John Quincy Adams: A Life | Chapter 9 of 27

Author: Harlow Giles Unger | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 8937 Views | Add a Review

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A First Son for a Founding Father
Ten-year-old John Quincy Adams looked up at his father, who nodded to the lady, smiled and excused himself, then whispered reassurances in his son’s ear: the woman, was “a good lady . . . an Adams with very delicate health . . . much afflicted with hysterical complaints . . . often a little disarranged in her imagination.”2 With that, father, son, and their servant boarded the barge and bounded over the angry waters toward the twenty-four-gun frigate Boston that waited in the bay to take them across the Atlantic to France. All but echoing the lady’s warning, the waves lapped the sides of the barge—slapping passenger faces, stinging John Quincy’s eyes with salty spray, and filling him with fear of impending disaster at sea.
Several days later, the captain of the Boston confirmed the boy’s fear—shouting to crewmen and pointing to the horizon: three British navy frigates had climbed into view. Heeling over with sails full, the Boston fled and lost sight of two ships, but the third stayed in sight, pursuing the entire day, night, and all next day, intent on capturing the American ship and its famous passenger.
“Our powder, cartridges and balls were placed by the guns,” John Adams recalled, “and everything made ready to begin the action.”3 As night fell, the enemy “was gaining on us very fast,” and John Quincy knew that if the British captured them, his father faced summary hanging from the yardarm, while the boy himself faced impressment and a life of servitude in the British navy.
Nightfall only added to their danger as winds picked up and swelled into a hurricane. The Adamses went below to their cabin, where “it was with the utmost difficulty that my little son and I could hold ourselves in bed with both our hands . . . bracing ourselves with our feet.”
Then, “a sudden, tremendous report” rocked the ship. Adams and his boy had no way of knowing “whether the British frigate had overtaken us and fired on us or whether our guns had been discharged.”4
As they waited for the sea to smash through the door and rush into their cabin, John Adams held his frightened little son in his arms, but said nothing, as the last-minute thoughts and regrets of every man facing death raced through his head. Of all his regrets, he rued his decision to take his boy on the Atlantic crossing—a foolhardy decision for an adult, let alone a child, in midwinter. But Adams and his son had been apart for nearly two years; John Quincy needed paternal attention, and John Adams missed the joys of nurturing his oldest son. On learning he would have to go to France, he thought the trip a perfect opportunity for the two to grow close again—and to expose “Johnny” to the glories of French and European culture, with their history, art, music, architecture, and languages. The American Revolution had deprived the boy of most educational and cultural advantages, not to mention his father’s attention. Now the boy and his father faced death together at sea in each other’s arms.
John Quincy Adams had been born a decade earlier, when the first seeds of the Revolution were sprouting; periodic riots erupted in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other American towns. Britain’s Parliament had raised taxes on goods shipped to the colonies, then it shredded the Magna Carta and ordered admiralty courts in Canada to try American smugglers—without juries of their peers.
“And this sequence of events,” John Quincy explained, “was to affect the fortunes of no single individual more than those of the infant then lying in his cradle in the little village of Braintree, in the Massachusetts Bay.”5
That infant was the second child and first son of John and Abigail Adams, of Braintree, Massachusetts, a farming community about six miles south of Boston, later renamed Quincy. At birth, John Quincy was the most recent in a long line of illustrious forebears who helped shaped the destiny of the English-speaking world. The first recorded Quincy sailed with William the Conqueror across the English Channel from Normandy in 1066 to crush English forces at Hastings. A century and a half later, in 1215, Saer de Quincy, Earl of Winchester, rode to Runnymede and helped force King John to sign the Magna Carta, which guaranteed English freemen the right to trial by a jury of their peers.
Subsequently, the Quincy and Adams clansa produced a host of distinguished noblemen, churchmen, physicians, and scientists—among the last, Thomas Boylston, a renowned English surgeon who emigrated to Massachusetts with his son, Zabdiel Boylston, who pioneered smallpox inoculation in the New World. The Adams family also included ordinary craftsmen, of course—among them, John Alden, who may have been the least significant until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow rhymed him into poetic immortality in The Courtship of Miles Standish. A cooper on the Mayflower , Alden caught Longfellow’s odic fancy by wedding Priscilla Mullins. John and Priscilla Alden’s granddaughter would marry Joseph Adams Jr., great-grandfather of John Quincy Adams. His son, Joseph Adams III, tied his family’s academic future to Harvard College, becoming the first of a long line of Adamses to study there. The second was John Adams, John Quincy’s father, who graduated in 1755 at the age of twenty.
Harvard was the first college established in the New World, and within a decade of its founding in 1636, it had evolved into more than a mere college: it was a “school of prophets”—a divinity school engaged in “a noble and necessary work”6 to create and lead a new sort of nation conceived in liberty. From the first, its students and graduates were extraordinaries—and Americans recognized them as such.b Their motto was “Veritas”—a “truth,” enhanced by the divine, that gave Harvard men the wisdom of both God and man to transform America’s wilderness into a Paradise.
Although John Adams’s parents hoped he would enter the ministry after Harvard, the school broadened its curriculum to include secular studies, and he opted for teaching at first, then law. After winning admission to the bar, he settled in Braintree to practice law, fell in love, and, on October 25, 1764, married Abigail Quincy Smith. Abigail was the second of three daughters of the Reverend William Smith of nearby Weymouth and granddaughter of Colonel John Quincy, longtime Speaker of the Massachusetts colonial legislature. Unlike the illustrious Quincys, many of the Smiths lived in the shadows of humanity—victims of genetically transmitted mental illnesses, including alcohol abuse, that usually led to premature death. Abigail Smith’s brother, William Smith Jr., suddenly and inexplicably abandoned his wife and children to poverty and plunged into humanity’s gutter—whoring, drinking, and finally dying at an early age. In raising her own children, Abigail Adams resolved to instill in them principles of self-discipline and prayer to protect them from alcohol and other sins. “Nothing,” she believed, “bound the human mind but religion.”7
Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, America’s second President, and mother of John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth President. Her family’s roots stretched back to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. (NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE, ADAMS NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK)
Deprived of formal education as a woman, she more than compensated by devouring the books in her father’s huge library of religious and literary works, including Shakespeare’s plays, the English poets, and a wide range of classical tales that gave her a broader education than that of most men. Indeed, Harvard’s young John Adams found Abigail more than an intellectual equal as well as a romantic match. Nine months after she married John Adams, she gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Abigail but called “Nabby” to distinguish her from the senior Abigail. Two years later, on July 11, 1767, Abigail’s second child was born—a son they named John Quincy Adams, after the infant’s father and maternal grandfather.
The ninety-five-acre Adams family farm, in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, with the birthplace of John Quincy Adams on the left, the birthplace of his father, John Adams, to its immediate right, and John and Abigail Adams’s retirement “mansion” on the far right. In the rear is Penn’s Hill, where Abigail Adams took seven-year-old John Quincy to witness the Battle of Bunker’s Hill. (NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE, ADAMS NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK)
At John Quincy’s birth, his father’s reputation had spread far beyond Braintree. “The disputes [with Britain] grew,” John Quincy explained, and “agitated no household more than that in which this boy was growing up. My father, from pursuing a professional life, began to feel himself impelled more and more into the vortex of controversy. . . . My mother’s temperament readily caught the rising spirit of popular enthusiasm and communicated it to me.”8
A move from Braintree to Boston put John Quincy’s father close to the state’s most influential clients—and at the center of popular anger over British rule. “America is on the point of bursting into flames,” Boston’s Sons of Liberty warned,9 and on March 5, 1770, two years after John Quincy’s family had settled in town, an angry mob transformed the Sons of Liberty’s warning into the Boston Massacre, with British troops killing two men and wounding eight, two of whom quickly died from their injuries.
To prevent disorder from spreading, the royal governor ordered the soldiers and commanding officer arrested and charged with murder. He thwarted accusations of favoritism by naming John Quincy’s father and his mother’s cousin Josiah Quincy—two outspokenly anti-British lawyers—to defend the soldiers in an out-of-town trial before a jury of farmers, none of them Tories. Motivated in part by political ambition, Adams gambled that, win or lose, the case would show him as a man of stature who eschewed hatred in favor of the law and the right of every free Englishman to a trial by a jury of his peers. Fearing reprisals against his family, he sent his wife, who had just given birth to their second son, Charles, to the safety of their Braintree farm with their children. He need not have worried. After his brilliant summation, the jury unanimously acquitted the soldiers, saying they had legitimately defended themselves against unprovoked mob assault.
His courtroom triumph gained John Quincy’s father national and international fame—and election as Boston’s representative in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The trial also ended mob protests; the troops retired, and with Boston at peace, the Adams family moved back to town, where Abigail gave birth to their third son, Thomas Boylston Adams.
Although street disorders ended for a while, new import duties provoked more smuggling, and by the end of 1773, protests against a British tea tax climaxed with a mob boarding three ships in Boston Harbor and dumping more than three hundred chests of tea, worth about $1 million, overboard. British troops returned to Boston, declared martial law, and closed the city to commerce, threatening to keep it closed until Bostonians either repaid the East India Company for the vandalized tea—or starved.
“Boston became a walled and beleaguered town,” John Quincy recounted. “Among the first fruits of war, was the expulsion of my father’s family from their peaceful abode in Boston to take refuge in his and my native town of Braintree.”10
Outraged by the British threat to starve the innocent with the guilty, colonial leaders elsewhere convened a Continental Congress in the fall of 1774 to respond, and after ensuring his family’s safety in Braintree, John Quincy’s father rode off to Philadelphia with four other Massachusetts delegates. Although the First Continental Congress ended indecisively in late October, orders arrived in the spring for British troops to crush the rebellion and “arrest the principle actors and abettors in the Congress,”11 including John Adams. John Quincy never forgot the terror he felt when he heard of the threat to arrest his father: “My mother with her infant children, dwelt every hour of the day and of the night liable to be butchered in cold blood, or taken and carried into Boston as hostages by any foraging or marauding detachment of men.”12
In May 1775, John Quincy’s father again left for Philadelphia and a Second Continental Congress, where forty-three-year-old George Washington arrived in uniform dressed for war. At six foot three, he towered over other delegates—especially forty-year-old John Adams, who, even his wife Abigail conceded, was “short, thick and fat.”13 Nonetheless, their mutual interest in farming gave Adams and Washington common ground to form a firm friendship that often included dining and attending church services together.
On June 2, a letter from Dr. Joseph Warren, a close family friend of the Adamses and president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, urged the Continental Congress to take control of disorganized New England militiamen laying siege to Boston by appointing a commander in chief. “The sword should, in all free states, be subservient to the civil powers,” Warren argued. “We tremble at having an army (although consisting of our own countrymen) established here without a civil power to provide for and control them.”14
In a more dire letter, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband of the chaos engulfing Braintree, with their home a “scene of confusion—soldiers coming in for lodging, for breakfast, for supper, for drink, &c. &c.”
Sometimes refugees from Boston tired and frightened seek an asylum for a day or night, a week—you can hardly imagine how we live. . . . I wish you were nearer to us. We know not what a day will bring forth nor what distress one hour may throw us into.15
John Adams, second President of the United States and father of John Quincy Adams, the nation’s sixth President. He had been a prominent lawyer before attending the first two Continental Congresses, and his Thoughts on Government served as the basis for constitutions in nine of the thirteen states after independence. (AFTER A PORTRAIT BY JOHN SINGLETON COPLEY; NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE, ADAMS NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK)
Visibly upset by Abigail’s letter, John Adams replied by return, “Oh that I was a soldier! I will be. I am reading military books. Everybody must and will and shall be a soldier. . . . My dear Nabby and Johnny and Charley and Tommy are never out of my thoughts. God Bless, preserve and prosper them.”16
A few days later, John Adams reacted to Dr. Warren’s warning and asked Congress to draft patriot forces besieging Boston into a Continental Army and appoint a supreme commander. Congress agreed, and again Adams rose to speak. He had mingled discreetly with delegates from middle and southern colonies and discovered “a jealousy against a New England Army under the command of a New England General,” who, if he defeated the British, might give law to the other states.
“I had no hesitation to declare,” he responded, “that I had but one gentleman in mind for that important command, and that was a gentleman from Virginia . . . whose skill and experience as an officer, whose independent fortune, great talents, and excellent universal character, would command the approbation of all the colonies better than any other person in the Union.”17 Two days later, Boston’s John Hancock, the president of Congress, wrote to Dr. Joseph Warren, “The Congress here have appointed George Washington, Esq., General and Commander-in-Chief, of the Continental Army.”18 As Hancock penned his inimitable signature, however, Warren already lay dead on the field of battle at Breed’s Hill, on the Charlestown peninsula opposite Boston.
Like Boston, Charlestown sat in Boston Bay on what was nearly an island, connected to the mainland by a narrow neck. Two hills dominated the neck, Bunker’s Hill, as it was then called, near the mainland, and the smaller Breed’s Hill, nearer the water. Warren had gone to Bunker’s Hill to warn the commander of ammunition shortages and joined the troops behind a makeshift fortification on Breed’s Hill.
When she heard the first cannon blasts, Abigail Adams shuddered, then suppressed her fears of running into British soldiers and took seven-year-old John Quincy to a hilltop behind their home in Braintree, where they watched a battle unfold across the bay. By day’s end, the battle had turned into a slaughter. The first British troops to land had set Charlestown aflame, while 2,400 of their comrades swarmed up the hillside like ants—only to topple by the hundreds under a rain of American fire from above.
“The town all in flames around them,” Abigail wrote to her husband, “and the heat from the flames so intense as scarcely to be borne . . . and the wind blowing the smoke in their faces . . . the reinforcements not able to get to them.”19
An 1830 map of Boston Harbor shows Quincy Bay at the bottom, with the site of President John Quincy Adams’s home indicated in small print.
Seven-year-old John Quincy and his mother watched a second wave of British troops surge upward over their fallen comrades—only to fall back again, regroup, and charge a third time, tripping over lifeless bodies, sprawling to the ground into pools of blood and torn flesh, then crawling upwards on their hands and knees until enough reached the summit to silence the few patriot arms not out of ammunition. One thousand dead British soldiers covered the hillside; 100 dead patriots and 267 wounded lay on the hilltop. John Quincy said the battle and the carnage it left made “an impression in my mind” that haunted him the rest of his life.
Seven-year-old John Quincy Adams witnessed the Battle of Bunker’s Hill with his mother from a distant hilltop. Nearly 270 patriots perished, including Dr. Joseph Warren, the Revolutionary War leader and the Adams family’s physician, seen in the throes of death in an engraving by Gotthard von Muller, after the painting by John Trumbull. (NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)
“I saw with my own eyes the fires of Charlestown,” he exclaimed, “and heard Britannia’s thunders in the battle . . . and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled them with my own at the fall of Dr. Joseph Warren, a dear friend of my father, and a beloved physician to me.”20 Only days before his death, Warren had devised an ingenious array of splints to save John Quincy’s forefinger from amputation after the boy had suffered a bad fracture.
John Quincy watched his mother sob as she described Warren’s death to her husband: “Our dear friend . . . fell gloriously fighting for his country—saying better to die honorably in the field than ignominiously hang upon the gallows.”21
When the last patriot lay still on Bunker’s Hill and the British had ceased firing, Abigail led her frightened seven-year-old home, and together they recited the Lord’s Prayer. “My mother was the daughter of a Christian clergyman,” John Quincy explained, “and therefore bred in the faith of deliberate detestation of war.”22 Abigail made John Quincy promise to repeat the Lord’s Prayer each morning before rising from his bed—a promise he kept for the rest of his life. The memory of Bunker’s Hill, he said, “riveted my abhorrence of war to my soul . . . with abhorrence of tyrants and oppressors . . . [who] wage war against the rights of human nature and the liberties and rightful interests of my country.”23
A few days later, Abigail and John Quincy were still shaken by the slaughter at Bunker’s Hill. “We live in continual expectation of hostilities,” she wrote to her husband. “Scarcely a day that does not produce some, but like good Nehemiah . . . we will say unto them, ‘Be not afraid. Remember the Lord who is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses.’”24 Her sorrow over Warren’s death soon turned into fury, however, and Abigail declared a personal war against the British. With John Quincy at her side, unwrapping each piece and handing it to her, she melted all her prized pewter spoons in molds to make musket balls for patriot soldiers.
In the days that followed, John Quincy lived “in unintermitted danger of being consumed with my family in a conflagration kindled by a torch in the same hands which . . . lighted the fires of Charlestown.”25 As dangerous as the threat of fire was that of disease. Eight neighbors died of dysentery, distemper, and other maladies that raged through Braintree and nearby hamlets. Hunger spared no one; soldiers and refugees alike plundered kitchen gardens and root cellars of whatever food they could find, often stealing into the Adams house and terrifying Abigail and the children as they searched.
“Does every member feel for us?” Abigail pleaded to her husband about his colleagues in Congress. “Can they realize what we suffer?”26
Despite the disorder, Abigail and John maintained their regular correspondence, each addressing the other as “My Dearest Friend,” with Abigail always conveying their children’s love and “duty” to their father. Whenever his letters arrived, she told him, “You would laugh to see them run upon the sight of a letter—like chickens for a crumb when the hen clucks.”27
With schools closed and her husband absent, Abigail Adams took command of John Quincy’s education, encouraging him to read ever more books from his father’s library and calling in John Thaxter, a cousin who was studying law in John Adams’s office, to tutor the boy in mathematics and science. When she discovered her son turning pages of some prose or poetry without reading, the resourceful mother complained aloud about her eyes and asked John Quincy to read to her. After writing to her husband about her ruse, John Adams replied that he was “charmed with your amusement with our little Johnny. Tell him I am glad to hear he is so good a boy as to read to his Mamma for her entertainment and to keep out of the company of rude children.”28
John Adams went on to provide a complete curriculum for “our little Johnny.”
I am under no apprehension about his proficiency in learning. With his capacities and opportunities he can not fail to acquire knowledge. But let him know that the sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head. Let him be sure that he possesses the great virtue of temperance, justice, magnanimity, honor, and generosity, and with these added to his parts, he cannot fail to become a wise and great man.
Does he read the newspapers? The events of this war should not pass unobserved by him at his years.
As he reads history, you should ask him what events strike him most. What characters he esteems and admires? Which he hates and abhors? Which he despises?
Treachery, perfidy, cruelty, hypocrisy, avarice, &c &c should be pointed out to him for his contempt as well as detestation.29
Adams insisted that his son master Greek, “the most perfect of all languages,” and that he read the original text of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. Besides pressing him to meet his father’s academic demands, Abigail constantly reminded John Quincy of his family heritage and his father’s achievements as a scholar, lawyer, and legislator, as well as his courage in defying British rule and risking death by serving in the Continental Congress. John Quincy responded with bold displays of his own courage that added to his mother’s pride.
“Master John,” Abigail reported to her husband, “cheerfully consented to become ‘post-rider,’” venturing alone on horseback past British troop encampments to carry family news between Braintree and Boston.
“As the distance was not less than eleven miles each way,” John Quincy boasted, “the undertaking was not an easy one for a boy barely nine years old.”30
Abigail’s demands, discipline, expectations, and hectoring—along with fears generated by war—took a toll on the boy, however, often leaving him depressed and convinced he would never match the achievements of his “Pappa.” Abigail read and reread her husband’s letters from Philadelphia exhorting his son to achieve “great and glorious deeds.” The letters insisted that scholarship be central to the boy’s life to ensure his achieving his father’s ambition to “become a wise and great man.”31
“At ten years of age,” John Quincy recalled later, “I read Shakespeare’s Tempest, As You Like It, Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, and King Lear.”
There was also a small edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I believe I attempted ten times to read and never could get through half the book. . . . I was mortified, even to the shedding of tears, that I could not even conceive what it was that my father and mother admired so much in that book, and yet I was ashamed to ask them an explanation. I smoked tobacco and read Milton at the same time, from the same motive—to find out what was the recondite charm in them which gave my father so much pleasure. After making myself four or five times sick with smoking, I mastered that accomplishment . . . but I did not master Milton. I was thirty when I first read Paradise Lost with delight and astonishment.32
Following his success placing George Washington in command of the military, John Adams’s erudition and quick legal mind raised him to leadership in Congress—perhaps higher than he wanted. By summer’s end in 1775, he was sitting on ninety committees, serving as chairman of twenty-five, and by his own admission, he was “worn out”—and longed for his wife and children.
“My dearest friend,” he wrote to Abigail. “I have some thoughts of petitioning for leave to bring my family here. I am a lonely, forlorn creature. . . .”
I want to walk with you in the garden—the Common—the Plain—the Meadow. I want to take Charles in one hand and Tom in the other and walk with you, Nabby on your right and John upon my left, to view the corn fields, the orchards, &c. Alas, poor imagination. How faintly and imperfectly do you supply the want of originality and reality.33
Abigail longed for John as much as he longed for her. She too began her letters “My Dearest Friend.”
My anxiety for your welfare will never leave me but with my parting breath. ’Tis of more importance to me than all this world contains. The cruel separation to which I am necessitated cuts in half the enjoyments of life; the other half are comprised in the hope that what I do and what I suffer may be serviceable to you and the little ones and our country.34
In August, John Adams learned that his thirty-four-year-old brother, Elihu, had died of dysentery at his army camp, and reports from Boston about troop outrages left him worried about his family’s safety. He pleaded with Abigail to “fly to the woods with our children” in the face of danger. John Quincy tried assuaging his father’s fears with a pledge to defend the family and the family home.
“John writes like a hero,” Adams wrote back to Abigail, “glowing with ardor for his country and burning with indignation against her enemies.”35
Adams surprised his wife in December by appearing at the farm unexpectedly—only to surprise her even more, four days later, by leaving for Watertown, Massachusetts, to report to the Provincial Congress. He returned home three weeks after that—then left for Philadelphia almost immediately, with hardly a moment for John Quincy and the other children.
By then, Abigail was so lonely for her husband that she grew angry, asking bluntly, “Shall I expect you or do you determine to stay out the year?” After he left, she decided to cease writing him after one last message. “I miss my partner,” she admitted. “I have not felt in a humor to entertain you with letters. If I had taken up my pen perhaps some unbecoming invective might have fallen from it. . . . Our little ones whom you so often recommend to my care and instruction shall not be deficient in virtue or probity if the precepts of a mother have their desired effect, but they would be doubly enforced could they be indulged with the example of a father constantly before them.”36
“I cannot leave Congress, without causing injury to the public,” her husband snapped,37 but then reiterated his loneliness for her and his family. “I never will come again without you if I can persuade you to come with me,” he promised. “Whom God has joined together ought not to be put asunder so long with their own consent. We will bring master Johnny with us.”38
In the spring of 1776, Adams and the Continental Congress learned that George Washington’s Continental Army had forced the British to evacuate Boston on March 17. Adams and the others cheered as Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee then resolved that the United Colonies “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” Congress postponed voting on the resolution until July 1 to permit Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman to prepare a formal Declaration of Independence. Congress approved it without dissent on July 4.
Adams subsequently achieved still greater prominence by writing a document he called Thoughts on Government, which, by the end of the year, had served as the basis for constitutions in nine states. Adams’s Thoughts on Government called for establishment of republican governments, each with an executive and a bicameral legislature with separate, clearly defined powers.
In June 1777, a month before his tenth birthday, John Quincy wrote to his father, whose long absence and exalted position had transformed him into a distant, godlike fantasy in the boy’s imagination. Although he was ahead of most students twice his age, his mother’s hectoring convinced him he was falling short of his father’s expectations.
Dear Sir: I love to receive letters very well; much better than I love to write them. I make a poor figure at composition, my head is much too fickle, my thoughts are running after birds eggs, play and trifles, till I get vexed with myself. Mamma has a troublesome task to keep me steady, and I own I am ashamed of myself. I have but just entered the 3d volume of Smollett, tho’ I had designed to have got it half through by this time.
John Quincy pledged to devote more time to reading and promised to write again in a week “and give a better account of myself.”
I wish, Sir, you would give me some instructions with regard to my time & advise me how to proportion my studies & my play . . . and I will keep them by me & endeavor to follow them. I am, dear Sir, with a present determination of growing better, Yours.39
Early in winter 1778, the French government became the first foreign nation to recognize the United States’ independence. By then, John Adams was chairman of Congress’s Board of War and Ordnance—in effect, the nation’s secretary of war. Shortly thereafter, he wrote to Abigail of his intention to retire from government and return home “to my practice at the bar.” After four years in Congress, he realized, he had left too many debts unpaid, and, with money depreciating, “I was daily losing the fruits of seventeen years’ industry.”
My family was living on my past acquisitions which were very moderate. . . . My children were growing up without my care in their education, and all my emoluments as a member of Congress for four years have not been sufficient to pay a laboring man upon my farm. Some of my friends . . . suggested to me what I knew very well before, that I was losing a fortune every year by my absence.40
With her husband gone for all but four of the previous twenty-four months, Abigail had taken a dominant role in the Adams household. When a smallpox epidemic swept into Boston, she confronted the dreaded disease by taking her children and sixteen relatives to Boston to submit to inoculation with live infected serum. Although she and John Quincy emerged unscathed, the vaccine left eleven-year-old Nabby ill for several days and six-year-old Charles so sick he needed weeks to recover. She also oversaw the farm, farmhands, and household servants, as well as the buying and selling of lands.
“I have supported the family!” she complained to her husband.
Late in 1777, John Adams arrived home before Christmas to what he called “a blissful fireside, surrounded by a wife and a parcel of chattering boys and girls”—and a stack of letters from potential clients promising lucrative fees to take their cases. After he had left for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to take one such case, a letter from Congress staggered Abigail: Congress had appointed her husband a commissioner to France to replace Connecticut’s Silas Deane and to join Benjamin Franklin and Virginia’s Arthur Lee in soliciting financial aid from the French government.
“Dr. Franklin’s age alarms us,” explained Massachusetts congressman James Lovell, and because they suspected Arthur Lee of spying for England, “We want one man of inflexible integrity on that embassy.”41 As for Deane, Congress had recalled him after receiving an accusation that he had embezzled congressional funds intended for arms purchases.
Abigail was furious and tried to reverse the appointment with an irate letter to Lovell: “How could you contrive to rob me of all my happiness?” she demanded.
You who so lately experienced what it was to be restored to your family after a painful absence from it. . . . I have often experienced the want of his aid and assistance in the last three years of his absence, and that demand increases as our little ones grow up, three of whom are sons and at this time of life stand most in need of the joint force of his example and precepts. And can I, Sir, consent to be separated from him whom my heart esteems above all earthly things and for an unlimited time? My life will be one continued scene of anxiety and apprehension, and must I cheerfully comply with the demand of my country?42
The prospect of another long separation from her husband terrified her. Even if he survived the dangerous transatlantic winter voyage, he faced summary hanging for treason, without trial, if a British ship captured his vessel. Who would support their family if he failed to return, she demanded to know. With their family’s finances already in a “very loose condition,” John Quincy and her other children, she wailed, faced “growing up in poverty without ever knowing their father.”43
Knowing her husband would never refuse his country’s call, Abigail decided to ask him to take the entire family with him to France. And when he returned from Portsmouth, he surprised her by agreeing enthusiastically—only to learn a few weeks later that Congress lacked funds for the family’s passage and living expenses overseas.
John Adams was no more eager to leave his family than Abigail was to see him go, and to John Quincy’s dismay, his parents decided he should accompany his father on the voyage. His presence would not only ease some of his father’s loneliness for his family but allow John Adams and his firstborn to reforge father-son bonds and give John Adams greater influence over his son’s development. Foreign travel would also enhance John Quincy’s education and accelerate his evolution into the “wise and great man” his parents expected him to become. John Quincy hated the idea at first. Instead of romping with friends at school, he faced possible drowning at sea or capture and impressment in the British navy—or worse, by pirates. Just as dismal were the prospects of endless days of incessant study under constant watch and criticism by his scholar-father, whom he hardly knew and whose impossible success his parents expected him to emulate or surpass.
“My dear son,” Abigail tried to console him, “It is a very difficult task for a tender parent to bring her mind to part with a child of your years going to a distant land nor could I have acquiesced in such a separation under any other care than that of the most excellent parent and guardian who accompanied you.”
Let me enjoin it upon you to attend constantly and steadfastly to the precepts and instructions of your father as you value the happiness of your mother and your own welfare. You are in possession of a natural good understanding and of spirits unbroken by adversity and untamed. Improve your understanding by acquiring useful knowledge and virtue such as will render you an ornament to society, an honor to your country, and a blessing to your parents.44
Preparations for an eighteenth-century transatlantic voyage were not simple and, indeed, needed all the efforts of John and Abigail Adams and their children. In the absence of passenger ships, travelers usually had to bribe captains of cargo or naval vessels to take them aboard, then pay more bribes to obtain sheltered sleeping quarters. Congress, however, had ordered—and agreed to pay—the captain of the frigate Boston to transport John Adams to Europe. Like passengers on other ships, however, Adams still had to bring his own provisions for a voyage of unpredictable length and hardships. Transatlantic crossings could last thirty to sixty days, depending on prevailing winds and possible detention by enemy naval vessels or privateers. Apart from the clothes they would need at sea and in France, John and John Quincy Adams bought and carried aboard
a bushel of corn meal, thirty pounds of brown sugar, two bottles of mustard, two pounds of tea, two pounds of chocolate, six live chickens, a half-barrel of “fresh meat,” five bushels of corn, a barrel of apples [a precaution against scurvy], six small barrels of cider, “a fat sheep,” a ten-gallon keg of rum; three dozen bottles of Madeira wine, thirty bottles of port wine [water and milk were unsafe to drink], fourteen dozen eggs, seven loaves of sugar, a box of wafers, and a pound of pepper . . . and . . . three reams of paper, two account books, twenty-five quills; a dozen clay pipes; two pounds of tobacco, two mattresses, two bolsters [as pillows], and £100 in silver currency of various denominations stuffed in shoes.45
Not making preparations easier or more pleasant were warnings from well-meaning relatives, friends, and neighbors about everything from seasickness to pirates, privateers, and English gunboats. All knew that if the British captured John Adams, they would hang him and impress young John Quincy.
On the day of departure, family members and friends escorted Adams and his son from their door to water’s edge on Quincy Bay, where a barge bobbed about under thickening clouds, waiting to take them to their ship.
On February 13, 1778, John Adams and his son John Quincy ignored the ominous warnings of a hysterical relative who shrieked of “threatening signs” in the sky and sea; with their servant, they climbed aboard the Boston and set sail for France. Six days out, John Quincy and his father saw the three British frigates materialize on the horizon, speeding under full sails to capture the Boston and its famous passenger. The captain told John Adams that “his orders were to carry me to France . . . to avoid fighting if he could, but if he could not avoid an engagement he would give them something that should make them remember him. . . . Our powder, cartridges and balls were placed by the guns and everything made ready to begin the action.”46
John Quincy watched his father “encourage the officers and men to fight to the last.” He knew his father intended “to be killed on board the Boston or sunk to the bottom in her rather than be taken prisoner.”47
By nightfall on the second day of the chase, the British frigate chasing the Boston was no closer, and as the winds picked up and reached hurricane force, John Quincy and his father went to bed. Suddenly, they heard a thunderous crash above as the hurricane’s wind rocked the ship. John Adams clasped his boy in his arms and prayed: he was ready to die for his country, but asked God to spare his little son.


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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