A Founding Father's Day

In John Quincy Adams’ expansive diaries, he refers to his father as venerable (even, toward the end of his father’s life, as “aged and ever-venerated.”). As the first father and son to serve as President (a feat that would not occur again until George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001), venerable seems like an understatement in describing both men. Having a Founding Father as a biological father meant that John Quincy Adams’ life of public service started young, and closely mirrored that of his namesake. But the Adams’ connections extended beyond Capitol Hill and the White House—all the way to the Smithsonian.

John Adams

The Adams’ always had a strong relationship. Though John Adams was away from home often when his son was young—serving as a leader in the Revolution and the burgeoning new United States—once he began traveling Europe as a diplomat, John Quincy was old enough to come along. There, the younger John was able to become fluent in French, Dutch, Latin and Greek. The older Adams had always placed a high value on education and inquiry, and was impressed by his son’s “vigour and vivacity both of mind and body, for his constant good humor.” John Adams, during this father-son trip through Europe, referred to John Quincy as “the comfort of my life.”

John Quincy Adams Portrait, by Unknown, c. 1840s, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 2002-32265. Though John Quincy had long admired his father, and both of his parents’ careers in public service, their trip abroad from 1778-1782 cemented the incredible bond between father and son. It was a bond that was reflected as John Quincy Adams forged his own career in government and public service, which closely mirrored his father’s. Both worked as diplomats, served in Congress (John Quincy Adams writing in his memoirs that “If there is any body of men upon earth for whom more than for any other I ought to cherish any feelings of attachment,… it is the Senate of the United States. My father had the honor of being the first presiding officer. I had for five years that of being one of its members.”) Both were elected to the highest office in the United States-the Presidency.

But beyond that, both men had a high regard for scientific inquiry. John Adams was a founder and charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His son was a president of the Columbian Institute, a learned society made up of politicians and scientists, charted by Congress in 1818. His father (along with the other surviving former Presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) was inducted as an honorary member.

Letter from John Quincy Adams Later, when John Adams died in 1826—coincidentally on the same day as Jefferson—members of the Columbian Institute wrote to John Quincy to express their condolences. In his reply to his scientific-minded peers, John Quincy wrote: 

Among the testimonials of respect to the memory of those citizens, by which their countrymen have honoured them, none would be more gratifying to them, and none can be more consolatory to their Relatives, than those proceeding from the Literary and Scientific Institutions, in the purposes of which they took a lively interest, and to which they were specially attached in the character of honorary associates.

The Columbian Institute was a forerunner to the Smithsonian, and John Quincy Adams was a strong Congressional supporter of the Smithsonian Institution during its founding. In 1841, the Columbian Institute was absorbed by the National Institute for the Promotion of Science. The National Institute, established in 1840 to develop a National Musuem, collected artifacts gathered by the US Exploring Expedition. Overwhelmed by a growing collection and lack of financial resources, the National Institute’s specimens were transferred to the Smithsonian in 1857 and 1862.

The Adams’ themselves—or, rather, their artifacts—also became part of the Smithsonian about 100 years later. In April of 1951, the Adams-Clement Collection of Presidential Memorabilia became part of the Smithsonian collection, donated by Adams-family descendant Mary Louisa Adams Clement. Among the items donated were over 600 portraits, family jewelry, furniture, letters and other mementos. In the 1951 annual report for the US National Museum, it was described as “the most important collection received by the department during the last year.”

Related Resources 

Record Unit 7051, Columbian Institute, Records, 1816-1841, Smithsonian Institution Archives

The Presidents, The White House

The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden, The National Museum of American History

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