If ever there was a “royal” American family, it was that of John and Abigail Adams: John, Founding Father, signer of the Declaration of Independence and president; his son John Quincy, president; and his grandson Charles Francis, Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to England, who played a key role in keeping the British from siding with the South during the Civil War. Yet the Adamses were deeply mired in tragedy. Charles Francis Adams described his family as “one of great triumphs in the world but of deep groans within, one of extraordinary brilliancy and deep corroding mortification.”
Of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin said, “Always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, he is absolutely out of his senses.” Certainly historians have indicated this was often true of Adams as a father. John and Abigail Adams had three sons and two daughters, one of whom, Susanna, died in infancy. One son became president of the United States. The other two died alcoholics. The surviving daughter, named for her mother but called Nabby, wed a man of her father’s choosing, Colonel
William Stephens Smith, but the marriage was such a disaster that Adams eventually wished that adventurer and reprobate dead — and said so to him in writing. Nabby had wanted to marry Royall Tyler, who went on to become chief justice of Vermont and one of America’s first leading playwrights.
The Adams offspring received, in the words of family biographer Paul C. Nagel, “a baptism at home in the waters of self-doubt.” Within that atmosphere of chronic pessimism, John and Abigail were often hectoring, overbearing parents. When young John Quincy expressed a wish for a quiet life as an attorney, his father wrote: “You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. And if you do not rise to the head not only of your profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness, and obstinacy.”
Abigail Adams was no different, always underscoring what a disappointment her children would be if they fell into sin and lost virtue. Among the long list of sins and vices the young children had to guard against were sloppy penmanship, slovenly dress and wasted time. In and of themselves these admonitions were not bad, but to the Adamses human frailty was to be countered with New England puritanical principles, and pitiless self-criticism was to be encouraged at the earliest age possible.
John once wrote Abigail of their children, “I studied and labored to procure a free Constitution of Government for them to solace themselves under, and if they do not prefer this to ample Fortune, to Ease and Elegance, they are not my children, and I care not what becomes of them.” In wholehearted agreement, Abigail one day wrote to her young children after a long sea voyage that if they had fallen into vice she would have preferred they drowned. Nagel called the Adamses’ parenting skills “a bewildering mixture of affectionate support and cruel distrust, striking even for an age when Christian virtues were still stressed.”
By all accounts John and Abigail’s three sons were sensitive children. Yet as an adult John Quincy called himself “a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners; I do not have the pliability to reform it.” One saving grace for John Quincy was that in 1778 he accompanied his father on one of his many long European missions. Their shared adventures, including their leaking ship’s outrunning both a British warship and a storm, led to a bond between father and son virtually unheard of in the Adams family for generations. That bond gave John Quincy self-confidence that was rare among the other Adams children.
Tragedy and plain bad luck befell John Quincy’s younger brother Charles, however. John Adams sought to duplicate his success with John Quincy by taking Charles on a similar long mission to Europe in 1779. But Charles was only 9, younger and less robust than John Quincy was when he first went abroad, and this time the ship was in far worse shape. A series of leaks was so serious that it forced the captain to take the ship off course to reach the nearest port. But the repairs could not be made quickly, so the party endured a 1,000-mile trip by donkey to their destination in Paris. John Adams called that the worst experience of his life.
When John Adams went to Holland to secure a Dutch loan and cement diplomatic ties, he took John Quincy and Charles with him and put them in the Latin School. But John soon found out to his horror that beatings were given regularly by the Dutch teachers. Pulling the boys out of the school immediately, John vented his indignation in a letter to Abigail. “The masters are mean-spirited wretches, punching, kicking and boxing the children upon every turn,” and he had no wish to see the boys subjected to such “littleness of soul.” At the heart of Charles’ problems, though, was the fact that he did not want to be separated from his mother, who had remained in America. He had sobbed inconsolably when parted from her and suffered much homesickness.
Charles was described by everyone as a charmer, but very sensitive and small. Abigail worried over “my delicate Charles” and feared he would be “spoilt by the fondness and caresses of his acquaintance.” John eventually realized this, too, and sent him back to Abigail in 1781, writing that Charles “is a delightful child, but has too exquisite sensibility for Europe.” It was at this time that 14-year-old John Quincy, whose brilliance was recognized by his father’s diplomatic peers, went off to Russia to serve as secretary to the U.S. ambassador there. John still had business abroad, and he was going to send his 11-year-old son alone on a sailing voyage, until Abigail protested that this would not do, given Charles’ fragile health and sensitive nature.
John agreed that his son should not travel unaccompanied, and arranged for a chaperone. But now the greatest mystery of young Charles’ life began. For five months the boy disappeared. There is no account, no record of what happened to him. He would never talk about it.
Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer David McCullough treats the episode succinctly. “In mid-August, the eleven-year-old boy sailed on the South Carolina, which after a troubled voyage, put in at La Coruña, Spain, where eventually he sailed on another American ship, Cicero, a privateer, and after more delays and adventures reached home at the end of January 1782, more than five months after leaving Amsterdam.” Family historian Nagel says only that Charles “endured an almost interminable voyage alone in 1781 to be back home with his mother.” John Adams biographer John Ferling says Charles was chaperoned by a young physician and that it was “a safe crossing but terribly long.” Presidential families historian Doug Wead and others say Charles lost his chaperone and eventually came home “shaken.” An examination of the Adams family papers, collected at the Massachusetts Historical Society, shows that Charles did make it back with his chaperone — Abigail complained about the chaperone’s bill — but what exactly happened on the voyage is unknown.
Charles was sent to live with relatives in 1784 when Abigail joined John in Europe. She was away for seven years. However, Charles and his siblings continued to get hectoring letters that stressed the Adams mantra: Harvard, law and politics. Relatives tried to impress on John and Abigail that this path was not for Charles, but to no avail.
By the time he entered Harvard, sweet, personable Charles had become rebellious. His parents discovered to their horror that he was already drinking heavily. Once, he ran naked through Harvard Yard, for which he was censured by school and family.
Beyond the drinking and other escapades, Charles’ parents and siblings began making dark allusions to his keeping company with, as his father put it, unsavory men. Older brother John Quincy remained loyal but urged Charles “to be more cautious” and to conduct himself “within the limits of regularity.” Letters between father and son grew even more strained during John Adams’ vice presidency. At one point Charles wrote that “your letter, if it was intended to cause me pain had the desired effect.” Charles later wrote to his father that he should not believe what he heard from other people.
In his early 20s, Charles, who was serving as a law clerk in New York, moved in with Baron Friedrich von Steuben, the Revolutionary War hero who was 40 years older than Charles. Von Steuben had come to America in 1777, dogged by rumors that “he took familiarities with young boys.” He arrived with his handsome 17-year-old interpreter and shipmate, whom Washington soon had to replace for incompetence on military matters with his own aides, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens. Von Steuben then formally adopted two young soldiers he was fond of: William North, who became the baron’s aide-de-camp, and Benjamin Walker.
To his mother Charles was almost rapturous in describing von Steuben as “fascinating, there is something in this man that is more than mortal.” Charles was “grief-stricken” when von Steuben moved to his farm in upstate New York, and in 1795, a year after the baron’s death, Charles married, to his family’s palpable relief. Nabby wrote that at last Charles was “safe-landed,” though his parents were not keen on his having married Sarah Smith, the sister of Nabby’s hated husband William. One can only speculate why Charles married Sarah. The union produced two daughters, but it appears that the only time Charles had been truly happy, or at least reasonably calm for any period of time, was when he was living with von Steuben.
Some historians believe that Charles was homosexual, and that this ultimately caused an insurmountable rift with his father. In 1799 John Adams renounced his second son, ceasing all correspondence with him and describing him as “a mere rake, buck, blood and beast.” Having sunk deeper into alcoholism and debt, Charles abandoned his wife and children; his irate father wrote that he had become “a madman possessed of the devil” and began destroying Charles’ letters and papers. This was an astounding act, for John and Abigail had always insisted that their children keep diaries, and the family was renowned for their voluminous correspondence. Biographer Ferling notes that “virtually the sole portion of Adams’ vast correspondence that was apparently not preserved for posterity related to Charles.”
Charles died in 1800 at the age of 30. Younger brother Thomas wrote, “Let silence reign forever over his tomb,” and it has: Charles was not buried in the family plot, and the National Park Service, which administers the Adams National Historical Park in Massachusetts, believes he lies “somewhere in New York.”
Younger brother Thomas Boylston Adams had a casual, affable disposition and a great love of nature. He, too, was left in the care of relatives for years while his parents were away doing the nation’s business abroad or in the capital. When Thomas was 12, Abigail wrote that he was “a rogue who loves his birds and doves.” Yet his parents continued to pressure him to enter the family business of law and politics, despite the objections of John Quincy and others. A particularly unjust reprimand from Abigail, who assumed Thomas was being lazy and rowdy, brought a rare rebuttal from John Quincy, who had taken to refusing to answer his parents’ overbearing missives. In her equally rare “apology,” Abigail claimed to have been misunderstood. But she gratuitously added her fervent wish to be spared “the blight of undutiful and vicious children” and ended the letter with a sermon on virtue.
Thomas was shy, gentle and wholly unprepared for the rough-and-tumble life of law and politics. He was also burdened by many physical ailments. Despite some promising early successes, his failure at law brought alcoholism and total dependence on his parents. Thomas, his wife and seven children (none of whom ever married) all moved in with John and Abigail, and they stayed in the family home until Thomas’ death from alcoholism at the age of 59. By then what had once been described as his affable disposition had soured to the point that his nephew Charles Francis Adams called Thomas “one of the most unpleasant characters in this world…a brute in manners and a bully in his family.” Yet unlike Charles, he was buried without any overt hint of disgrace or secrecy.
Late in life, John Adams looked over the wreckage of his family and advised his presidential son that family and kindness were paramount. But they had educated John Quincy too well for too long. In John Quincy’s own words, he was a rigid, cold, unyielding martinet.
His youngest son, Charles Francis Adams, became Lincoln’s inestimable ambassador to England. John Quincy also had a daughter, named for his wife Louisa Catherine, who died in infancy. Unfortunately, his two eldest sons, George Washington Adams and John Adams II, were not spared the family disposition toward alcoholism and depression. John Quincy was a frequently absent father, serving brilliantly in diplomatic missions around the world or posts in Washington. Once, after a six-year separation, John Quincy and his wife did not recognize their sons when the boys were presented to them. (The Adamses had taken Charles Francis with them.)
George showed great talents for fiction, poetry, theater and music. As a boy, he bested Ralph Waldo Emerson in a poetry contest. He also had a rebellious nature that required a firm hand as well as an understanding heart. Ironically, his grandfather recognized that and tried to mediate between father and son. “George is a treasure of diamonds,” John Adams wrote to John Quincy. “He has a genius equal to anything, but like all other geniuses requires the most delicate management to prevent it from running into eccentricities.”
But John Quincy was incapable of heeding his father’s advice, and reports of transgressions only brought punishments and lecturing. A 16-year-old George recorded in his diary that he had had a sex dream involving a young woman in which his father suddenly appeared, stern and fierce, wagging his finger and saying, “Remember George, who you are and what you are doing!” George then wrote that he awoke and “sank into a gloomy torpor.” Tragically, this feeling became common.
By the time John Quincy became president in 1824, George was mired in alcoholism, depression and insolvency. He was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1826 but lasted less than a year. His father supported him financially, but the family did not know about George’s reputation as a womanizer.
One bright spot was his engagement to Mary Hellen, his first cousin. He wrote poetry to his love, and it was hoped that marriage would settle him down and give him badly needed self-confidence. But soon his younger brother John II, recently expelled from Harvard, stole his fiancée away; when they married in 1828, neither George nor Charles Francis attended the grim White House wedding.
Like his father, John Quincy was defeated for reelection. Knowing of his son’s desperate straits, he called George to Washington in 1829 to help in the move back home. The idea of being with his disapproving father in the White House — a constant reminder of the family’s devotion to duty — the betrayal by his brother, his alcoholism, depression and utter terror that his father would discover he had impregnated a maid and feared blackmail all proved too much. While on board a steamer bound for New York, George began hallucinating and complained that the passengers were laughing at him. He demanded to be put ashore. Soon it was discovered that George was gone, although some of his things remained on deck. Officially it was listed as an accidental drowning.
Six weeks later, a grief-stricken John Quincy was passing through New York when word came that George’s body had washed ashore on nearby City Island. The distraught ex-president was soon at the scene, and he had to be forcibly restrained from prying open the coffin. In his diary, the cold, distant, self-disciplined John Quincy wrote that he knew in his heart that George had committed suicide, and he beseeched God, “Let not my errors be visited upon my child!” George was 28 years old.
In working to settle his older brother’s sordid personal affairs, Charles Francis found a letter from George to be opened in the event of his death. In it George asked Charles Francis to look after Eliza Dolph, the mother of his child. Charles Francis paid all her medical bills, and hoped she and the child would disappear from the Adams’ story.
George, however, had engaged some associates to help Eliza, and they tried to blackmail the Adams family. Matters escalated, and there was a public lawsuit. Dour, mortified Charles Francis complained to his unsympathetic mother, Louisa Catherine, who had chided him for being cold to the memory of her favorite son, that “no member of the family has been like me dragged into court” and forced to listen to stories he was “unable to defend….I have been the only sufferer of late.” He suggested that George’s past be buried with him and consigned many of his brother’s papers to the flames. Nevertheless, on a dark, rainy day, John Quincy and Charles Francis stood alone with a pastor as George’s coffin was placed in the family crypt.
Before George’s death, Charles Francis’ second older brother, John II, was already an alcoholic with an ungovernable temper; he had been expelled from Harvard for leading large, disruptive campus demonstrations. John Quincy’s disciplinary actions, or the fear of them, were such that John Adams advised his son to treat his errant namesake and grandson “tenderly and forgive him kindly.” The advice was ignored. John II was summoned to the White House to work for his father, and it was there that he met and eventually married George’s fiancée. (Historians have described Mary Hellen as a “vixen” who captivated all three of John Quincy’s sons. Her aunt Louisa Adams later told her bluntly, “You are in the habit of behaving shamefully.”)
John II was also just plain unlucky. While engaged in official duties, an opponent of his father’s physically assaulted him. Most catastrophic of all, his father put him in charge of a large personal investment that historians say would have taken a financial genius to manage. With continuous financial losses and alcoholism came utter exhaustion, mysterious physical ailments and deepening depression. His father’s ever-closer scrutiny and lack of sympathy — “Your complaints are distressing to me because they mark an impatience under adversity” — further irritated the situation. But in time even John Quincy could see things were getting bad for his son, who refused to leave his home and wandered around inside half-dressed and disheveled. He suggested a rest, and Louisa sent cheering notes, but brother Charles Francis bluntly accused John of mismanagement.
Finally, worn out in body, mind and spirit, John II died in 1834, five years after his brother George. He was 31 years old. Curiously, the doctors could not find an explanation for John’s death. Charles Francis concluded that his brother had simply determined to die rather than face “moral ruin,” leading one to the conclusion that the willful act was another form of suicide.
In time Charles Francis learned from all that he had witnessed and endured. As ambassador to England, he found success without being resident in the White House. And Charles Francis was more attentive to his children, who apparently thrived: Charles Francis Adams Jr. became an industrialist and railroad magnate; John Quincy Adams II, a gentleman farmer and Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate; and Brooks Adams, a noted essayist. Another son, Arthur, died at age 5.
The ambassador’s most prominent son, however, was the historian and writer Henry Adams, who won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography The Education of Henry Adams. His multivolume History of the United States, chronicling the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, is still considered a paragon of historical writing. Tragically, Henry’s wife, Marian Hooper Adams, committed suicide shortly after her father’s death in 1885. Henry commissioned one of America’s greatest sculptors, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to design a memorial in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery. Erected in 1891, the memorial has become world famous, and it is said that Mark Twain gave it the one-word title by which it is commonly known — the one word that could capture the trials of the entire Adams family — “Grief.”
This article was written by Steven Lee Carson and originally published in the February 2007 issue of American History Magazine.For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!