA's greatest public service came during his long tenure (183148) in the House of Representatives after his presidency. At the risk of censure for misconduct and in violation of the "gag rule" against discussing antislavery laws in the House, he attempted to present a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery and then hundreds of antislavery petitions. He also argued the Amistad case before the Supreme Court, which won freedom for slaves who had taken over a slave ship. Nagel (Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family, 1983) also acknowledges that JQA's "iron mask," his cold and aloof demeanor, contributed to his unpopularity. But the author attributes this to a recurring depression and contends that JQA was an engaging and affectionate man who wrote well-received poetry, loved scholarship, enjoyed rambling around his home in Quincy, Mass., and was a devoted husband and father.
A finely detailed portrait of a wrongly neglected American statesman who was not a great president, but who was a great hero.
Nagel clearly knows his topic inside out, and his account of Adam's eventful lifefrom diplomat to professor to Presidentis eminently readable...This book is thoroughly engaging. We glimpse a side of Adams that he preferred to keep private: his eye for the ladies, his self-lacerating depressions, his contempt for what he referred to as the 'crazy' orations of Ralph Waldo Emerson...What emerges from Nagel's book is a more fully rounded character.
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Read an Excerpt
My head is much too fickle, my thoughts are running after birds eggs, play, and trifles, till I get vexed with myself.
ON OCTOBER 25, 1764, in the parsonage at Weymouth, a coastal village in Massachusetts south of Boston, the local pastor solemnized the marriage of his daughter. Standing in the parlor, Abigail Smith, second child of the Reverend William Smith and Elizabeth Quincy Smith, took as husband John Adams, resident of nearby Braintree and a rising lawyer in the colony of Massachusetts Bay.
The couple's first child, born on July 14, 1765, was named Abigail, though the family always called her Nabby. Second in line was John Quincy Adams, born July 11, 1767. Until his college years, he was known as Johnny, and thereafter usually as John, despite occasional confusion with his father. To avoid this, as a youngster Johnny began signing himself as "JQA," a practice that he continued through life and that his family often adopted.
After Johnny's birth, other siblings soon followed. Another sister, Susanna, died in February 1770 after barely a year of life. Then Charles arrived on May 29, 1770, and Thomas Boylston Adams was born on September 15, 1772.
These Adams children had an ancestry remarkable even by New England standards. Although Johnny's grandfather Adams, known as Deacon John, had died before the boy was born, Grandmother Susanna Boylston Adams, a doughty woman who outlived a second husband, survived to be much admired by her grandson. As for his mother's parents, William and Elizabeth Smith, Johnny Adams recalled being so drawn to them that they became surrogate parents, and their parsonage in Weymouth his second home. William Smith was pastor in the village for forty-five years.
Johnny found Weymouth particularly appealing because his mother's younger sister, Elizabeth Smith, lived there before her marriage to the Reverend John Shaw in 1777 took her to the parsonage in Haverhill, Massachusetts. No one was ever dearer to Johnny than Elizabeth Smith Shaw, with her loving nature and her reverence for literature. Aunt Elizabeth must have been much like her mother, Johnny's grandmother Smith, who was renowned for her charm and who died in 1775 while nursing victims of a cholera epidemic.
Another favorite spot for Johnny was the home of his Aunt and Uncle Cranch. Mary Smith, Abigail Adams' older sister, had married Richard Cranch, a gentle fellow who made a meager living repairing watches and farming but preferred devoting time to sharing the contents of books with the youngsters of the family. All his life, Johnny would remain close to his Cranch kinfolk. Cousin Billy Cranch, two years younger than Johnny, became a distinguished jurist in the District of Columbia.
Among the ancestors of these Adamses and Smiths were many of the notable names in New England history, a record that brought the family much satisfaction. Later in life, JQA often was asked about his genealogy and usually responded eagerly by repeating how the clan's founder, Henry Adams, had reached Massachusetts Bay in 1632 accompanied by a wife, eight sons ranging in age from six to twenty-five years, and a daughter who apparently never married. John liked to describe how these Adams immigrants spread the family name throughout New England and beyond.
Where Henry Adams came from in England has remained uncertain. His descendants eventually compromised by agreeing that he had emigrated from the town of Braintree in Essex County, embarking at Ipswich with the party led by the Reverend Thomas Hooker, who soon went on to help found Connecticut. Henry Adams settled his brood in the new Braintree, a long walk from Boston along the south shore.
The dubious claim that the Adams line arose in thirteenth-century Wales through Lord ap Adam and his wife, Elizabeth de Gournal, made little impression on John Quincy Adams. Instead, he preferred to point out that until his father's day, the descendants of Henry Adams had followed ordinary careers, doing the same thing in life generation after generation. From Henry Adams' arrival until 1735, when his great-great-grandson John Adams was born, family members had toiled as farmers and brewers, taking their turn as selectmen in town management. When Johnny's father entered Harvard College, only one Adams cousin had been there before him.
Later in life, when JQA--being of a poetic bent--reflected upon his Adams ancestors, their stories reminded him of Thomas Gray's moving "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," which admonishes that "full many a flower is born to blush unseen." His Adams forebears, JQA said, were distinguished only for "industry, sobriety, and integrity." They had been men of"meek and quiet spirits" who lived "lives of humble labour," qualities that assuredly had skipped John Quincy Adams.
Adams often wondered why he was unlike his "meek and quiet" forebears. He found the answer by reaching back to three marriages he believed had infused his line with the vigorous new blood needed to make him a different sort of Adams. The first such transfusion came when his great-grandfather Joseph Adams wed Hannah Bass. To JQA's satisfaction, her grandparents had been John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of Plymouth Colony, whose romance ("Pray, speak for thyself, John!") became one of New England's endearing legends. JQA liked to repeat the tale that Alden had been the first Mayflower passenger to leap upon Plymouth Rock.
After the union of John and Priscilla Alden's granddaughter with an Adams, the next strengthening marital tie, according to JQA, was knit when his grandfather Deacon John Adams, a shoemaker and farmer, brought Susanna Boylston into the family. Susanna arrived from a line of distinguished medical men, her grandfather being Thomas Boylston, an eminent English surgeon who had immigrated to Massachusetts. Her uncle was the famed physician Zabdial Boylston, who introduced inoculation against smallpox into North America.
Susanna Boylston Adams gave her son John, Johnny Adams' father, the seal of the Boylston family, which he adopted with pride, affixing it when he signed the two treaties of peace with Great Britain, November 30, 1782, and September 3, 1783. John passed the seal to JQA, who solemnly bequeathed it to his descendants.
Invigorating though the Alden and Boylston ties seemed to be, JQA considered the marriage of his father to Abigail Smith the ultimate prize. He believed that she brought with her the blood of even more vigorous and able New Englanders. Abigail's father, the Reverend William Smith, was a Harvard graduate whose family had succeeded in business and shipping ever since the early days of the colony. The founder of the line in America, Thomas Smith, had judiciously married Susan Boylston, an earlier member of that family, thereby eventually making John Adams and Abigail Smith remotely related. These energetic Smiths spread down the Atlantic coast, so that JQA had a distant kinsman who served as an early governor of South Carolina.
But it was the Quincy family, from whom Abigail's mother sprang, that proved the connection in which JQA eventually took the greatest satisfaction. This renowned clan entered the Adams genealogy when Parson William Smith married Elizabeth Quincy in 1740. This union resulted in one of John Quincy Adams' proudest moments: when he inherited Mount Wollaston, the ancient Quincy estate on the seashore in Braintree.
The property was notorious even before Boston was founded, having been claimed around 1622 by Thomas Morton, adventurer and author, who called the place Merry Mount. It may have deserved its name, judging from rumors of the antics that went on there. Some of these reports were adapted by Nathaniel Hawthorne in one of his finest stories of Puritan life, "The Maypole of Merry Mount," published in 1837 in his Twice-Told Tales.
Eventually the magistrates of Boston intervened, hoping to bring sobriety to Merry Mount by granting about 400 acres of it in 1635 to Edmund Quincy, who had immigrated to Massachusetts Bay with the Reverend John Cotton in 1633. Quincy renamed the farm Mount Wollaston. One of his most famous descendants, Colonel John Quincy, was Abigail Smith Adams' grandfather, and it was after him that she named her first son.
The colonel had married judiciously, choosing as spouse Elizabeth Norton, whose antecedents were as notable as his own. He served the Braintree community and the colony nobly. An authentic New Englander, he was remembered in the family, according to John Adams, as being "remarkable for never praising any body. He did not often speak evil, but he seldom spoke well." In 1792, that part of Braintree known as the North Precinct, which included Mount Wollaston, became a separate town, named Quincy in honor of Colonel John Quincy.
Except for scars on the hillsides left by granite quarries, the town changed little during JQA's lifetime. As John Quincy Adams' grandson, the second Charles Francis Adams, remembered it in his Autobiography, Quincy was "quiet, steady-going, rural," with a "monotonous main thoroughfare and commonplace connecting streets, both thoroughfare and by-ways lined with wooden houses, wholly innocent of any attempts at architecture, and all painted white with window blinds of green." In the center were the meetinghouse and the town hall, as well as a tavern, fronted by huge elm trees, where stagecoaches stopped while winding their way on the coast road north to Boston or south to Plymouth.
Following the road toward Plymouth for almost a mile, one came to the farmhouse where Johnny Adams was born. Those who visit it today as part of the Adams National Historic Site see a typical New England dwelling whose modest dimensions literally kept the family close. Johnny and his brothers had to sleep together; meanwhile, their mother Abigail wished she had even a tiny closet with a window where she could find privacy. All available space had to serve as John Adams' law office. The house sat amid a working farm of over a hundred acres. In an adjacent home, where John Adams himself had been born, his mother still resided.
IN NOVEMBER 1772, when Johnny was five, John Adams began moving his family back and forth between Braintree and Boston (usually in the area called Court Street), trying to keep pace with his prospering legal practice. Until the early stirrings of the now-imminent Revolution and the formation of the Continental Congress, Johnny's father was frequently absent, traveling the judicial circuit in search of business. Thereafter, he was mostly away in Philadelphia as a leader in the Continental Congress while Abigail and the children removed back to Braintree.
By then, it was apparent that Johnny was a vigorous boy. Already there were signs of the temperament that would make life difficult for him as well as for others. His mother worried about how impatient he could be, how determined to have his way, and how sensitive he was to criticism. He clamored to tackle tasks that boys older than he might hesitate to accept. In part, this was because Johnny considered himself the man of the house during his father's long absences. Among the responsibilities he claimed before he was ten was riding horseback the several miles between Braintree and Boston in order to carry and fetch the mail. News of this accomplishment brought cherished commendation from his father for undertaking "an office so useful to his Mamma and Pappa."
John Adams had not been in Philadelphia a year when the opening of the American Revolution brought events that indelibly marked his son's memory. By 1775, Abigail and her children and their neighbors were living in fear that British soldiers might raid the area. A desperately worried John urged Abigail to flee with their brood to the woods at the first sign of danger. Instead, on June 17, 1775, the anticipated violence between colonists and English troops took place on the other side of Boston, at Charlestown, from whence sounds of cannon fire reached south to Braintree.
Hearing the commotion, Johnny and his mother climbed the rise called Penn's Hill, across the road from their farm, and from that high spot they watched the Battle of Bunker Hill--an experience the boy never forgot. The recollection was particularly poignant because one of those who fell in the battle was Dr. Joseph Warren, the Adams family's physician. Not long before, when Johnny had broken a forefinger so badly that amputation was feared, Dr. Warren had saved the finger. Later, JQA often considered how brief his diary and letters might have been if his writing hand had been maimed.
The struggle for American independence encouraged Johnny's parents in their inclination to impose the pursuit of moral and intellectual excellence upon their children. From the contrasts in the ways his father and mother respectively exerted that pressure, Johnny began to view them differently, a difference he maintained throughout a long lifetime. But then, Abigail and John Adams were scarcely alike in temperament and outlook.
Since John Adams did his exhorting mostly while he was a participant in the Revolution, it was comparatively easy and sometimes even thrilling for Johnny to obey a male parent who was said to be a hero. This was the case even when John Adams showed how a Revolutionary leader could sometimes be unreasonable and short-tempered when playing the role of father.
From youth onward, JQA usually got on well with his father, surprising as this may seem to anyone who has heard only of the public John Adams, the side history depicts. He is reputed to have been thin-skinned, bad-tempered, and impatient, a person even a son might avoid. (These qualities attributed to John, by the way, were remarkably like those later commonly associated with the mature JQA.) The private John Adams, however, tended to be quite otherwise. By his fireside or out working his fields, Johnny's father, while strict with his children, usually was affable and relaxed.
This allowed JQA to have it both ways in his regard for John Adams. He admired his parent's public career and revered his lofty principles, all of which made it comparatively easy to accept the father's stern decrees. Yet he could also embrace the warm-hearted, private John Adams as a kinsman and as a parent whom it was easy to love and to obey.
Certainly, JQA always revered his remarkable mother, but his affection for Abigail Adams remained cool compared with that for his father. Years of togetherness in Europe would give John and John Quincy Adams the sort of male rapport that comes when father and son must get on without a wife or mother. This was one of the disadvantages Abigail faced in seeking to make Johnny a respectful and affectionate son.
A person of high intelligence and sharp wit, Abigail made no effort to hide her condescending attitude toward males. At least in part, that attitude arose out of her mortification and dismay at the alarming fate of her only brother. William Smith, Jr. abandoned a wife and children to poverty while he lived among the fleshpots of Philadelphia, where he ended his life as an alcoholic. This tragedy took place as Abigail was rearing her own youngsters.
Convinced that her brother might have been saved had he received a severe upbringing, Abigail vowed that no child of hers would come to maturity only casually disciplined. With John Adams so often away from home, Abigail's deep-seated anxiety about being a successful parent took command as she saw that her reputation and that of her children would rise or fall by her rigor in disciplining both herself and them. In short, Abigail sensed a double responsibility to pull and push Johnny and his siblings along the path of righteousness.
Her sternness helps explain why Johnny spent so much time in the parsonage at Weymouth, where he was more comfortable with his grandparents Smith and Aunt Elizabeth. While Abigail was undoubtedly affectionate with her children, her lifelong severity toward them had a predictable result. This was surely the case with Johnny, who, from youth onward, would put personal independence uppermost among his goals while his mother continued to try aggressively to constrain him.
Not that she lacked help from her husband in guiding Johnny and his sister and brothers toward virtue. She had their father's frequent letters to call upon. Along with his siblings, Johnny would gather at Abigail's side as she read aloud these paternal messages, which overflowed with admonition and concern. They were made to sound like sacred scripture, handed down by a father who, the children were reminded repeatedly, was risking his life for a soaring ideal: liberty. After all, as Abigail told them, were the British to catch their father as a participant in the Continental Congress, he would likely suffer as a traitor, a fate described vividly for the children.
Thus began Johnny's near-reverence for his father, whose views on righteous living can still be read on a granite stone honoring Henry Adams in the town burial ground. Upon it John Adams had inscribed his "veneration of the piety, humility, simplicity, prudence, patience, temperance, frugality, industry, and perseverance" that Henry Adams and other ancestors had demonstrated. It was an example John hoped he and his posterity would emulate.
The monument's pronouncement echoed the messages John sent home from Philadelphia. These letters from an admired parent did much to shape Johnny's evolving outlook. In one of them, John implored Abigail: "Above all cares of this life let our ardent anxiety be to improve the minds and manners of our children. Let us teach them not only to do virtuously, but to excel."
Despite his confidence in Abigail, John's anxiety about his eldest son soon led him to address messages directly to Johnny. These bore an overtone of warning--there were always reminders that the father waited to hear "a good account" of the son. This would be possible, John said, if Johnny fixed his "attention upon great and glorious objects" and tried to "weed out every meanness" in order to become "great and manly." The father asked his son to join him in being the sworn enemy of "injustice, ingratitude, cowardice, and falsehood."
Johnny was urged to make scholarship "the most ingenious and elegant entertainment of your life." Toward that end, John assigned a Latin sentence, challenging his son to be able "when I come home to give me the construction of the line, and the parsing of every word of it." And when Johnny was not studying Latin, he was to read history. There was no better way to discover righteous behavior than to scrutinize the past, where so much evil abounded: "Treachery, Perfidy, Cruelty, Hypocrisy, Avarice, etc. etc." If he learned this lesson, John predicted, Johnny was certain "to become a wise and great man."
Lest Johnny not catch on that he was being schooled for an eminent career, his father became explicit. In a letter of August 11, 1777, John urged his ten-year-old son to prepare for a role in the wars, congresses, and negotiations certain to recur as the nation developed. He must be studious as a youth in order to take a turn at public service--"the part which may be allotted you to act on the stage of life." The finest preparation, John announced, was to read Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, and to do so in the original Greek, "the most perfect of all human languages," which Johnny was told he must master.
THE EFFECT of John and Abigail's style of parenting shines through Johnny's childhood letters. As an obedient lad, he wrote stilted epistles designed to please his seniors, messages that probably told more about Abigail and John Adams than about their son. Indeed, little in his early letters to his absent father was even in his own words, for Abigail usually dictated his boyish screeds.
The first of Johnny's surviving letters, dating from 1773, was sent to Betsy Cranch, a young cousin, saluting her as "Dear Cousing"; this was Abigail's style, for she often put a g after an n, for example rendering Ben Franklin's name as "Frankling." In a crude hand and with poor spelling, Johnny confessed to Betsy that too much of his time was spent in play, leaving "a great deal of room for me to grow better." In writing to his father in October 1774 in Philadelphia, Johnny conceded that it was a challenge and said he feared he would "make poor work of it." Nevertheless, he took pains to assure his father that he was seeking to "grow a better boy" so that his parent should never "be ashamed of me."
By June 1777, young Adams' style might have improved, but the abject tone had increased, perhaps because an anxious Abigail was coaching him as he wrote. He spoke of being ashamed of himself. Why? Because "My thoughts are running after birds eggs, play, and trifles." Lest his father be discouraged, Johnny explained that he hoped to grow better, thanks to "the perusal of history." John Adams could not help but be cheered when his son soon announced: "I am more satisfied with myself when I have applied part of my time to some useful employment than when I have idled it away about trifles and play."
Meanwhile, Abigail took care to assure her husband that Johnny was composing his own letters--mostly. She did review them, she acknowledged, but insisted she offered merely correction. Soon, however, there emerged what was probably a more accurate version of how mother and son had collaborated. In a letter to Abigail dated August 11, 1778, sent while he was with his father in Europe, Johnny apologized for writing to her so briefly and infrequently, explaining that he was now relying upon his own resources--"my Pappa being always a doing publick affaires or a writing to you cannot do it for me."Johnny then reminded his mother of how once he would "teaze' her to write his letters. Now, he asserted, "I am obliged to think myself."
Then, at age eleven, came a sudden necessity of doing for himself which prodded Johnny's talent. While he evidently was a youngster of superior abilities, these in themselves would hardly explain his eventual repute as a prodigy. He later acknowledged that his remarkable record before 1817 was due mainly to the good luck of having been caught up in John Adams' career when the father's role in world affairs was abruptly enlarged in 1778.
UNTIL LATE IN 1777, the folks in Braintree had assumed that John Adams was firmly fixed in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress had recently named him to preside over the Board of War and Ordnance. This duty permitted him to be with his family only a bit of each year, and he often spent those times traveling around New England reviving his legal practice. This seemingly unending separation appeared to be the ultimate sacrifice the Revolution could ask of the closely knit Adamses--until an even greater one was suddenly required of them.
In December 1777, awaiting another brief visit by the father, the family received news that Congress had appointed him a commissioner, to join Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee in Paris to promote the American cause among the European powers. Word of this new assignment reached Braintree before John did, allowing Abigail to dream that she and perhaps her older children would accompany her spouse to France. But when John came home, he stressed mostly the danger, particularly to a female, of capture by the enemy on the high seas.
Crestfallen, Abigail gave up her plan, leaving the field to Johnny, who begged to accompany his father. The advantages of such an experience being obvious, Abigail and other family members backed the boy's cause. Despite her misgivings, Abigail decided it was important that her son be with his father;Johnny, she believed, had reached the age when he stood, as she put it, "most in need of the joint force of his [John's] example and precepts." Then there was the prediction of Johnny's tutor, cousin John Thaxter, that by going to Europe, young Adams would be "laying the foundations of a great man." These arguments were persuasive the eldest son would go abroad with his father.
They embarked on February 13, 1778, sailing in the twenty-four-gun Continental frigate Boston. Their departure was without fanfare, lest the British navy be alerted that a fine catch would be crossing the Atlantic. Father and son were quietly rowed out to the Boston from near Uncle Norton Quincy's house at Mount Wollaston The seas were high, but throughout, as a much-gratified John Adams noted, his son "behaves like a man."
The journey started calmly enough. Johnny was immediately captivated by a chance to learn the French language from a fellow passenger, Dr. Nicholas Noel, an obliging and well-educated surgeon in the French army. With this experience began JQA's fluency in French and also his enduring devotion to languages. His studiousness at sea persisted even after the ship sailed into peril brought by awesome storms and the vigilant British navy.
Though the Boston was like a mouse pursued by several cats, she somehow managed to elude capture, only to find that weather was the more relentless foe. A storm smashed the frigate for three days in late February with a severity that left the most seasoned sailor impressed and both Adamses seasick. The father's journal contains a narrative of what they endured. "To describe the ocean, the waves, the winds, the ship, her motions, rollings, wringings, and agonies--the sailors, their countenances, language, and behavior is impossible." Lightning struck three men on deck, killing one, while the wind carried away the Boston's main topmast. John Adams called the scene a "universal wreck of everything in all parts of the ship, chests, casks, bottles, etc. No place or person was dry."
There was a cheering aspect to the upheaval, however. The proud parent could report that Johnny's deportment throughout the storm "gave me a satisfaction that I cannot express--fully sensible of our danger, he was constantly endeavoring to bear up under it with a manly courage and patience." The ship's captain, too, must have been favorably impressed with the boy, for he took time during calmer weather to teach young Adams about the compass, navigation, and how to work the sails. The respite was brief, for the Boston soon was helpless again before wind and swell. "How many dangers, distresses, and hairbreadth scapes have we seen?"John marveled.
A bit more than six weeks after leaving Massachusetts, the Boston reached the coast of France, and on April 1, 1778, Johnny and his father landed at Bordeaux. Arm in arm, the two walked about, gawking unbashedly at the sights. After shipboard fare, they could not speak too highly of the fine food served to them by a citizenry evidently pleased to be host to this emissary and his son.
What made the greatest impression upon Johnny was his introduction in Bordeaux to the theater and the concert hall. In fact, on their first night in the city, the pair went to the opera, where the dancing and music afforded them, as John recorded, "a very cheerful, sprightly amusement, having never seen anything of the kind before."
On April 4, they began the journey to Paris, reaching the city on the 8th, after pushing hard to cover a hundred miles a day. Once again, Johnny drew his parent's admiration: John recorded that "my little son has sustained this long journey ... with the utmost firmness, as he did our fatiguing and dangerous voyage." Upon arriving in Paris, the visitors, accustomed to the comparative quiet of Boston, were astonished to see streets packed with carriages, most of them bearing liveried servants. They also discovered that it was difficult to find suitable living quarters for rent in a crowded city.
This brought John to accept Benjamin Franklin's invitation to reside in his commodious quarters in Passy, a suburb at the city's edge, near the Bois de Boulogne. The father and son, however, would remain here for less than a year. John quickly realized that the American commission was so internally divided and corrupt as to be impotent and ludicrous in the French government's eyes. Neither was the Continental Congress favorably impressed. In September 1778 it disbanded the commission and recalled Johnny's father, a summons by then much desired by the disgusted senior Adams.
Word of the recall did not arrive, however, before the son had had time in Paris for important intellectual and emotional development. To his great joy, at least according to an account by his father, Johnny was placed in a weekday boarding school soon after they had settled in Passy. The lad told his parent he found it inspiring to be off to classes where "rewards were given to the best scholars." The school was run by a M. Le Coeur. Franklin's grandson Benjamin "Benny" Bache was enrolled there, as were several other American boys. In addition to an emphasis upon Latin and French, the school provided training in fencing, dancing, drawing, and music, subjects some New Englanders might have considered frivolous at best.
In one of his first letters from Paris, Johnny described the school's schedule by informing his "Honoured Mother" that classes began at 6 a.m., then proceeded for two hours, followed by a sixty-minute break for "play" and breakfast. Studies then resumed until noon, when another interval allowed time for dinner and more recreation. Then it was back to class from 2 to 4:30, more play for a half hour, and final classes from 5 to 7:30, when the students supped. Afterward there were games until it was time to retire, at 9 p.m.
Although this scholarly rigor relented only on Sunday, Johnny claimed: "I like it very well." So did his father, who was clearly astonished at the progress his son made in his studies, and particularly in mastering the French language. The senior Adams confessed to being "mortified" that the lad "learned more French in a day than I could learn in a week with all my books." By August, he informed Abigail that her diligent son was "in high reputation here."
Meet the Author
Paul C. Nagel is former Director of the Virginia Historical Society, a trustee of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a cultural laureate of Virginia, and a contributing editor of American Heritage.
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