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John and Abigail Adams | Article

The Adams Children

Abigail Adams gave birth to six children, three daughters and three sons, four of whom would live to adulthood. One of those four, John Quincy, would achieve the office of president. The other three lived ordinary lives in what has come to be regarded as an extraordinary family.

Nabby, Courtesy: Adams National Historical Park

Nabby (1765-1813)
Abigail Amelia Adams was born nine months after John and Abigail Adams were married. As the sole daughter, Nabby was her mother's constant companion during her father's and brothers' extended absences from their farm in Braintree, Massachusetts, (Sister Susanna, born in 1768, would die at just over a year. In 1777, on John Quincy's 10th birthday, Abigail delivered a stillborn girl, Elizabeth.) John missed Nabby's teen years while on a diplomatic mission to France during the Revolutionary War. She was reunited with her father when she accompanied her mother to Paris, then to London, where her father served as minister to Great Britain. On June 12, 1786, Nabby married Colonel William Stephens Smith, who had served as John's secretary in London. During the Revolutionary War, he had commanded a regiment at age 21. In the spring of 1787, Nabby's first son, William Steuben, was born.

Three more children followed, all born in New York: John Adams, Thomas (who died at age one), and Caroline Amelia. While Smith had seemed a suitable husband at the outset, he proved to be "wholly devoid of judgment," in Abigail's words. Smith was frequently absent on get-rich-quick schemes and speculative business dealings. 

John Adams, Courtesy: Adams National Historical Park

As a result, Nabby's life was beset by financial instability. Around 1806, Colonel Smith became involved in a scheme concocted by soldier Francisco de Miranda to free Venezuela from Spanish rule, and both father and son William departed to join the fight without the knowledge or consent of the American government. Both were arrested for their participation. While the son managed to escape punishment, Colonel Smith was stripped of his government credentials (he had been surveyor of the Port of New York, a position Adams had secured for him) and therefore any steady means of income. He moved his family to a farm in East Chester, New York, where Abigail was a frequent visitor. Her concern for her daughter's welfare continued; mother and daughter even discussed divorce, almost unheard at that time. In 1813, 48-year-old Nabby died of breast cancer. At the time of her death, her husband had embarked on a new career as an elected official in Congress.

Charles Adams, Courtesy: Massachusetts Historical Society

Charles (1770-1800)
Charles Adams also lived a life of instability, but, as Abigail wrote at the time of his premature death, "He was no man's enemy but his own." He spent his early years with his mother and siblings on their Braintree farm. In 1779, at age nine, he accompanied his father and elder brother, John Quincy, to Paris and Amsterdam, where Adams was negotiating the loans and treaties that enabled the Americans to continue their fight for independence from the British. Charles returned home after two years. At age 15 he entered Harvard, where he became embroiled in a scandal in which several boys were caught running naked across Harvard Yard. School records indicated that alcohol may have been involved. His parents became increasingly concerned with their son's alcohol abuse. Abigail had long viewed her son as "not [being] at peace with himself." According to biographer John Ferling, their greatest fears arose from "his alleged proclivities for consorting with men whom his parents regarded as unsavory." Charles lived in New York with Revolutionary War General Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who some historians believe to have been homosexual, and was brokenhearted when von Steuben, many decades his senior, moved to upstate New York. A lawyer in New York City -- he had apprenticed under Alexander Hamilton — Charles eventually married Sally Smith, Nabby's sister-in-law. Charles soon fell into a speedy decline. Like his brother-in-law, William Smith, Charles speculated in shady financial schemes, at one point losing thousands of dollars belonging to John Quincy. His problems with alcohol escalated. By 30 Charles had abandoned his law practice and his family. Sally and their daughters, Susanna and Abbe, moved in first with Nabby and then with Abigail. On November 30, 1800, Charles Adams died in New York City. During their travels together, Adams had written to Abigail of his middle son: "He is a delightful little fellow. I love him too much." But toward the end of his demise, Adams saw him as morally deficient, "a Madman possessed of the Devil." He swore in 1798 never to see his son again, a promise that he kept.

Thomas Boylston, Courtesy: Massachusetts Historical Society

Thomas Boylston (1772-1832)
The youngest son of Abigail and John Adams, Thomas Boylston upheld the family tradition of going to Harvard and then into law, albeit reluctantly. In 1793 he was admitted to the Philadelphia bar, but left for Europe instead to serve as secretary to his older brother John Quincy, who had been appointed minister to the Netherlands by President George Washington. Upon his return, Thomas tried his hand at law in Philadelphia but failed. By 1803 he relented to parental pressure to return to Quincy (as Braintree was now called) and open a practice there. John and Abigail reasoned that the family name might help, but it didn't. Thomas was often resentful and melancholy. On May 16, 1805, he married Ann ("Nancy") Harrod. In 11 years they would have seven children: Abigail Smith, Elizabeth Coombs, Thomas Boylston Jr., Frances Foster (who died at less than a year), Isaac Hull, John Quincy, and Joseph Harrod. That same year, Thomas was elected to the Massachusetts legislature, in which his father also had served, but resigned a year later for unknown reasons. His departure may have been related to alcoholism; it had taken his brother Charles' life and had begun to affect his. In 1811 he had a stint as chief justice of the circuit court of common pleas for Massachusetts' southern circuit. After his mother's death in 1818, Thomas moved his family back to Quincy, to live with his father. Having given up politics and law, Thomas acted as caretaker for the farm. Drinking became a greater problem, and his nephew Charles Francis, John Quincy's son, described him as "a brute in manners and a bully in his family." Thomas died on March 13, 1832.

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