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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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

“Charles has been guilty of a trick”

On 26 May 1786, John Adams wrote from London to his eldest son, congratulating John Quincy Adams on getting into Harvard College:
Give me leave to congratulate you on your Admission into the Seat of the Muses, our dear Alma Mater, where I hope you will find a Pleasure and Improvements equal to your Expectations. You are now among Magistrates and Ministers, Legislators and Heroes, Ambassadors and Generals, I mean among Persons who will live to Act in all these Characters.

If you pursue your Studies and preserve your Health you will have as good a Chance as most of them, and I hope you will take Care to do nothing now which you will in any future Period have reason to recollect with shame or Pain.
In the same letter, the U.S. of A.’s minister to Great Britain urged John Quincy to continue to be an example and mentor for his two younger brothers:
If your Brother Thomas is fitted, I hope he will enter, this Summer: because, he will have an Advantage in being one Year with you. My love to Charles. I hope he loves his Book. I have great dependence on you to advise your younger Brothers, and assist them in their Studies. You talk french I hope, with Charles, and give him a taste for french Poetry: not however to the neglect of Greek and Roman, nor yet of English.
Charles Adams was just finishing his first year at Harvard, and Thomas Boylston Adams was preparing to take the entrance examination.

Around the same time John Quincy received that letter, he caught his brother Charles snooping in his private papers. It’s not clear what Charles saw. John Q. had written about some potentially sensitive subjects in his diary that month:
  • On 12 July he criticized the freshman class—Charles’s class—for feuding with the sophomores.
  • He made multiple comments about the beauty of a young lady the brothers had met in Braintree.
  • On 26 July he wrote crankily about not getting the dorm room he expected, blaming the change on a couple of other collegians. (John Q. went back to his diary and added a note, for himself and posterity, that those classmates weren’t to blame.)
Most likely Charles commented about one of those matters, and that alerted his older brother to his snooping.

On 27 July, John Q. started his diary entry this way:
I perceive Charles has been guilty of a trick which I thought he would despise; that of prying into, and meddling with things which are nothing to him: and ungenerously looking into Papers, (which he knew I wished to keep private,) because I could not keep them under lock and key. If he looks here, he will feel how contemptible a spy is to himself, and to others.
It looks like John Quincy never directly confronted his brother about the invasion of privacy. Instead, he left this passive-aggressive note for Charles to find the next time he went looking in the diary. That approach might suggest that John Quincy’s later admonitions to his brother about behaving better weren’t actually that direct.

John Adams returned to Massachusetts in 1788. On 16 July of that year, he wrote to his eldest child, Abigail Adams Smith:
I am happy to hear from all quarters a good character of all your brothers. The oldest has given decided proofs of great talents, and there is not a youth of his age whose reputation is higher for abilities, or whose character is fairer in point of morals or conduct. The youngest is as fine a youth as either of the three, if a spice of fun in his composition should not lead him astray. Charles wins the heart, as usual, and is the most of a gentleman of them all.
The returning diplomat wrote this letter after the Harvard Thanksgiving banquet of 1787, which ended with Charles being fined ten shillings. As we’ll see tomorrow, other members of the family had been discussing that event in person and in letters for months. Yet it appears John Adams didn’t know anything about it since he still heard “from all quarters a good character” of every son.

No one was telling Papa.

TOMORROW: “The riotous ungovernable spirit.”

1 comment:

Mike said...

Wait 'til your father gets home...