Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth

Larry Holzwarth - July 13, 2018

John Adams was the second President of the United States and the first to lose when standing for reelection, causing him to leave office an embittered man. Adams left Washington before dawn on the morning of March 4, 1801, refusing to attend the inauguration of his successor, Thomas Jefferson. For most of his life Adams maintained an extensive correspondence with many contemporaries, but for the first four years following his presidency he remained reclusive on his small farm which he called Peacefield, within the town of Quincy, Massachusetts. His legacy as president is little known today, he is mostly remembered for his contributions to independence in 1776.

But Adams left another legacy, one which contributed to the growth of the nation, its financial and physical security, and to the recording of its history. The descendants of John Adams included another President of the United States, John Quincy Adams. The noted diplomat and historian Charles Francis Adams Sr. was the former president’s grandson, and the United States Minister to the United Kingdom during the critical days of the American Civil War. Other descendants of the second president served in Congress, on the bench, and on diplomatic missions representing the United States. Descendants of John Adams and his beloved Abigail have long and honorably served America.

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth
John Adams was the patriarch of a family which has made nearly countless contributions to American culture and society. The White House

Here are ten members of America’s first political dynasty – the Adams family.

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth
John Adams was sneeringly referred to as His Rotundity by his political enemies. Library of Congress

John Adams

John Adams was an enigmatic individual in many ways. He rose to prominence in pre-Revolutionary War Boston through his writings and speeches opposing the Stamp Act, which he declared invalid as a law since it was imposed on the colonies without their being able to present their arguments against it in Parliament. His published articles were under a pen name – Humphrey Ploughjogger – and were reprinted in London periodicals, but despite the subterfuge his authorship was well known. Yet when soldiers of His Majesty’s Army were tried for murder following the Boston Massacre in 1770, it was John Adams who provided them a defense and won an acquittal.

Despite Adams’ respect for the letter of the law and the rights of citizens he fully supported the illegal destruction of private property which occurred during the Boston Tea Party calling it, “indispensably necessary.” He was one of the first members of the Continental Congress to call for full independence from England, and he lobbied hard for its passage. Later in the Revolution he helped negotiate the alliance with France and financial support for the Americans from the Dutch. His treatise Thoughts on Government was one of the earliest written works which defined a bicameral legislature, a separate judiciary, and an executive, each containing checks upon the others.

During his presidency Adams signed into law a series of legislation passed by Congress which came to be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which limited free speech, gave the president the power to deport any non-citizen which he deemed dangerous, without resort to a court hearing, and made it more difficult for immigrants to obtain citizenship. The Acts were used to prosecute several newspapers which had been critical of the president and his party, the Federalists, and at least one Congressman, Matthew Lyon of Vermont, who was sentenced to four months in jail. Lyon ran for reelection while in jail, and retained his seat.

The party system which had begun under Washington’s presidency, and against which he warned in his valedictory letter to the nation, emerged full-blown during Adams’ term in office. The Federalists were opposed by the Democratic-Republicans of Jefferson, which took advantage of superior organization to defeat Adams in the election of 1800. Thus the nation’s second president became its first one-term president. The following three administrations all lasted two terms, and all of the occupants of the Executive Mansion were gentlemen planters from Virginia; Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. The influence of New England in national affairs began to wane.

John Adams passed on to his sons a sense of national duty and a respect for the law. He also passed along a problem with alcohol which ran through his descendants. Adams himself habitually started every day with a glass of hard New England cider, yet in a hard drinking age he was almost abstemious. His sons were less fortunate, and the two constants in his descendants for several generations were the study of law and the pitfalls of heavy drinking exhibited by males of the Adams line. Nonetheless the contributions of John Adams and his descendants to American culture and law make the Adams family one of the most extraordinary in American history.

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth
A lawyer like his father before him, John Quincy Adams was one of America’s foremost statesmen before he became President. Library of Congress

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams was a skillful negotiator and shaper of foreign affairs, using diplomatic skills which he undoubtedly acquired from his mother, as his father’s diplomacy was often somewhat ham-handed. Quincy represented the United States when negotiating the treaty which ended the War of 1812, successfully negotiated the purchase and annexation of Florida from Spain in 1819, and he created the agreement with England establishing the US border with Canada in 1818. It was Quincy who wrote the text of what became known to the world as the Monroe Doctrine while serving as Secretary of State under President James Monroe.

Few men ever entered the presidency better prepared for it than John Quincy Adams. By the time he was elected Quincy had served as the Minister to Russia (the first from the United States), and to the Court of St. James, as had his father before him. He had also served as Minister to the Netherlands and Prussia, as a United States Senator, and as Secretary of State under Monroe. His service as a diplomat and Minister to foreign powers during the formative years of the republic he represented did much to enhance American prestige in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, as Europe collapsed in wars following the chaos of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon.

As President, Quincy was central to driving down the national debt he inherited from his predecessor. Elected in what his rival Andrew Jackson called a “corrupt bargain” when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, Quincy believed in a broad definition of the Constitution and the power of the federal government. He advocated for internal improvements to more readily connect the growing number of states, with the federal government pushing the Cumberland Road into Ohio, the construction of canals to connect the Great Lakes with the Ohio River system, and navigational improvements on the rivers.

Quincy’s presidency was limited to a single term, and many of the improvements he sought went unrealized due to rising partisanship in Congress. An opponent of party politics, Quincy changed political party affiliations many times throughout his career. During his presidency tariffs imposed by Congress led to the British banning American trade with any of their colonies other than Canada, and imposed tariffs on trade there, leading to a downturn in the American economy which became instrumental in his defeat when he ran for reelection, losing to the populist Andrew Jackson. After leaving the presidency Quincy returned to public service rather than retire to his farm.

In 1830, two years after losing the presidency, Quincy returned to the House of Representatives as a Congressman from Massachusetts (only one other former president served in Congress following his presidency, Andrew Johnson, who served in the Senate). John Quincy Adams was elected to nine consecutive terms in Congress, continuing to serve from 1831 to 1848, when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on the floor of the House on February 21. He died two days later. When Congress appointed a committee to plan his funeral, freshman Congressman Abraham Lincoln was assigned to serve on it, planning the funeral for a man who began his service to his country during the administration of George Washington.

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth
Charles Francis Adams Sr. was Lincoln’s Minister to the United Kingdom during the Civil War. New York Public Library

Charles Francis Adams Sr.

Alcoholism ran in the Adams family. John Adams son Charles died at the age of 29 of cirrhosis, after struggling with the bottle for years. John Quincy Adams had three sons, two of whom died young after long bouts with alcoholism, which may have been brought on by a depressive illness, which went undiagnosed at the time. Quincy’s son George Washington Adams died a suicide after problems with drinking, his brother John Adams II likewise suffered from the ravages of alcoholism and died at the age of 31. Charles Francis Adams managed to avoid what seemed to be a family curse. He studied law under Daniel Webster after graduating from Harvard and then practiced in Boston.

Charles entered politics in 1840, serving in the Massachusetts Assembly as a representative and later in the state senate. He purchased a newspaper in 1846, the Boston Whig, and had an unsuccessful run for vice-president in 1848, running on a ticket with former president Martin Van Buren for the Free Soil Party. It was elsewhere in the 1840s that Charles found his true calling, that of an historical editor. He gathered and edited the letters of his grandmother, Abigail Adams, into a successful volume and then took up a project which had been abandoned by his father, that of editing the papers and correspondence of John Adams.

Charles produced a two volume biography of his grandfather, eight editions of a work entitled John Adams’ Diary and Autobiography, and a collection of John Adams’ speeches, political writings, diary notations regarding political events, and other notes. Entitled The Works of John Adams Esq. Second President of the United States, this was until 1954 the only source for scholars and researchers looking for primary sources regarding John Adams and his career during the Revolution and the beginning of the republic. In 1954 the Adams family donated John Adams’ original papers to the Massachusetts Historical Society and a review of the original materials revealed that Charles was faithful to the historical record.

Charles was elected to Congress twice beginning in 1858, but resigned in 1861 to accept Lincoln’s appointment of him to be the US Minister to the Court of Saint James, a post which had been held by both his father and grandfather. By the time Charles arrived in London the British had already recognized the South as a belligerent, but not as an independent nation, and Charles was instrumental in maintaining the status quo. Charles was also tasked with monitoring the activities of the representatives of the Confederacy in London who were not accredited by the British government, but were allowed to remain in London, as well as keeping an eye on the ships built for the South in British shipyards.

Charles was offered the office of President of Harvard University when he returned to the United States, but declined it in favor of building the first Presidential Library in the nation, dedicated to his father in 1870. The library remains in operation in the 21st century, located at the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. In the 1870s Adams became one of the most important contributors to the concept of resolving international disputes through the process of arbitration, and demonstrated its effectiveness in resolving the Alabama affair over restitution of damages by the British built Confederate commerce raider. Charles Adams died in 1886, survived by four sons.

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth
Charles Francis Adams Jr, distinguished himself in combat during the Civil War before becoming a successful businessman. Adams National Historical Park

Charles Francis Adams Jr.

Charles F. Adams was born in Boston in 1835, the great grandson of John Adams and grandson of John Quincy. In the style of the already prominent political family, Charles was educated in Boston and graduated from Harvard in 1856. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Charles joined the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry in Boston, accepting a commission as a First Lieutenant, the first member of the Adams line to enter into military service (though patriarch John Adams had briefly armed himself with a musket to help defend the ship in which he traveled to France during the Revolution). The following year he was promoted to Captain.

The regiment saw action during the 1862 Maryland Campaign following Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North. Charles fought at the Battle of South Mountain and the ensuing Battle of Antietam, which remains the bloodiest single day of combat in American history. In 1863 the regiment again saw action during the Gettysburg campaign, and the company which was under Charles’s command was engaged in the Battle of Aldie. At that battle, which was part of the screening actions by the Confederate cavalry as Lee’s army advanced northward through Virginia, the 1st Massachusetts was virtually destroyed as a combat regiment, losing 198 of the 294 men deployed.

In 1864 Adams was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, a unit of colored troops led by white officers. In the spring of 1865 Charles was promoted to full colonel and command of the regiment, which he led for the rest of the war, entering Richmond in 1865 after Lee abandoned his works there and retreated to Appomattox Court House. Charles resigned his commission and returned to Boston in the summer of 1865. He was promoted to an honorary position of Brigadier General of United States Volunteers in 1866 as reward for what President Andrew Johnson called “distinguished gallantry and efficiency.”

In Boston Charles was appointed to the Massachusetts Railroad Commission. This was the start of a career in the railroad industry which boomed in the United States in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Charles created regulations which protected the railroads and their investors, helping them to increase their size and profits, often to the detriment of their customers. In 1884 the US government, wary of the graft and profiteering of the Union Pacific Railroad, engineered a deal by which the railroad was compelled to install Charles as its president. Charles encountered difficulties with the labor and trade unions and by 1890 he resigned.

Charles Francis Adams Jr. was a longtime advocate for education; as president of the Union Pacific he established libraries in or near company facilities and stops for the betterment of its workers and their families. He also served in the Massachusetts Parks Commission, leading to the creation of several of the parks which exist today. He published several works on railroads, including an essay which revealed how railroads manipulated the rates they charged through collusion, at the expense of the consumer. His autobiography was published in 1916, the year following his death in Quincy, Massachusetts. He was buried in Quincy.

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth
The 1900 Harvard Crimson football team. Wikimedia

George C. Adams

George C. Adams was the nephew of Charles Francis Adams Jr. His father, John Quincy Adams II, had like his brother Charles served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Following the war he served in various local political offices and on civil boards in Quincy, Massachusetts, the Adams family seat. As was traditional among the men of the Adams family, George was educated locally before being enrolled at Harvard in 1882. While George was attending prep school, at Adams Academy (which had risen from an original endowment from John Adams) he became enamored of the game of football, which was somewhat different from the game as played today.

Football as it had been played by Harvard used a different set of rules than those from other schools, including Yale and Princeton. Called the Boston rules, and referred to by the players and fans as “Fightum Football”, they led to a violent game. Some schools used rules which more closely resembled soccer (though tackling the ball handler was allowed) while others, including Harvard, played a game which was similar to rugby. The violence of the game, in which twenty-two men opposed each other, and among the fans led to schools intermittently banning and reinstating its play on campus or by students of the school off-campus.

In 1886 Harvard suspended its football program, a situation which George found unacceptable. George immediately began a campaign to reinstate the program, initiating a petition and soliciting support from fellow students and alumni. The status of his family name and his direct lineage to not one but two former Presidents of the United States undoubtedly helped him in his task. Equally as helpful was likely the presence of his father in the Harvard Corporation as well as the prestige of his uncle as the chairman of the state parks commission.

George was successful in getting the season reinstated, and subsequently played on the team throughout that year’s play. The team was ostensibly coached by Frank Mason, appointed by the team captain, during 1886, the following year coaching decisions were made by the team captains. George graduated in 1886, but remained at Harvard helping to manage and coach the football team. In 1890 George and fellow Harvard graduate and former player George Stewart were appointed to coach the Harvard football team and manage the program on a full time basis. This was the first organized coaching system to be installed at Harvard.

George remained a coach and manager at Harvard from 1890-92, and the Crimson compiled a record of 34 wins against but two losses during that time. George developed an interest in recreational yachting as well as building racing yachts in Boston. He also became a major investor in real estate in Boston and its environs. But he never lost interest in Harvard football, which developed into a national power and won several national championships in college football’s fledgling years. George C. Adams became a victim of tuberculosis, and concentrated on sailing to bolster his failing health, but he died of the disease at the Adams family seat in Quincy in 1900. Harvard was then the reigning national champion in football.

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth
Harvard graduation photo of Henry Brooks Adams. Wikimedia

Henry Brooks Adams

When Charles Francis Adams traveled to London to serve as Abraham Lincoln’s minister to the Court of Saint James he took with him his son Henry to serve as his personal secretary. The young Henry had graduated from Harvard in 1858, after which he had taken a tour of Europe, where he attended law lectures in Berlin. His legal education complete, he returned to the United States in 1860, to find a heated presidential election and threats of secession being uttered by several of the southern states. His father won re-election to the House that fall, and asked Henry to serve in Washington as his personal secretary, a post Henry reluctantly accepted.

When Henry and his father arrived in London (decades earlier, John Quincy Adams had accompanied his father in a similar role) they were immediately busy monitoring the activities of Confederate sympathizers and spies. Henry also took on the role of being an anonymous correspondent to the New York Times, through which he urged Americans to be calm regarding Britain’s activities during the war. Henry was befriended by noted British political and business leaders, as well as introduced into British high society, and became, like his great-grandfather, somewhat of an anglophile. He remained in Great Britain until 1868.

Henry returned to the United States and residence in Washington DC determined to become a journalist and historian. Henry witnessed first-hand the corruption and backroom dealing which was prevalent in Washington during Reconstruction, and later wrote of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, “I think Lee should have been hanged…It’s always the good men who do the most harm in the world.” Although Henry was intent on exposing the corruption in which the journalists of the day often took part he was offered the position of professor of medieval history at Harvard. He is credited with initiating seminars in the teaching of history while there.

In 1877 Henry returned to Washington and work as a journalist and historian. While living there, over the course of 1889-91 and in nine volumes he produced The History of the United States of America (1801-1817), providing a detailed analysis and history of the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as well as the growth of the nation. Henry also wrote a highly successful and popular novel, Democracy, though it was published anonymously, and second, less successful novel under a pen name. His home on Lafayette Square became a center of the social life of the capital.

In 1907 Henry published The Education of Henry Adams, in a private edition which was made publicly available after his death in 1912. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 and was labeled the best non-fiction book of the twentieth century by Modern Library in 1998. Throughout his life Adams was touched by torments, including the suffering of others of his family through depression and alcoholism. In 1885 his wife Clover committed suicide, whether Adams’s alleged dalliances with other women was a contributing factor is debated. He never mentioned the topic in his later works.

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth
C. F. Adams III meets with Al Smith to discuss Navy support for a dirigible mooring mast on the top of the Empire State Building in 1929. Wikimedia

Charles Francis Adams III

Another son of John Quincy Adams II, Charles Francis Adams III was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1866. Like many of the Adams family, Charles was educated at Harvard, where he graduated with honors in 1888, later taking his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1892. The following year he was admitted to the bar and began practicing law in Boston while keeping an eye out for other business opportunities. He also honored the family tradition of political activity, elected to office as the Mayor of Quincy in 1896, holding office until 1897. He also served with the Massachusetts Historical Society.

While holding office as President of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1903, the dilapidated condition of USS Constitution, one of the original six frigates of the United States Navy, was brought to his attention. Congress had authorized restoration of the ship in 1900, using funds to be privately raised. When the funding drives were unsuccessful, Charles lobbied Congress to restore the ship to active duty. The Secretary of the Navy announced plans to take the venerable ship out to sea and sink it as target practice. A storm of public protest over such an ignominious fate for Old Ironsides forced the navy to back down.

Charles’ eye for business opportunities and the prestige of the Adams name led him to serving on the corporate boards of more than 40 companies during the first two decades of the twentieth century, including some of the largest in the nation. Charles was an officer of numerous banks in Boston and New York, and several railroads, including the New York, New Haven, and Hartford. He was also an officer of the Harvard Corporation, as were several of his uncles and cousins at one time or another. From 1929 until 1933 he served the Hoover Administration as Secretary of the Navy, a role which led him to help negotiate the London Naval Treaty in 1930.

Besides being an expert in naval affairs, Charles was an accomplished sailor himself, and skippered the America’s Cup yacht Resolute to a successful defense of its title in 1920. After his retirement from business and political life he won the three top yachting races of the time, the King’s Cup; the Astor Cup; and the Puritan Cup, during the same sailing season in 1939, making him one of the most widely respected racing yachtsmen in the world. He used his notoriety as a successful sailor to lobby for further restoration of USS Constitution, which underwent a full restoration and conversion to a museum ship in 1925.

By negotiating parity with the British fleet at the meetings which led to the London Naval Treaty, Charles ensured that the United States Navy entered the Second World War with a two ocean fleet, which was essential to the eventual allied victory. As Secretary of the Navy he also oversaw the expansion of naval aviation and the submarine fleet, both key to the American strategy in the Pacific during World War II. Charles Francis Adams III died in 1954 and was buried in Quincy’s Mount Wollaston Cemetery, the final resting place of many of his family. USS Charles F. Adams was named for him by the US Navy in 1960.

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth
When Vannevar Bush (above) tried to recruit Roger Adams to join America’s war effort he met resistance from the FBI, concerned over Adam’s involvement with marijuana. US Department of Energy

Roger Adams

Roger Adams was descended from John Adams grandfather, though not on a direct line through the second president. Born in South Boston, he attended the Boston Latin School and the Cambridge Latin High School before entering Harvard in 1905, where he majored in chemistry. He eventually obtained a Ph.D in chemistry in 1912. After studying for a time in Europe, in the Berlin of the Kaiser, he returned to Harvard and a job as a research assistant before becoming a professor of organic chemistry at both Harvard and Radcliffe. He constructed the first organic chemistry laboratory at Harvard and by 1915 was conducting his own research program.

In 1916 Roger moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) where he remained on the faculty for the ensuing 56 years. While there Roger made several significant contributions to the modern graduate student curriculum, and the research conducted by his students and his own work led to breakthroughs in the development of anesthetics. Part of his research in this area led to his conducting extensive research into the active ingredients in cannabis, and his publications (and those of his students) attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, especially after Roger worked with the Army during World War I researching poison gases.

In 1940 the United States was actively recruiting scientists and researchers to support the Armed Services as the US slid towards active involvement in the war. Vannevar Bush tried to recruit Roger for the National Defense Research Committee he was forming at the behest of President Roosevelt. The Army agreed to grant Roger the necessary security clearance, based on their experience with him in the First World War, but the Navy refused, based on the recommendations of the FBI compiled by Hoover and his agents regarding Roger’s activities with the controlled substance, cannabis sativa.

Besides Roger’s questionable investigations into marijuana and potential use of it for anesthesia, the FBI reported that he had both communist leanings and was a Japanese sympathizer. Hoover eventually was forced to bow to political pressure and concede that the FBI may have had inaccurate information due to the common nature of the surname “Adams” and he was awarded a clearance to help support the war effort. During the war Roger led the effort to develop a practical means of manufacturing synthetic rubber, a critical area since the Japanese had overrun much of the world’s supplies of natural rubber.

Roger Adams was the recipient of numerous awards during his career, including the Nichols Medal, the Priestly Medal, the Charles Parsons Award for Public Service, and the National Medal of Science. In 1967 the state of Illinois awarded him the Order of Lincoln, the highest honor which could be awarded by the state, and he was inducted into the Lincoln Academy of Illinois. He died in Urbana, Illinois in 1971. While many descendants of the Adams family made significant contributions in politics, the military, literature, and the arts, he is the member of the family who made the most important contributions to science and chemistry.

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth
Despite claims to the contrary, there is no evidence Samuel Adams was a brewer of beer. He supplied malt to other brewers. Harvard Art Museum

Samuel Adams

Samuel Adams was born in Boston in 1722, and spent most of his life in the city and its environs. His family was religious, and Samuel was raised in the hope that he would enter the ministry after completing his education. While modern history often depicts him as a somewhat coarse firebrand, he was well educated, graduating from Harvard College in 1740, and completing a master’s degree three years later. By then his interest in politics outweighed his interest in the pulpit, and he left Harvard to enter into business. John Adams was a cousin, and the two men became well acquainted with each other.

Contrary to modern myth, Samuel Adams was not a brewer, but a maltster. He operated for a time a family owned business which adjoined their home, where he produced the malt which was sold to Boston’s brewers. While working as a maltster, which drew from his enemies the derisive title “Sam the Maltster”, Samuel first became irate with British high-handedness when press gangs roamed through Boston’s waterfront in the late 1740s, scooping up seamen and landsmen alike for service in His Majesty’s Navy. He began a process which continued for the rest of his life, writing essays about his grievances for publication.

Samuel Adams’s involvement in the pre-revolutionary war activities in Boston were largely the catalyst for the formation of the Sons of Liberty, the Committees of Correspondence, and the system of couriers established to communicate with the other English colonies of North America. Adams opposed each British encroachment, as he saw them, on American liberty with reasoned arguments on paper and vocal calls for resistance. Following the Boston Massacre in 1770, it was Samuel Adams who asked his cousin John and his associate James Otis to defend the soldiers charged with murder, in part to forestall the deployment of more British troops.

Once the British were out of Boston and while the Revolutionary War was being fought elsewhere, Samuel argued for the government of Massachusetts to be dedicated to public virtue. He argued for the free education of children in Boston and throughout the Commonwealth at government expense, including for girls, which was a revolutionary position in his day. He won, at least in Boston, though his position remained highly controversial. Samuel at first opposed the Constitution as it was prepared by the delegates in Philadelphia, but later voted for its ratification as a member of Massachusetts’ ratifying convention.

Samuel Adams only son, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, died in 1788, a blow from which he never fully recovered. He served as first lieutenant governor, and then governor of Massachusetts in the 1790s. By the final decade of his life his hands shook so badly that he could no longer write. He was already a controversial figure at the time of his death in 1803, and the passage of time has added to the controversy, largely because his outspoken nature and uncompromising stands led him to create many enemies during his career. Nonetheless he was another member of Boston’s Adams family which did more than most to create the United States.

Here Are 10 Members of the Adams Family Who Proved Their Worth
Abigail Adams was an influential and informed mover behind the scenes during the American Revolution and the birth of the nation. Wikimedia

Abigail Smith Adams

It would be remiss in any discussion of the influence of the contributions of the Adams family to omit Abigail, the wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams. Martha Washington may have been the first First Lady of the United States, but if there was a First Lady of the American Revolution it was she. Abigail first met John Adams in 1759, when he was still a country lawyer of little reputation. Not until 1764 would her mother withdraw her objections over John as her son-in-law and consent to their marriage. Although Abigail had little in the way of formal education, her many surviving letters (more than 2,000) indicate a thoughtful and well-informed mind.

Abigail was forced to endure many long separations from her husband during his travels to Philadelphia, times when the operation of the Adams’ farm and the raising of her children fell solely upon her. She bore six children in twelve years, one of them stillborn and another who died at the age of two. It also fell to Abigail to supervise the family’s finances, including investing their money when John’s law practice began to become more lucrative, an unusual situation in colonial times. Despite these pressures on her time, she maintained a long correspondence with many of the founders throughout the colonial period, the Revolution, and the tumultuous founding of the government.

She exchanged letters with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and of course with her husband, John. In her letters she was frank but diplomatic, informed and opinionated, sometimes a bit catty, more often fair. There was a vivaciousness in some of her letters, and a Puritan contempt in others. In 1784 she traveled to Paris to be with her husband, and later joined him when he served as the Minister to the Court of Saint James in England. In Paris she discovered in herself a hitherto unknown enjoyment of the theatre, though her New England upbringing led her to sniff at French society and mores.

In London she found herself treated with snobbish disdain, and she learned to dislike the British and their capital city. When her husband ascended to the presidency she became politically active in Philadelphia and later in Washington, to the point that some of her husband’s enemies, and even some allies, referred to her as Mrs. President. She may have been the first political leaker in Washington, using editors whom she entertained among other guests at weekly formal dinners as listening posts for stories she would tell about her husband and the goals of his administration. In a letter to her, John once referred to what he called the “despotism of the petticoats”.

She endured the early death of three of her children, and the death through alcoholism of two of her sons for which she had held high hopes. In 1818 she wrote, regarding religion and the Great Awakening then sweeping America, “When will Mankind be convinced that true Religion is from the Heart, between Man and his Creator, and not the imposition of Man or creeds and tests?” Abigail was the foundation of the Adams family dynasty, and a potent force during America’s formative years, even without measuring the impact her private conversations with her husband, and others, had on the founding of the nation and the administrations of two presidents.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“John Adams” by David McCullough, 2001

“John Quincy Adams and the Union”, by Samuel Flagg Bemis, 1956

“Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886”, by Martin Duberman, 1961

“Charles Francis Adams Jr. 1835-1915: Patrician at Bay”, by Edward C. Kirkland, 1965

“Henry Adams”, by James Truslow Adams, 1933

“C. F. Adams left $192,000”, by special to The New York Times, The New York Times, July 17, 1954

“Samuel Adams: A Life”, by Ira Stoll, 2008

“Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution”, by Natalie S. Bober, 1995