The children of John and John Quincy Adams shared several unique traits. They all showed signs of genius, but also of mental instability. The two seemed to go together, inherited traits.
John Adams, our second president, had four children. His daughter Abigail, called Nabby, died in her forties of cancer. But two of John Adams’ three sons died of alcoholism, one at the young age of 30. Both had outstanding personalities and great ability, but were considered unstable. John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, suffered most of his life from melancholy and self-doubt. He wrote in his diary, after having held almost every important job in our government with great success, that he had accomplished nothing in his life.
John Quincy Adams’ children shared the same personality traits displayed by their father, uncles and aunt. Of his four children, one, a daughter, died in her first year. Three sons lived to maturity. One was very successful, as were his children and grandchildren.
George Washington Adams, 1801-1829. George was born in Berlin, Prussia, which is now part of Germany. He was considered brilliant but somewhat unstable. Still, he was considered the most likely candidate to carry on the family tradition of public service to his country. George graduated from Harvard and studied law in the office of Daniel Webster. In 1826, he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature. Shortly after that, he developed a “debilitating nervous condition.” He became careless in his habits, neglected his law practice and went deeply into debt. His father had to pay off his debts, which were considerable. He also got a girl pregnant. He began hallucinating and became paranoid. In 1829, he was aboard a steamer headed for New York. He became agitated and accused the other passengers of plotting against him. A short time later, he jumped or fell overboard. His body washed up on City Island in Long Island Sound six weeks later. He was marked as lost at sea, but his death was considered by most to be a suicide.
John Adams II, 1803-1834. John Adams II was born on the Fourth of July in Quincy, Massachusetts. He went to college at Harvard, but was expelled during his senior year for participating in a student riot. He then studied law under his father, and became his father’s private secretary in the White House. John was very loyal to his father, and even got into a fistfight in the Capitol Rotunda with Russell Jarvis, an anti-administration reporter for the Washington Daily Telegraph. An investigating committee of the House of Representatives determined that Jarvis had attacked the younger Adams, and censured Jarvis. After his father left the White House, John ran a Washington flourmill owned by his father. After a short time, his health failed, and he became ill. He died in 1834. His death, just five years after his older brother’s suspected suicide, caused his father great emotional pain. His father wrote of him, “A more honest soul, or more tender heart never breathed on the face of the earth.”
Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886. As John Quincy Adams was the only successful son of John Adams, so Charles Francis Adams was the only truly successful son of John Quincy Adams. He was born in Boston, but spent six of his first eight years in Moscow, where his father was serving as U.S. minister to Russia. In 1815, he joined his mother in her dangerous trip from Moscow to Paris through the worst of the fighting and chaos during Napoleon’s downfall. He was educated in England and then at Harvard. After his graduation, he studied the law for a time, but decided upon a writing career. In addition to a number of books, he eventually edited the papers of his father and grandfather and his grandmother, Abigail Adams. He also wrote and spoke for the abolitionist cause. He served in the Massachusetts legislature from 1840-45. In 1848, he was chosen as the Vice Presidential candidate of the Free Soil Party, running with Martin Van Buren. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1859-1861, when President Lincoln appointed him U.S. Minister to the Court of St. James (England), a position held by both his father and grandfather. It was in that position that he engaged in his greatest service to his country, his efforts being largely responsible for keeping Great Britain out of the Civil War. In 1871, President Grant appointed him to the international commission formed to determine damage claims stemming from England’s support and aid given to the South during the Civil War. Adams won a $15 million claim for the United States. His popularity from these two achievements made him the leading candidate to challenge Grant’s reelection campaign that year. Unfortunately, his outspoken support for the gentle approach to Reconstruction, which had been favored by Lincoln before his death, ruined his chances. He led on the first five ballots at the Liberal Republican Convention, but finally lost the nomination to Horace Greeley. This was his last major public activity. (See my earlier article “Charles Francis Adams: Unsung Hero” publish on 2 June 2000 for more information on his life.)
Charles Francis Adams’ son (John Quincy Adams’ grandson), Charles Francis Adams, Jr., (1835-1915), was a railroad executive and historian. He exposed corruption in the railroad industry and served as the Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners from 1872-1879. He was president of the Union Pacific Railroad for six years. He wrote a number of important historical works, including a biography of his father.
Two other grandsons of John Quincy Adams also become famous historians and writers. Henry Adams (1838-1918) was a professor of history at Harvard and editor of the North American Review. He wrote biographies of Albert Gallatin and John Randolph, and a nine-volume history of the United States during the Jefferson and Madison administrations. Brooks Adams (1848-1927) wrote many works on the economy and correctly predicted that by 1950 the United States and Russia would be the two major powers in the world.
Charles Francis Adams III, son of Charles Francis Adams, Jr., and John Quincy Adams’ great-grandson, continued the tradition of service to his country. He served as the Secretary of the Navy in the administration of Herbert Hoover from 1929-1933.
One other Adams descendant worth mentioning was Abigail Adams Homans (1879-1974). She was the great-granddaughter of John Quincy Adams, and the iconoclastic matriarch of the Adams family in Boston. She is remembered for a remark she made when Lady Bird Johnson visited her in 1968. While showing the First Lady through the restored homes of her presidential ancestors, Mrs. Homans, 88 years old at the time, accidentally knocked over some antique glassware. To break the strain of the silenced that ensued, she said, “Hell, I hope it isn’t historic.” She died six years later at the age of 94.
For five generations, the Adams family was an amazing mixture of genius, service, and tragedy. Many of the children could not handle the apparently inherited traits of depression and self-doubt. More than one died an alcoholic. But those that conquered this trait became great public servants, historians and writers. It is rare that we find a family with a record of talent, dedication, service and achievement stretching five generations. This was a truly remarkable family.