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“The ablest of all our diplomatic Corps”: George Washington and John Quincy Adams

By Katie Blizzard, Communications Specialist
October 20, 2017

In 1789, while touring New England, George Washington stopped in Newburyport, Massachusetts. There, he met a bright young law student who would soon play a larger role both in Washington’s life and in the public arena: John Quincy Adams.

John Quincy Adams, the son of vice president John Adams, had long admired Washington. To the younger Adams’s delight, the citizens of Newburyport asked him to draft an address welcoming Washington to the small town. The result was poetic, expressing “sentiments of joy, resulting from principals perhaps less elevated but equally dear to their hearts; from the gratification of their affection in beholding personally among them, the friend, the benefactor, the father of his Country.” Over the course of Washington’s visit, Adams “had the honour” of interacting with the president several more times. The pair dined together within the same group twice, and Adams happily pointed out in a letter to his mother, Abigail Adams, that Washington had even remembered seeing him in New York.1

Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Their paths crossed again in 1793, when the younger man began publishing political essays. Under the pseudonym “Marcellus,” Adams argued that the nation should remain neutral in the current war between Britain and France. As “Columbus,” Adams warned about the danger of foreign intrigue. And under the name “Barneveldt,” he suggested that some executive powers, though not made explicit in the Constitution, are nevertheless important to the nation’s survival.2

According to historian Samuel Flagg Bemis, these essays not only captured Washington’s attention but also informed his Farewell Address.3 While it is difficult to define conclusively the influences behind the Farewell Address, both men supported neutrality and a strong federal government. So intrigued by an individual who echoed his own beliefs, Washington purportedly sought to uncover the identity of the essays’ author.4 If Washington did connect John Quincy Adams with his essays, that discovery may have played a role in his subsequent interest in the young man as a public servant. On May 29, 1794, a year after the political writings had been published, Washington nominated Adams to be U.S. minister to the Netherlands.5

Though the nomination surprised Adams, he did not think the nomination was a result of preferential treatment: “From the principles of the same nature which my father has always rigidly observed, I knew that no influence, nor even a request of any kind from him could have occasioned this intention of the President.”6 John Adams gleefully confirmed this was the case in his second letter to his son on the subject:

This Nomination, which is the Result of the Presidents own Observations and Reflections, is as politick, as it is unexpected. It will be a Proof that Sound Principles in Morals and Government, are cherished by the Executive of the United States and that Study, Science and Literature are recommendations which will not be overlook’d.7

Though John Quincy Adams had not intended to “solicit for any public office whatever,” he accepted the appointment.8 It should be noted that along with his agreement with the president on diplomatic issues, his fluency in both French and Dutch equipped him well for the position.

When Adams arrived in the Netherlands in December, the scene was not at all what he had expected. The country had been invaded by the French, resulting in the disruption of diplomatic business as well as mail service.9 Cut off from American news and unable to perform his duties beyond maintaining U.S. neutrality, Adams quickly became bored and frustrated. In letters to his father, he described his unhappiness.10 Worried that his son might abandon his post, John Adams wrote to George Washington, who responded with encouragement:

Mr J. Adams, your son, must not think of retiring from the walk he is now in: his prospects, if he continues in it, are fair: and I shall be much mistaken if, in as short a period as can well be expected, he is not found at the head of the Diplomatique Corps; let the government be administered by whomsoever the people may chuse.

The embarrassment into which he was thrown, by the unforeseen events which so soon took place in Holland, after he had received his first instructions, & had arrived in that country, have long since been removed; and he can be at no loss now, as to the course he is to pursue.11

Washington’s advice, to which the vice president would later allude in a letter to his son, presumably worked; John Quincy Adams remained a public servant for the remainder of Washington’s term in office.12 When John Adams was elected president, Washington wrote to him to underscore his continued confidence in John Quincy Adams:

[I]f my wishes would be of any avail, they shd go to you in a strong hope, that you will not withhold merited promotion from Mr Jno. Adams because he is your son. For without intending to compliment the father or the mother, or to censure any others, I give it as my decided opinion, that Mr Adams is the most valuable public character we have abroad; and that there remains no doubt in my mind that he will prove himself to be the ablest, of all our diplomatic Corps.13

 

Notes

  1. “John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams, 5 December 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-08-02-0244. Also available in print: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 8, pp. 444–447.
  2. For a brief discussion of Adams’s 1793 writings, see Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundation of American Policy (New York: 1949), 36–38.
  3. Ibid.
  4. William H. Seward, Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams, Sixth President of the United States (Auburn: 1849), 53.
  5. “From George Washington to the United States Senate, 29 May 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-16-02-0132. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 16, pp. 156–57.
  6. “[Diary entry: June 3, 1794]” in David Waldstreicher, ed., John Quincy Adams, Diaries 1779-1821 (New York: 2017), 43.
  7. “John Adams to John Quincy Adams, 29 May 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-10-02-0123. Also available in print: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 10, pp. 197–99.
  8. “[Diary entry: June 3, 1794]” in David Waldstreicher, ed., John Quincy Adams, Diaries, 43.
  9. Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (New York: 1997), 83–84.
  10. “To John Adams from John Quincy Adams, 4 May 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-1667. Nota Bene: This is an Early Access documentfrom The Adams Papers. It is not an authoritative final version.
  11. “From George Washington to John Adams, 20 August 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-18-02-0369. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 18, pp. 565–66.
  12. “John Adams to John Quincy Adams, 25 August 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-11-02-0009. Also available in print: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, 11, pp. 20–22.]
  13. “From George Washington to John Adams, 20 February 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00316. Nota Bene: This is an Early Access document from The Papers of George Washington. It is not an authoritative final version.