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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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Sorting Out the Adams Boys at Harvard

I started my look at Charles Adams’s experience at Harvard College with a posting on how his aunts clustered around and made sure he had furniture for his dorm room. (His parents were far off in Britain.)

It’s only natural then to wonder how Charles’s extended family responded to his disciplinary problems at college, especially the ten-shilling fine levied at the end of 1787 after some disturbance at Thanksgiving dinner. (Windows were broken. Benches were thrown.)

In order to discuss that topic, I have to lay out how my reading of the Harvard University sources differs from the interpretation of the editors of the Adams Family Papers.

As I wrote back here, the college documents usually refer to undergraduates by last names. When there were two or more students with the same surname, they would be designated as Smith 1, Smith 2, and so on, in order of seniority.

In 1787 there were no fewer than five undergraduates named Adams at Harvard—the three sons of John and Abigail Adams of Braintree and then two more unrelated boys in the class of 1788, Solomon and Thomas. Just to make things more confusing, John Quincy Adams entered Harvard after Charles Adams, but he was admitted straight into the junior class and graduated before the middle brother in a little over a year.

I believe that means Charles was called “Adams 3d” as an entering freshman, “Adams 4th” as a sophomore (the year he hosted a noisy gathering in his dorm), “Adams 3d” again as a junior (when he was at that Thanksgiving banquet), and finally “Adams 1st” as a senior in 1788-89. That appears to be Bertha Illsey Tolman’s interpretation when she indexed the college documents.

The editors of the Adams papers read the record of that Thanksgiving disturbance to say that Charles Adams was “Adams 1st” and his little brother Thomas Boylston Adams (shown above) was “Adams 3d,” both fined ten shillings.

Since “Adams 1st” was a waiter in the senior class in 1787-88, I think that student had to be either Solomon or Thomas Adams. “Adams 3d” was a junior, thus Charles Adams (and not a waiter). Tommy B. Adams wasn’t there at all.

As noted back here, Thomas Boylston Adams’s disciplinary record shows only one minor infraction over four years—the same number that his brother John Q. amassed in a much shorter period. Nevertheless, the family worried about Tommy. I think that reflects their fear that Charles and other college boys would be a bad influence on him, not anything Tommy himself did.

If there’s one thing I can add to the Adams family historiography, it’s clearing Thomas Boylston Adams of accusations of serious misbehavior. He was just pulled into an eddy of family concern about his brother Charles.

TOMORROW: Serious talks with Charles.


Anonymous said...

I think I need a tabular view --

J. L. Bell said...

The diary of John Quincy Adams explains: "Solomon Adams, a sophomore, was regarded as 'Adams 1' by the college until the end of July 1786 when he became 'Adams 2.' On the other hand, JQA, who entered late in his junior year, was first classified 'Adams 3,' but he became 'Adams 1' by the beginning of his senior year." Any clearer?

I find that Solomon Adams was a minister in Middleton for twenty years until he died in 1813.

Thomas Adams became a minister in Camden, South Carolina, and died there in 1793.