Initially published on Medium — May 11th, 2019
I’ve had the chance to read a lot of biographies over the last few years of founding fathers, but none have I found so much perspective on myself as I did with John Quincy Adams. There are many things that he was (or wasn’t) that don’t apply to me; genius, terrible dad, etc. But his attitudes about life felt very close to home.
Throughout the biographies I’ve read, there was a common thread of Federalists vs. Jeffersonians during this period of history; where Jeffersonians felt that the only role of government was to limit itself as it maximized the personal freedoms of every citizen, whereas Federalists saw the inherent tendency to screw things up that most people have, and saw a need for government to protect citizens from each other, or often from themselves. John Quincy Adams was in the latter camp, but didn’t approach his skepticism of human beings with pessimism, but rather strategic optimism.
“John Adams (John Quincy’s father) had pronounced ideas about education, but they were not his alone. The men who were to found the United States understand that while a nation of masters and servants needed only to elevate the one and abase the other, a nation of free men needed to cultivate the gifts of all its citizens.”
What I saw in John Quincy that so closely resonated with me was a sense of self-deprecation and intense desire to succeed as productively and efficiently as possible. When I read about the schedule he attempted to keep as a young diplomat, I feel a pang of envy:
“The new Adams would be diligent, disciplined, scholarly; he would wake earlier and write more. He noted his daily schedule: rise at six; read ‘books of instruction’ until nine; breakfast; read the papers and translate Dutch state papers until eleven or twelve; dress, write letters, and attend to other business until two or three; walk until three thirty; dine until five; read ‘works of amusement’ until eight or nine; walk again; light supper, cigar, and bed by eleven. Adams would keep these monthly accounts of his daily schedule for much of the rest of his life — a spur to self-improvement and a reminder of discarded resolutions.”
John Quincy would often state that his ‘superpower’ (my word) was a keen tolerance for ‘drudgery’ (his word.) While I’m never perfect, and often give in to a weekend’s siren song of laziness, the desire to be a maximum amount of hard working and productive in the face of any task has always been something I strive towards. He obviously accomplished a great deal by squaring his shoulders and getting things done.
One area that he very often did not excel at was as a parent (depending on who you ask.) I actually had read John Adams’ biography, but was drawn to seek out John Quincy’s when I read about his parenting in a book review of ‘First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama.’ John Quincy was born of solid intellectual stock, with his parents being two of the more impressive people I’ve read about.
“Had [John Quincy Adams] any gift at all for small talk or bonhomie, he might have quickly improved on his bearish reputation and made friends who could prove useful to him. But in this regard, he was incurable. Adams recorded the following strange observation in his journal: ‘I went out this Evening in search of conversation,’ he recorded, ‘an art of which I never had an adequate idea. Long as I have lived in the world I never have thought of conversation as a school, in which something was to be learned. I never knew how to make, to control, or to change it. I am by Nature a silent animal, and my dear mother’s constant lesson in childhood, that children in company should be seen and not heard confirmed me irrevocably in what I now deem a bad habit.’”
With all due respect Mrs. A, I disagree. As a strong proponent of women’s progressive move towards equality, Abigail could so readily see the benefit that women would offer to the conversation were they allowed in, but what about the contribution of children? The idea of making children a part of the conversation from as early as possible feels key to starting to lift their sense of importance, feeling that they’re heard.
John Quincy’s parenting is uniquely inadequate, in my opinion, in the harshness of his expectations and demeanor. Many of his children were afraid of him, whether he intended that intimidation or not. Of his three sons, only one was successful in life, his youngest son Charles.
“Charles wrote, ‘My father has unfortunately such a cold manner of meeting this sort of feeling that I am surprised at the appearance of it at any time among his supporters.’ Another time he remarked, ‘He makes enemies by perpetually wearing the iron mask.’ Charles was the only one of the boys who had grown up with his father as a little boy, had held his hand on long walks, and had at on his lap at the circus. The iron mask had no powers to frighten him.”
For me, it shed light on the idea that we ought to let our children into our hearts to give them perspective on why we do what we do. My mother, whenever she made mistakes or felt she’d been too hard on me, she would say “I’m sorry, I’ve never been a mother before.” That honesty always reminded me of the human reality of who my mother was. As a boy, Charles may have seen that humanity in his father that his brothers did not. An opportunity that very well could have changed the way Charles took his fathers harsh correction; never taking it personal and always recognizing the value in it.
As harsh as he was as a parent, this is the same man who “subjected the boys to private exams, George in Algebra and Plato, John and Charles in Greek and Latin,” and “every morning before eight he and George took turns reading to each other four chapters of the Bible, and then father and son talked about the meaning of the passages.” He and his youngest son “ took walks together almost every day, and the father spent hours listening to the four-year-old son read La Fontaine’s Fables in the original [French], and teaching him to read in English.” I wouldn’t say that parenting was completely absent in his mind and priorities.
Later in Charles’ life, he would pick up a robust correspondence with his father about how best to improve his writing ability and general knowledge. And rather than the rugged disciplinarian you might expect, his focus was on expanding Charles’ mind, no matter the direction.
“[John Quincy] urged Charles to keep writing about whatever thoughts his reading prompted. ‘We shall not always agree in opinion, but each os us may rectify his own opinions by weighing those of the other.’ And so they did, not only over great matters of history but over the most fundamental question of all — how to live.”
Finally, the following story is of John Quincy Adams looking for materials to shine a negative light on his political opponent, Andrew Jackson. A small anecdote, but I couldn’t help but weepingly chuckle at the parallels to today:
“Now a hunt was on among Adams’ supporters for real specimens of Jackson’s semiliterate prose and explosive temper. Secretary Barbour went rummaging through the files of the War Department and brought to the White House a Jackson letter that Adams described as ‘still more ferocious than barbarous in style and composition.’ Adams’ allies hoped to get this one published as well. A few weeks later the letter was printed in the National Intelligencer, but the high-minded Gales and Seaton insisted on correcting the errors first, much to Adams’ frustration. Of course, the whole episode was founded on the archaic assumption that Americans would not respect a man who couldn’t spell or hold his temper.”
Turns out, that still isn’t true.