John Quincy Adams Divulged Intimate Secrets In His Diary That May Change How History Remembers Him

Born just as America took steps toward independence, John Quincy Adams emerged into a rapidly changing world . And in 1825, he became president number six of the United States. Today, he is often remembered as a cold man totally lacking in charm – but his diaries reveal an altogether different character.

Throughout Adams’ political career, he spoke out against slavery and was a proponent of free speech. But despite his admirable ideals – and obvious intelligence – he was not well-liked by his peers. And when his term was up 1829, the American public declined to re-elect him – only the second time that such a decision had been made.

By Adams’ own admission, he was cold and foreboding, making an enemy out of many men. But away from the political stage, he lived an entirely different life. And while history has often overlooked this complex and unlikable man, the pages of his personal diaries have shed new light on his secret side.

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Born in Braintree, Massachusetts, in July 1767, Adams spent the early years of his life on the family farm. But that familial idyll would be shattered before the little boy reached ten years old. For, in 1775, the American Revolutionary War broke out, pitting the colonies against their British rulers.

Soon, Adams’ father, John, left to fight alongside the revolutionaries. But despite the danger, he did not neglect his son’s education. And while he was holed up in Massachusetts, encouraged by his dad, the future president used the time to brush up on Plutarch, Aristotle and Thucydides. Then, when he was just 11 years old, the young man departed on a great adventure.

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In 1778 the young man accompanied his father on a series of diplomatic missions across Europe. And it was in Paris that John Senior instilled what would become a lifelong habit in his curious son. In a letter he sent home, Adams wrote that he had been tasked with keeping a journal, chronicling his experiences abroad.

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During Adams’ travels, he spent time studying Latin, Greek and French, even attending Leiden University in the Netherlands for a time. But eventually, in 1785, he returned home in order to further his academic career. By that time, the Revolutionary War was over, and America had become the independent United States.

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Adams’ parents were keen to impress upon their son, from an early age, the importance of education. And in 1786 he enrolled at the prestigious Harvard University, graduating in just two years. Afterwards, he pursued a career in law, before eventually following his father into the field of international diplomacy.

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In 1795 Adams met in London Louisa Catherine Johnson, a merchant’s daughter. And despite a rocky courtship, the pair tied the knot just two years later. In the meantime, John Senior was appointed President of the United States, following George Washington and becoming the second man to take the role.

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As Adams’ father presided over turbulent times in the United States, the young man’s diplomatic career took him across Russia, Britain, France and Prussia. Louisa, meanwhile, gave birth to four children – although the couple’s only daughter died in infancy. Then, in 1800, the political landscape of the United States changed once more, and Thomas Jefferson was elected president.

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With Adams’ father no longer in office, the younger man’s own career took a different direction. And in 1802, he became a member of the Senate in Massachusetts. After just five years, however, a political disagreement caused him to resign his position. For the next ten years, he served as a diplomat in Britain and Russia, before becoming Secretary of State to President James Monroe.

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That appointment was clearly a shrewd one, as Monroe and Adams worked well together. So much so that the latter became a favorite to step into his superior’s shoes. Sure enough, he was elected to the role in 1825, becoming the sixth man appointed president of America. His term, though, was dogged by internal political strife, and, ultimately, he failed to leave a lasting impression on history.

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During Adams’ time as president, he helped to secure the territory of Oregon and oversaw the finalization of the border between Canada and the United States. He also wrestled control of Florida from the Spanish and made great leaps in Latin American policy. However, not all of his ideas were so popular with the rest of Congress.

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At the time, the United States had plenty of money. Adams was, as a result, in favor of utilizing the treasury to improve the infrastructure of the country. Moreover, he also planned to launch national institutions dedicated to science and art. In Congress, however, many feared that the president secretly wanted to take power away from the states and concentrate it in central government.

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After four years in office, Adams was ousted by Henry Clay, making him only the second ever president to miss out on reelection. And around the same time, he was dealt another hard blow. On April 30, 1829, George Washington Adams, the former leader’s eldest son, disappeared from a steamship in Long Island Sound.

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As the younger Adams’ clothes were discovered on the deck of the ship, many believed that he had committed suicide. And when a body washed up ten days later, the former president was stricken with grief. In fact, although the cause of death was never officially determined, it was a tragedy that would haunt him for the rest of his days.

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Adams, reeling from his son’s apparent suicide, threw himself back into work. And in 1831, he became a Member of Congress, remaining in the position for the rest of his life. True to form, he continued to prove a diligent and fastidious worker, often staying up into the early hours in order to write speeches.

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While a Member of Congress, Adams took part in one of the era’s most high-profile cases – that of the Amistad. In 1841 he helped defend 53 Africans caught up in the slave trade who revolted while being transported by ship. Ultimately, his argument helped to sway the court – but the harrowing experience took its toll.

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Ironically, Adams’ death was perhaps the most dramatic event in the statesman’s long career. On February 21, 1848, members of the House of Representatives were planning to bestow honors on the men who had fought in the recent war between Mexico and the United States. A staunch opponent of the conflict, the former president stood to raise his voice in dissent. But immediately afterwards, he collapsed, eventually dying two days later.

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Perhaps unfairly, Adams is remembered today as one of the least popular presidents in the history of America. And even though he proved a highly competent politician, it is his lack of charm and glum manner that have become his legacy. However, a look inside the pages of his personal diaries reveals a very different man.

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In fact, after beginning to keep diaries at the age of 11, Adams came to think of his them as a way to keep track of his morals. Or, as he wrote in a letter dated November 28, 1827, a “second conscience.” And it was perhaps during the famous Amistad trial that this approach was tested the most.

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In an 1841 diary entry, Adams made a note about the emotional and physical turmoil the Armistad case inspired. “What can I, upon the verge of my 74th birthday, with a shaking hand, a darkening eye, a drowsy brain, and with all my faculties dropping from me one by one, as the teeth are dropping from my head, what can I do for the cause of God and man? For the progress of human emancipation? For the suppression of the African Slave trade?” he wrote.

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In the history books, Adams is often criticized for not joining the abolitionist movement that sought to outlaw slavery. However, in his diary entries, it is clear that he wished to see to practice brought to an end. “Yet my conscience presses me on – let me but died upon the breech,” he wrote in his entry concerning the Amistad.

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Similarly, history notes that Adams had a somewhat difficult relationship with Thomas Jefferson, the man who succeeded his father as president. In fact, back in 1800, the diarist vocally opposed the Democratic-Republican when he was running for office. But a closer look at his personal writings reveals a different story.

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On March 11, 1785, for example, Adams penned an interesting diary entry. And it described a recent meeting with the man who would become the third President of the United States. “Spent the evening with Mr Jefferson, who I love to be with, because he is a man of very extensive learning and pleasing manners,” he wrote.

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Is it possible that the man described by contemporaries as cold and coarse harbored a softer side? Certainly, it seems as if Adams actually greatly admired Jefferson – even though he would go on to oppose the man’s presidential bid. And two months later, he penned another diary entry, again praising the character of his apparent friend.

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“Mr Jefferson spoke concerning Virginia, a state which he knows very particularly, as it is his native country,” Adams wrote. He then went into detail about the speech’s content, which concerned the ratio of blacks to whites within the population. And the former leader ended the entry by praising the judgement of the future president.

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Adams’ attitude towards other politicians, however, is far from the only surprise contained within the pages of his diaries. Apparently, he had also once fostered a desire to become a poet. And while this former ambition is not itself a secret, what is lesser known is the fact that he was his own worst critic.

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On October 16, 1816 – some nine years before he became president – Adams penned this entry about his talents. “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I should have made myself a great poet,” he wrote. “As it is, I have wasted much of my life in writing verses; spell-bound in the circle of mediocrity.”

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Elsewhere, there are scattered clues as to what exactly may have been behind Adams’ famous ill temper. In an entry dated October 31, 1819, the future president described the lack of sleep that plagued his life. Might a type of insomnia have contributed to the grumpiness about which his contemporaries so often remarked?

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“I rise irregularly from four to seven o’clock in the morning – making an average of about half past five. [This is ] an irregularity which, notwithstanding all the pains I have taken to correct it, still continues. I believe it owing to a complaint with which I am afflicted, which disturbs my repose in the night, and makes my sleep irregular,” Adams wrote.

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In the same entry, Adams described a normal day in his household. On waking early, it seems, he would light the fire and settle down to write until the rest of the family rose for breakfast. Then, after reading the newspapers, he would retire to his office. And at around 4.00 p.m. every day, he would return home.

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According to Adams’ diary, the family sat down to dinner – which tended to last for around 90 minutes – at about 5:30 p.m. The former president would then spend his evening writing, unless interrupted by dreaded visitors. However, it seems as if he had a reason for disliking them that wasn’t just bad manners.

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“Early rising and restless nights make me a dull and drowsy evening companion,” Adams explained later in that same diary entry. “The only remedy for which, extreme temperance, not only of eating, but of drinking, I do not always observe. [And] drowsiness is the first consequence of repletion,” he wrote.

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Today, Adams is remembered not only for his somewhat grim personality but also as a man who left a tragic family legacy behind. Although three of his children survived infancy, only one would live to old age. And while Charles Francis Adams, the youngest, followed his father into politics, his two brothers did not fare so well.

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Before George’s apparent suicide in 1829, Adams’ eldest son struggled with alcoholism. Addiction, in fact, cast its shadow over much of the former president’s life. In 1800, his brother died from liver cirrhosis, and his second son, John, was spurred down a similar path after his sibling’s tragic death.

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In 1834, Adams experienced the loss of a child for a third time, when John died at just 31 years old. But were his sons’ struggles the result of being raised by a cold and absent father? Although many might lean towards that explanation, the former president’s writings reveal just how much he really cared.

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In Adams’ diaries, he expressed concern that he hadn’t given enough care and attention to his children. Moreover, he spoke warmly of his hopes that they might go on to live long and happy lives. “Among the desires of my heart, the most deeply anxious is that for the good conduct and welfare of my children,” he wrote in an entry dated September 6, 1818. “In them, my hopes and fears are most deeply involved.”

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Over the course of Adams’ life, he amassed a grand total of 51 diaries, each filled with startling insights into his private life. But until recently, they have been the preserve of scholars and historians determined enough to pore over the cursive handwriting. Thanks to a project by the Massachusetts Historical Society, however, that could soon change.

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The society’s John Quincy Adams Digital Diary project is slowly digitizing some 12,000 entries from the former president’s private journals. Currently, 2,500 pages are available to the general public online, with the rest to follow as more volumes are transcribed. But will this project help to change the opinion that the former leader was a cold, ill-tempered man? Only time will tell.

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