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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Monday, January 23, 2017

John Quincy Adams’s College Entrance Exam

On 15 Mar 1786, John Quincy Adams finally took his entrance test for Harvard College. As I’ve quoted in recent postings, he had come back from Europe the year before to finish his education at his father’s alma mater. At age eighteen, he hoped to enter as a junior and to study law.

Here’s John Quincy’s description of the test from his diary:
Between 9 and 10 in the morning, I went to the President’s [Rev. Joseph Willard], and was there examined, before, the President, the four Tutors three Professors, and Librarian.

The first book was Horace, where Mr. [Eleazer] James the Latin Tutor told me to turn to the Carmen saeculare where I construed 3 stanza’s, and parsed the word sylvarum, but called potens a substantive.
Okay, a little slip there, but he can recover.
Mr. [Timothy Lindall] Jennison, the greek Tutor then put me to the beginning of the fourth Book of Homer; I construed Lines, but parsed wrong αλληλομς. I had then παραβληδην given me.
Uh-oh, the pressure might be getting to him.
I was then asked a few questions in [Isaac] Watts’s Logic [Logic, or The Right Use of Reason, in the Inquiry after Truth], by Mr. [John] Hale, and a considerable number in [John] Locke, on the Understanding [An Essay Concerning Human Understanding], very few of which I was able to answer.
This isn‘t looking good, is it?
The next thing was Geography, where Mr. [Nathan] Read ask’d me what was the figure of the Earth, and several other questions, some of which I answered; and others not.
He’s really going to have to catch up now.
Mr. [Samuel] Williams asked me if I had studied Euclid, and Arithmetic, after which the President conducted me to another Room, and gave me the following piece of English to turn into Latin, from the World.
There cannot certainly be an higher ridicule, than to give an air of Importance, to Amusements, if they are in themselves contemptible and void of taste, but if they are the object and care of the judicious and polite and really deserve that distinction, the conduct of them is certainly of Consequence.
Here’s that sentence published in the British essay series titled The World in 1756. A 1787 reprint identified the authors of some of those essays, but not that one. Can John Quincy pull this off?
I made it thus.
Nihil profecto risu dignior, potest esse, quam magni aestimare delectamenta, si per se despicienda sunt, atque sine sapore. At si res oblatae atque cura sunt sagacibus et artibus excultis, et revera hanc distinctionem merent, administratio eorum haud dubie utilitatis est.
(I take it from memory only, as no scholar is suffered to take a Copy of the Latin he made at his examination.)

The President then took it, was gone about ¼ of an hour, return’d, and said “you are admitted, Adams,” and gave me a paper to carry to the Steward [Caleb Gannett].
Yes! He did it!

Actually, there should have been little doubt of that outcome. John Quincy noted every mistake in his performance, but he probably did better than most applicants. He was already a well-traveled, educated, serious young man, with a father at the Court of St. James and a younger brother in a lower class. Among the gentlemen vouching for him were a friend on the faculty, Prof. Benjamin Waterhouse; Dr. Cotton Tufts; his uncle, the Rev. John Shaw; and his host in town and old employer, lawyer Francis Dana. There was no way the college would have rejected him.

We can see how the college president viewed his new student by how he arranged for him to share a room with Henry Ware, who had already graduated and was “keeping the town-school” in Cambridge—i.e., another mature young man. John Quincy wrote, ”He is very much esteemed and respected in college, and has an excellent chamber.”

As for the rest of the undergraduates, John Quincy’s diary entry also recorded this:
Spent the afternoon, and evening in College. The Sophimore Class had what is called in College, an high-go. They assembled all together in the Chamber, of one of the Class; where some of them got drunk, then sallied out and broke a number of windows for three of the Tutors, and after this sublime manoeuvre stagger’d to their chambers. Such are the great achievements of many of the sons of Harvard, such the delights of many of the students here.
He chose to return to Mr. Dana’s house that night instead of making new friends among the sophomores.

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