During his lengthy absences from home while serving in the American Continental Congress and the Revolutionary War effort, John Adams (1735-1826, pictured on the right) wrote assiduously to his wife Abigail in Massachusetts. From time to time, he would address the educational needs of his four children who outlived infancy. The second child, John Quincy, would, like his father, become president of the United States. In these words to Abigail, an extraordinary woman in her own right, John outlined the essentials of a good education. Though John’s Christian orthodoxy seems to have waned in his latter years, both John and Abigail were inspired by biblical principles, and their children were well trained in Scripture. Working from this Bible base, the Adamses raised their offspring to be virtuous and fruitful stewards of their lives.
The education of our children is never out of my mind. Train them to virtue. Habituate them to industry, activity, and spirit. Make them consider every vice as shameful and unmanly. Fire them with ambition to be useful. Make them disdain to be destitute of any useful or ornamental knowledge or accomplishment. Fix their ambition upon great and solid objects, and their contempt upon little, frivolous, and useless ones. . . . Every decency, grace, and honesty should be inculcated upon them.1
Early youth is the time to learn the arts and sciences, and especially to correct the ear and the imagination, by forming a style. I wish you would think of forming the taste and judgment of your children now, before any unchaste sounds have fastened on their ears, and before any affectation or vanity is settled on their minds, upon the pure principles of nature. Music is a great advantage; for style depends, in part, upon a delicate ear. The faculty of writing is attainable by art, practice, and habit only. The sooner, therefore, the practice begins, the more likely it will be to succeed. Have no mercy upon an affected phrase, any more than an affected air, gait, dress, or manners.
Your children have capacities equal to anything. There is a vigor in the understanding and a spirit and fire in the temper of every one of them, which is capable of ascending the heights of art, science, trade, war, or politics. They should be set to compose descriptions of scenes and objects, and narrations of facts and events. Declamations upon topics and other exercises of various sorts should be prescribed to them. Set a child to form a description of a battle, a storm, a siege, a cloud, a mountain, a lake, a city, a harbor, a country seat, a meadow, a forest, or almost anything that may occur to your thoughts. Set him to compose a narration of all the little incidents and events of a day, a journey, a ride, or a walk. In this way a taste will be formed, and a facility of writing acquired.2
1 John Adams to Abigail Adams, 28 August 1774, The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, ed. Frank Shuffelton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 26.
2 John Adams to Abigail Adams, 7 July 1776, Ibid., 195-196.