The Childhood and Education of John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams had an intriguing childhood as the son of John Adams, the second president of the United States, and the intellectual Abigail Adams

John Quincy Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1767, and his parents’ eldest son. John Quincy Adams inherited his middle name from his maternal great-grandfather, John Quincy, a notable Massachusetts statesman. When John Quincy Adams was born, his father was not the president. When his father became president, John Quincy Adams would have been around 30 years old. His father was a well-known and wealthy lawyer. His mother was the daughter of a well-respected clergyman. His mother’s parents, the Nortons and the Quincys, were both influential families at the time.

He witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill with his mother, which was located above his family’s property.

John Quincy joined his father on a dangerous winter expedition to France when he was ten years old, shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill. As a Commissioner, John Adams was dispatched to Europe to negotiate a peace treaty with the United Kingdom. He sent his son on the diplomatic mission to offer him international experience and ensure the second generation of enlightened foreign policy leadership in the United States. The vessel was struck by lightning, killing four crew members, surviving a hurricane, and fighting British vessels while crossing the Atlantic. After returning to America a few months later, John Quincy honed his French by instructing the new French Minister to the United States in English. When his father was dispatched to Europe for diplomatic duties, he took John Quincy Adams with him.

When the boat sprung a leak on the second ocean crossing, John Quincy and the rest of the crew had to operate the pumps as the unseaworthy craft barely made it to the Spanish coast. In February 1780, they arrived in Paris after a fascinating but exhausting two-month trek across Spain and France. In that year, John Quincy proceeded to Holland to attend Leyden University. He began keeping a diary that would become an invaluable chronicle of his and his colleagues’ activities during the next 60 years of American history.

John Quincy Adams benefited greatly from his father’s contacts with other American diplomats in Europe. Adams sat in on many of his father’s meetings with Benjamin Franklin, and he adored Thomas Jefferson.

While John Quincy Adams had been a bystander to the events that were creating America’s fate up to that point, his mother pushed her son to actively tackle the enormous difficulties that the times needed in a letter written from three thousand miles away, indicating:

“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; those 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.”

–     Abigail Adams

John Quincy was shortly allowed to serve his country actively. In 1781, he traveled to Russia with Francis Dana. The Continental Congress selected Dana as the United States’ first Secretary of State. Minister to Russia, Adams accompanied him as his private secretary and French interpreter. This quest would take John Quincy on two more lengthy and arduous voyages across Europe. He wrote and translated for Dana while continuing his studies in history, science, and languages. In 1783, when he returned to France, the young Adams worked as an additional secretary to the American negotiators negotiating the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War.

His family was reunited in France the following year, and his father was appointed U.S. Ambassador. John Quincy Adams, the United States Minister to the United Kingdom, returned to the United States to attend Harvard University. Adams aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps as an attorney, and after graduating in 1787, he studied law in Newburyport, Massachusetts, under the supervision of Theophilus Parsons. John Quincy was admitted to the Boston Bar in 1790 and formally began his legal career. While struggling as a young lawyer, John Quincy rekindled his interest in public affairs by penning a series of newspaper articles criticizing several of Thomas Paine’s beliefs in “Rights of Man.”

Diplomatic Career

President Washington was so impressed by the younger Adams’ support that he named John Quincy Adams the new President of the United States. Holland’s Minister. John Quincy provided regular reports to the State Department on military and diplomatic activities in Europe and warnings against US involvement. Some of Adams’ lines were in George Washington’s “Farewell Address” of 1796. “The most useful public character we have abroad,” President Washington said of John Quincy Adams.

When John Adams was elected President in 1797, he named his son the United States Secretary of State Prussian Minister (which consisted of portions of present-day Germany and Poland). Before he departed for Prussia, John Quincy Adams visited England to marry Louisa Catherine Johnson, the daughter of Joshua Johnson, the United States’ first Consul to Great Britain. Louisa was born and raised in Europe and is the only foreign-born First Lady in the United States. While she lacked Abigail Adams’ spirit, Louisa Adams brought to her marriage other traits that made her an ideal match for John Quincy Adams. The Senate and the House of Representatives were adjourned following Louisa Catherine’s death in 1852, confirming her popularity as First Lady.

In 1797, John Quincy Adams and his new bride proceeded to Prussia following their wedding. Before taking office as President of the United States, Adams served as a U.S. House of Representatives member. He accompanied his wife on a journey across Silesia, a region of Prussia (today part of Poland). The environment in this area reminded John Quincy of his home in Braintree, and Louisa got her first taste of Massachusetts scenery. Following this brief visit, John Quincy set out to enhance relations between the United States and the Kingdom of Prussia. Adams worked hard to master the German language, Prussia’s native tongue, and he translated several articles from German to English to perfect his abilities.

An Influential Secretary of State

Portrait of John Quincy Adams

Under James Monroe, John Quincy Adams was appointed Secretary of State in 1817. He used his diplomatic skills to establish fishing rights with Canada, formalize the western US-Canada border, and negotiate the Adams-Onis Treaty, which handed the United States control of Florida. He also assisted the president in creating the Monroe Doctrine, insisting that it not be declared in concert with the United Kingdom.


He died at the age of 80 while attending House of Representatives proceedings after collapsing and being carried to the Speaker’s Room in the Capitol.

He envisioned a grand plan for national reforms as the sixth President of the United States, in which he hoped to secure federal assistance for the advancement of the arts and sciences.

Until 1951, his journals were kept behind lock and key. It was then that his great-grandsons made the unedited copies available to the broader public.