On this day in 1779, a 12-year-old John Quincy Adams prepares to make a dangerous Atlantic crossing with his father, John Adams. “This morning at about 11 o clock,” the young boy soon wrote in his diary, “I took leave of my Mamma, my Sister, & Brother Tommy . . . .”
Can you imagine what poor Abigail felt as she bid farewell to her 12-year-old son? She would not see him again until he was 17 years old. It was just one of the many sacrifices that the Adams family would make during the American Revolution.
As it would turn out, the young Adams would spend most of his teenage years in Europe. He was often accompanying his father, then serving as a diplomat for the fledgling American nation.
John Quincy’s first trip overseas had been harrowing. As a 10-year-old boy, he and his father had traveled to Paris together in early 1778. Americans were then seeking help in their war against England, and the elder Adams had been appointed a commissioner to France. The younger Adams accompanied him, as one of his biographers writes, not only to “ease some of his father’s loneliness for his family,” but also because Abigail worried about the effect on her sons if they never saw their father.
After all, John Adams was always traveling. Even before he served overseas as a diplomat, he was traveling to Philadelphia to serve in the Continental Congress.
You can see why Abigail worried.
On the other hand, the trips overseas were very dangerous. If the British Navy were to capture him, John Adams would hang for treason. Despite his young age, John Quincy would probably be impressed into service in the British Navy.
No one took this danger lightly. During the first voyage in 1778, several British frigates spotted John Adams’s ship, the Boston, mere days after it departed. Ultimately, the American ship got away from the British—but only because the chase was interrupted by a “dreadful storm”! The Boston was even struck by lightning.
Yikes! John Adams and John Quincy must have been so grateful to finally set foot on dry land in Europe.
It was just the first of many trips for John Quincy. He and his father returned to America in August 1779—but then they left again in November 1779.
John Quincy really didn’t want to leave on this second trip. He wanted to stay at home and prepare for admission to Harvard. He must have been struggling with his emotions, because he decided to begin keeping a diary. That diary would become a lifelong habit for him.
As it turns out, John Quincy didn’t have to give up his education just because of his travels. During his time overseas, John Quincy was educated in many different schools, and he learned several foreign languages. When he was only fourteen, he was offered a role as secretary and interpreter for America’s envoy to Russia.
He accepted the position, although it meant leaving his father behind and traveling to St. Petersburg. John Quincy would be on his own, without either parent, for the better part of two years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Abigail wrote John Adams that John Quincy “has been less under your Eye than I could wish.”
John Quincy finally left St. Petersburg and returned to his father. (He took a circuitous route that allowed him to see more of Europe.) About a year after that, Abigail and her daughter traveled to London, where they were finally reunited with father and son.
The family had been separated from November 1779 to the summer of 1784. Wow. Can you imagine what that reunion was like?
It was a sacrifice, but it was one that helped America’s quest for independence. And it ultimately prepared John Quincy to serve as our nation’s sixth President.
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Adams Timeline (Massachusetts Historical Society website)
Harlow G. Unger, John Quincy Adams (2012)
John Quincy Adams, Diary entry: November 12, 1779 (reprinted HERE)
My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams (Margaret A. Hogan & C. James Taylor eds., 2007)