Adams, John Primary Source eText

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John Adams's wife Abigail was one of the most outstanding first ladies in American history. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc. John Adams's wife Abigail was one of the most outstanding first ladies in American history. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.
Since there were no law schools in the colonies, John Adams obtained his legal education by studying with practicing lawyers. Reproduced by permission of the National Archives and Records Administration. Since there were no law schools in the colonies, John Adams obtained his legal education by studying with practicing lawyers. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Excerpt from The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams

Reprinted in Major Problems in American Colonial History

Published in 1993

Edited by Karen Ordahl Kupperman

"The Difficulties that attend the study may discourage some, but they never discouraged me. . . ."

America was the first nation to provide free education to all citizens. The importance of an educated population dated to the earliest years of the colonial period. New England Puritans were the first to establish schools, but solely for the purpose of giving religious education and training ministers. (Puritans were a Protestant Christian group that observed strict moral and religious codes.) Adults and children were expected to be able to read the Bible and to understand the laws of the colony, which were based on the Bible.

For instance, in 1647 the Massachusetts Bay legislature passed a law stating that parents must educate their children. If they failed to do so, community leaders would assume the responsibility. Three years later a similar law was enacted in Connecticut. Boys and girls in rural communities were sent to "dame" schools where they were taught grammar by female members of the church. In towns, male teachers called masters headed schools that admitted only boys. Within fifty years New England had an exceptionally high literacy rate for the time—seventy percent of men and forty-five percent of women could read and write.

Education was given less priority in the other colonies during the seventeenth century, mainly because churches did not stress learning as a way to comprehend the will of God. Anglicans (followers of the Church of England) in the southern colonies, for instance, relied on ministers to guide them with sermons, worship services, and parish visits. Baptists and Quakers in the middle colonies, such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware, saw little value in literacy, since they relied on individual inspiration rather than the Scriptures for an understanding of God. Nevertheless schools had been started throughout the colonies by 1700, and all were affiliated with a church. The first school in New York was established by the Dutch Reformed church (a branch of Puritanism based in the Netherlands), and in Philadelphia the first educational institution was founded by Quakers in 1689. Families living in rural areas or small towns—especially in the South—usually hired private tutors to teach their children.

By the early eighteenth century, however, schools were established with no church affiliation (connection). Colonists had become aware that learning was necessary to prepare for everyday life. For example, governments, businesses, and legal systems required literate officials and employees. Also many colonists saw education as a route to prosperity and moral improvement. In Maryland and South Carolina there was a movement to provide schooling for the poor, and throughout the colonies the wealthy were leaving money for schools in their wills.

This upsurge in learning had produced significant trends by 1760. Many people were pursuing teaching careers, which had previously been limited to ministers. The literacy rate increased dramatically. Nevertheless the education of women was still a low priority, since women could not participate in public life and therefore needed only to know how to read. The exceptions were daughters of wealthy families, who were taught social graces such as painting, singing, or playing musical instruments.

Higher education was also emphasized during the colonial period. In 1636 Harvard College opened its doors in Cambridge, Massachusetts, becoming the first institution of higher learning in the colonies. (Harvard was named for John Harvard, a Puritan minister who donated a large sum of money and his private library.) Courses in the classics and philosophy were offered in addition to religion, but men who wished to study law or medicine had to go to Europe. For half a century Harvard was the only college in America, and it served mainly to educate the sons of Puritans.

Finally, in 1693, the College of William and Mary (named for English monarchs William III and Mary II) was established in Williamsburg, Virginia, to train Anglican ministers and to provide a college for the sons of Virginia plantation owners. Within fifteen years William and Mary had added courses in law and medicine.

In the meantime, Harvard had been influenced by educational trends in Europe. The college expanded its curriculum (program of study) to include the liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) as well as science, philosophy, politics, and other subjects. Harvard also added another year of study at the freshman level, dropping the average age at entry to between fifteen or sixteen. The basic requirement for admission was a solid background in the Latin language.

Eventually some Harvard graduates became concerned that the college had strayed from Puritan teachings because fewer graduates were going into the ministry. In 1701 the group started a college to educate ministers in a traditional Puritan curriculum. For several years the school was moved among various locations in Connecticut. Finally in 1720 a permanent building was constructed in New Haven, Connecticut, and the college was named Yale College for Elihu Yale, who had contributed a large sum of money to the enterprise. Yet by 1760 Yale had also adopted European trends.

Colleges were established much later in the middle colonies. Unlike New England and the southern colonies, New York was populated by numerous religious groups, and no church had gained enough dominance to open an institution of higher learning. The Quakers still controlled Pennsylvania, but they had no interest in starting a divinity (religious) school because they did not have ordained ministers. Yet Presbyterians (a branch of Puritanism) were arriving in Pennsylvania in increasing numbers. At first their ministers attended Harvard, but they soon saw a need for their own college. In 1746 the Presbyterians founded the interdenominational (open to all religious groups) College of New Jersey at Elizabethtown. The school was moved to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1754 and was officially named Princeton College in the 1760s. In 1754 King's College (now Columbia University) was started in New York City as a nondenominational institution.

The first institution that abandoned religious requirements was the Academy of Philadelphia, founded in 1751 with the support of Benjamin Franklin (see Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in his Own Words). His goal was to provide a "useful" education, with courses in astronomy, arithmetic, accounting, and geometry, as well as English, history, botany, agriculture, mechanics, Greek, and Latin. In 1755 the academy was renamed the Academy and College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), and is now regarded as the basis for the public education system that was later adopted in the United States.

By the end of the colonial period six colleges had been established in America, all of them admitting only male students. With fewer men entering the ministry, the colleges were increasingly offering nonreligious courses of study. Yet there were still no professional schools, and young men who wanted to become doctors or lawyers had to earn their degrees in Europe. Those who could not afford a European education attended colonial colleges and then practiced for two or three years with a qualified professional. The autobiography of John Adams, a Harvard student and future president of the United States, gives the modern reader insight into the experiences of a young man who found himself in this situation.

John Adams (1735–1826) was born on a farm near Braintree, Massachusetts, the oldest of three sons of John Adams and Susannah Boylston Adams. Young John Adams grew up in a Puritan community, going to church twice on Sundays and working hard on the farm the rest of the week. His family valued education, so he learned to read at an early age. He began attending a dame school run by a neighbor, Mrs. Belcher, and he also excelled in arithmetic. But he lost interest in education once he had moved to a public school, where he studied Latin grammar under an uninspiring master. By the age of ten he was skipping school, and he spent his time playing at nearby beaches and bogs. When the elder John Adams found out he was furious. An uneducated man himself, he had placed great hopes in his son's studying for the ministry at nearby Harvard College and escaping the drudgery of the farm. The boy announced that he wanted to be a farmer and had no desire to go to college, but his father won out. Adams remained bored with school, so when he was fourteen his father agreed to let him study with a tutor named Mr. Marsh. Marsh taught him to love learning, and within a year he had passed the Harvard entrance exams.

Adams entered Harvard in 1751, two months before his sixteenth birthday. Life at the college was very strict. The ninety students got up each morning at five o'clock, attended chapel at six, and had breakfast at seven. Classes started at eight, then the afternoon was set aside for study until supper at six. Students had some free time until curfew, when they snuffed their candles, put out fires in fireplaces, and went to bed. In addition to following this rigid schedule, students were forbidden to tell a lie, drink alcohol, or play cards. They could not go skating without permission, and they were required to observe the Sabbath (Sunday), a day set aside for church services and religious contemplation. All violators were fined ten shillings (a sum of British money equal to about $1.20) for each offense. No one was allowed to leave the college grounds without a good reason and permission from his tutor.

Adams thrived at Harvard in spite of the rules. He enjoyed spending time in the library, where he discovered many new ideas. He had been studying for the ministry, but he soon had doubts about narrow Puritan beliefs and decided to become a teacher. After graduating in 1755, when he was almost twenty years old, Adams took a job as a schoolmaster at a grammar school in Worcester, Massachusetts. Within a year he realized he was interested in learning law, so he arranged to study with James Putnam, a prominent Worcester lawyer. For two years Adams lived with Putnam, teaching school during the day and working in Putnam's office at night. He copied deeds and wills, prepared briefs, discussed cases, and studied law. In 1758 Adams went to Boston, where he was introduced into the legal profession by the prominent lawyers Jeremiah Gridley and James Otis.

Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams:

  • This excerpt from Adams's diary begins just after his arrival in Boston, when he met Gridley and Otis and other members of the legal profession. At this point Adams had not been admitted to the bar (an association of lawyers who are permitted to represent clients and try cases in court), and he was seeking advice about how to become a lawyer.
  • Adams felt out of place in Boston. As the son of a farmer, he was dazzled by the elite social world—the "Spacious and elegant" court room, the "gayest Company of Gentlemen and the finest Row of Ladies." On his first visit to the court house, he also found the assembled lawyers to be a "sour" group. During his time in Boston, Adams made contacts that enabled him to join the ranks of the elite and become one of the great leaders of the American Revolution (1775–83).
  • Keep in mind that there were no law schools in the colonies, and Adams had to obtain his legal education by studying with practicing lawyers. His diary gives the modern reader a glimpse into the process a young colonial American went through in order to enter the legal profession. One step was to submit to a review of his education and credentials. For instance, in the entry for October 26, Adams described his meeting with Mr. Prat. Prat questioned him extensively about such matters as his academic studies, his work with Putnam in Worcester, and the status of his legal studies. Notice that Adams did not like Prat, finding him "ill natured" in comparison to Gridley, who was "good natured."
  • Gridley gave Adams numerous tips and bits of advice. At one point he cautioned Adams not to practice law for profit, or "the Gain of it," but for the pursuit of law itself. He also told the aspiring attorney not to marry early because he would slow his progress ("obstruct your Improvement") and take on too many financial responsibilities ("involve you in Expence"). In addition, Gridley warned against socializing too much ("not to keep much company") because a lawyer must constantly apply himself to his work. Adams appears to have taken Gridley's last piece of advice. In his diary he showed that he was very conscientious; for example, he reminded himself to pay better attention to small details and become more organized. He was already acquiring the habits of a lawyer.
  • On the recommendation of Gridley, Adams was admitted to the bar and qualified to practice law. Adams was an outsider (he was "unknown" in Boston). He was certain that Samuel Quincy, another aspiring lawyer, would be admitted to the bar because he already knew everyone in the Boston legal community. At this point Adams was without a patron (sponsor), so he was sure his own request for admission would be turned down. At the last minute Gridley spoke up for him.

Excerpt from The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams

Tuesday [24 October]

Rode to Boston. Arrived about after 10. Went into the Court House, and sett down by Mr. Paine [Robert Treat Paine; a fellow student] att the Lawyers Table. I felt Shy, under Awe and concern, for Mr. Gridley, Mr. Prat, Mr. Otis, Mr. Kent, and Mr. Thatcher were all present and looked sour. I had no Acquaintance with any Body but Paine and Quincy [Samuel Quincy; a student also seeking admission to the bar] and they took but little Notice. However I attended Court Steadily all Day, and at night, went to Consort with Samll [Samuel] Quincy and Dr. Gardiner. There I saw the most Spacious and elegant Room, the gayest Company of Gentlemen and the finest Row of Ladies, that ever I saw. But the weather was so dull and I so disordered that I could not make one half the observations that I wanted to make.

Wednesday [25 October]

Went in the morning to Mr. Gridleys, and asked the favour of his Advice what Steps to take for an Introduction to the Practice of Law in this County. He answered "get sworn" [admitted to the bar].

Ego [I; Adams]. But in order to that, sir, as I have no Patron, in this County.

G. [Gridley] I will recommend you to the Court. Mark the Day the Court adjourns to in order to make up Judgments. Come to Town that Day, and in the mean Time I will speak to the Bar for the Bar must be consulted, because the Court always inquires, if it be with Consent of the Bar.

Then Mr. Gridley inquired what Method of Study I had pursued, what Latin Books I read, what Greek, what French. What I had read upon Rhetorick. Then he took his Common Place Book [a guide to law] and gave me Ld. [Lord] Hales Advice to a Student of the Common Law, and when I had read that, he gave me Ld. C[hief] J[ustice] Reeves Advice [to] his Nephew, in the Study of the common Law. Then He gave me a Letter from Dr. Dickins, Regius Professor of Law at the University of Cambridge, to him, pointing out a Method of Studying the civil Law. Then he turned to a Letter He wrote himself to Judge Lightfoot, Judge of the Admiralty in Rhode Island, directing to a Method of Studying the Admiralty Law. Then Mr. Gridley run a Comparison between the Business and studies of a Lawyer or Gentlemen of the Bar, in England, and that of one here. A Lawyer in this Country must study common Law and civil Law, and natural Law, and Admiralty Law, and must do the duty of a Counsellor, a Lawyer, an Attorney, a sollicitor, and even of a scrivener, so that the Difficulties of the Profession are much greater here than in England.

The Difficulties that attend the study may discourage some, but they never discouraged me. . . .

I have a few Pieces of Advice to give you Mr. Adams. One is to pursue the Study of the Law rather than the Gain of it. Pursue the Gain of it enough to keep out of the Briars, but give your main Attention to the study of it.

The next is, not to marry early. For an early Marriage will obstruct your Improvement, and in the next Place, twill involve you in Expence.

Another Thing is not to keep much Company. For this application of a Man who aims to be a lawyer must be incessant. His Attention to his Books must be constant, which is inconsistent with keeping much Company.

In the study of Law the common Law be sure deserves your first and last Attention, and He has conquered all the Difficulties of this Law, who is Master of the Institutes. You must conquer the Institutes. The Road of Science is much easier, now, than it was when I sett out. I began with Co. Litt. and broke thro.

I asked his Advice about studying Greek. He answered it is a matter of meer Curiosity.-After this long and familiar Conversation we went to Court. Attended all Day and in the Evening I went to ask Mr. Thatchers Concurrence with the Bar. Drank Tea and spent the whole Evening, upon original sin,act of disobedience

Origin of Evil, the Plan of the Universe, and at last, upon Law. . . .

Thursday [26 October]

Went in the morning to wait on Mr. Prat. He inquired if I had been sworn at Worcester? No. Have you a Letter from Mr. Putnam [James Putnam, the lawyer with whom Adams studied in Worcester] to the Court? No. It would have been most proper to have done one of them things first. When a young Gentleman goes from me into another County, I always write in his favour to the Court in that County, or if you had been sworn, there, you would have been intitled to be sworn here. But now, no Body in this County knows any Thing about you. So no Body can say any Thing in your favour, but by hearsay. I believe you have made a proper Proficiency in science, and that you will do very well from what I have heard, but that is only hearsay. [How different is this from Gridleys Treatment? Besides it is weak, for neither the Court nor the Bar will question the Veracity of Mr. Gridly and Mr. Prat, so that the only Uncertainty that can remain is whether Mr. Putnam was in Earnest, in the Account he gave of my Morals and Studies to them Gentleman, which cannot be removed by a Line from him, or by my being sworn at Worcester, or any other Way than by getting Mr. Putnam sworn.] After this, he asked me a few, short Questions about the Course of my studies which I answered, and then came off as full of Wrath as [I] was full of Gratitude when I left Gridley the morning before. Prat is infinitely harder of Access than Gridley. He is ill natured, and Gridley is good natured.-Attended Court all Day, and at night waited on Otis at his office where I conversed with him and he, with great Ease and familiarity, promised me to join the Bar in recommending me to the Court. . . .

Let me remarke here on important neglect of the last Week. I omitted minuting the Names of the Cases at Trial in my Ivory Book, and I omitted to keep Pen, Ink, and Paper at my Lodgings, in order to comitt to Writing, at Night, the Cases and Points of Law that were argued and adjudged in the Day.

Let me remember to mark in my Memorandum Book, the Names of the Cases, and the Terms and Points of Law that occur in each Case, to look these Terms and Points in the Books at Otis's, Prats or any other office, and to digest and write down the whole in the Evening at my Lodgings. This will be reaping some real Advantage, by my Attendance on the Courts, and, without this, the Observations that I may make will lie in total Confusion in my mind.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday [27-30 October]

All Spent in absolute Idleness, or what is worse, gallanting the Girls.

Thursday [2 November]

Rode as far as Smelt Brook. Breakfasted, made my fire and am now set down to Van Muyden [a book written by Van Muyden] in Earnest. His latin is easy, his deffinitions are pretty clear, and his Divisions of the subject, are judicious.

Monday [6? November]

Went to Town. Went to Mr. Gridleys office, but he had not returned to Town from Brookline [a town near Boston]. Went again. Not returned. Attended Court till after 12 and began to grow uneasy expecting that Quincy would be sworn and I have no Patron, when Mr. Gridly made his Appearance, and on sight of me, whispered to Mr. Prat, Dana, Kent, Thatcher &c. about me. Mr. Prat said no Body knew me. Yes, says Gridley, I have tried him, he is a very sensible Fellow.-At last He rose up and bowed to his right Hand and said "Mr. Quincy," when Quincy rose up, then bowed to me, "Mr. Adams," when I walked out. "May it please your Honours, I have 2 young Gentlemen Mr. Q. and Mr. Adams to present for the Oath of an Attorney. Of Mr. Q it is sufficient for me to say he has lived 3 Years with Mr. Prat. Of Mr. Adams, as he is unknown to your Honours, It is necessary to say that he has lived between 2 and 3 Years with Mr. Put[nam] of Worcester, has a good Character from him, and all others who know him, and that he was with me the other day several Hours, and I take it he is qualified to study the Law by his scholarship and that he has made a very considerable, a very great Proficiency in the Principles of the Law, and therefore that the Clients Interest may be safely intrusted in his Hands. I therefore recommend him with the Consent of the Bar to your Honors for the Oath." Then Mr. Prat said 2 or 3 Words and the Clerk was ordered to swear to us. After the Oath Mr. Gridly took me by the Hand, wished me much Joy and recommended me to the Bar. I shook Hands with the Bar, and received their Congratulations, and invited them over to Stones [apub] to drink some Punch. Where the most of us resorted, and had a very cheerful [Chat].

What happened next . . .

Adams returned to the family farm in Braintree and set up his own law practice. In 1764 he married Abigail Smith. Adams moved on to a brilliant career as a lawyer, statesman, and revolutionary leader. He entered politics as an opponent of repressive British measures such as the Stamp Act, which led to the American Revolution (1775–1783). (The Stamp Act of 1765 was the first direct tax levied by Britain on the American colonies. It required that a stamp be placed on all documents, newspapers, commercial bills, and other published materials issued in the colonies. The revenues from the stamp tax would be used for defense. The act produced intense opposition.) In 1774 Adams was a delegate to the First Continental Congress (the newly formed legislature of the thirteen colonies). He was one of the principal drafters of the Declaration of Independence (a document that declared American independence from Britain; adopted July 4, 1776). The thirteen colonies then became known as the United States of America.

At the end, a difficult term as United States ambassador (official representative of a government) to France, Adams helped draw up the Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended the American Revolution. From 1789–1797 he served as vice president under George Washington, the first president of the new nation. Adams was elected the second United States president, serving one term (1797–1801). After leaving office he retired to Quincy, Massachusetts, where he wrote and received many letters. His most notable correspondence was with Thomas Jefferson, another revolutionary leader and third United States president. Adams died in Quincy at the age of ninety–one.

Did you know . . .

  • Abigail Adams was one of the most outstanding first ladies in American history. She was instrumental in the success of her husband as president and political leader. She was a productive letter writer, and her correspondence provides a rich source of information about life in colonial and revolutionary America.
  • Abigail and John Adams's son, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth president of the United States.
  • John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day—July 4, 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of American independence. Just before dying Adams reportedly said, "Thomas Jefferson survives." He was unaware that Jefferson had died only a few hours earlier at Monticello, in Virginia.
  • In 1721 John Adams's maternal grandfather, Zabdiel Boylston, was persuaded by amateur scientist Cotton Mather to administer the first smallpox inoculation (vaccination) in America. (Smallpox is a deadly viral disease; inoculation involves introducing a microorganism of the virus into the body to produce immunity.) Smallpox inoculation was unproven at the time, so the procedure was considered by some to be dangerous. Threats were even made against the lives of both Boylston and Mather. Boylston inoculated 240 persons, including his son and two of his slaves, and all but six survived.

For more information

Brill, Marlene Targ. Encyclopedia of Presidents: John Adams. Chicago: Children's Press, 1986.

Ellis, Joseph S. Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. New York: Norton, 1994.

Ferling, John E. John Adams: A Life. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1996.

John Adams. Available September 30, 1999.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 411–14.

Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776. Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 291–95.

Nagel, Paul C. Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.