A mother’s wisdom: First Lady Abigail Adams’ letter to young John Quincy Adams, age 11

First Lady Abigail Adams letter to John Quincy Adams, age 11

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No matter a person’s views of John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) as a politician and son of the second president of the United States, John Adams (1735-1826), the younger Adams was considered a man of high morals.

This insightful letter was written by his mother, future First Lady Abigail Adams (1744-1818), to her young son back in 1778. It was taken from a volume published by her grandson in the mid-1800s.

Letters from the mother of young John Quincy Adams (An article from 1840)

Burlington Free Press (Vermont) December 25, 1840

It is said that superior men always have superior mothers, and it certainly seems to be the case in general, if not always. Physiologists may not be able to account for it, though the philosopher, familiar with the operations of mind, may.

It seems to be owing to the susceptibility of the infant mind to impressions, and the almost unlimited power the mother has to mold it for good or evil.

Whatever may be the views entertained towards Mr Adams as a politician, it is conceded by all, familiarly acquainted with his private character, that he is, and ever has been, a man of high-toned morals, and of the strictest integrity.

The following letter is a key to this exception to the generality of public men. It is taken from a volume of letters of Mrs Adams, mother of John Quincy Adams, just published and compiled by her grandson, O F Adams, Esq. of Boston.

The letter was written to her son, then eleven years of age, who was residing with his father at Paris. – National Intelligencer

[A complete transcription of the letter is below]

Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams (1778)

The letter from Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams (1778)

June 1778

My Dear Son:

Tis almost four months since you left your native land and embarked upon the mighty waters in quest of a foreign country. Although I have not particularly wrote to you since yet you may be assured you have constantly been upon my heart and mind.

It is a very difficult task, my dear son, for a tender parent to bring their mind to part with a child of your years into a distant land, nor could I have acquiesced in such a separation under any other care than that of the most excellent parent and guardian who accompanied you.

You have arrived at years capable of improving under the advantages you will be like to have if you do but properly attend to them. They are talents put into your hands of which an account will be required of you hereafter, and being possessed of one, two, or four, see to it that you double your numbers.


The most amiable and most useful disposition in a young mind is diffidence of itself, and this should lead you to seek advise and instruction from him who is your natural guardian, and will always counsel and direct you in the best manner both for your present and future happiness.

You are in possession of a natural good understanding and of spirits unbroken by adversity, and untamed with care. Improve your understanding for acquiring useful knowledge and virtue, such as will render you an ornament to society, an honor to your country, and a blessing to your parents.

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Great learning and superior abilities, should you ever possess them, will be of little value and small estimation, unless virtue, honor, truth and integrity are added to them. 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.

Let me enjoin it upon you to attend constantly and steadfastly to the precepts and instructions of your father as you value the happiness of your mother and your own welfare.

His care and attention to you render many things unnecessary for me to write which I might otherwise do, but the inadvertent and heedlessness of youth, requires line upon line and precept upon precept, and when enforced by the joint efforts of both parents will I hope have a due influence upon your conduct, for dear as you are to me, I had much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean you have crossed, or any untimely death crop you in your infant years, rather than see you an immoral profligate or a graceless child.

You have entered early in life upon the great theater of the world which is full of temptations and vice of every kind. You are not wholly unacquainted with history,

You have entered early in life upon the great theater of the world which is full of temptations and vice of every kind. You are not wholly unacquainted with history, in which you have read of crimes which your inexperienced mind could scarcely believe credible. You have been taught to think of them with horror and to view vice as

A monster of so frightful mein that to be hated, needs but to be seen.

Yet you must keep a strict guard upon yourself, or the odious monster will soon loose its terror, by becoming familiar to you. The modern history of our own times furnishes as black a list of crimes as can be paralleled in ancient time, even if we go back to Nero, Caligula or Caesar Borgia.

Young as you are, the cruel war into which we have been compelled by the haughty tyrant of Britain and the bloody emissaries of his vengeance may stamp upon your mind this certain truth, that the welfare and prosperity of all countries, communities and I may add individuals depend upon their morals.

That nation to which we were once united as it has departed from justice, eluded and subverted the wise laws which formerly governs it, suffered the worst of crimes to go unpunished, has lost its valor, wisdom and humanity, and from being the dread and terror of Europe, has sunk into derision and infamy.

john quincy adams-1843

But to quit political subjects, I have been greatly anxious for your safety having never heard of the frigate since she sailed, till about a week ago, a New York paper informed that she was taken and carried into Plymouth. I did not fully credit this report, tho it gave me much uneasiness.

I yesterday heard that a French vessel was arrived at Portsmouth which brought news of the safe arrival of the Boston, but this wants confirmation. I hope it will not be long before I shall be assured of your safety. You must write me an account of your voyage, of your situation and of everything entertaining you can recollect.

Your sister and brothers are well. The last desire I would write for them, but I have not time by this opportunity. Your sister I chide for her negligence in this way. I have wrote several times to your papa, hope the letters will not miscarry. Let Stevens know his mother and friends are well.

Be assured I am
most affectionately yours.

Full antique portrait of first lady Abigail Adams

Images 1 & 5: Abigail Adams, First Lady (to second president John Adams) and mother of a president (John Quincy Adams); Image 2: Engraving of John Quincy Adams at 16 years old, 1783; courtesy NPS; Image 3: First page of the handwritten letter from mother to son, courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society; Image 4: President John Quincy Adams, 1843

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