J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

“I hope he will pass muster”

As John Quincy Adams planned his return to Massachusetts from Europe in 1785, with the hope of attending Harvard College, his father John wrote to one of the professors there, Benjamin Waterhouse (1754-1846).

Waterhouse had lived with the Adams family while studying medicine in Holland in the early 1780s. It was thus natural for John Adams to ask Waterhouse to look out his son, even though he was one of the college’s first professors of physic rather than of law.

As a father, Adams had some worries about John Quincy’s preparation for college. All in all, his letter reads like what a modern anxious “helicopter parent” might write to a college admissions officer, insisting that his son was a better student than he might seem and deserved some special understanding:
This Letter will be delivered you, by your old Acquaintance, John Quincy Adams, whom I beg Leave to recommend to your Attention and favour. He is anxious to Study Sometime, at your University before he begins the Study of the Law which appears at present to be the Profession of his Choice.

He must undergo an Examination, in which I Suspect he will not appear exactly what he is. in Truth there are few who take their Degrees at Colledge, who have so much Knowledge, but his Studies having been pursued by himself, on his travells without any Steady Tutor, he will be found aukward in Speaking Latin, in Prosody, in Parsing, and even perhaps in that accuracy of Pronunciation in reading orations or Poems in that Language, which is often chiefly attended to in Such Examinations.

It seems to be necessary therefore that I make this Apology for him to you, and request you to communicate it in confidence to the Gentlemen who are to examine him, and Such others as you think prudent. If you were to examine him in English and French Poetry, I know not where you would find any body his Superiour. in Roman and English History few Persons of his Age, it is rare to find a youth possessed of So much Knowledge. He has translated Virgils Æneid, Suetonious, the whole of Sallust, and Tacituss Agricola, his Germany and Several Books of his Annals, a great Part of Horace Some of Ovid and Some of Cæsars Commentaries in Writing, besides a number of Tullys orations. These he may Shew you; and altho you will find the Translations in many Places inaccurate in point of Style, as must be expected at his Age, you will See abundant Proof, that it is impossible to make those translations without Understanding his Authors and their Language very well.

In Greek his Progress has not been equal. Yet he has Studied Morcells in Aristotles Poeticks, in Plutarch’s Lives, and Lucians Dialogues, the Choice of Hercules in Xenophon, and lately he has gone through Several Books in Homers Iliad.

in Mathematicks I hope he will pass muster. in the Course of the last year, instead of playing Cards like the fashionable World I have Spent my Evenings with him. We went with some Accuracy through the Geometry in the Præceptor the Eight Books of Simpsons Euclid, in Latin and compared it Problem by Problem and Theorem by Theorem with Le Pere Dechalles in french, We went through plain Trigonometry and plain Sailing, Fennings Algebra, and the Decimal Fractions, arithmetical and Geometrical Proportions, and the Conic Sections in Wards Mathematicks.

I then attempted a Sublime Flight and endeavoured to give him some Idea of the Differential Method of Calculation of the Marquis de L’Hospital, and the Method of Fluxions and infinite Series of Sir Isaac Newton But alass it is thirty years Since I thought of Mathematicks, and I found I had lost the little I once knew, especially of these higher Branches of Geometry, So that he is as yet but a smatterer like his Father. however he has a foundation laid which will enable him with a years Attendance on the Mathematical Professor, to make the necessary Proficiency for a Degree.

He is Studious enough and emulous enough, and when he comes to mix with his new Friends and young Companions he will make his Way well enough. I hope he will be upon his Guard against those Airs of Superiority among the Schollars, which his larger Acquaintance with the World, and his manifest Superiority in the Knowledge of Some Things, may but too naturally inspire into a young Mind, and I beg of you Sir, to be his friendly Monitor, in this Respect and in all others.
It’s always remarkable to me how much John and Abigail Adams worried about John Quincy being a good scholar. With our hindsight, we know that he was one of the most studious, diligent, and at times humorless statesmen the U.S. of A. has ever produced.

COMING UP: John Quincy Adams reaches Cambridge.


Randy Seaver said...

How fascinating.

I daresay he was probably the last US President to read or understand any of those works!

I had three years of Latin and didn't read any of those works. The only thing I recall is veni vidi vici and non illegitimus carborundum.

I really enjoy my daily reading of Boston 1775. Well done every day.

J. L. Bell said...

When Samuel Adams and John Hancock went to the Boston Latin School, its only curriculum was Latin and Greek—no English, no science, no mathematics, no history (except what came up from reading classical historians), and so on. That was supposedly what a (white, usually wealthy) boy needed to go on to Harvard.

But when John Quincy was preparing, he not only studied Latin and Greek but also other European languages and mathematics. And, as I’ll note in a few days, he aimed to take courses at college in "natural philosophy"—i.e., science. So we're seeing a broadening in the subjects a young gentleman was expected to know.

And that, of course, affected Presidents that came after. Some were highly educated men, such as Garfield, Roosevelt, and Wilson. But the nature of education had changed to become more modern and more practical.

G. Lovely said...

I suspect by this point both John and Abigail recognized the potential of their other two sons, and while Nabby might well have been a force had she lived in another time, in 1787 it was likely looked to them that J.Q. was the hope for the next generation of Adamses.

John and Abigail always seem to me so "modern" in their middle class striving, still over-compensating for not being members of the pre-Revolution American aristocracy, a social status Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe could take for granted.

J. L. Bell said...

At this time Charles was at Harvard College, Thomas Boylston still in his early teens. I don't think they had offered disappointments yet. But as the eldest son, John Quincy carried the highest hopes from the beginning.