This is the fifth and final part of a continuing series of blog posts with author David Bruce Smith about Abigail and John Adams. Historic Deerfield’s resident historians posed questions to Smith, who is the author of Abigail & John, a nonfiction children’s book that offers readers the opportunity to view prominent scenes in American history through the remarkable lives of one of the country’s most beloved couples—the Adams’s. Exploring the historical significance of a partnership that spanned over five decades, the book details the love they shared for each other and the country. We hope this blog can be a helpful historical resource for learners of all ages. Historic Deerfield wishes to thank David Bruce Smith for his contributions to this engaging blog during the last few months.
1. What do you think John and Abigail Adams may have considered their greatest triumph?
Abigail and John wrapped themselves in a tight-fitting cloak of love, and—unknowingly—caused their children to feel neglected.
Because of that pervasive dynamic, three of the siblings lived unhappily into adulthood, and John Quincy—the beneficiary of his parents’ enthrallment—soared to a potpourri of political pinnacles—including the presidency.
Early on, Abigail and John resolved to design the precocious Quincy for the zenith of greatness; from childhood to adulthood, he was prodded and pressed; pushed, and prepared; for a preferential life he might not have wanted:
“…Abigail…had a strong molding influence on his education after the [Revolutionary] War deprived Braintree of its only schoolmaster. In 1778 and again in 1780— [ages 11 and 13] the boy accompanied his father to Europe. He studied at a private school in Paris in 1778-79 and at the University of Leiden, Netherlands…at an early age he acquired an excellent knowledge of the French language and a smattering of Dutch…”
At 14, John Quincy accompanied Francis Dana, the United States Envoy to Russia, as his private assistant, and interpreter of French. When the assignment ended, Quincy reunited with his father in Paris, and “…acted, in an informal way, as an additional secretary to the American commissioners in the negotiation of the Peace of Paris that concluded the American Revolution.”
Afterwards, John Quincy returned to Boston to attend Harvard; in the meantime, Abigail had been aghast to learn that her son—already partially prepared for position and power—had gotten a swelled head; for that he was rebuked and reprimanded in a prickly post:
“If you are conscious…that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing, reflect…you have had greater opportunities of seeing the world…you have never wanted a book, but it has been supplied…your whole time has been spent in the company of men of literature and science. How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead.”
Quincy obtained a bachelor’s degree, and later, a master’s; then, in a sequential advancement of powerful, coming-of-age-triumphs, he started to practice law, and publish; some of his newspaper articles stirred George Washington with such intensity, that the president appointed the 27-year-old to be minister of the Netherlands and Portugal. After John Adams was elected, he shuffled his son’s destination to the more substantial, Prussia.
With almost each successive administration, Quincy’s elastic ascent of accomplishment broadened. James Madison looked to his dexterous diplomat to be the minister to Russia and Britain.
During James Monroe’s two terms, Quincy was his sole Secretary of State; the president reached for—and relied on—his scope of negotiating skills; some historians say Quincy’s commanding capabilities have never been surpassed.
Abigail died in 1818; seven years later, John Quincy was elected president, and John Adams had lived to see their—his and Miss Adorable’s son—occupy the President’s House.
2. Conversely, what do you think might have been Abigail and John’s greatest regret?
Abigail and John must have been horrified, as they watched their children—and their worlds—unfurl into disorganized directions they could never have expected—or expunged. The lives of Nabby, Charles, and Thomas were sad and cursed.
Even Quincy had his share of tragedy.
Abigail “Nabby” Adams: Abigail & John’s only surviving daughter married Colonel William Stephens Smith, a one-time aide-de-camp to George Washington, and her father’s secretary during his term as the ambassador to Great Britain. Smith was ten years her senior; he was also allergic to work, and “would repeatedly abandon her and their four children for months—sometimes even years—at a time.”
A man who spent more than he saved, Smith bankrupted his family in an early 1800s real estate speculation, and from then on [Nabby] “lived with [him] in a tiny cottage on the grounds of a debtor’s prison.”
She died of breast cancer in 1813 at the age of 48. Abigail and John survived her.
Charles Adams: He graduated from Harvard and moved to New York to work in the office of Alexander Hamilton, but when he was appointed Secretary of Treasury, Adams switched to another legal job. He passed the bar in 1792, married the sister of Nabby’s husband, but was never able to practice law. He became a chronic alcoholic, an unstoppable adulterer, and much of the time he lived away from his wife and two daughters.
Distressed and distraught by the dismal destines of his offspring, John confided to Abigail: “My children give me more pain than all my enemies.” In the fall of 1799, he disowned Charles, who died the following year at thirty—destitute and diseased—by cirrhosis of the liver.
Thomas Boylston Adams: He graduated from Harvard, but Quincy did not believe his handsome brother was capable of practicing law, competently. He veered in another direction, and settled in Quincy, Massachusetts with his wife, their eight children, and became the town’s representative to the state legislature; Later, he was appointed chief justice of the Circuit Court of Common Pleas for the Southern Circuit of Massachusetts.
An alcoholic like Charles, Thomas died in 1832 at the age of sixty—in debt.