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The Mandate

The Education of John Quincy Adams

By Editorial Staff
Published April 21, 2008

America’s Sixth President

This issue of The Mandate examines the importance of the family in shaping the destiny of a nation. God the Creator has given parents the great responsibility of overseeing the education and character development of their children. Christian character, which can never be adequately taught in a public school setting, is essential to sustain a free nation.

Modern Americans have ceased, for the most part, to fulfill this obligation. They have turned away from the God who made America great and have produced a generation that is lazy, incapable of shouldering responsibility, dishonest, and forever blame-shifting. Many Chinese students observe these modern Americans and the enormous prosperity they have inherited and conclude that freedom and prosperity must have very little to do with personal character.

But that is not true. We must look deeper to find the truth. The personal history of most early Americans reveals quite a distinct contrast in character to their modern counterparts. A close examination of historic accounts leads to one conclusion: America rose to greatness because of character – and she shall fall, if current trends prevail, for lack of it.

John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, is an excellent example of this character instilled in early Americans. Born in 1767, John Quincy came from a New England farm family that played a significant role in shaping the course of the United States.

While John enjoyed an above-average education, it was not greatly beyond what most colonial American children received. “Modern scholarship informs us that the literacy level of the American colonists at the time of the American Revolution (1776) was the highest ever achieved in the world.“1

Most common farmers, for example, were very well read and enjoyed debating the finer points of constitutional law. “Above all, the colonists were acquainted with the Bible itself. The Bible was read and recited, early committed to memory, and constantly searched for meaning.2

Interestingly, there were practically no public schools in this period. John Quincy, like many colonial children, was educated at home primarily by his mother and under his father’s oversight. Even the public schools that existed from 1700 to 1850 were in no way controlled by the state and were directly accountable to the citizens.

John Quincy’s father, John Adams, was the second president of the United States, and during John Quincy’s growing years spent much time abroad as the U.S. ambassador to England. With his father frequently gone, the burden of John Quincy’s daily development fell on his mother, Abigail Adams. It was she who primarily instilled in John Quincy his strong Christian ideals. “So well did his mother commit the Bible to his heart that it became for him both compass and anchor in a long life of service.“3

The following letter, which John Quincy wrote at age 10 to his father while he was on state business in England, gives an understanding of young John Quincy’s literacy level as well as insight into his character development. It was this strong Christian character that would enable him to give so much throughout his life.

Braintree, June 2, 1777

Dear Sir,

I love to receive letters very well, much better than I love to write them. I make but a poor figure at composition; my head is much too fickle. My thoughts are running after birds’ eggs, play, and trifles, till I get vexed with myself. I have but just entered the third volume of Smollett, though I had designed to have got half through it by this time. I have determined this week to be more diligent, as Mr. Thaxter will be absent at court and I cannot pursue my other studies. I have set myself a stint, and determine to read the third volume half out. If I can but keep my resolution I will write again at the end of the week, and give a better account of myself. I wish, sir, you would give me some instructions with regard to my time, and advise me how to proportion my studies and my play, in writing, and I will keep them by me and endeavor to follow them. I am, dear sir, with a present determination of growing better,

Yours,

John Quincy Adams

P.S. Sir, if you will be so good as to favor me with a blank book, I will transcribe the most remarkable occurrences I meet with in my reading, which will serve to fix them upon my mind.4

Even after John Quincy left home to join his father in Europe at age 11, Abigail consistently corresponded with her son and “utilized her letters to her son to continue the education so well begun at home. Through these letters she continued to keep before his eyes the spiritual and moral demands upon his life.“5

Under the tutelage of his father, John Quincy flourished and was so accomplished in skill and maturity that in 1781 at the age of 14 he was appointed by Congress as diplomatic secretary to his friend, Francis Dana, commissioner to the Court of Catherine the Great in Russia.

Fourteen months later, this mission came to an end. Rather than wait for spring, 15-year-old John Quincy traveled from St. Petersburg to Paris unaccompanied. This journey took six months and along the way he stopped in Stockholm to arrange trading matters between the U.S. and Sweden, an amazing feat for a 15-year-old boy.

In a letter from his father to the dean at Harvard Law School requesting admission for his son, the elder Adams outlined a few of his son’s academic accomplishments. In Latin, the father apologized, his son’s pronunciation was somewhat lacking due to never having a regular tutor and being largely self educated. But in English and French poetry, and Roman and English history, his father doubted if any student had a greater mastery of the subject.

Here are some excerpts from that letter, filled with John Quincy’s astonishing accomplishments:

It is rare to find a youth possessed of so much knowledge. He has translated Virgil’s Aeneid, Suetonius, the whole of Sallust, and Tacitus’s Agricola, his Germany, and several books of his Annals, a great part of Horace, some of Ovid, and some of Caesar’s commentaries, in writing, besides a number of Tully’s orations. These he may show you; and although you will find the translations in many places inaccurate in point of style, as must be expected at his age, you will see abundant proof that it is impossible to make those translations without understanding his authors and their language very well.

In Greek his progress has not been equal; yet he has studied morsels in Aristotle’s Poetics, in Plutarch’ Lives, and Lucian’s Dialogues, the choice of Hercules, in Xenophon, and lately he has gone through several books in Homer’s Iliad.

In mathematics I hope he will pass muster. In the course of the last year, instead of playing cards like the fashionable world, I have spent my evenings with him. We went with some accuracy through the geometry in the Preceptor, the eight books of Simpson’s Euclid in Latin, and compared it, problem by problem and theorem by theorem, with le père de Chales in French; we went through plane trigonometry and plain sailing, Fenning’s Algebra, and the decimal fractions, arithmetical and geometrical proportions, and the conic sections in Ward’s mathematics …6

John Quincy Adams enrolled at Harvard law school at age 18, graduating in 1787. He later became an American minister in various European capitals, a U.S. representative and senator, secretary of state, and president.

1The Christian History of the Revolution, by Verna M. Hall, Foundation for American Christian Education, San Francisco, 1976, p. 602.
2 ibid., p. 603.
3 ibid.
4 The Works of John Adams, 1854, Vol. IX, p. 532.
5 The Christian History of the Revolution, p. 608.
6 The Works of John Adams, p. 532.


Education is useless without the Bible.

- Noah Webster

Let ever student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well: the main end of life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life.

- Harvard University, 1642

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