John Adams’ Advice to His Children

When I read David McCullough’s biography of John Adams back in February and watched the PBS miniseries based on the book, I copied several passages into my commonplace book for future reference. These are some quotations from Adams’ letters or other writings that reflect his advice to his children.

John adn Abigail had four children who lived to adulthood: one, John Quincy, became president of the United States. The other three lived to experience varying degrees of tragedy in their lives. Abigail, the eldest, nicknamed Nabby, married Colonel William Smith who turned out to be a profligate husband who practically deserted her and their children for long periods of time throughout their marriage. Nabby died of breast cancer at age forty-nine.

Charles Adams was by all accounts a charming and talented young man, but he drank excessively and eventually died an alcoholic. He was married to Col. Smith’s sister, Sally, and the couple had two daughters. He also deserted his family and died at the age of thirty, alone, in New York City.

Thomas Adams, the youngest of the Adams children, became a lawyer, but not a very successful one. Thomas married and had seven children, but he, too, was prone to alcohol abuse. He and his family lived with his father John Adams in John’s old age, and Thomas outlived his father in spite of his alcoholism.

Perhaps John Adams’ children, in light of their sometimes poor decisions in adult life, should have taken his advice more to heart. At any rate, here is some of what Mr. Adams wrote to his children, in case you want to take advantage.

“Daughter! Get you an honest man for a husband, and keep him honest. No matter whether he is rich, provided he be independent. Regard the honor and moral character more than all other circumstances. Think of no other greatness but that of the soul, no other riches but those of the heart. An honest, sensible humane man, above all the littleness of vanity and extravagances of imagination, laboring to do good rather than be rich, to be useful rather than make a show, living in modest simplicity clearly within his means and free from debts and obligations, is really the most respectable man in society, makes himself and all about him most happy.” (John Adams, p. 289)

“Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or other. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not. A young man should weigh well his plans. Integrity should be preserved in all events, as essential to his happiness, through every stage of his existence. His first maxim then should be to place his honor out of reach of all men.” (John Adams, p. 415)

To Charles on exercise: “Move or die is the language of our Maker in the constitution of our bodies. When you cannot walk abroad, walk in your room . . . Rise up and then open your windows and walk about your room a few times, then sit down to your books or your pen.” (John Adams, p. 452)

“More depends on little things than is commonly imagined. An Erect figure, a steady countenance, a neat dress, a genteel air, an oratorical period, a resolute, determined spirit, often do more than deep erudition or indefatigable application.” (John Adams, p. 453)

To John Quincy: “Rejoice always in all events, be thankful always for all things is a hard precept for human nature, though in my philosophy and in my religion a perfect duty.”

5 thoughts on “John Adams’ Advice to His Children

  1. Interesting quotes from John Adams. ADAMS will be featured in our next WHITE HOUSE COLLECTABLE ORNAMENT

  2. I loved that miniseries and so came to admire Abigail so much!

    I think many of the troubles of the children could have been averted if John had stayed home instead of spending so much time away. Words of wisdom have more impact when they come from the mouth, with daily learning opportunities, instead of from letters.

    Thanks for sharing these!

  3. I find it telling that it was only John Quincy Adams who didn’t self-destruct & he is the only child who spent considerable time abroad with John Adams.

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