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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Sunday, January 22, 2017

John Quincy Adams Prepped for College

When John Quincy Adams prepared to enter Harvard College, he was not a typical college student.

At eighteen, he was older than most undergraduates in that period. He had already studied some subjects at the University of Leiden in Holland.

More important, the young man had worked and traveled in far higher circles than other teenagers, and than most Harvard professors. He’d been a diplomatic assistant to his father and then Francis Dana, the Congress’s minister to Russia. He’d seen several European capitals.

And, let’s face it, he was John Quincy Adams. His parents worried about his progress, but he was one of the smartest and more diligent young men around. Of course, there was still the formality of passing the college entrance exam.

As recorded in his diary (the diary he kept regularly until 1848), John Quincy arrived home in Massachusetts in the summer of 1785. Over the next several months, he visited various relatives, including his younger brother Charles, already at Harvard on the normal schedule.

As I quoted yesterday, John Adams had sent Prof. Benjamin Waterhouse a letter asking him to put in a good word for his eldest son. John Quincy finally connected with the man in Boston on 28 September, writing in his diary: “Upon Change I met Dr. Waterhouse; and found him the same man, he was four years, ago, when I was acquainted with him in Holland.” But to his sister Nabby he added:
I met on the exchange, Dr. Waterhouse, who has been at Providence these 6 weeks, delivering lectures upon natural Philosophy. He did not know me at first, and I was obliged to introduce myself to him. As soon as he found me out, he was as sociable as ever.
Waterhouse had lived with the Adams family in 1781, so clearly John Quincy had grown a great deal since he was fourteen.

The young man decided to enter the college at the end of April 1786, in time to take a couple of science classes. He would be ranked as a junior. That fall, John Quincy went out to Haverhill live with his aunt Elizabeth and her husband, the Rev. John Shaw, and refresh his knowledge before the entrance test.

And then the college sped up the schedule. In March John Quincy told his sister why he’d become too busy to write:
At the beginning of the year I was informed…I must come by the middle of March, in order to attend two courses of experimental philosophy. I might have waited till next commencement [in July], and then entered as senior;…but I should have missed one course of lectures. Besides, I had undertaken last fall, to be ready to enter before the class began upon natural philosophy.

When I found my time shortened, I determined to lay aside every thing else, and attend only to my present business. . . . And to enter here, it is not necessary to know any thing but what is found in a certain set of books, and I have heard it asserted, that some of the best scholars, after having taken their degrees, would not be received if they offered as freshmen, because they commonly forget those parts of learning which are required in a freshman. Since the first of January, I have not, upon an average, been four hours in a week (Sundays excepted) out of Mr. Shaw’s house.
So John Quincy had spent nearly the whole winter cramming.

TOMORROW: Entrance exam time at last.

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