When John Quincy Adams was 10, he found the Shakespeare comedies in his mother’s bookcases; for days thereafter, he was, he recalled, “lapped in Elysium.” Over the next seven decades, he read and re-read the great Shakespeare plays, and thought of them constantly as mirrors of his own life. He saw hundreds of performances of the plays. Adams loved the stage, though not as uncritically as he loved the Bard. After he saw a play he would come home and write a lengthy review, for himself.
In 1832, when he was the 65-year-old ex-President, Adams was introduced to Fanny Kemble, the most celebrated actress in England and daughter of the great Shakespearean Charles Kemble. The Kembles were touring the U.S. to mad acclaim: girls sported “Fanny Kemble curls” and men madly pursued the 23-year-old Fanny. Adams, who had seen the great Sarah Siddons as a young man in London, did not fall prey to the general hysteria. “They both pass here for great performers,” Adams grumbled in his diary, “and Fanny Kemble, for a first-rate beauty, and a great genius.” He saw them in TheTragedy of Fazio, a work by the British playwright and divine Henry Hart Milman. Adams conceded that they rendered the banal play “much more supportable than I could have thought possible.”
The Semi-Divine Fanny Kemble
e Adams did not consider his conversation with the great Fanny worth memorializing, but when she published the journal of her travels in America, Adams was dismayed to see that she accused him of the unimaginable sin of criticizing Shakespeare. In June, 1833, he sat down and wrote, for himself, an account of the conversation as he recalled it. Stipulating that his admiration for Shakespeare was “little short of idolatry,” Adams had told Kemble that the playwright’s work had often been mangled in production. As an example he chose the convention of presenting Juliet as a young woman of nineteen, despite the fact that her nurse explicitly declares her to be on the verge of turning fourteen. A nineteen-year-old may love and lose, whereas Juliet’s love for Romeo is “all innocence, all ardour—all extasy.” The overwhelming pathos of the play comes of seeing “the blossom blasted at the very moment when it is opening to the sun.”
Of course it does: The censor’s code of the day, which we now call Bowdlerization, could not abide a sexualized early teen. What Adams couldn’t know is that Fanny Kemble had made her debut as a nineteen-year-old Juliet. She insisted that the ex-President was flat wrong. Adams, his warm heart now pounding beneath his chilly exterior, quoted Juliet’s wild cry, “And when Romeo dies/Take him and cut him up in little stars…” Are those the words of a young woman?, he asked. And by the way, what was a nineteen-year-old girl doing with a nurse?
Adams had only just begun on the distinction between Shakespeare as poetry and as theater, and it’s unlikely that Miss Kemble got in more than a word edgewise. The sublime tragedies of Othello and King Lear, he went on, rested upon illogic which the reader might pass over in silence but the viewer could not help but notice. Would Lear really have surrendered his kingdom to his harpy daughters and ignored the one whose love for him was patent? How are we to account for the fact that Desdemona, a noblewoman, falls in love with a blackamoor on the strength of his war stories? “For this she not only violates her duties to her father, her family, her sex, and her country, but she makes the first advances.”
That may have said more about Adams than about Shakespeare. Adams loved Juliet; he could not love, or even understand, Desdemona. “The great lesson of the Tragedy of Othello,” he went on gravely, is not that jealousy is a devouring cancer, but that “black and white blood can not be intermingled in marriage without a gross violation of the laws of nature.” It was true that Desdemona had not betrayed Othello, but she had betrayed the laws which govern her class, her sex and her race. “And when she is smothered in bed, the thought always occurs to me, that she deserves her fate.”
Juliet, of course, deceived her family as well; but her love was innocent, and thus pure; and that part of Adams’ heart that was young forever wept at her death. Desdemona was willful, and her love was carnal. She had violated the codes which Adams himself held dearest. Shakespeare surely wished us to grieve at her death, too, but Adams would not.
On November 30, 1826, President John Quincy Adams received a very alarming visit from Col. Randall, the lawyer for Dr. George P. Todson, an army surgeon who had been court-martialed for embezzlement. According to Adams’ very minute notes of the meeting, Randall said, “Todson has sworn to gain revenge upon you, and I consider his threat as no idle menace. He is a desperate man, and upon this subject perfectly mad.” Randall explained that Todson was certain of his own innocence, and thus held the President, who had signed off on the court proceedings, accountable for his ruin. Randall had come to warn Adams of an impending assassination attempt, which he believed would come on one of the President’s pre-dawn walks to the Capitol and back.
Adams heard him out and thanked him for his visit. He explained that he was familiar with the evidence in the case, and had entertained some doubts of Todson’s guilt but none strong enough to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision. “I have discharged a painful but indispensable duty,” he said. In any case, he added placidly, “It is impossible for me to guard myself against the hand of an assassin.”
This was quite literally true. The Secret Service was only established on April 14, 1865—by a grotesque coincidence, the day of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination—and would not begin protecting presidents until after William McKinley was murdered in 1901. Adams had no staff, much less a security detail. He continued to take his walks.
On December 16, Todson himself came to the White House with Col. Randall. He appeared at first to have calmed down and accepted his fate. Col. Randall said delicately that his client had “abandoned his design,” which had been born of “excitement.” Todson asked Adams to appoint him to a job with the Senate. The President was adamant. “I will not,” he said, “nominate you for any office whatsoever.” How would it look, he asked, if he overruled the Supreme Court under the threat of personal harm to himself? Todson now asked Adams, in a tone the President found distinctly threatening, for money to return home to New Orleans; Adams again declined. And when the surgeon finally left, Adams, who may have been slightly less calm than he appeared, found himself thinking of Spencer Perceval, the British prime minister who had been assassinated fourteen years earlier.
But Adams had not seen the last of Todson. The cashiered surgeon returned five days later, this time by himself. He was admitted to Adams’ second-floor office, where he piteously conceded—or claimed—that he was destitute. Adams again sent him away. And Todson stayed away—until March 15, 1827. This time he asked Adams to remit the portion of his legal judgment which required him to pay the Navy $47. And the President quickly agreed. Todson, encouraged, returned once again to ask for a job. Adams gently suggested that he apply himself to his profession back home. Todson, now wholly converted from would-be assassin to grateful beneficiary, thanked Adams profusely for his help and counsel. And of course he returned yet again a few days later. He was, he now explained, hoping to marry, but the girls’ parents objected to his impoverished condition. How could a cashiered officer find a job? Adams pointed out that with the Senate no longer in session, he could not legally fill an opening there. Todson exited.
The surgeon stayed away until May 30. It’s not clear if he had returned to New Orleans, or if he had married; but he still needed work. A few days later, Samuel Southard, Secretary of the Navy, told the President that a ship was about to set sail for Africa with a cargo of illegally imported slaves; but the Antelope’s surgeon had taken ill, and died. Adams immediately thought of his relentless petitioner. He told that Southard that he knew a man who “is perhaps as well suited for the job as any person who could now be selected.” Dr. Todson had, it was true, been court-martialed, but “all of his misfortunes had originated in the badness of his temper.”
The badness of his temper! Owing to the badness of his temper, Todson had seriously planned to murder the President. And yet Adams had ended by seeking, not to imprison him, but to redeem him. The whole episode showed Adams in all his peculiar colors—fatalistic indifference to personal safety, single-minded commitment to principle, scrupulosity, Christian compassion, private benevolence. And humility: Adams’ journal contains not a hint of self-congratulation.
Todson, inevitable as the rain, soon showed up at the White House, and Adams suggested he see Southard right away, which of course he did. On June 12, Todson returned to say that he had been given the job; he was leaving for Africa that very day. Six months later, Adams saw the surgeon one last time: He had returned from Liberia with credentials from the colonists attesting to his merits. He had, in truth, been re-born.
On April 1, 1803, John Quincy Adams received a note at court saying that the London banking house of Bird, Savage and Bird had declared bankruptcy. Several years earlier, when he was serving as a diplomat, Adams had transferred his father’s liquid assets, consisting of $16,000 in matured bonds issued by the Continental Congress, from a bank in Amsterdam to the British firm, which served as the bank for the U.S. Treasury in England. It was a prudent decision; Bird, Savage had seemed as impregnable as England itself. But now the house had disappeared. A note from the bankers said that they would try to move the Adams account to another firm. But the following day Adams received a “protested” note—a bounced check—for four hundred pounds (about $1600, perhaps $35,000 in current terms). Adams understood that the money was gone, and that he would soon be receiving a mortifying stream of such notes. “I have never before met so severe a shock in respect to property as this,” he wrote in his journal.
Adams hurried from Boston to Quincy to deliver the disastrous news to his parents. “They felt it severely, but bore it with proper firmness and composure,” he wrote in his journal. Indeed, stoicism in the face of loss was deeply etched in the family ethos. “If I cannot keep a carriage, I will ride in a chaise,” Abigail wrote defiantly to her middle son, Tom. “If we cannot pay our labourers upon our Farms, we will let them to the halves, and live upon a part.” But the farm itself was at risk, for it was the only substantial remaining asset the elder Adamses owned.
The Adams Family Home in Quincy
For many years John Adams had been content to stay in a modest home with a steeply slanting roof across a path from the one in which he had been born. A French visitor in 1788 had marveled that this hero of the American Revolution lived in a house which no second-rate Paris lawyer would accept as a country place. But Adams had just then bought a much finer place, a two-and-a-half story Georgian frame structure, along with an 80-acre farm. By the time the ex-President had returned to Quincy in 1801, the land had grown to include 600 acres of pasture, woodland and orchard. Adams found deep contentment in both roaming and running the farm; which he had dubbed “Peacefields.” It was , in fact, his shelter from four decades of a very turbulent public life. Abigail Adams thought she had never seen him so tranquil.
Though he had done nothing wrong, the younger Adams was tortured by the thought that he had destroyed his parents’ refuge, and their fortune. “I feel myself in a great degree answerable for this calamity,” he wrote, “and of course bound to share largely in the loss.” He tried to sell his insurance, and his father’s, but couldn’t find a buyer. He tried to sell his own home, but the man he had bought it from refused to take it back. He did, however, succeed in selling a rental property in Boston for $7175. Friends of his father’s in London and Boston agreed to pay off creditors until John Quincy could make them whole.
Through desperate measures, Adams had kept the wolf from the door. But he would not rest until he had ensured his parents’ future comfort. He asked his uncle Peter to appraise the value of the farm. Peter came back with a figure of $16,802.50 for the land as well as four houses and three barns. And Adams agreed to give his parents $12,812 2/3 for 250 acres, the barns and all the houses save his parents’ own. They would have the use of the entire property for the rest of their lives, and it would revert to him upon their death. Adams applied the proceeds from the sole of his house and some stock, and mortgaged other properties.
Adams was, with a few exceptions, a cautious and successful investor, yet he would spend virtually his entire life in debt. He became the sole means of support for, first his parents, then his impecunious brother, and then his brother’s widow and children. His wife, Louisa, worried that her husband’s penchant for self-abnegation would drive them all to the poorhouse, but Adams would have found it shameful to do otherwise. More than that, he would have found it unfathomable. He had learned from his parents that a man does not live for himself but for others—for family, for country. We are, he would have said, born with debts; we pay them without complaint.
In the spring of 1796, John Quincy Adams began writing to his fiancé, Louisa Johnson. Adams was then America’s minister to Holland, and he had met the 21-year-old Louisa earlier that year while on a diplomatic mission in London. Louisa’s father, Joshua, was the America consul in London; her mother was British. Louisa had grown up in France and England. She was delicate, pale, pretty, shy, watchful—a hothouse plant quite content to sit quietly and observe the parade of notables in the family drawing room, and to read, sing and play the harp. She had been startled to discover that Adams was courting her rather than her more glamorous older sister. But she was, like her swain, bookish and serious. After three months of hemming and hawing, Adams proposed, and Louisa accepted.
Louisa Catherine Adams
As soon as he returned to the Hague, Adams wrote to tell Louisa that he found himself gazing constantly at the cameo of her she had given him, and reverting in his mind’s eye to the drawing room, where she and her sisters did their needlework and played the forte-piano. The letter was shot through with a lover’s melancholy, though not with a lover’s desire. Though still a young man of 29, Adams would not—perhaps could not—use the candid language of appetite, even to his own beloved. He closed with a dash of cold water: they would have to delay marriage until he had returned to America and begun making a proper living as a lawyer. He would, he vowed, resign his commission as soon as possible.
Louisa was shocked at this last bit of news. She wrote back, in the headlong, unpunctuated style she would use her whole life, “Oh Philosophy where art thou now without thy aid my present sensations will carry me beyond myself and far exceed the limits of my Paper.” “Philosophy” was an Adams word; it meant stoicism and self-denial, of which he had abundant supplies, and she, very little.
Adams learned that he was to be sent as minister to Portugal, thus upending his matrimonial plans. He wrote to Louisa that he hoped to stop in London, marry and travel with her to Lisbon. But he warned that that might not be possible. What’s more, news of the union had reached Washington, where his father was Vice-President, and both parents wrote with warnings about the spoiled European “half-blood”—Abigail’s words—whom he proposed to wed. Now Adams had another reason for alarm. He wrote to Louisa suggesting that she learn to “suppress some of the little attachments to splendor that lurk at your breast.” Louisa, no patsy, responded tartly: “Permit to say that having always been taught to consider domestic happiness alone permanent I am and sincerely hoped to have remained a stranger to pomp.”
Soon there were no more sighs or sweet memories. Adams accused his beloved of turning “cool,” “severe” and “disdainful.” The epistolary shuttlecock flew back and forth across the North Sea. In November, Adams wrote to say that he would sail directly to Lisbon, making marriage impossible. He offered the grim consolation that “it will not expose us to form habits of attachment to the empty baubles of a life connected with Courts.” Louisa despaired of Adams’ Philosophy. With her indulgent father she cooked up a scheme to sail to Holland on the pretext of a commercial venture. Adams guessed at her designs, and in early 1797 wrote her a very cold letter in which he warned against the trip: “You will be sensible what an appearance in the eyes of the world, your coming here would have; an appearance consistent neither with your dignity, nor my delicacy.”
There is every reason to believe that Adams loved Louisa, though perhaps not as he had Mary Frazier, the mad passion of his youth. (See my September 16 post.) But he had grown all too accustomed to subduing his wishes in the name of the stern code by which he lived. And despite the extraordinary example of Abigail, he was unable to think of a woman as his equal. He treated Louisa like a beautiful, willful child who had long been indulged and now needed to be schooled. Louisa felt it, and resented it. Many years later she wrote of “a sense of unnecessary harshness and severity of character…which often led me to fear something I knew not what, and cast a damp upon my natural spirits which I never overcame.”
Adams did, in fact, finally come to London. He and Louisa were married at AllHallowsBarkingChurch on July 26, 1797. They would remain married for half a century, until Adams’ death. But their own life together would never be easy; they would never share the deep mutual trust and regard which shaped the celebrated union of Adams’ own parents. Perhaps they were just too different from one another. Or perhaps the explanation is simpler: John Quincy Adams was not a warm man.
On or about April 9, 1827, John Quincy Adams fell in love with trees. It was Adams’ third year as President, and by now he understood that he would accomplish little beyond uniting his enemies against him, and was unlikely to win re-election. He was feeling worn down by the burdens of office. But it was also springtime in Washington DC. Before dawn that day, Adams left the White House to take a solitary walk to the Capitol and back. “I noticed the putting forth of the leaves of some of the trees,” he wrote in his diary. “The variety in their vegetation is so remarkable that I am humiliated by the heedlessness with which I have suffered this process to pass at least fifty times before my eyes without bestowing a thought upon it.” Adams would never again be so thoughtless.
Adams was hardly blind to flora. He had learned from his father a love of gardening, the great pastime of the noble Romans, whom both men revered. But not until that moment had Adams been truly seized by the subject. It was in his nature to become addicted by his own pursuits, and to approach them with the same relentless empiricism he brought to his work as a politician. Trees, he found, were a subject of endless, but also classifiable, diversity—“one which I cannot expect that the remnant of life allotted to me will afford me time to explore.”
Adams got to work. He ordered copies of the great works of “dendrology,” as he called the field: John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1240 pages, he noted), Henri-Louis Duhamel Du Monceau 1755 Traité des arbres et arbustes qui se cultivent en France, Michaux’s North American Sylva, etc. He pored through the texts in search of unfamiliar blossoms he found on his walks. He talked to his Treasury Secretary, Richard Rush, about appropriating funds to procure foreign seeds and plants and have them shipped to the U.S. to see if they could be cultivated here. Unlike flowers, trees were useful—a super-abundant natural resource which, in part for that very reason, Americans had never cultivated. During Adams’ presidency, trees even became a matter of national policy: In 1828, he established Naval Live Oaks, a tree farm in northern Florida which supplied timber for the building of ships.
From Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening
But trees were also a source of great private joy—the only kind Adams knew. In the spring following his initial discovery, he wrote ecstatically of the bursting of new life he discovered on his dawn walks: “The oval cups at the end of the twigs of the horse-chestnut trees are opening into leaves. The snowy medlar is already showing a head of white blossoms…” He spent an hour or two every day in the spring working in the White House nursery with his gardener, John Ousley—a respite from the looming debacle of his defeat at the hands of Andrew Jackson. In the summers, when he returned home to Quincy, Massachusetts, Adams planted peaches, plums, apricots and pears, elms and horse chestnuts and catalpa and many varieties of oaks. He turned Mount Wollaston, the ancestral home of his mother’s family, into an arboretum.
In the years after he left the White House Adams devoted more words in his journal to his battle to make his nursery flourish than to any other subject. It was a struggle he almost always lost, for he would spend his winters in Washington and return to find his trees blasted by frost, bleached by heat, infested with beetles, waterlogged to the roots. No matter: Adams expected nature to be inhospitable, and found integrity in the perpetual fight against adversity. And he learned: he raised trees in his “summer-cellar” before transplanting them, he found which species flourished in the stony native soil. And the affliction of failure was a small price to pay, for when a tree flourished and gave promise of bearing fruit, “it affords enjoyment not unworthy of a rational being.”
Adams loved flowers, but they were evanescent. Trees endured; they could, if well planted and nurtured, defy time and live far beyond the span of the gardener himself. As he grew older, Adams found himself thinking more and more of the threads which bound his ancient family, and of his sacred obligation to ensure that that great name flourished for generations to come. One day, in late October of 1830, after he and his gardener planted 80 grafted Baldwin apple trees in Mount Wollaston, he reflected that the mansion and the farm had been in the family for 190 years, since the very founding of the town. “It is now pregnant,” he wrote, “with at least ten thousands seeds of fruit and forest, mostly placed by my hand, and in a century from this day may bear timber for the floating castles of my country, and fruit for the subsistence, health and comfort of my descendants.” Adams could not, in fact, vouchsafe the future: The family would sell the property before the end of the nineteenth century.
On March 12, 1815, John Quincy Adams, in Paris awaiting his next diplomatic assignment, heard a flabbergasting rumor: Napoleon Bonaparte was in Lyon, marching towards the capital with 12,000 men at his side. A year earlier, a concert of European states had finally destroyed Napoleon’s army and sent him into exile on the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba. But, like some demonic force, the general had escaped and gathered up a new force from a population he had decimated through two decades of war. Adams felt certain that this ragtag army would dissolve in the face of Louis XVIII’s generals. In fact, it was the King who was forced to flee Paris. On March 21, Napoleon’s advance guard marched to the royal palace in the Tuileries. Adams, America’s leading student of European politics, was shocked, and sickened.
The Young Napoleon
Adams’ diplomatic career coincided almost exactly with Napoleon’s military career. In June of 1796, while he was stationed in the Hague, the 28-year-old diplomat wrote to his father, John, to say that a precocious general—the 26-year-old Napoleon—was conquering his way across Italy. By the following year, Napoleon had made himself the foreign instrument of the French Revolution, defeating Austrian forces, gaining control over northern Italy and the Low Countries, establishing specious “republics” ruled by French generals. To Adams’ mind, the Corsican upstart combined the horrors of Europe’s blood-soaked past and of its revolutionary future. In a letter to his mother, Abigail, in the summer of 1797, Adams wrote of the monster “who murders his way across Europe while proclaiming Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Adams took a new post in Prussia, and spent the next four years watching Napoleon upend the settled order to Europe, and of France itself. His correspondence was as foreboding as that of American diplomats tracking the rise of Hitler in the 1930s would be.
Adams was in St. Petersburg when Napoleon launched his epic campaign against Russia in June, 1812. Adams knew personally the figures we read about in War and Peace—Bagration, Volkonsky, Kutuzov. When Napoleon took Moscow, the diplomatic corps prepared to flee. Many did, in fact, leave—though not the American minister. And then Kutuzov cut Napoleon’s supply lines, and winter took care of the rest. Adams heard the shameful tale of Napoleon abandoning his men and fleeing alone across the endless steppe over the frozen corpses of men and horses. Finally, he thought, the man had placed himself beyond ruin.
Of course, it wasn’t so. In June of 1813 Adams wrote, “to the astonishment of the World, and I confess to mine,” France and Napoleon had risen once gain. Then came yet more battles, some victories, more defeats, then Elba and, astonishingly, the triumphant return to Paris. Adams wrote to his father that “the walls of all the public places were covered with the proclamations of Napoleon…pasted over the proclamations scarcely dry of Louis 18 declaring Napoleon Buonaparte a traitor and rebel.” Napoleon had turned France into a military state, like old Prussia; and the people, whether adoring or craven, were prepared to follow their leader into the jaws of hell.
Napoleon Imagined In Exile
Napoleon had now roused all Europe against him; even he was not equal to the combined forces of Russia, Austria, Prussia—Europe’s anti-republican forces of reaction—as well as Great Britain. Defeated for the final time, he was sent to lasting exile on St. Helena. In 1819, Adams, by now in Washington as Secretary of State, reflected for the last time on the man who had declared war on Europe and even threatened the United States. Adams had the gift of intellectual dispassion: he could revere the literary talents of a Byron or a Voltaire, whose morals he deplored. Now, in his journal, Adams wrote:
“He has perhaps done more evil than any man living. He attained greater power than any one has exercised since the days of Charlemagne, and his abuse of power was in proportion to its extent. His fall was, as punishment to him, the consummation of Justice. No agony of sufferance can be too exquisite, no prolongation of torture too excruciating for the depth and magnitude of his offences against his species, but he is punished by instruments in a moral point of view no better than himself, base and ignoble instruments, who with all his depravity, have none of his redeeming greatness.”
In the late summer of 1792, John Quincy Adams, age 25, began to make cryptic notations in his journal:
Walking in the mall all the evening; fortunately unsuccessful. Mall. I got fortunately home. As before—idleness instigates to everything bad. Oh! Shame, where is thy blush! Late home.
The “mall” was the Boston Common, where Adams and his friends would take long, chatty strolls. But the walks to which he now referred were solitary and secret. And they were almost certainly designed to meet prostitutes. In July, Adams had taken leave of Mary Frazier, the beautiful young woman whom he deeply loved but could not marry because he did not yet have a career. (See my September 16 blog post.) He was emotionally devastated, but also full of desire he had no prospect of satisfying. The fact that he was making very little progress as a lawyer, and despaired of his future, could not have helped.
Adams never specified his destination, but if he had taken a right turn out of the Commons’ gravel paths and walked up the gentle north-facing slope of Beacon Hill he would have reached a neighborhood popularly known as MountWhoredom. Historians disagree about whether MountWhoredom was, in fact, Boston’s red-light district, but it was certainly much seedier than the genteel neighborhoods around the Commons.
This mysterious and intensely private phase of Adams’ life lasted two years. The fragmentary notes continued:
Reproaches to myself—but there is a fatality against which I find it vain to resist. Reflections very unpleasant. Endeavoured to console myself for an error, by a folly. Two ladies, but made a lamentable mistake again. A foolish but fortunate walk.
Premarital sex was, of course, a shocking violation of the Puritan moral order, though one which enterprising young men often found a way to indulge. All three of Adams’ sons would have sex before, or outside of, marriage; his youngest, Charles Francis, only dismissed his mistress when he became engaged to Abigail Brooks, the mother of the great historiand and essayist Henry Adams. John Quincy Adams, however, could not accept the hypocrisy of doing in private what he would be ashamed to have publicly know. He used the word “fortunate” to mean “nothing untoward happened,” and “folly” to describe a sexual encounter. He continued—and continued to lacerate himself.
Map of Beacon Hill with “Mount Whoredom”
Adams finally sunk to an abyss, or so he thought it, in the first days of December, 1793, when he arranged an assignation in the shadows of the BrattleStreetChurch, a venerable institution whose parishioners included his parents. For three consecutive nights, a desperate and miserable Adams stood waiting in the darkness and the freezing cold. The woman never appeared. What a mixture of agony and relief he must have felt! On the final day he wrote, “Again appeared at 8 before the porch of the BrattleStreetChurch, and again escaped unhurt.”
Adams’ furtive escapades continued until he was appointed minister to Holland in 1794. When he crossed the Atlantic, he put everything behind him—Mary Frazier, his hapless pursuit of a legal career, his nocturnal adventures. In years to come, he would speak, occasionally of the first two, but of the last—never.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, travel along the Eastern Seaboard involved a maddening patchwork of carriages and sailing ships, known as “packet boats,” which hopped from port to port. Travelers lived at the mercy of wind and tide. When John Quincy Adams, the new Senator from Massachusetts, left Boston for Washington on October 1, 1803, he took a carriage to Providence and then sat for three days waiting for the wind to turn. He finally got a ship to Newport, then took another which had to put in at Block Island owing to rough seas that made his wife, Louisa, and their three-year-old son, George seasick. Reaching New London, he was finally preparing to sleep, at midnight, when he was roused to return on board, for the wind had begun to blow fair. New York had been afflicted by yellow fever, so the ship put in at Powles Hook, in New Jersey. The remainder of the trip was overland, on stage-coaches over roads lined with deep ruts and pitted with rocks. On October 20, almost three weeks after setting out, an exhausted Adams family arrived in Washington.
Fourteen years later, Adams returned to America from London. He went down to the wharf in New York to buy tickets, and was told that all he need do was arrive at 7 in the morning for the steamship Connecticut, which sailed every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He recorded the planned itinerary in a tone of frank amazement: “She arrives at New Haven at five or six in the afternoon on the same days. The Fulton Steam Boat is at same time going from New-London to New-Haven. The Passengers pass from one boat to the other. The Fulton immediately departs for New-London, where she arrives the next Morning at five or six.” A line of stage-coaches waited, like taxis, to take passengers through Providence on to Boston. The entire trip took forty hours.
TheClermont, an early steamer
The first decades of the 19th century saw tremendous advances in the quality and quantity of roads, including the first federal highway, known as the Cumberland Road; the construction of inland waterways, culminating in the Erie Canal; and the first experiments with railways. The paddlewheel steamer—a French invention that Robert Fulton, one of America’s first great inventors, had improved and brought to the U.S. in 1807—knitted together the cities of the East as the Cumberland Road had begun to connect America’s coast with its vast interior. The steamship was big, swift, comfortable and reliable, if very noisy—the New York to D.C. shuttle of the day. Adams loved it. He was fascinated by big machines: printing presses, steam-powered mills, power looms. He was a temperamental conservative who whole-heartedly embraced technological progress. As U.S. minister in Russia in 1812, he had helped Fulton win an exclusive franchise to supply steamboats to the Tsar for fifteen years.
In the fall of 1817, Adams left Boston to take up his new job as Secretary of State. He made it from New London to New York in eighteen hours. At several points along the way he put up at one of the inns now run as a chain by one of the steamship companies. Adams was delighted to see that the boats had separate cabins for women to which men were not admitted; both the refreshments and the accommodations, he noted, were of the quality of a fine hotel. On the trip to Philadelphia he mingled with passengers from all over the country, as well as old friends from Europe.
It was all (unlike the shuttle) terribly gracious. The motion of the ship was almost imperceptible; an awning shielded him from the sun. “I was viewing the Country as we passed,” Adams recorded, “and reading Colden’s life of his friend Fulton.” The ship pulled gently and promptly into port, and Adams closed his book with a deep feeling of satisfaction. “We finish here for the present,” he wrote, “our Steam-Boat Navigation, which for the purpose of travel far surpasses my highest expectations.” Adams would spend the next three decades as a regular coastal commuter. He never lost his fascination with steamship travel; only a man as old as Adams could fully appreciate what life had been like in the bad old days.
In the summer of 1809 President James Madison nominated John Quincy Adams to serve as the first minister to the court of St. Petersburg. Adams, who always took the view that one should neither seek office nor decline it when offered, quickly consented. With his wife, Louisa; her unmarried sister, Kitty; and Adams’ baby son, Charles Francis, Adams endured a hair-raising journey in which armed Danish sailors, enforcing a blockade, went steel to steel with American sailors before returning to their own boats. Several weeks later the captain begged Adams to let him turn back lest the ship become locked in ice in the Gulf of Finland. In mid-October the Adams party reached St. Petersburg.
The sheer opulence of the Russian capital under Tsar Alexander was stupefying even to Adams, who already knew court life in the great capitals of Europe. Every funeral, every te deum, offered up a scene of magnificent pomp. The court parties, and above all those given by the French Ambassador, the Count de Caulaincourt, the Tsar’s favorite, dazzled the senses—magnificent meals in salons hung with fine paintings, an army of liveried servants, actresses declaiming scenes from Phèdre, a statelyPolonaise. Adams got to know a French merchant who owned a Guercino, a Titian and La Joconde—the Mona Lisa (a copy evidently, since the original already resided in the Louvre).
By mid-November, the winter had set in. The Neva froze solid, and the city’s gaudy colors were smothered in ice and snow. Low-wheeled droshkasgave way to sleds, which shot down the broad avenues at astonishing speeds. Caulaincourt held a magnificent party at his country villa where elegant women in fur-lined riding regalia scooted down an ice slope on sleds. During the five or six daylight hours, Adams, who refused to omit his daily walk even when the thermometer stood at 20 below zero, donned bearskins and mittens and trudged along the river to the Nevsky Prospekt, and then to the Winter Palace. The Russian men all wore mustaches, and Adams observed that the frost from their exhaled breath gathered on their upper lip, so that they looked powdered. “Horses which have been driven fast enough to produce a free perspiration,” he observed, “are entirely covered with it, and appear white, whatever their real colour is.”
In this frozen white world, Adams often encountered the Tsar, who would set off in his carriage and then often proceed on foot, for his doctor had suggested he walk or ride to strengthen a foot injured in a droshka accident. The Emperor of All Russians sometimes emerged from the pale, milky mists to startle friends or speechless passers-by with a greeting. A notorious philanderer, the Emperor developed an interest in Kitty, and also asked after her, for the rules of propriety did not apply to tsars. In these bitter-cold meetings by the Neva, Alexander usually touched on banal topics, but with a warmth that melted some of Adams’ own gelid reserve.
Tsar Alexander I
Both Alexander and his beautiful, melancholy wife, also named Louisa, had taken a shine to the Adamses. The two Louisas were both in their early thirties; at 42, Adams was older than the Tsar, but much closer in age than were his fellow diplomats. The tsar and tsarina had lost two children before the age of two, and had none of their own; they delighted at playing with little Charles Francis, squatting on the floor and addressing him in English—although at the time Charles understood French and German better than his native tongue.
In that remote era, diplomats left home with broad instructions—negotiate a commercial treaty, repair a breach, explore an alliance—and then were necessarily left to their own devices. Adams had been charged with strengthening ties with Russia and, very importantly, removing obstacles to American shipping, imposed at the behest of Napoleon, whose Continental System was designed to choke off British maritime traffic by blockading ports. Soon after arriving, Adams had won a small victory when Alexander had interceded with Denmark so that American shops blocked at port could proceed on to Russia. But Alexander continued to abide by the Continental System.
In October 1810, as Adams remonstrated on the subject for the nth time, the Russian foreign minister, Count Rumantsiev, informed him confidentially that “Our attachment to the United States is obstinate; More obstinate than you are aware of.” On December 31, Alexander broke with the Continental System by lifting all restrictions on goods arriving by sea and imposing new tariffs on those coming by land—chiefly from France. This was an immense triumph for the U.S. and a disaster for Napoleon—who would respond two years later with his calamitous invasion of Russia.
Alexander had many good reasons for his abrupt switch, vexation with Napoleon and pressure from his own merchants chef among them. Did Charles Francis, Kitty, Louisa and the minister himself have anything to do with the Emperor’s change of heart? We can’t know. We can only say that Alexander showed no signs of an obstinate attachment to the United States before the Adams family arrived.
In the spring of 1778, the ten-year-old John Quincy Adams was having a delightful time in Paris, where he had gone to accompany his father on a diplomatic mission. During the day he attended a French school, and at night his indulgent father took him to watch “spectacles” at the Comédie Italienne, or brought him along to dinner with the likes of Benjamin Franklin. Then he got his first letter from his mother, Abigail, home in Quincy. Let yourself be guided by religious sentiments and the precepts of your father, she sternly commanded, “for dear as you are to me, I had much rather you should have found your Grave in the ocean you have crossed, or an untimely death crop you in your infant years, rather than see you an immoral profligate or a Graceless child.”
That was a sentiment to chill the heart of a young boy. John Quincy Adams was, in fact, an intensely moral child. Abigail, who had been largely responsible for his education, had seen to that with a mixture of conscientious pedagogy and endless reminders to keep his eye fixed on Christian virtues and the heroic patriotism of ancient Rome. Abigail was, herself, a deeply thoughtful woman, every bit the equal of her brilliant husband, an ardent patriot, brave and generous, keen for new knowledge. But she also combined the Puritan conviction of human depravity with a deep fear of male waywardness probably acquired from the ruin of a brother who had drank himself to an early grave.
Abigail and John were also immensely ambitious for their eldest son, who showed both great intellectual talents and emotional self-possession at an early age. It would not have occurred to either of them to allow the boy to find his own level. They told him what to read, how to comport himself, what models to emulate—Washington among the moderns, Cicero among the ancients. For Abigail, the daughter of a minister, education was, at bottom, self-government. She urged the boy to purge the “mist” which “Self love and partiality” cast before his eyes. “Whoever will candidly examine themselves,” she wrote, “will find some degree of passion, peevishness or obstinacy in their Natural tempers.”
John Quincy Adams would spend a lifetime relentlessly scrutinizing himself for signs of passion or vanity. He could be pitiless both with himself and others, and at times was shockingly cold with his own wife and children. He was a figure of towering probity, and very little joy. Abigail had, it seems, succeeded too well, curdling the spirits of the slightly dreamy and romantically inclined boy she had seen off to France. Adams might have been better off with one parent who supplied unconditional love. It’s telling that when he suffered an emotional breakdown as a 21-year-old law student, he sought shelter not with his mother but with her doting sister, Elizabeth Shaw, who worried that he was too “avaritious” for his attainment.
And yet the suggestion would have outraged Adams, who shared his parents’ blend of Enlightenment and Puritan psychology, according to which reason, aided by faith, perpetually struggled with the “obstinacy” of man’s nature. He tried to raise his children exactly as his parents had raised him (and did a worse job of it). He sometimes charged against his mother’s strictures, but he never criticized her, either in his memoirs or, almost certainly, in his heart.
On November 2, 1818, Adams, then the Secretary of State, received the news that Abigail had died five days earlier. He immediately left his office for a solitary two-hour walk. For the next several days he neither worked nor received visitors. And he poured his grief into his journal: “My Mother was an Angel upon Earth. She was a Minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity. She had no feelings but of kindness and beneficence. Yet her mind was as firm as her temper was mild and gentle. … My lot in life has been almost always cast at a distance from her. I have enjoyed but for short seasons and at long distant intervals the happiness of her Society. Yet she has been to me more than a Mother. She has been a Spirit from above watching over me for good, and contributing by my mere consciousness of her existence, to the comfort of my life. That consciousness is gone; and without her the world feels to me like a solitude.”