...in 1783 John Quincy Adams traveled from Holland to Paris with his father, John Adams. The senior Adams was involved in negotiating a peace treaty with Great Britain. On September 3rd, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Revolutionary War. Sixteen-year-old "Johnny," as the family called John Quincy, had been in Europe for five years and would stay for another two. His extraordinary exposure to European culture, history, and politics would be of great value to his country during his long career in public life. Widely considered one of the best Secretaries of State the United States has ever had, John Quincy Adams also served as President, and later as a member of the House of Representatives.
John Quincy Adams was a boy of ten when he first sailed to Europe, accompanying his father on a diplomatic mission to France. At Harvard, years later, he envied classmates whose education had been more traditional and who seemed set on their career paths. But his knowledge of European affairs and fluency in languages would be essential in making Adams an extraordinarily versatile public servant.
Born in Braintree (now Quincy) on July 11, 1767, John Quincy Adams was the second child and first son of John Adams and Abigail Smith Adams. His parents expected great things of him. "You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen," was advice he heard early and often.
When the two Adamses set out for France in 1778, the father spoke not a word of French, knew nothing of diplomacy, and had little interest in European culture or politics. This would never be true of his eldest son. Johnny attended French schools and learned the language quickly. By the time he returned to the U.S. in 1784, he spoke it better than English. He also fell in love with theater and literature.
In July of 1780, the Adamses moved to the Netherlands, where John Adams hoped to obtain a loan for the United States. At first Johnny attended a Dutch school, then studied with a private tutor while taking courses at the University of Leyden. In January 1781, 13-year-old Johnny was formally admitted to the prestigious university.
That summer his formal education was interrupted when he was asked to accompany Francis Dana, who had served as John Adams's secretary, on a mission to St. Petersburg. French was the language of diplomacy, and Dana did not speak it. Young Johnny Adams was to be his secretary and translator. When Russia rebuffed the Americans, the 15-year-old began the 2,000-mile trip back to the Netherlands alone. For a teenager whose parents had closely monitored his every move, this proved to be a delicious period of independence. He reached Holland in late April 1783. When John Adams came up from Paris, where he was deep in peace negotiations, he found Johnny "grown a man in understanding and stature as well."
Two years later, John and Abigail decided that it was time for their son to return to Massachusetts, attend Harvard, and begin a career in the law. One biographer suggests that the younger Adams was "not eager to swap Europe's intellectual riches for America, the esteemed University of Leyden for a tiny college in the village of Cambridge." It was literature and the arts that he cared about, not the law.
Ever a dutiful son, however, he entered the junior class at Harvard in March 1786. He was disappointed in the faculty but thoroughly enjoyed his fellow students' company. After graduating second in a class of 51 in July 1787, he complied with his parents' wishes and moved to Newburyport to study with the renowned lawyer Theophilus Parsons. He began to experience the depression that would recur throughout his adult life.
He opened a law practice in Boston in the summer of 1790 but had little enthusiasm for it. He did take pleasure in writing a series of well-received essays for newspapers. His demanding parents were not satisfied. "If you do not rise to the head not only of your profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own Laziness, Slovenliness, and Obstinacy," his father chided him in April 1794. Young Adams was not cowed: "I find myself contented with my state as it is," he replied.
By this time John Adams was Vice President. It seems likely that he suggested to President George Washington that his son be sent as minister to the Netherlands. The young man was dispatched to The Hague; his life as a public servant had begun. Over the course of his career, he would also represent the United States in St. Petersburg, Berlin, and London. After eight years as Secretary of State and one term as President of the United States, he would serve in the U.S. Congress. Whatever office he held, John Quincy Adams was always fiercely independent in his thinking and voting.
Although he was devoted to his parents, he had shown his independent streak when it came to choosing a wife. In 1797 he had married Louisa Catherine Johnson, the London-born and bred daughter of a Maryland merchant and his English wife. John and Abigail thought the match a mistake, and it would take Louisa Catherine Adams many years to earn her mother-in-law's approval.
In 1824 John Quincy Adams was elected the sixth President of the United States. Predictably, he saw things in international and national terms and had little patience for sectional squabbles. His administration negotiated more commercial treaties than any other prior to the Civil War. He initiated a publicly-funded program of road and canal construction and harbor improvements. His hopes for a national university and federal support for arts and sciences, however, were not fulfilled. As independent and strong-willed as ever, Adams refused to play politics. Nor would he campaign for votes. It was no surprise when Andrew Jackson soundly defeated him in the 1828 presidential contest.
Most men would have retired, but not John Quincy Adams. In 1830 he was elected to Congress, where he served for the next 17 years. He continued his support for large-scale public improvements. He also worked hard to counter southern political influence. He opposed the expansion of slavery; while not himself an abolitionist, he fought against the "gag rule," which prevented anti-slavery petitions from being presented and discussed in Congress. In 1841, years after giving up the legal practice he had never liked, he successfully defended enslaved Africans before the Supreme Court in the Amistad case. In gratitude the men presented him with a bible; it was on this bible that Deval Patrick, the Commonwealth's first black governor, took the oath of office in January 2007.
John Quincy Adams was not a popular man. Many people disagreed with his ideas and decried his stubbornness, but few questioned his devotion to his country. He was at his seat in the House when he suffered a stroke on February 21, 1848; he died two days later. Among his descendants are the congressman and diplomat Charles Francis Adams and his grandson, the brilliant historian and writer Henry Adams.
American National Biography, Volume 1 (Oxford University Press, 1999).
John Adams, by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life, by Paul C. Nagel (Alfred A Knopf, 1997).