by Neal Millikan, Assistant Editor
June 29, 2015
George Washington’s 20 February 1797 letter to John Adams is an interesting document for many reasons. The president and vice president rarely corresponded by letter in the last months of Washington’s administration, presumably having most of their exchanges in face to face interactions. The letter is also of a private—not public—nature, with Washington giving his personal opinion of Adams’ son. Perhaps most remarkably, the letter has the first president writing to the incoming second president about the future sixth president, John Quincy Adams.
George Washington had a knack for finding talented young men and giving them opportunities to succeed; examples include Nathanael Greene, Alexander Hamilton, and Henry Knox. John Quincy Adams was first singled out by Washington at the age of 26 when he was appointed U.S. minister resident to the Netherlands on 29 May 1794. Two years later, on 28 May 1796, Washington nominated him to be minister plenipotentiary to Portugal.1
Unquestionably, John Quincy was a gifted diplomat. He worried, however, that his father’s role as vice president, not his own merits, led to the positions. The son wrote to his mother Abigail Adams on 14 November 1796, relieved that a previous letter from her had convinced him that “the appointment to the mission of Portugal” was “unknown to my father.” But John Quincy further stated that should his father become president, the conscientious son would “never give him any trouble, by sollicitation for Office of any kind.”2
When Abigail received her son’s letter in early 1797 she sent it to John in Philadelphia, who in turn shared it with George Washington.3 It was this document that the president returned to the vice president on 20 February along with a note stating: “The sentiments do honor to the head & heart of the writer; and if my wishes would be of any avail, they shd go to you in a strong hope, that you will not withhold merited promotion from Mr Jno. Adams because he is your son.” Washington believed that John Quincy was “the most valuable public character we have abroad” and that he would “prove himself to be the ablest, of all our diplomatic Corps.” Washington further noted that the United States “would sustain a loss” if the younger Adams’ ambassadorial career ended because of “over delicacy on your part.”4 John Adams heeded Washington’s advice, nominating John Quincy minister plenipotentiary to Prussia on 20 May 1797.5
The younger Adams greatly appreciated Washington’s support, writing on 11 February 1797 to thank him for “the distinguished notice which … you were pleased to bestow on me, by the repeated nomination to places of honour and trust,” and that he would “always consider my personal obligations” to the president “among the strongest motives to animate my Industry, and invigorate my exertions in the service of my Country.”6 John Quincy was at his diplomatic post in Prussia when he received news of George Washington’s death. When his wife, Louisa Catherine, gave birth to their first child on 12 April 1801 the couple named him George Washington Adams as a tribute.7
After his son’s christening in Berlin John Quincy wrote to his brother, Thomas Boylston Adams, of the child’s name:
may the grace of Almighty God guard his life and enable him, when he is come to manhood, to prove himself worthy of it! I was not induced merely by the public character of that great and good man to show his memory this token of respect. President Washington was, next to my own father, the man upon earth to whom I was indebted for the greatest personal obligations.8
1. Judith S. Graham et al., Diary and Autobiographical Writings of Louisa
Catherine Adams, Cambridge, Mass., 2013, 2:778. Adams never served as minister to Portugal; he was still waiting to travel to Lisbon when he learned of his appointment to Prussia. See Margaret A. Hogan et al., Adams Family Correspondence, Cambridge, Mass., 2013, 11:307-308.
2. Hogan et al., Adams Family Correspondence, 11:404.
3. See John Adams to Abigail Adams, 20 February 1797, in Hogan et al., Adams Family Correspondence, 11:567.
4. MHi: Adams Papers.
5. Graham et al., Diary and Autobiographical Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams, 2:778.
6. NNPM: Heineman Collection.
7. Graham et al., Diary and Autobiographical Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams, 2:779.
8. Dorothie Bobbé, Mr. and Mrs. John Quincy Adams: An Adventure in Patriotism, New York, 1930, 113.