John Quincy Adams Biography

Early Life
No American who ever entered the presidency was better prepared to fill that office than John Quincy Adams. Born on July 11, 1767 in Braintree, Massachusetts, he was the son of two fervent revolutionary patriots, John and Abigail Adams, whose ancestors had lived in New England for five generations. Abigail gave birth to her son two days before her prominent grandfather, Colonel John Quincy, died so the boy was named John Quincy Adams in his honor. Through the example of his father and mother the child learned the sacrifices that individuals need to make to preserve and protect the welfare of society. When John Quincy Adams was seven years old, his father traveled to New York to participate in the First Continental Congress. There, representatives from the American Colonies met to discuss their opposition to England's Colonial Government. In 1775 a second Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia to continue to debate the issue of independence. From Philadelphia John wrote to Abigail of the Congress' activities and of their duties, as parents, to educate a new generation of Americans. John wrote: "Let us teach them not only to do virtuously, but to excel. To excel, they must be taught to be steady, active and industrious." John Quincy's parents succeeded in their objective, for not soon after, the young Adams wrote that he was working hard on his studies and hoped "to grow a better boy." War soon forced young John to mature at even a more accelerated rate.

News quickly spread to the Adams farm in Braintree of the battles fought between the American Colonists and the British in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Abigail and her son were eager to learn more about the progress of the war in order to inform John Adams in Philadelphia of the events that were transpiring in the Boston area. On June 17, 1775 they were told a major battle was underway in Boston. Abigail took her son to the top of Penn's Hill, near their farm, and they watched the fires of Charlestown and heard the cannons roar from the Battle of Bunker Hill. Experiencing the battles of the Revolutionary War around Boston in 1775-1776, and reading his father's letters from Philadelphia about the struggle to declare independence, John Quincy Adams was literally a child of the American Revolution. He absorbed in his earliest memories the sense of destiny his parents shared about the United States and dedicated his life to the republic's consolidation and expansion.

At age ten, John Quincy accompanied his father on a dangerous winter voyage to France. John Adams was sent to Europe as a Commissioner to negotiate for peace with Great Britain. He took his son on the diplomatic mission in order to give the boy international experience and provide for a second generation of enlightened leadership in U.S. foreign relations. While crossing the Atlantic the ship was struck by lightning (killing four of the crew), survived a hurricane, and fought off British vessels. Returning to America a few months later, John Quincy perfected his French by teaching English to the new French Minister to the United States. When his father was sent back to Europe to do diplomatic service, he again took John Quincy Adams. The second ocean crossing proved as eventful as the first, when the boat sprang a leak and John Quincy and the rest of the crew had to man the pumps as the unseaworthy vessel barely reached the Spanish coast. A fascinating, but grueling journey of two months across Spain and France returned them to Paris in February of 1780. In that year, John Quincy traveled to Holland in order to attend Leyden University and began to keep a diary that forms so vital a record of the doings of himself and his contemporaries through the next 60 years of American History.

John Quincy Adams certainly benefited from his father's association with the other U.S. representatives in Europe. The young Adams often sat in on conversations between his father and Benjamin Franklin and was so fond of Thomas Jefferson that John Adams later wrote that: "he (John Quincy) seemed as much your (Thomas Jefferson's) son as mine." While John Quincy Adams, so far, had been a spectator of the events that were shaping America's destiny, his mother in a letter from three thousand miles away, urged her son to actively confront the extraordinary challenges that the times demanded, saying: "These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed.... Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities, which would otherwise lie dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman."

The opportunity soon arose for John Quincy to actively serve his country. In 1781, he accompanied Francis Dana to Russia. Dana was appointed by the Continental Congress as the U.S. Minister to Russia and brought the young Adams along as his private secretary and interpreter of French. This mission would take John Quincy on two more long and arduous journeys across Europe, in between which he wrote and translated for Dana and pursued his own studies of history, sciences and languages. Upon his return to France, in 1783, the young Adams served as an additional secretary to the U.S. commissioners in the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris that concluded the American Revolutionary War.

The next year, after his family was reunited in France and his father was appointed U.S. Minister to Great Britain, John Quincy Adams returned to America to attend Harvard University. Adams sought to become an attorney like his father, and upon graduation, in 1787, read law at Newburyport, Massachusetts under the tutelage of Theophilus Parsons. In 1790, John Quincy was admitted to the Bar in Boston and formally became a practicing attorney. While struggling as a young lawyer John Quincy resumed his preoccupation with public affairs by writing a series of articles for the newspapers in which he criticized some of the doctrines in Thomas Paine's book, "Rights of Man". In a later series he skillfully supported the neutrality policy of the Washington Administration as it faced the consequences of a war between France and England in 1793. more...

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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