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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Friday, October 01, 2021

“I shall have but very few things to put down”

On 1 Sept 1780, his second full day at his new school in Amsterdam, John Quincy Adams warned readers of his diary that he would soon be too busy to write much in it:
As I shall have but very few things to put down I shall keep a Journal only the days when there will be something Extraodinary.
We don’t have John Quincy’s diary from that spring when he attended a school in Passy, France, alongside other American boys like Silas Deane’s son Jesse (shown here at age two) and Benjamin Franklin’s grandson. Maybe that journal didn’t survive, but his comment in September suggests he hadn’t seen a reason to keep a diary when he was busy studying and playing day after day.

As it turned out, John Quincy wrote in his diary every day in September 1780. Even when he reported, “Nothing very remarkable to day,” he took the time to write that. On several evenings he copied poetry from The Spectator, The Tatler, The Guardian, and other old volumes into his notebook, making it a commonplace book.

John Quincy’s longer entries reported his and his younger brother Charles’s moves between the school and the house where their father was staying. Classes ended at midday on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the brothers always went home as soon as they could, returning on Wednesday evening or Monday morning. 

Three weeks of school vacation began on 22 September. John Quincy and Charles slept at the school, but they still spent every day with their father and his colleagues, often seeing local sites before getting walked back in the evenings.

The highlight of the month came just before that vacation:
To day I went with all the scholars to see the promotion and the proemiums given. It was in the old Church. There were present two burgermasters the inspector of the school the rector the Conrector, the Praeceptors and the professors, and all the scholars.

In the first place three scholars spoke Orations one after the other and then the rector named those who were to receive the praemiums and they Went and received them from the Hand of one of the Burger master’s. The praemiums of the first and Second Classes were folio Volumes magnificently bound, those of the 3d and 4th’s Quarto Volumes and the fifth and sixth Octavo Volumes.
John Adams wrote about his eldest son’s response to that prize ceremony in a letter to Abigail on 25 September:
My two Boys are at an excellent Latin School, or in the Language of this Country, Den de Latÿnche School op de Cingel by de Munt. The Scholars here all speak French.

John has seen one of the Commencements when the young Gentlemen delivered their Orations and received their Premiums, and Promotions which set his Ambition all afire.

Charles is the same amiable insinuating Creature. Wherever he goes he gets the Hearts of every Body especially the Ladies.

One of these Boys is the Sublime and the other the Beautifull.
John Quincy may not have been as naturally amiable as Charles, but he had made friends his own age on the ship to Europe and in Passy. He exchanged letters with those schoolmates after he had to leave.

On his first day at the Latin School on the Singel, John Quincy wrote down the names of the other boarders. One of those boys, “young Mr. Brants,” visited the Adamses the next weekend. But Brants never appeared in the diary again, and John Quincy never mentioned any other schoolmate by name. After that 22 September ceremony he described “three scholars” orating and others receiving prizes, but he didn’t note who those scholars were.

All the boarders had their own bed chambers, so John Quincy wasn’t thrown in with a roommate to get to know. Furthermore, despite expecting everyone to speak French, the Adams boys were taught separately: “Brother Charles and Myself Study in a little chamber apart because we dont understand the Dutch.” As a result, John Quincy wasn’t making friends.

John Quincy’s September 1780 diary suggests that he spent his free time alone in his room, copying stuff from magazines and waiting for his next opportunity to go home.

TOMORROW: The language barrier.

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