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From Diplomats to Presidents: John Adams and John Quincy Adams

This exhibit chronicles the public careers of John Adams (1735–1826) and John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), father and son, as they each progressed from American diplomats serving abroad to the position of the presidency. Explore documents, images, and other primary source materials (held by the Adams Family Papers editorial project and the Massachusetts Historical Society) that span U.S. history from the colonial to the antebellum periods.

John Adams (1735–1826) graduated from Harvard College in 1755 and opted to pursue the study of law instead of theology or medicine. Going beyond just the common law governing his native Massachusetts, he expanded his studies to include the civil and canon law practiced in continental Europe. John carried this broad knowledge with him on an unexpected path: the American Revolution.

The outbreak of the American Revolution first led John to Philadelphia as a member of the Continental Congress, where after the hostilities at Lexington and Concord as well as Bunker Hill, he became a major advocate for independence. On July 2, 1776, the colonies unanimously agreed: “That these United Colonies are, and, of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connexion between them, and the state of Great Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
- Journals of the Continental Congress, 5:507

“You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell’d Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man” John told his wife Abigail Adams on July 3, 1776. The Declaration served as the first step to international recognition and aid in the war against Great Britain.

- John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, 1st letter, Adams Family Correspondence, 2:28

Working between drafts of the Declaration of Independence, John also participated in another committee that was creating a model treaty for negotiating with foreign governments. John’s draft treaty became the first blueprint of American foreign policy as an independent nation.

John’s wide experience in law and in the Continental Congress made him a natural choice to serve as one of one of the nation’s first diplomats. In November 1777, he traveled to France as one of the American commissioners seeking national recognition, military aid, and a commercial treaty. Joined by ten-year-old son John Quincy, John Adams braved a winter crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the war.

Abigail Adams (1744–1818) remained in Braintree with their other children: Nabby, Thomas Boylston, and Charles. She could do nothing but write to her absent husband and eldest son and hope they were safe and that her letters reached them: “Tis a little more than 3 week[s] since the dearest of Friends and tenderest of Husbands left his solitary partner, and quitted all the fond endearments of domestick felicity for the dangers of the Sea, exposed perhaps to the attack of a Hostile foe.”
- Abigail Adams to John Adams, 8 March 1778, Adams Family Correspondence, 2:402


In 1778, eleven-year-old John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) wrote to his mother Abigail from Passy, France: “My Pappa enjoins it upon me to keep a journal” about his public and private life. John Quincy continued this journal until 1847, writing over 15,000 manuscript pages in 51 diary volumes. In his diary Adams recounted his experiences as a diplomat at The Hague, Berlin, Saint Petersburg, and London, as well as his time as secretary of state, president, and congressman.

John and Abigail kept up a correspondence during his diplomatic ventures that has rightly become famous. The dangers of letters being intercepted prevented as free a discourse as they wished. Some of John’s letters containing unguarded thoughts had been published in newspapers already. Now, a representative to foreign courts, he felt he could risk even less.

Abigail Adams wrote to her young son John Quincy while he was with his father in Europe. She urged him to remember his upbringing and not fall into poor habits: “Dear as you are to me, I had much rather you should have found your Grave in the ocean you have crossd, or any untimely death crop you in your Infant years, rather than see you an immoral profligate or a Graceless child.” Three years later, the fourteen-year-old John Quincy traveled to Saint Petersburg as private secretary and interpreter to Francis Dana, the U.S. minister to Russia, thus beginning his life in the public service of America.

John was astonished by everything he experienced in France and could not help but express it to Abigail. “There is no People in the World,” he proclaimed, “who take so much Pains to please, nor any whose Endeavours in this Way, have more success. Their Arts, Manners, Taste and Language are more respected in Europe than those of any other Nation. Luxury, dissipation, and Effeminacy, are pretty nearly at the same degree of Excess here, and in every other Part of Europe.”

Conflicts with his fellow commissioners in France made his diplomatic progress there difficult, but John did not sit still. Instead, he traveled to the Netherlands where he successfully obtained Dutch recognition of American independence. He also contracted a series of loans from Dutch bankers to finance the new American government and establish credit abroad.

Writing to his friend James Warren, John shared his view of what it was to be a diplomat: “Pray how do you like your new Allies the Dutch? ... It is a pretty Amusement to play a Game with Nations, as if they were Fox and Geese, or Corns upon a Checkerboard, or the Personages at Chess, is it not? It is however, the real Employment of a statesman to play such a Game sometimes, a sublime one truly, enough to make a Man serious, however Addicted to sport. Politicks are the divine Science after all.”
- John Adams to James Warren, 17 June 1782, Papers of John Adams, 13:128

In 1781 John was appointed an American peace commissioner, along with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, to negotiate peace with Great Britain and bring an end to the Revolutionary War. The final peace treaty was signed and sealed on September 3, 1783.

Now that Great Britain recognized the United States as a sovereign nation, John Adams was appointed the first minister to London’s Court of St. James in 1785. His primary tasks were to obtain a commercial treaty and hold Britain to the peace treaty’s provisions. John was the first American minister to address the king as a diplomatic representative from a sovereign nation.

Given the historic nature of the moment, John Adams’s presentation before King George III on June 1, 1785, was emotional for all concerned. In a rare use of the Letterbook where he kept copies of outgoing correspondence, John painstakingly drafted his official report of the meeting. He reported that the king admitted, “I was the last to consent to the Seperation: but the Seperation having been made, and having become inevitable, I have always Said as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the Friendship of the United States as an independent Power.”

The insecurity of communication channels with the government and with fellow correspondents led diplomats like John to encrypt their letters with codes or ciphers. The 660-element nomenclator code shown here was the one that John Adams used with John Jay, the U.S. secretary for foreign affairs, to report on his meeting with George III.

John’s diplomatic service ended in 1788 after he was recalled home at his request. His retirement was short lived, however, as he was soon elected vice president under the new U.S. Constitution. While his role was limited, he was engaged by the debate in the Senate over ratification of the Jay Treaty in 1795, thereby completing the work he had begun as the minister to Great Britain. He characterized the deliberations as “temperate, grave, decent, and wise ... and the Results judicious.”

- John Adams to Abigail Adams, 14 June 1795, Adams Family Correspondence, 10:450

After George Washington’s retirement, John Adams was elected the second president. An increasing partisan divide between the emerging Democratic-Republican and Federalist parties as well as foreign affairs dominated his presidency. The United States was engaged in a Quasi-War with France in which American merchant ships trading with the West Indies and Europe were in danger of seizure on the high seas by French vessels. John struggled to defend American commerce and neutrality.

Less than a month after his inauguration on March 4, 1797, John Adams wrote to his eldest son, John Quincy, then serving as a diplomat in the Netherlands: “My Entrance into Office is marked by a Misunderstanding with France, which I shall endeavour to reconcile, provided that no Violation of Faith, no Stain upon Honour is exacted. But if Infidelity, Dishonour, or too much humiliation is demanded, France shall do as she pleases and take her own course. America is not Scared.”

John Quincy Adams’s diplomatic career began in 1794 when President George Washington appointed him minister to the Netherlands, the same position first held by his father a decade before. When John Adams became president, John Quincy worried that if he accepted a diplomatic position, the family would face accusations of nepotism. Shortly before his term ended, Washington wrote to John Adams hoping “that you will not withhold merited promotion from” John Quincy. “I give it as my decided opinion, that Mr. Adams is the most valuable public character we have abroad; and that there remains no doubt in my mind that he will prove himself to be the ablest, of all our diplomatic Corps.” From his position in Europe at The Hague John Quincy made good use of his time, sending insightful letters to government officials and his family regarding the political situation in Europe.

John Adams’s strong diplomatic stance, along with the revelation of France’s bribery attempts and disrespect shown to American diplomats in the XYZ Affair elevated his popularity. He was flooded with supportive addresses from communities all over the country. Patriotic songs were written in support of his administration. Congress took action to prepare the nation in the event of war, enhancing the U.S. Navy. John championed these “Floating Batteries and Wooden Walls” as the best method of American defense.

- John Adams to Boston Marine Society, 7 September 1798


Throughout John’s presidency, First Lady Abigail Adams wielded influence by sharing information favorable to the administration with newspaper editors and writing to a network of family and friends about events in Philadelphia. When John nominated George Washington as commander in chief of the provisional army in July 1798, Abigail wrote to son John Quincy: “You will learn with high pleasure and satisfaction that the Commander in Chief of our Armies raised and to be raised, is the Great the immortal Washington.... His commission was made out & Signd on the 4 of july, and is a new Edition of our declaration of Independance.”

- Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, 20 July 1798

While serving as diplomat at The Hague, John Quincy traveled to London. There he met Louisa Catherine Johnson (1775–1852), daughter of the U.S. consul in that city. They were married in 1797 and then traveled to Prussia, where John Adams had named him U.S. minister. John Quincy reported to his father important news on European politics and the activities of the French Revolution.

While serving as minister plenipotentiary in Berlin, John Quincy Adams wrote to his father an important letter detailing his view of French diplomatic affairs. Entrusted to his brother Thomas Boylston to carry back to the United States, John Quincy wrote freely: “The present situation of the affairs of France however, combining with the spirit which she at length finds roused in the United States, have produced a great and important change in her conduct towards us.... In proportion as our spirit of resistance has become manifest, theirs of oppression and extortion has shrunk back.”

Armed with information from his son about the mood in France, John decided that the time had come to try for peace with France. To the chagrin of many of his peers in the Federalist Party, John nominated William Vans Murray, Oliver Ellsworth, and William Davie to a second diplomatic mission. Some Federalists blamed John’s decision on Abigail’s absence from the capital that year because of illness. “This ought to gratify your Vanity enough to cure you,” John wrote to his wife in Quincy, Massachusetts.

- John Adams to Abigail Adams, 25 February 1799

The division within the Federalist Party over peace with France contributed to John’s defeat in the election of 1800. Facing the close of his public life, there was a bright spot: an honorable peace with France and a conclusion to the Quasi-War had been achieved with the signing of the Convention of 1800. The news arrived in the U.S. as John moved from Philadelphia into the new presidential mansion in Washington, D.C. He wrote to Abigail: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”

As he returned to Peacefield, his home in Quincy, John left the presidency with pride: “I Shall leave the State with its Coffers full, and the fair prospect of peace with all the World Smiling in its face, its Commerce flourishing, its Navy glorious, its Agriculture uncommonly productive and lucrative.”

- John Adams to François Van der Kemp, 28 December 1800

But he viewed his diplomatic successes as president as his greatest accomplishment, telling a correspondent in 1815: “I desire No other Inscription on my Grave Stone than ‘Here lies John Adams who took upon himself the Responsability of the Peace with France in the Year 1800.’”

- John Adams to James Lloyd, 28 January 1815


As one generation of the Adams family retired to Peacefield, the next generation took flight. John Quincy and Louisa left Prussia for America in 1801 when John Adams recalled him after his defeat in the presidential election of 1800. After entering the political arena by serving in the U.S. Senate, John Quincy was commissioned minister plenipotentiary to Russia in 1809 by James Madison. He, Louisa, and youngest son Charles Francis lived in Saint Petersburg for five years. In her diary Louisa recounted attending a cavalcade of state dinners and diplomatic parties. Here, she describes an opulent event with the Russian royal family and aristocracy, noting, “All this was too much like a fairy tale.” The high cost of attending such events, which included purchasing new clothes, irked John Quincy. He had a far bleaker outlook on diplomatic life: “An American Mission abroad, is a perpetual lesson of humility; not to say of humiliation. It fixes a man in the condition of a parasite; and then tells him to maintain his self-respect, and the Consideration of his Country.”
- John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams, 6 June 1816


While serving as U.S. minister to Russia, President Madison tapped John Quincy to travel to Ghent in 1814 to help negotiate the end of the War of 1812 with Great Britain. While in Ghent, Adams and his fellow diplomats were invited to a whirl of social events, including the Redoutes, or city balls, held weekly in the winter.

“A Treaty of Peace between the United States and Great Britain has this day been signed,” John Quincy announced in this December 24, 1814 letter to his mother Abigail. Now finished with this special diplomatic task, John Quincy noted a possible next step in his diplomatic career, explaining that “the President intended in case of Peace, to send me to England.”

Upon learning that he was to be the new American minister to the Court of St. James, John Quincy wrote to Louisa on December 27, 1814: “I therefore now invite you, to break up altogether our establishment at St. Petersburg … and to come with Charles to me at Paris, where I shall be impatiently waiting for you.” After a harrowing journey across war-torn Napoleonic Europe in winter, Louisa and Charles Francis were reunited with John Quincy in Paris. From there, they traveled to London, where John Quincy served as minister for two years.
- John Quincy Adams to Louisa Catherine Adams, 27 December 1814

John Quincy and his family left England in 1817 after President James Monroe nominated him to be secretary of state, a post he held until 1825. A son of the Revolution and a lifelong student of government, John Quincy was often seen as the ideal diplomat for the job.

One of John Quincy’s most significant accomplishments was his role in developing the Monroe Doctrine, presented by James Monroe in 1823. John Quincy shaped the tenets of the neutrality doctrine, part of which he outlined in his July 4, 1821 speech in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the Declaration of Independence. He noted that America had “respected the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others … Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Another significant milestone during John Quincy’s tenure as secretary of state was the negotiation of the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 with Spain, also known as the Adams-Onís Treaty, ratified in 1821. Under this treaty, Spain ceded East Florida to the United States and renounced all claims to West Florida. The two nations also defined the western limits of the Louisiana Purchase, and Spain surrendered its claims to the Pacific Northwest after America recognized Spanish sovereignty over Texas.

John Quincy’s one term as president was not successful. Although he ran second to Andrew Jackson in the presidential election of 1824, no candidate received a majority vote in the Electoral College. John Quincy was then chosen to be the next president when the vote was thrown into the House of Representatives.

Throughout his administration, John Quincy struggled as a minority president. He had an ambitious program of internal improvements, which he outlined in his December 6, 1825 address to Congress. His ideas received little support from Congress. During his presidency several important commercial treaties were negotiated and signed, but these victories were overshadowed by failures such as the Tariff of Abominations. John Quincy played a role in his ill-fated presidency by keeping a civil service workforce that was largely against him, because he refused to dismiss government appointees who were political opponents.

It was during John Quincy’s presidency that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826. John Quincy was in Washington, D.C., at the time and did not learn of his father’s death until five days later. He wrote in his diary about John Adams: “A life illustrious in the Annals of his Country, and of the World. He had served to great and useful purpose his Nation, his Age, and his God. He is gone, and may the blessing of Almighty Grace have attended him to his Account. I say not, may my last End be like his! it were presumptuous. The time, the manner, the coincidence with the decease of Jefferson are visible and palpable marks of divine favour, for which I would humble myself in grateful and silent adoration before the Ruler of the Universe.”

During his presidency John Quincy became increasingly discouraged about his inability to effect change in the nation due to congressional politics. He vented his frustrations in a private letter to son Charles Francis on May 28, 1828: “A majority of both Houses of Congress, composed of every material of factious opposition, existing in the country, melted by a common disappointment into one mass, and invenomed by one Spirit of bitter, unrelenting persecuting malice against me individually, and against the Administration which they conspired to overthrow, assumed avowedly the controul of the Affairs of the Nation.”

Although John Quincy stood for reelection in 1828, he did not actively campaign for the position. After Andrew Jackson won the presidency, John Quincy and his family returned to Quincy, where he planned to retire. However, in 1831 he was elected to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives, a position that he held until his death in 1848.

During his tenure in the House of Representatives, John Quincy earned the sobriquet “Old Man Eloquent” for his vocal opposition to slavery. Often, he ran afoul of southern congressmen. Adams believed the compromise in the Constitution that counted three-fifths of a state's slaves in apportioning representatives had given southern states too much power in Congress, and he sought ways to thwart the spread of slavery into the western United States. John Quincy fought against and overturned the congressional gag rule, and in 1841 he defended the African captives from the Amistad ship in their quest for freedom before the United States Supreme Court.

John Quincy Adams collapsed in the House of Representatives on February 21, 1848. He was carried to the Speaker’s Room in the Capitol where he died two days later. A man who always put the needs of the nation above his own, John Quincy remarked to a correspondent in 1835: “During the whole course of my political life I have held myself bound in allegiance to no party, but to my Country, my whole Country, and nothing but my Country.”

- John Quincy Adams to Russell Freeman, 12 October 1835

Credits: Exhibit

All images are from the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Quotations have been presented as originally written, with only some standardization of punctuation.

Exhibit curated by:
Neal Millikan, Digital Projects Editor, The Adams Papers
Amanda Norton, Digital Production Editor, The Adams Papers
Sara Georgini, Series Editor, Papers of John Adams, The Adams Papers
Sara Martin, Editor in Chief, The Adams Papers

The Adams Papers Editorial Project at the Massachusetts Historical Society was founded in 1954 to prepare a comprehensive published edition of the manuscripts written and received by the family of John and Abigail Adams of Quincy, Massachusetts. More than fifty volumes have been published to date by Harvard University Press; most are now available online as part of the Adams Papers Digital Edition. The project is supported with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, Packard Humanities Institute, and private contributions. For more information, please visit Adams Papers Editorial Project.

Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.