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The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams
By Phyllis Lee Levin
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2015 Phyllis Lee Levin
All rights reserved.
"A LEGACY MORE VALUABLE THAN GOLD OR SILVER"
On the lilac-scented evening of June 3, 1794, John Quincy Adams, then 27, left his Boston law office, at Franklin and the corner of Court Street, stopped at the post office in the Daily Mail building on State Street, and retrieved a letter from his father, John Adams, vice president of the United States, postmarked Philadelphia. He mounted his horse once more and wound his way over the hilly terrain, the narrow, crooked cobblestone paths and dirt lanes, mercifully quiet at day's end when the "Rattle Gabble" (his father's words) of sights and sounds had dispersed. He hadn't an inkling of the "very unexpected and indeed surprising" contents of the letter in his pocket.
Home at last—he was boarding with a favorite cousin and namesake of his mother Abigail and her husband, Dr. Thomas Welsh at 39 Hanover Street—he could open the letter that would mark the beginning of his public career and the end of the only "absolute private life he ever had an opportunity to enjoy."
John Quincy read and reread his father's news with some wonder, doubt and hope all at once. His father wrote that he had received an important visit that morning. The purpose of Secretary of State Edmund Randolph's call was to give John Adams a personal report of President George Washington's plan to nominate his son to go to The Hague as minister resident of the United States of America to their High Mightinesses the States General of the United Netherlands. "The President desired to know if I thought you would accept," his father continued. "I answered that I had no authority from you, but it was my opinion that you would accept, and that it would be my advice that you should."
John Quincy's knowledge of Dutch, his education in France and his acquaintance with his father's old friends and colleagues in Europe would give him advantages beyond many others. It would, however, "require all your prudence and all your other virtues as well as all your talents." The tone turned conspiratorial as father warned son: "Be secret. Don't open your mouth to any human being on the subject except your mother. Go and see with how little wisdom this world is governed."
Four days later, overflowing with pride, the eager father assured his son that the nomination, the result of the president's own observations and reflections, was as politic as it was unexpected, proof that "sound principles in morals and government are cherished by the executive of the United States." Further, his appointment ought to be reassuring to England and Holland—in his judgment, it was a pledge given by the American cabinet that they were not enemies to a rational form of government, and that they were not carried away with wild enthusiasm for every unmeaning (that is, Francophile) "cry of Liberty, Republicanism and Equality."
More fatherly advice followed. John Adams had never kept secret from his son his ambitions for him. John Quincy must get to work. He must pursue research in international law and diplomacy; observe the opinions and actions of the belligerent powers; master all of his country's disputes with England, Spain and France; study the lines and boundaries of the United States; and watch the English ambassador and all the rest of the "Anglomaniacs." And this wasn't the whole of it. He must attend to his dress and person, as no man alive was more attentive to these things than the president himself. Taken altogether, he counseled his son: "let no little weakness escape you, and devote yourself to the service of your country."
In his next letter, the proud father reported to John Quincy that the speed of his confirmation—the Senate passed it without a dissenting voice one day after his nomination on May 29—was proof of the president's esteem. As John Quincy studied this letter, he was torn, nagged with questions. He wished he had been consulted before his appointment was irrevocable and, in another way, he wished it had not been made at all. He needed to reassure himself, and to be reassured, that his father's prominence hadn't influenced his appointment.
Father and son met on June 10 at Quincy, where members of the Adams family had already lived for six generations—among pine-steeped woods and massive granite quarries, a mile or two from the intense blue of the salty sea, an 11-mile, two-hour walk from Boston—reconciled to New England's moody weather, its blazing summer sun, cold gray November evenings, January stark white blizzards, the thick, muddy thaws of winter. They met at the family home, variously called Peacefield (in honor of the Treaty of 1783) or Stony Field or Montezillo, or, most often, the Old House, purchased when John Adams served as United States minister plenipotentiary in London in 1787.
There was an aura of affluence about its design—six rooms with graceful additions under Abigail's supervision—and a certain poignancy about its history, reflecting a clash of loyalties that necessitated its original owner's abandonment. Built as a summer house in 1781, poised in the midst of a gentle field, two stories with tall windows, a covered veranda and a Honduras mahogany-paneled interior, it was less the farmhouse of a patriot (according to John Adams) and more an aspiring plantation house originally built by Leonard Vassal, grandson of a sugar planter, nostalgic for his birthplace in Jamaica, the West Indies.
After the grandeur of Europe's palaces, churches, museums, embassies, and their private dwelling places—the gay and really beautiful chateau, the Hôtel de Rouault in Auteuil, just four miles from the heart of Paris, and the doughty brick mansion on the northeast corner of London's Grosvenor Square—John Quincy's father and mother had outgrown their former saltbox house in Braintree on the coast road that ran from Boston to Plymouth. That "humble cottage" had been both John Adams's law office and the birthplace of his children, brothers John Quincy, Thomas and Charles, and sister Abigail, "Nabby." A prim, white, two-story house of brick and clay sheathed in wood, it had five small rooms with massive fireplaces and cavernous ovens that looked like "fortifications." An addition called a lean-to (sometimes spelled "leanter") included a fireplace and a tiny staircase that reached an airy bedroom whose floorboards, judging from their thick widths and great length, had been claimed from a vast and venerable tree.
This Old House, which Abigail Adams knew and admired from visits in pre-Revolution days, was now better suited to their needs, taste and status. Abandoned by its loyalist owners, the Borlands, who reclaimed it only after the war, the house was bought by John Adams through an intermediary, Dr. Cotton Tufts.
Adams's instructions reveal a passion for his homeland that far exceeds mere real estate. Tufts was to purchase not only the Vassal-Borland place but "every other, that adjoins upon me.... My view is to lay fast hold of the Town of Braintree and embrace it, with both my arms and all my might. There to live, there to die—there to lay my bones—and there to plant one of my sons, in the profession of the law and the practice of agriculture like his father." However sincerely meant, his dreams for his son would burst beyond all such boundaries.
On this ravishing day, as John Quincy opened the front gate, the sky was cerulean, a canopy of deep lavender wisteria crowned the front path and, looking left, he could see Abigail's great rectangular garden, her red and white roses ("York and Lancaster united"), framed with a wide border of amethyst-flowering myrtle. Somewhat appeased, he had been gratified that his nomination had been as unexpected to his father as to himself.
John Adams had again advised his son to accept the appointment. The Hague, he said, would provide a stepping-stone to higher and larger spheres, an opportunity to see Europe "at a most interesting period of its history."
His father and mother never doubted that their first-born was destined for greatness. A historian years later confirmed their optimism: "Two streams of as good blood as flowed in the colony mingled in the veins of the infant born on the 11th of July, the summer of 1767, named for his esteemed grandfather John Quincy." Given his patriot parents, visionaries with revolutionary zeal, faith, perseverance, thriving intellect and ramrod integrity, John Quincy Adams had truly started life with an excellent chance of becoming famous. John Quincy recounted the family saga years later in response to the historian Skelton Jones's inquiries.
John Quincy's autobiographical sketch begins in England in about 1609 when Edith Squire, of the little village Charlton Mackrell on the river Cary in Somersetshire, married Henry Adams, of the neighboring village of Barton St. David. He became a congregational dissenter from the Church of England during the reign of King Charles I. The couple sailed to America with seven sons and a daughter, all married; all but one remained in America and left descendants who multiplied, making their name one of those most frequently met with in almost every part of the commonwealth.
Henry and his son Joseph settled in Mount Wollaston, which was incorporated in 1639 in Braintree, about ten miles from Boston, in the province of Massachusetts Bay. It was later called Quincy. Joseph Adams, great-great-grandfather of John Quincy, inherited his father's property and trade in Braintree, where he served as selectman, constable and surveyor of highways.
"They were originally farmers and tradesmen, and, until the controversies with Great Britain and the colonies arose, scarcely any of them had emerged from the obscurity in which those stations were held," one historian wrote. But two who then emerged stood out to John Quincy as mentors and leaders. One was his father; the other was his father's second cousin, Samuel Adams. Samuel Adams and John Adams were both descended from the first Henry by two different sons. There was a very early incident in the life of each one of them which seemed to indicate "that the Spirit of Independence, which is so strongly marked in the history of the New England colonies from their first settlement, had been largely shared by the family from which they came, and instilled with all its efficacy in their own minds." (And especially his own, he might have added with due pride.)
Their education at Harvard College had played a role in encouraging discussion on the relevant issues of the day. "Samuel Adams was many years older than my father," John Quincy continued. "He received his degree of Master of Arts at Harvard College in 1743. It was then the custom of that college, that the candidates for this degree should each of them propose a question related to any of the sciences, in which they had been instructed and, assuming the affirmative or negative side of the proposition, profess to be prepared to defend the principle contained in it at the public Commencement against all opponents. The question proposed by Samuel Adams was 'whether the people have a just right of resistance, when oppressed by their rulers,' and the side that he asserted was the affirmative."
John Adams shared his cousin's opinions. Graduating from Harvard with a bachelor of arts degree in 1755 (the first in his immediate family to attend college), he had written in a letter to his classmate Nathan Webb of the "probability of the severance of the colonies from the mother-country, the causes from which that event would naturally proceed, and the policy by which Britain might prevent it, with the precision of prophecy. The date of this letter, the age at which it was written, and the standing in society of the writer at the time, are circumstances," John Quincy concluded, "which render it remarkable."
When it came to describing his mother's origin, John Quincy made some distinction between the aspiring Adams yeomanry and the Quincy gentry. Abigail Adams too was of English extraction, but her family for three preceding generations had been natives of this country, all with diplomas from Harvard. Her father and grandfather were clergymen, and her mother was a daughter of John Quincy, who had been for many years a member of the provincial legislature, several times Speaker of the House, and afterward a member of the council.
Young John Quincy's parents loved one another deeply, with respect and passion. His father was his mother's "dearest friend" and "beloved partner"; Abigail, who always "softened and warmed his heart," would be the "ballast" he sought on his long and heroic journey. They married on Thursday, October 25, 1764, the fourth anniversary of George III's accession to the throne of England. The couple's life fell swiftly into place, in the tidy white farmhouse built almost catercorner to John's birthplace along the road from Plymouth to Boston, framed by field and farmland. In the front room, remodeled into an office by replacing a side window with a door, John went about expanding his law practice.
Still, this was no ordinary lawyer's household. John Adams could barely conceal his growing disillusionment, immensely influenced by the irascible James Otis Jr., Harvard graduate and lawyer, zealous student and guardian of constitutional rights, and by his cousin Samuel Adams, ardent founder of the rousing Committees of Correspondence. He and Abigail were increasingly preoccupied with the evolving contest between America and England. The schism deepened as Great Britain's pragmatic secretary of the treasury, Charles Grenville, sought to bolster the finances of the ever-spreading empire with colonists' tax dollars.
There was great opposition to one revenue-raising law, the Sugar Act, but it was the consequences of another, the Stamp Act, that gave John much to brood about. The Stamp Act had been perpetrated the precise month he was chosen as one of the surveyors of highways in Braintree, as well as a member of the committee to lay out the North Commons in lots for sale that required the stamping of 15 classes of court documents. There were also college diplomas, real estate certificates, newspapers, even playing cards to be stamped. The resulting chaos brought his law office to a standstill. The future seemed bleak to the man who had achieved a "small degree of reputation" after years of groping in "dark obscurity," he wrote in his diary on December 18, 1765.
John was a charter member of radical groups such as the Sons of Liberty, founded to oppose the Stamp Act, and of the Committees of Correspondence, the town meetings organized by Samuel Adams to publicize colonists' rights and Parliament's infringement on them. As a political writer John signed himself "Clarendon" and "Misanthrop" and "Humphrey Ploughjogger." The couple's daughter Abigail, called Nabby, was born on July 14, 1765. Twelve days before the birth of John Quincy Adams and just 14 months after the repeal of the Stamp Act, Parliament passed a set of duties alerting the colonists to the presence of a new political villain. Charles Townshend, the loathsome chancellor of the exchequer, was also known as the Weathercock because of his fickle politics. Duties on glass, painter's oils and colors, tea and wine, known as the Townshend Acts, followed by the establishment of a board of customs and the legalization of general writs of assistance (nothing more than disguised search warrants), plunged the colonists into a new round of soul-searching.
A poignant view of Abigail on a Sunday evening in Weymouth, September 1767, during a two-day visit with her parents, foretold times ahead. Nabby is rocking the cradle of her two-month-old brother, John Quincy. She is singing, "Come papa come home to brother Johnny." The song reinforces Abigail's sense that Sunday seems a more lonesome day than any other day on which John Adams is absent. He has been traveling, in heat and cold, from town to town and court to court in order to support his family.
One year later, on October 1, 1768, in obedience to His Majesty's commands, seemingly numberless redcoats disembarked at the Long Wharf and at Wheelwright's Wharf, which jutted out into Boston's vulnerable harbor, to march their way uphill to King Street and over to the grassy Common. By December, their artillery focused on the Massachusetts Town House (today's red brick Old State House). With additional troops at Castle William in Boston Harbor and British men-of-war moored just beyond the wharves, the patriots pronounced their beloved city "a perfect garrison."
Excerpted from The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams by Phyllis Lee Levin. Copyright © 2015 Phyllis Lee Levin. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents
1 "A Legacy More Valuable than Gold or Silver" 11
2 "A Great Deal of Room for Me to Grow Better" 23
3 "Some Compensation for My Not Being with My Friends at Braintree" 33
4 A Journal 45
5 "Almost at the World's End" 57
6 "Promise to Produce a Worthy Character" 75
7 "A Son Who Is the Greatest Traveller of His Age" 87
8 "A Sister Who Fulfills My Most Sanguine Expectations" 97
9 "Your Ever Affectionate Brother" 121
10 "The Sentiments of My Heart as They Rise" 133
11 "Study Is My Mistress" 149
12 "A Student in the Office of Theophilus Parsons" 169
13 "Exposed to the Perils of Sentiment" 185
14 "On the Bridge between Wisdom and Folly" 205
15 "I, Too, Am a Scribbler" 221
16 "The Times Change and We Change with Them" 235
17 "The Magnitude of the Trust and My Own Incompetency" 247
18 "The Usual Mixture between Sweet and Bitter" 267
19 "The Age of Innocence and Thoughtlessness" 283
20 "Albeit Unused to the Melting Mood" 297
21 "Oh My Louisa!" 305
22 "For the Friend of Your Life" 323
23 "Wise and in the Best Interests of the Country" 333
24 "To Turn Weariness Itself into Pleasure" 353
25 "Painful Retrospection" 369
26 "No Small Difficulty" 377
27 "Another Feather against a Whirlwind" 389
28 "Like a Fish Out of Water" 403
29 "Apostasy" 417
30 "In Honorable Diplomatic Exile" 433
31 "Whether of Peace or War" 445