Mothers and Sons: Abigail Adams and John Quincy Adams

The hand that rocks the cradle
March 24, 2020 Updated: March 24, 2020

Abigail Adams was one of only two first ladies who were both wife and mother to a president. (The other was Barbara Bush.)

Abigail Smith Adams (1744–1818) was the daughter of William Smith, a Congregational minister, and his wife Elizabeth, who hailed from the prestigious Quincy clan, a family well-known in the Massachusetts colony for its involvement in politics. Schooled at home by her mother, and given free run of the large libraries belonging to relatives, including that of her father, the largely self-educated Abigail became one of our most erudite first ladies in our history.

A Marriage of Heart and Mind

In 1764, Abigail married her distant cousin, John Adams, a lawyer and part-time farmer whose star was on the rise. To this couple were born six children, four of whom found the grave before their mother’s own death from typhoid.

From all evidence, John and Abigail loved each other, and Abigail served as John’s closest adviser, so much so that during the couple’s White House years some of her husband’s enemies referred to her as “Mrs. President.” She had studied history, particularly that of the Greeks and Romans, and was an ardent supporter of the American Revolution and an early advocate for the rights of women, especially in the field of education. Her voluminous correspondence reveals a quick and lively mind very much acquainted with the politics of the day.

Because John was so frequently absent from home, away on the business of the Revolution and its aftermath, Abigail shouldered many responsibilities: supervising work on the farm, managing the household accounts and investments, and overseeing the education of her children, including that of her son John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), who would one day become the sixth president of the United States (1825–1829).

ohn Quincy Adams, by John Singleton Copley
John Quincy Adams, 1796, by John Singleton Copley. Bequest of Charles Francis Adams, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Public Domain)

‘Great Necessities Call Out Great Virtues’

Both John and Abigail constantly exhorted their children to practice virtue, to live up to their family’s heritage, to study hard, and to learn from the world around them. Though young John Quincy spent several years away from his mother while on diplomatic missions with his father to Europe, Abigail nevertheless continued instruction through her correspondence as to how to live the virtuous life. When the 12-year-old was reluctant to go on a second trip across the Atlantic, Abigail encouraged him to make the expedition with these rousing words:

These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.

Here is an appeal to daring and valor more commonly associated with a mother of ancient Rome than of America.

Education and Exhortations

Both Abigail and John Adams, and some tutors, directed John Quincy in his studies, stressing in particular the importance of history and philosophy, so that at a young age he was translating works by such writers as Thucydides, Plutarch, and Aristotle. On his return from his European excursions, where at the age of 14 he had served as a French translator on a diplomatic mission to Moscow, John Quincy entered Harvard University and delivered a stellar academic performance.

In his 2002 biography “John Quincy Adams,” historian Robert V. Remini writes of Abigail that here “was a feisty woman of remarkable intelligence and determination, a woman of high moral standards who set goals for her offspring that they spent their lives trying to achieve.” Even after her son’s graduation from Harvard, Abigail kept up a continual stream of reminders and injunctions to John Quincy to do his best in all things, to avoid vice, and to bring honor to the family name.

On at least one occasion, Abigail gave her son a more direct learning experience than he might have wished. As Remini tells us, June 17, 1777, found Abigail and her 7-year-old son watching the Battle of Bunker Hill, in part so that he might witness firsthand the cost of patriotism and the demands of revolution. Long afterward, John Quincy recollected the horrors of  this spectacle and “the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own” over the battlefield death of Dr. Joseph Warren, a close friend of John Adams. Here was a harsh lesson for a boy with only one foot out of the nursery.

A woman of deep faith, Abigail impressed upon her son the importance of Scripture and Christian virtue. When John Quincy first sailed to England at age 10, as Remini tells us,  “Abigail admonished him to ‘adhere to those religious sentiments and principles which were early instilled into your mind, and remember that you are accountable to your Maker for all your words and actions.’” Throughout his life, John Quincy read from the Bible in various languages and eventually became a leader in the American Bible Society, which today remains the largest distributor of Bibles in the world.

An Angel on Earth

portrait of Abigail Adams
A portrait of Abigail Adams in later life, by Gilbert Stuart. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Public Domain)

Some historians speculate that Abigail’s insistence on high standards, her constant advice, and her repeated reminders to be virtuous built resentment in John Quincy and warped his personality. Certainly as he aged he became cold, austere, and dour to the point that some thought him misanthropic, a man of politics who knew not how to play the political game. As Remini writes of his run for reelection to the presidency, “even efforts to get him to mingle with the people and smile and wave at them failed repeatedly.”

Perhaps Abigail had a hand in shaping John Quincy’s distaste for the crowd and for politicking, but if so, he never acknowledged any resentment of her. Indeed, as James Traub writes in his biography “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit,” “Never, throughout his life, would John Quincy Adams speak of either of his parents with anything save love and devotion.”

From boyhood, John Quincy kept a diary, writing at times for hours a day and creating a treasure house of historical reminiscences. In 1815, when Abigail, often in frail health, was stricken with typhoid fever, John Quincy, then serving in Washington as Secretary of State and believing that his mother had already died, recorded these thoughts in this diary:

My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity … She had known sorrow, but her sorrow was silent. She was acquainted with grief, but it was deposited in her own bosom. She was the real personification of female virtue, of piety, of ever active and never intermitting benevolence. Oh God! could she have been spared yet a little longer!

John Quincy Adams, 1818, by Gilbert Stuart. White House. (Public Domain)

When he received confirmation of his mother’s death, John Quincy wrote “There is not a virtue that can abide in the female heart but it was the ornament of hers.”

An inscription on John Quincy Adams’s casket read in part: “Having served his country for half a century, and enjoyed its highest honors.”

A good amount of credit for that service and those honors goes to Abigail Smith Adams.

Cenotaph of John Quincy Adams at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

On battlefields around the world, soldiers have cried out for their mothers as they lay dying. And memorably, Abraham Lincoln once said, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” In our series “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: Mothers and Sons,” we will look at a number of famous men strongly influenced by their mothers. Not all these women were angels, but their love, disposition, and sense of principle left an indelible stamp on their sons.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.