John Quincy Adams was America’s most accomplished diplomat and effective Secretary of State. We know much of him and his times from his voluminous writings, which collectively constitute an American Classic. We offer here a day-to-day chronicle of the opening of his public career from 1794-1801, which will be posted sequentially in segments.
Timeline: June 3-June 29, 1794
Tuesday, June 3, 1794. After a day in his law office, John Quincy Adams attended an evening meeting of the proprietors of the Boston theater, and then walked around town with some friends. On the way home, he stopped by the Post Office and picked up a letter from Philadelphia, the national capital. The contents were “very unexpected, and indeed surprising.”
The letter was from his father, the vice president of the United States, dashed off on the afternoon of May 26. “The Secretary of State called upon me this morning to inform me by order of the President that it was determined to nominate you to go to Holland as Resident Minister.” The Secretary, Edmund Randolph, had asked John Adams if he thought John Quincy would accept the appointment. “I answered that I had no Authority from you. But it was my Opinion that you would and that it would be my Advice to you, that you should.” The yearly salary was $4500 and an equal amount for expenses. John Adams explained his reasoning: “Your Knowledge of Dutch and French: your Education in that Country your Acquaintance with my old Friends there will give you Advantages beyond many others. It will require all your Prudence and all your other Virtues as well as your Talents. . . . Go and see with how little Wisdom this World is governed.”
Wednesday, June 4, 1794. “Day spent as usual, but with very unusual reflections.” John Quincy did not elaborate on this terse entry in his shorthand diary. He would have not been completely surprised by a summons to public service. For some months the family had been led to expect a mid-level legal or judicial appointment from the federal government, such as the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. But he was astonished to have been nominated as one of America’s handful of overseas diplomats at a time of grave national crisis, created by the outbreak of war between England and France the previous year. Americans had already become bitterly divided over the proper understanding of the French Revolution and what it meant for the United States. The British had been seizing American merchant ships under a variety of pretexts. The British had retained military posts in the American northwest and had consorted with hostile native nations. Chief Justice John Jay had been sent on a special mission to London to try to stave off war. Meanwhile, Spain contested American territorial claims to the southwest as well as access to the Mississippi.
John Quincy was only twenty-six years old, a middling Boston attorney who had previously held no public office. As he later recorded, despite what his father thought, he did not believe that his childhood years in Europe qualified him in any important sense – “I know from experience to how little advantage a man travels at that age.” This included the time he had spent in the Netherlands as a teenager (1780-81; 1783-4), where his father had served as an American minister during and immediately after the Revolution. He fretted “that neither my years, my experience, my reputation, nor my talents, could entitle me to an office of so much responsibility.”
The obvious answer seems bound up in the fact that he was, after all, the son of the vice president of the United States. Was his father behind it in some way? John Quincy was upset that the appointment would have been, or appear to have been, gained through John Adams’s influence. “I had laid down as a principle, that I never would solicit for any public Office whatever, and from this determination no necessity has hitherto compelled me to swerve.” He tried to reassure himself that “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.” He could only hope this was true.
Thursday, June 5, 1794. “The Senate have this Day unanimously advised and consented to the Appointment of John Quincy Adams to the Hague.” So John Adams reported to John Quincy in a letter dated May 30. As vice president, he had presided over the Senate’s vote, and was now preparing to depart for home at the end of the Congressional session. “It is a Serious Trust that is about to be committed to you. I hope you will reflect upon it with due Attention, collect yourself, lett no little Weaknesses escape you, and devote yourself to the service of your Country: and may the Blessing of Heaven attend you.” John Quincy was expected to come to Philadelphia as soon as possible for meetings with President Washington and the Secretary of State. John Quincy presumably shared this news with his mother, Abigail, who had come into Boston from the Adams family home in Quincy.
Friday, June 6, 1794. Public word of John Quincy’s appointment had now reached Boston — “much affected by the sentiments of my friends on the present occasion, but unwell.” He was not sure their congratulations was warranted — “I wish I could have been consulted before it was irrevocably made. I rather wish it had not been made at all.”
Saturday, June 7, 1794. The Boston Columbian Centinel reported JQA’s appointment. He attended a wedding reception for the sister of one of his friends, John Gardner, and took a walk on the Mall, as was his daily custom. “Fancy myself better, but how much mistaken.”
Monday, June 9, 1794. A rainstorm deterred John Quincy from visiting his father in Quincy to learn the details of his appointment to the Dutch Republic. (Weather permitting, John Quincy usually traveled to Quincy on weekends to visit the family. Quincy was about nine miles from Boston; John Quincy sometimes took the two plus hour walk for exercise, if he did not ride a horse or take a chaise.) He conducted some legal business in his office and met with the proprietors of the Boston theater.
His Aunt Shaw, who had seen him go through periods of depression and difficulties with affairs of the heart, wrote: “My Dear Nephew could not suppose a Friend to merit, could read a Paragraph in last Saturdays Paper, without feeling themselves gratified, by finding that the opinion of Persons of the highest eminence entirly coincided with their own. . . . . The late appointment of the Presidents will be an additional weight; & the Atlas of publick Care, which has for a long time oppressed you, will now (I fear) fix an indeliable [tr]ace upon your Brow—.”
Tuesday, June 10, 1794. John Quincy braved the rain to venture out to Quincy. John Adams was “more gratified than myself with my appointment,” John Quincy observed warily. He did not record in detail the substance of the conversation (and, in fact, he seldom did when it concerned his father). But he clearly pressed John Adams on one critical point that mattered deeply to him. His father insisted piously that the nomination had been “as unexpected to him as to myself, and that he had never uttered a word upon which a wish on his part could be presumed that a public office should be conferred upon me.”
As to whether influence directly played a role, John Quincy was probably satisfied. He was well aware that John Adams was not part of the president’s inner circle, even though he had loyally supported Washington and the party of government (as the Federalists were known), and the two families had good social relations. Washington had never discussed his foreign policy with the vice president, even though John Adams had extensive diplomatic experience. Pushing his son so directly for a government appointment would not have been welcome or productive.
But as to being surprised, John Quincy’s father was not being completely candid. Secretary Randolph, after he had verbally notified John Adams of the President’s decision to nominate John Quincy, sent a cautionary note: “You will be so good, as to let it be understood between us that the mention, which some time ago was made to you by me, of the nomination of your son, was purely confidential between us; and that on any occasion, which you may have to speak of the time, when it was first known to you, you will refer to the communication of this day only.”
For posterity, John Adams tried to explain things away. He scrawled a line at the bottom of Randolph’s note: “This letter was mailed and recd Monday, May 26, 1794. The Day on which the Conversation alluded to, took place.” That was John Adams’ story and he would stick to it. And it could not be denied that he had indirectly influenced the choice. As Randolph later put it: “When he [John Quincy] was first contemplated for The Hague, my mind readily embraced the idea, under the influence of his own merit. I must be permitted at the same time to own, that the services of the father strongly confirmed the pretensions of the son.”
If not direct parental influence, then, why was John Quincy selected for this delicate assignment? What was the merit to which Randolph referred? His principal qualifications – apart from his youthful experience in Europe and presumed familiarity with European languages – were the newspaper essays that he had written the previous year. He had defended Washington’s neutrality policy in the European war (under the pseudonym Marcellus), and warned against foreign influence in American affairs (as Columbus), in the midst of intense popular pressure to support revolutionary France, stirred up by the newly-arrived French minister, Charles Genet (known as Citizen Genet). John Quincy had written these essays anonymously, but his authorship became widely known, and certainly known to Washington. Only the writings of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had been of equal quality and public influence. John Adams undoubtedly explained thus to his son. Many years later, the elder Adams recalled:
Washington was indeed under obligation to him, for turning the tide of sentiment against Genet, and he was sensible of it and grateful for it. The enthusiasm for Genet and France and the French Revolution was, at this time, almost universal throughout the United States, but in Pennsylvania, and especially in Philadelphia, the rage was irresistible. J.Q. Adams’ writing first turned the tide; and the yellow fever completed the salvation of Washington. . . . Not all Washington’s ministers, Hamilton and Pickering included, could have written those papers, which were so fatal to Genet.
There is a problem here. The yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia (September-October 1973), which had basically shut the city and government down, occurred before John Quincy’s Columbus essays were published in November and December. The public tide against Genet had already turned due to the French minister’s excesses. Even Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was an enthusiast for the French Revolution and virulently anti-British, had had enough of him. John Adams may have had in mind John Quincy’s Marcellus essays from the spring of 1793, but these were published before Genet’s arrival at the capital and did not address his misconduct, but focused rather on the imperative of maintaining neutrality in the European war, and an independent American foreign policy.
Whatever the case, the President was undoubtedly grateful for the intervention of an articulate supporter at a time when he was under unprecedented public criticism for failing to support France, and for adopting a neutrality policy that allegedly favored Britain. Washington had long prided himself on identifying, employing, and promoting talented young men, such as Hamilton. He evidently had sized up John Quincy favorably on those occasions when they had met over the previous few years. He overrode warnings from some — possibly including James Madison — that John Quincy’s Publicola essays from 1791, which criticized the French Revolution and defended the English Constitution, disqualified him because his appointment would be offensive to the French government. The Father of his Country, with no natural heirs, was willing to serve as his political sponsor in a way that John Adams could not honorably have done. Washington, indeed, clearly had a higher opinion of the son than of the father.
In addition, as John Adams’ was well aware, the President was in the midst of a general reshuffling of diplomatic assignments. Only a few weeks earlier John Jay had received his controversial appointment as special emissary to London, to avert war with Britain — a selection decried by Republicans because of the Chief Justice’s supposed bias towards the British. William Short, who had represented the United States in the Netherlands, was being transferred from The Hague to Madrid. Short was a friend and former secretary of Jefferson, but now somewhat out of favor with his mentor due to their differences over the French Revolution. Short was already in Madrid on special assignment. Thomas Pinckney, the American Minister to Britain, would soon receive a similar temporary commission to Spain, aimed at resolving outstanding issues between the two nations and especially at gaining Spanish acceptance of American access to the Mississippi River.
Most importantly, James Monroe, Senator from Virginia, a Republican and strong proponent of the French revolutionary cause, had been named to replace Gouverneur Morris as the American Minister in Paris. Morris had become persona non grata with the French revolutionary regime due to his sympathies with royalists and displaced aristocrats. Washington wanted to use Monroe’s appointment to reassure the French government of his good intentions and to assuage American Republicans who feared that Jay would sell out U.S. interests to London.
John Quincy’s appointment was an integral part of Washington’s delicate diplomatic and political balancing act, as John Adams explained to his son:
This Nomination, which is the Result of the President’s 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 recommendation which will not be overlooked. It will, or at least ought to have in England and Holland more effect, than any Thing that has been done, except perhaps the appointment of Mr. Jay. It is a Pledge given by the American Cabinet, that they are not Enemies to a rational form of Government, and that they are not hurried away by a wild Enthusiasm for every unmeaning Cry of Liberty, Republicanism and Equality.
The unanimous Senate confirmation of John Quincy’s appointment seemed to bode well for Washington’s strategy of bipartisan diplomacy. In another positive sign, Monroe had sought out the Vice President before he left Philadelphia and “desired me to mention to you [John Quincy] in my first Letter, that he was very happy to hear of your nomination, and that he hoped for a good understanding and a good Correspondence with you.” John Quincy had not seen or been in contact with Monroe since a brief encounter in New York City a decade earlier, but the Virginian clearly remembered him. The two, anonymously, had dueled in the press in 1791 over the proper response to the French Revolution, although neither probably knew it at the time.
Years later, from various sources, John Quincy heard that another French enthusiast — Thomas Jefferson, of all people — apparently had an indirect hand in the matter, while serving as Secretary of State. Jefferson had known John Quincy since his time together with the Adams family in Paris (1784-85), but he blamed his Publicola writings in 1791 for creating or at least widening the breach between the nascent Federalist-Republican political factions. “I know him, know he has long esteemed me beyond my deserts,” John Quincy observed, “and I have reason to believe contributed much by his testimony, if not by his recommendation to the first President, to introduce me to the public service.”
Thursday, June 12, 1794. John Quincy returned to Boston with his Aunt Cranch, where he received a letter from Secretary of State Randolph, with formal notice of his appointment and a request that he travel to Philadelphia for meetings on his diplomatic assignment.
Friday, June 13-Sunday June 29, 1794. Under instructions from the Secretary of State to report to Philadelphia as soon as possible, John Quincy remained in Boston, detained partly in order to close up his law practice, but also because of illness. He did not specify the symptoms. To recover, he apparently adopted a scheme of personal reformation — “the last resort of hope” — something he had been attempting over the past few years to address what he called his “dissipation.” He may have gone on a diet, rose earlier in the morning and tried to cut down on his consumption of alcohol and smoking. Things did not go well. “Its effect somewhat rough. . . . Pursuing my system; but reduced almost to the extremity of despair.” For this or other reasons – “apprehension and uneasiness” over his appointment – he continued to feel ill, to the point where he asked to be bled.
During this period, John Quincy still managed to visit his parents on several occasions. John Adams, unfortunately, could tell John Quincy nothing directly about the substance of his assignment or what to expect when he reached Philadelphia. But he undoubtedly continued to offer detailed advice — as usual, John Quincy did not record the substance of the conversations, but they undoubtedly reflected what John Adams had previously written to his son and Abigail:
You will have a collection to make of the Journals of Congress and the Laws of the Union, and all the Reports of our Ministers of State to take with you. You must remember all the Relations of the U.S. with all foreign Nations. In holland you must be very cautious between Patriots and Stathouderiens. In your Dispatches you must be very cautious and delicate in casting Reflections upon Nations, Sovereigns, and even Courts and Parties. Write nothing which can give personal, party of national offense: unless the public good as well as the Truth, absolutely demand it of you. You will have Loans & Money Matters to attend to. Study, therefore, the Calculations necessary. You must make yourself Master of all our dispatches with England Spain, France etc.
From newspaper accounts, the family was aware that John Quincy might be entering an active war zone as well as political minefield. During the spring of 1794, the French Army, recovering from its defeats the previous year, had moved north, raising hopes among the pro-French Dutch Patriots that their revenge against the House of Orange and the Stadtholder’s pro-British regime would soon follow. John Adams doubted that the French would actually be able to conquer the Netherlands or occupy Amsterdam. But John Quincy might find himself in a difficult and ambiguous diplomatic situation, as John Adams had experienced more than once during his time in Europe. He undoubtedly discussed various contingencies with John Quincy; how to react, depending upon the status, stability and legitimacy of whatever government, or governments, claimed power over the Dutch Provinces.
And among other things— John Quincy, (to put things politely), tended to be rather careless of his appearance. This simply would not do for one now in the diplomatic line, beginning with his preparatory conferences with George Washington in Philadelphia. “He must attend a little to his Dress and Person,” John Adams reflected. “No Man alive is more Attentive to these Things than the President. Neat at least and handsome.” The vice president remembered only too well about the expenses associated with keeping up expected appearances in Europe. The American minister’s annual salary ($4,500) and expense account was plush for Boston but hardly so for The Hague. “When he gets to Europe he cannot keep a Coach, nor keep House,” John Adams fretted. “Dress is an abominably expensive Article – but he will not run into it I hope. – He may dress and ought to dress as handsomely as any of them: but he ought not to change so often. Economy must be his Study and his Practice.”
For her part, Abigail knew she would sorely miss her son’s company at Quincy. “Not a Son to visit me now, and enliven by his presence once a week or fortnight, a long Winter Evening, and to detail to me what is passing in the more active Scenes of Life,” she later noted sadly.
A Note About the Construction: In attempting to provide chronicles of John Quincy’s early diplomatic career, the author utilized his daily diary (journal) entries as the foundation, but group these and other material so as to provide a coherent narrative, while still retaining an “as it happened” framework. JQA often reflects on events, and the contents of letters and documents, days after they occurred or were received, for instance.
APM — Adams Family Papers, Microfilm Edition Massachusetts Historical Society, with Reel Number. The indicated transcripts were prepared from this source.
DJQA — Diary, from the Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, comprising portions of his diary from 1795 to 1848, edited by Charles Francis Adams, volume 1.
FOL — Founders Online, National Archives https://founders.archives.gov.
LD/SE — Line-a-day and short entries from his diary, APM, and available online through the Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/php/. The indicated transcripts were prepared from this source.
WJQA — Writings of John Quincy Adams, edited by Worthington C. Ford.