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, May 20, 2020

John Quincy Adams and the Characters of Harvard

I promised more cattiness from John Quincy Adams as a college student.

In his diary for the year 1787, Adams inserted several profiles of his classmates and other people he met at Harvard. Often he was complimentary, understanding of people’s weaknesses and attempts to improve, and frank about his own flaws. But that’s no fun, is it?

Sometimes it’s clear that Adams really didn’t like a fellow student, or a faculty member. And he really didn’t like his time being wasted in church. Here are some choice comments from early in the year.

11 February, after hearing a sermon by Cambridge minister Timothy Hilliard (1746-1790):
Mr. Hilliard entertained us all day, with a couple of Sermons, upon the whole armour of god. The shield, and the helmet, the sword and the arrow, afforded subject for description, and application. The improvements which might result from these two discourses, are wholly concealed to me; that it is the duty of man, to avoid Sin, is a self evident maxim, which needs not the assistance of a preacher for proof; yet it was all Mr. H. aimed to show: how barren must the imagination of a man be, who is reduced to give descriptions of warlike instruments, to fill up a discourse of 20 minutes!
17 February:
Samuel Angier: His character is far from amiable. Envy and vanity appear to me to be the most remarkable traits which distinguish him. He always appears discontented with himself and with all the world beside. There is but one person, of whom he speaks uniformly, and invariably well; and perhaps this is because, no one will ever take the task from him. Such is his admiration for this gentleman, that being incapable of displaying the same talents he is contented with aping his foibles which are sufficiently numerous and conspicuous. He proposes studying physic, and in that profession I hope, he will be useful; for any other he would not be suited, for I believe he would be a surly lawyer, and, an illiberal bigoted divine.
Angier did indeed become a medical doctor. I wish I knew whom he admired so much (and why Adams clearly loathed the man).

11 March, back in church:
Mr. Hilliard preach’d; but not very much to the purpose: what with the fatigue of my yesterday’s ride, the little sleep I had last night, and some soporific qualities in the discourses which were read, I was much refreshed by a couple of naps which I took; one beforenoon and the other after.
17 March:
Caleb Child: …were it not for a considerable degree of envy his disposition would not be bad. As a scholar he is not remarkable; and although he has endeavoured more than once to display his genius by declaiming his own composition, yet the most common opinion is that he has not succeeded. Divinity will be his profession, and he has already acquired a ministerial cant, which is such an essential quality to a preacher.
Child became a minister in upstate New York.

23 March:
Joshua Cushman: In composition, an admiration of beautiful periods, and elegant expression, have taken from the natural taste for that simplicity in which alone true beauty and elegance consist. His conversation sometimes degenerates into bombast; to express that he wants a glass of water he will say, that within the concave excavation of his body, there are certain cylindric tubes which require to be replenished from, the limpid fountain or the meandering rivulet. In the public exercices of composition his greatest fault is prolixity. He will write two sheets of paper full, for a forensic, while scarcely any other of the Class will scarcely fill half one.
Cushman also became a minister but then went into politics, serving in the Massachusetts General Court and Maine legislature around the time that Adams was President.

And back in church on 25 March:
We heard Mr. Evans preach, all day: he attempted to be quite pathetic in the afternoon; but when art is seen through it must be disgusting; and when a person appears deeply affected upon a subject, which cannot be very interesting, we must conclude, that he grieves for the pleasure of grieving.
This was evidently the Rev. Israel Evans (1747-1807, shown above), a Continental Army chaplain who eventually found a long-term pulpit in Concord, New Hampshire.

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