John Quincy Adams was born to John Adams and Abigail Smith Adams on July 11, 1767, in Braintree, Massachusetts, a few miles south of Boston. His family took to calling him “Johnny.” At the time of his birth, there was already talk in the American colonies of breaking away from England. Because of this, Johnny’s father got involved in politics, which often took him far from home.
The Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775, when Johnny was 7. On the morning of June 17th, a sound like thunder rolling down the Massachusetts coast drew John Quincy and his mother to the summit of nearby Penn Hill. They saw billows of smoke rise from the battlefield several miles north. They glimpsed tongues of flame spouting from cannons on Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. They saw the British burn Charlestown.
In July of the next year, the Continental Congress, of which John Adams was a member, officially declared the independence of the United States from Great Britain.
When Johnny was 10, the Continental Congress sent John Adams on a diplomatic mission to France, and Johnny persuaded his father to take him along. So, on February 13, 1778, John and and his son boarded the 24-gun frigate Boston, which was commanded by Captain Samuel Tucker. It was a six-week voyage across the Atlantic, and it was far from smooth sailing. A squadron of British warships chased the Boston for two days. During a four-day hurricane, lightning struck the Boston, killing four sailors and injuring 20. After the storm, they saw a British merchant ship. It was John Adams’s responsibility to order the attack, and he did. Cannonballs whizzed across the deck. They captured the British ship and took its cargo. When it was over, Johnny watched the ship’s surgeon cut off a man’s injured arm. At the end of March, they reached the French coast.
For two years, John Quincy attended Leiden University in Holland, where he learned Latin, Greek, and French. He also studied dancing, fencing, music, and drawing. In his free time, he ice-skated and rode horses.
When John Quincy was 14, his father’s secretary, Francis Dana, was named American ambassador to Russia. The problem was that Dana spoke little French, the language of the royal court. So, he asked Johnny to accompany him since the younger Adams was fluent in French. They traveled through Eastern Europe to St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia. Johnny worked as Dana’s secretary and studied in Russia for a year. He left there on October 30, 1782, traveling with an Italian friend, Count Greco, through Sweden, Denmark, and northern Germany. He rejoined his father in The Hague on April 20, 1783, and served as his private secretary for next two years.
John Adams once described his first-born son as “the greatest traveler of his age.” But, in 1785, Johnny observed, “I have been such a wandering being these seven years that I have never performed any regular course of study.” So, he decided to finish his education in America. At 18, he was admitted to Harvard College as a junior. He graduate in July 1787 and became a law clerk.
In 1789, John Adams became the first vice president of the United States.
In August 1790, Johnny set up his own law office in Boston. But then, in 1794, President George Washington appointed him U.S. minister to Holland. Johnny was only 26 years old. With his brother Thomas, he sailed to England on the ship Alfred, which was leaky and made the Adams brother nervous.
When they reached Holland, the country was at war with France. Johnny did his best to protect U.S. citizens and their property, but, with the diplomatic mission on hold, the Adamses returned to London, where Johnny began visiting American consul Joshua Johnson. Johnny fell for Johnson’s 20 year-old daughter Louisa Catherine, and they were married on July 26, 1797.
When John Adams was elected the second president of the U.S., he named Johnny ambassador to Prussia. In the fall of 1797, Johnny and Louisa traveled to Berlin and, for the next four years, Johnny successfully worked to strengthen U.S.-Prussian relations.
In 1801, John Adams lost the presidential election to Thomas Jefferson, and Johnny was recalled from Prussia. He, Louisa, and their infant son sailed for the U.S. “to begin the world anew.” Though John Quincy Adams never traveled abroad again, his adventures were far from over.