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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Saturday, October 02, 2021

“The disobedience and impertinence of your eldest son”

John Quincy Adams signed off his 30 Sept 1780 diary entry with: “End of My Journal.”

It’s not clear whether he meant the end of that month, the end of one little volume, or the end of his resolve to write daily entries about his life. But no journals from John Quincy survive until June 1781, when his life was quite different.

Back on 6 September John Quincy recorded that at the Latin School on the Singel: “Brother Charles and Myself Study in a little chamber apart because we dont understand the Dutch.” And on 9 September he wrote:
At about twelve o clock [family servant Joseph] Stevens came here for us, as we were going we met our Dutch Master who was coming to give us a Lesson.
The Adams brothers didn’t stay for that lesson; they were at their father’s home well before one o’clock. It’s also notable that John Quincy didn’t put the name of his Dutch teacher or any other teacher at the Latin School into his journal. He wasn’t connecting with them.

After September, our evidence about John Quincy’s life at the Latin School come from his father John Adams’s correspondence. First, on 18 October he wrote out a letter to the heads of the school:
Mr. Adams presents his Compliments to the Rector and the Preceptor, and acquaints them that his eldest Son is thirteen Years of Age: that he has made considerable progress already in Greek and Latin: that he has been long in Virgil and Cicero, and that he has read a great deal for his Age, both in French and English; and therefore Mr. Adams thinks it would discourage him to be placed and kept in the lower Forms or Classes of the School; and that it would be a damage to interrupt him in Greek, which he might go on to learn without understanding Dutch. Mr. Adams therefore requests that he may be put into the higher Forms, and put upon the Study of Greek.
In the end, however, Adams didn’t send that letter. He continued to defer to the teachers’ judgments about his eldest son.

That presumably left John Quincy stuck as a teenager in a class with little boys just starting their Latin, still struggling with rudimentary Dutch even though he could speak French.

It appears that John Quincy then took action on his own to resolve his situation. On 10 November the school’s rector, Heinrich Verheyk, wrote to John Adams (as translated from the French by Google and me):
The disobedience and impertinence of your eldest son, who does his best to corrupt his amiable Brother, is no longer to be suffered, since he himself seeks by his insolence to attract the punishment he Merits, in hopes of leaving the school under this pretext.

I beg you, therefore, to have the goodness to withdraw him from here, rather than to see public discipline rendered laughable, since at the end I shall be obliged to treat him according to the laws of our school.

I have the honor to be Monsieur Your Most Humble Servant,
As I wrote before, John Quincy rarely broke rules. He liked doing well in school, and he craved his parents’ approval. He tried to fit in at the Latin School when he arrived. But he apparently didn’t make friends among the Dutch boys, and the teachers held him back. So, at least according to the rector, he changed his usual behavior and set out to get himself expelled.

TOMORROW: What did Pappa and Momma say?

[The picture above is the title page of an edition of Antoninus Liberalis’s Metamorphoses, edited and published in 1774 by rector Heinrich Verheyk. A handsomely bound edition of this book was one of the prizes given to top boys at the Latin School.]

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