a seven-year-old watches the war — 10/3/14

Today’s selection — from John Quincy Adams by Robert V. Remini. Adams served as the sixth President of the United States from 1825 to 1829, and also as a diplomat, a Senator and member of the House of Representatives. He was the son of John Adams, the second President of the United States, and struggled under the heavy burden of expectations his parents placed on him. His mother, Abigail, took him to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill when he was seven years old:

“Johnny, as the family called him, was perpetually lectured about how he was the oldest son and had to set the example for his siblings. He had been born with gifts few others enjoyed, they told him, and was expected to live up to them and become a ‘great man.’ Over and over, year after year, his parents reminded him that he was privileged by birth and education, that he was destined to be ‘a Guardian of the Laws, Liberty, and Religion of your Country,’ and that he must achieve a distinction in life that would add to the family’s already illustrious record of accomplishment.

“Abigail actually took Johnny to Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, to witness the famous battle so that he could better understand the price of freedom and the trials necessary to gain and defend it. He was all of seven years of age. Year’s later he still remembered ‘Britannia’s thunders … and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled them with my own’ over the death of ‘a dear friend of my father,’ Dr. Joseph Warren, who fell in the conflict. It seems unbelievable, but this young boy was made to stand and watch the killing of men he knew! It must have been traumatic. From that moment on Abigail ‘taught me to repeat daily, after the Lord’s prayer, before rising from bed, the Ode [to Liberty] of Collins on the patriot warriors who fell in the war to subdue the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.’

The death of General Warren at the battle of Bunker Hill

“What a terrible burden to lay on a child. And because his parents relentlessly spelled out his duties, reprimanded him when he failed to live up to them, and corrected every move he made that seemed to contradict their expectations of him, it is not surprising that he developed into a very introverted, self-critical individual of enormous pride and low personal esteem who suffered periodic and deep mental depressions. In later years he admitted that he was ‘a man of reserved, cold, austere and forbidding manners.’ He recognized that people saw him as ‘a gloomy misanthropist’ and ‘a social savage,’ but, he added, ‘I have not the pliability to reform it.’ …

John Quincy Adams at 16

“His parents also drilled into him the importance of religion in his life and the obligation of maintaining strict observance of Christian moral values. When he took his first long trip away from home at the age of ten, Abigail admonished him to ‘adhere to those religious sentiments and principles which were early instilled into your mind, and remember that you are accountable to your Maker for all your words and actions.’ She had seen her own brother succumb to alcohol and debauchery, desert his family, and leave them penniless. If it took every ounce of strength in her body, she meant to protect her children from a similar fate. … Like the dutiful son he remained through life, John Quincy Adams adhered to these admonitions and, as an adult, read the Bible each morning for an hour …

“Naturally Johnny’s education received special attention, particularly since he was expected to rise to greatness. He never went to school in Quincy but was educated at home by tutors. … His father regularly instructed Abigail on Johnny’s training. Fix his ‘Attention upon great and glorious Objects, root out every little Thing, weed out every Meanness,’ make him ‘great and manly.’ John Adams urged his son to revere scholarship as his ‘preeminent entertainment.’ …

“Not surprisingly, considering his education at the hands of such God-fearing, New England Puritan descendants as Abigail and John Adams, their son developed a towering guilt complex and throughout his life readily admitted to his many failings. Even at an early age Johnny had begun berating himself for his inadequacies. ‘My Thoughts are running after birds eggs play and trifles, till I get vexed with my Self,’ he wrote at age ten. ‘Mamma has a troublesome task to keep me Steady, and own I am ashamed of myself.’ ”

John Quincy Adams (The American Presidents Series)

Author: Robert V. Remini
Publisher: Times Books
Copyright 2002 by Robert V. Remini
Pages 3-5

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