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John Adams

The Adams Family of Braintree

Important Terms, Names, and Events

John Adams, Esq. and Husband

Short of the Kennedys, there is probably no more famous family in the United States than that of John Adams. The Adams spawned two U.S. presidents, three United States Ministers, historians, writers and other notable relatives. By the time John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, at his family home in Braintree, Massachusetts, the Adams family was well established in the new colonies–having been in Massachusetts for more than three generations already.

The first recorded member of the Adams clan had been born in Elizabethan England in 1583. His name was Henry and he, his wife, and their eight sons left for Massachusetts around 1640 and settled on forty acres in Mount Wollaston, part of North Braintree. He and his descendants prospered in the new land, proud to be Englishmen but living largely free from any regal influence in the New World. Under what came to be termed salutary neglect, the King let the colonists fend for themselves, greatly increasing the commerce, wealth and religion of those in the New World.

Lead by John Winthrop, the earliest founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had helped establish the protestant faith in the colony. The faith, though, had undergone several revisions since its beginnings and it was no heresy that the young John Adams had hints of Arminianism in his faith. He believed that God and man shared a unique relationship to help each other.

Adams' father, Deacon John Adams, was a farmer by trade and worked long hours to support his young family, which included three sons: John, Peter Boylston and Elihu. The elder Adams rose to some prominence in the community as his land holdings and wealth increased, and he assumed new roles as a selectman, constable and tithing man. As the younger John Adams later wrote, his father "was the honestest man I ever knew. In wisdom, piety, benevolence and charity in proportion to his education and sphere of life, I have never seen his superior."

Adams' mother, Susanna Boylston, came from the upper crust of Boston Society–what would come to be termed the "Brahmin Class" for future generations of Bostonians. Her uncle, a doctor, had first introduced the smallpox inoculation to the colonies.

The young John Adams took to reading at an early age, and he became a voracious writer–writing down almost everything that transpired in his life. His own autobiography contains rich information on his childhood and his early years. He first attended a home school across from his family farm and then transferred to a Latin school run by Joseph Cleverly. Surprisingly, his first serious brush with education almost caused him to lose all interest in learning and knowledge. While Cleverly was highly educated for the times, he was one of the laziest men Adams ever recalled meeting. Adams soon became fascinated with "idle pursuits," like marbles and later hunting. Adams took to hiding his gun in the entryway with his coat, so could take off on adventures as soon as school ended. When Cleverly reprimanded him, he began hiding the gun at a nearby house during the school day. Adams' lack of interest in schooling and his father's intense desire to educate his son soon became a great point of contention in the Adams' house. John convinced his father to allow him to transfer to a nearby boarding school and study so that he could attend college earlier.

At around age sixteen, Adams entered Harvard College–the first in a long line of Adams to attend that institution. (In fact, one of the College's twelve houses is now named for the Adams family.) The College, which then schooled only around a hundred boys and consisted of three buildings, began each day with morning prayers, followed by lectures, recitations and then long hours of studying. Adams studied sciences under the famed scientist John Winthrop IV, who ran the first experimental physics lab in the country. Adams fell in love with Harvard and with learning. He rekindled his earlier reading and writing habits, and threw himself into the sciences and mathematics. He joined one of the school's fledgling literary clubs and wiled away his evenings reading the latest in literature.

Adams had grave doubts about entering the ministry, for despite its liberal arts education, Harvard had remained primarily a religious seminary. While Adams attended College, New England passed through the Great Awakening, a renaissance of religion and philosophy that left people more free to think and believe. Amid the confusion of the times and unable to elucidate his own feelings on God, Adams did not want to join the clergy. He found himself leaning towards a career in law or medicine but remained unsure as graduation day approached. He finally decided on teaching and was hired on Commencement Day itself when the headmaster of the Worcester Grammar School attended graduation and heard about John's desire. In 1755, just weeks before Adams turned twenty years old, he left for nearby Worcester to be a Latin teacher.

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