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, September 23, 2019

“I have many anxious hours for Charles”

In early 1789, as I’ve been chronicling, Charles Adams had a couple more run-ins with the authorities of Harvard College.

Even though those incidents didn’t appear on the official faculty minutes or Charles’s permanent record, word got back to his family. That prompted a new set of conversations and correspondence. Again, we have only hints of what they knew.

On 2 May 1789, John Quincy Adams’s diary says: “Wrote to my brother Charles.” That letter doesn’t survive, but on 27 May he told their cousin William Cranch:
[With respect?] to Charles the tender solicitude, which you feel in regard to his conduct is only an additional evidence of a disposition, which I have long known to be peculiarly yours. it adds to the number of obligations for which I feel myself indebted to you, but it cannot add any thing to the settled opinion which I have of the excellency of your heart.—

I wrote him a very serious Letter three weeks ago and conversed with him at Haverhill upon the subject in such a manner as must I think lead him to be more cautious. However I depend much more upon the alteration which is soon to take place in his situation, than upon any advice or counsel, that I can ever give him. I am well convinced that if any thing can keep him within the limits of regularity, it will be his knowlege of my fathers being [near him and the?] fear of being discovered by him.—
The “alteration” John Q. wrote about was Charles’s impending graduation that summer. The family had already planned for Charles to move to New York, where his father was serving as Vice President, and study the law there.

We might marvel at the idea that New York City would offer fewer temptations than Cambridge, but the Adams family consensus was clear—the problem wasn’t Charles so much as Charles’s companions at college.

Abigail Adams expressed her feelings to John Q. on 30 May:
I have many anxious hours for Charles, and not the fewer, for the new scene of life into which he is going, tho I think it will be of great service to have him with his Father, & more to take him intirely away from his acquaintance. I have written to him upon some late reports which have been circulated concerning him. I hope they are without foundation, but such is the company in which he is seen that he cannot fail to bear a part of the reproach even if he is innocent.
The letter that Abigail wrote to Charles doesn’t survive, either.

Abigail actually opened that topic by expressing concern for her youngest son, Thomas Boylston Adams. As I’ve written, his college disciplinary record was even cleaner than John Quincy’s—he hadn’t done anything! But still a mother worried:
I must request you in my absence to attend to your Brother Tom, to watch over his conduct & prevent by your advice & kind admonitions, his falling a prey to vicious Company. at present he seems desirious of persueing his studies preserving a character and avoiding dissipation, but no youth is secure whilst temptations surround him, and no age of Life but is influenced by habits & example, even when they think their Characters formed.
Even as Charles’s relatives wrote to him, however, he was getting in trouble again at the Blue Anchor Tavern.

TOMORROW: Naked in Harvard Yard.

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