John Adams: Portrait of the Founder as a Young Schoolmaster


February 23, 2017
by Geoff Smock Also by this Author


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Before ever he was a president, vice president, ambassador, Continental Congressmen, or Massachusetts lawyer, John Adams was a schoolmaster in a rural hamlet in Colonial Massachusetts.

And he was in a state of torment.  “I find myself very much inclined to an unreasonable absence of mind, and to a morose and unsociable disposition,” he lamented to the pages of his diary.[1]

Suddenly gone was the constant intellectual stimulation and community of high-minded peers and faculty he had enjoyed at Harvard.  “At Colledge gay, gorgeous, prospects, danc’d before my Eyes, and Hope, sanguine Hope, invigorated my Body, and exhilerated my soul,” he wrote. “But now hope has left me, my organ’s rust and my Faculty’s decay.”[2]  Classrooms replete with Latin discourses, philosophical debates, and dramatic readings were no more, replaced by a schoolhouse full of young boys struggling with the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  To Adams it was “a school of affliction”, full of “little runtlings, just capable of lisping A.B.C. and troubling the Master.”  If he was stuck there for long, it “would make a base weed and ignoble shrub” of him.[3]

For a man known throughout his life for the inner, convulsive passions roiling just below the surface (and which oftentimes erupted far above), Adams’ two years at the head of Worcester’s grammar school were an epoch of anguish.  His soul was a tempest churned and wrought by conflicting fears, ambitions, responsibilities, and senses of guilt.  More than anything, he was haunted by questions of what was next in his life.  Should he follow his father’s wishes and become a minister (or even his mother’s to become a medic), or should he follow his own inclination to become a lawyer? If he chose the latter, did he have it in him to be successful, or would he be undone by his own indolence?  Would he make an enduring name for himself, or would he remain in the “common Herd of Mankind,” destined to “be born and eat and sleep and die, and be forgotten”?[4] Did he even deserve a better fate, or was he too prone to passion, vice, and vanity?

Perhaps of the greatest aggravation to Schoolmaster Adams was his realization that he lived in a momentous age.  Great Britain and France were embroiled in the Seven Years’ War, which would reshape the fate of North America and, ultimately, global history.  The Age of Enlightenment was also redefining human knowledge of the natural and super-natural worlds.  Much to his seething frustration, all Adams could do was observe all of this from the periphery, a mere spectator in a play he wanted a leading role in.  Just entering the prime of his life, he was terrified by the suspicion that he was watching life pass him by.

Yet for all of the angst and uncertainty Adams had about his own destiny, he possessed a remarkable serenity of mind about the destiny of Great Britain’s American colonies.  Fresh out of his teenage years, and having not yet served in any type of political role, John Adams nevertheless had a preternatural understanding of where history was going years, if not decades, before it went there.  It was an emerging aspect of what Joseph J. Ellis describes as the “Adams pattern” – an ability to foresee history’s trajectory and then “make decisions that positioned America to be carried forward on those currents.”[5]

The first evidence of this “pattern” comes from Adams’ stay in Worcester.  In October of 1755, only a few months into his time as schoolmaster, Adams penned a remarkable letter to childhood friend and former Harvard classmate Nathan Webb. “All that part of creation that lies within our observation is liable to Change,” he began.  “If we look into History we shall find some nations rising from contemptible beginnings, and spreading their influence, ‘till the whole Globe is subjected to their sway.”  Adams was writing in general, grandiloquent terms, but he had a specific nation in mind.  “Soon after the Reformation a few people came over into this new world for Concience sake.  Perhaps this (apparently) trivial incident, may transfer the great seat of Empire into America.  It looks likely to me.”

He continued that if and when the French were expelled from the continent, “our People, according to the exactest Computations, will in another Century, become more numerous than England itself.  Should this be the Case, since we have … all the naval Stores of the Nation in our hands, it will be easy to obtain the mastery of the seas, and then the united force of all Europe, will not be able to subdue us.”[6]

On the cusp of Great Britain’s absolute victory over the French in the Seven Years’ War, and the confirmation of its global hegemony, the teenage John Adams was blithely prognosticating its downfall in North America and the advent of an American empire.  Demography and the continent’s bounteous natural resources would upend the global balance in an independent America’s favor.  The writing was on the wall.

The dichotomy between Adams’ certainty towards America’s destiny and the uncertainty towards his own is as startling as it is instructive, for it was that certainty that would ultimately provide Adams the means of escaping the relentless ambiguities he harbored over his own fate.  The desire to participate in America’s rise “from contemptible beginnings” would not only confirm his desire to become a lawyer, but give him the emotional and psychological means he needed to channel all of the cacophonous energies raging inside of him into a career path that, within twenty years, would see him not only at the top of his profession in Boston, but as one of the foremost leaders of colonial opposition to British imperial policy.

Accordingly, a study of Adams’ time in Worcester allows us to not only acquire an uncommon glimpse into the personality of one of America’s central “Founding Fathers” at the time of his own founding, so to speak, but it also explains so much of the John Adams best known to history – Adams the “Atlas of Independence.”

Nearly twenty years to the day after writing his letter to Nathan Webb, Great Britain and her American colonies were in crisis.  Years of frustration had boiled over into bloodshed at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, and the word “independence” was no longer just being whispered in private.  Representing Massachusetts at the Second Continental Congress, Adams put pen to paper in another letter, this time to his wife Abigail, reflecting upon the themes he had touched upon in his epistle to Webb.  “From my earliest Entrance into Life,” he wrote, “I have been engaged in the public Cause of America: and from first to last I have had upon my Mind, a strong Impression, that Things would be wrought up to their present Crisis.  I saw from the Beginning that the Controversy was of such a Nature that it never would be settled, and every day convinces me more and more.”[7]

What he had prognosticated in 1755 was coming to fruition in 1775.  As a result, Adams was uniquely prepared for his first, and maybe most important national role: de facto floor leader for the independence faction in the Second Continental Congress.

Personally resolved that America was predestined to separating from Great Britain, he patiently shepherded a gradualist approach that set the stage for a formal declaration while allowing events on the battlefield and across the sea in London to make independence a reality in all but legal declaration.  This method allowed moderates time to see that there was no alternative and isolated those voices in Congress who still held out hope of reconciliation. By sponsoring measures that called on the colonies to create their own constitutions and that institutionalized Washington’s Continental Army, he was also responsible for America functioning as an independent state even if it was not yet declared as such.  For this and more, Thomas Jefferson would later describe him as the independence faction’s “Colossus on the floor.”  Other colleagues would give him the infamous sobriquet: “Atlas of Independence.”[8]

It was this role for which Adams’ days as schoolmaster, his own personal time in the wilderness, had prepared him.  The genesis of the John Adams who became the “Atlas of Independence” is found in the John Adams of Worcester two decades before.  To understand the former requires a portrait examination of the latter, for in determining his individual destiny, John Adams ultimately positioned himself to lead America in determining its own.

Reflecting upon his childhood in the twilight years of his life, John Adams wrote that before he was ever born “my father had destined his first born … to a public Education.”[9]  The Adams’ had a family tradition of upward mobility, rising from illiterate farmers to (in the case of Adams’ father) property-owner, shoemaker, and town deacon, to (as Adams’ father hoped for his first-born son) Congregationalist minister.  It was for this reason that Deacon Adams patiently but firmly guided his son away from outdoor pursuits and towards his books and tutors as a boy.[10]

It was also with this expectation that pater Adams committed to the significant expense of sending his eldest son to Harvard.  Once there, Adams filium developed a “growing Curiosity, a Love of Books and a fondness for Study.”

This affinity did not extend to theology though, and he quickly lost patience with the “Spirit of Dogmatism and Bigotry in Clergy and Laity.”  Adams realized “very clearly” that “the study of Theology, and the pursuit of it as a Profession would … make my life miserable, without any prospect of doing any good to my fellow Men.”

Instead, his interests were attracted towards another vocation.  Adams was making a name for himself in the Harvard community for his eloquence in public discussions and his flair in dramatic readings.  In short time peers began to whisper in his ear that he would “make a better Lawyer than Divine.”  This only reinforced his own ideas, and his “Inclination was soon fixed upon the Law.”

He was not yet ready to admit it though – to himself and certainly not to his father.  “I therefore gave out that I would take a School,” he wrote of his indecision at the time, “and took my Degree at Colledge undetermined whether I should study Divinity, Law, or Physick.”[11]

Thus Adams soon found himself in Worcester, dogged by the age-old conundrum of sons who yearn for one thing in their life while their fathers crave another.

From all appearances, it was a conundrum that did not take long to resolve – if anything because of Adams’ deepening disenchantment with religious offices and dogma more than his determination to study the law.  The early entries in his Worcester diary brim with disgust at the hypocrisies he perceived.  “Very often,” he wrote in February of 1756, “shepherds that are hired to take care of their masters’ sheep go about their own concerns and leave the flock to the care of their dog.  So bishops, who are appointed to oversee the flock of Christ, take the fees themselves but leave the drudgery to their dogs.”  The very next day he complained that the “Church of Rome has made it an article of faith that no man can be saved out of their church, and all other sects approach to this dreadful opinion in proportion to their ignorance.”

Reflecting his annoyance with tedious theological disputes, he questioned the very need for most church infrastructures and canon law.  “Where do we find a precept in the Gospel requiring Ecclesiastical Synods? Convocations? Councils? Decrees? Creeds? Confessions?”[12]

The notion of a life within all of this was one Adams could no longer pretend to entertain, no matter how much it might disappoint his father.  “The frightful Engines of Ecclesiastical Councils, of diabolical Malice and Calvinistical good nature never failed to terrify me exceedingly whenever I thought of preaching,” he concluded to a former classmate.[13]   The conclusion was no longer avoidable: a lawyer he would be.

One great certainty in his life was thus resolved, but through the remainder of his time in Worcester Adams would grapple with an ambiguity that was greater still.  He burned, in the words of John Ferling, “with a fever for recognition and fame.”[14]  This ambition created two problems in Adams’ mind: overcoming a youthful penchant for idleness and harnessing his ambition before it metastasized into vanity and vice.  Wrestling with these would consume a majority of Adams’ emotional energies in Worcester, with the pages of his diary saturated by anguished doubts and self-criticism.  These convulsions were some of the most intense struggles of his life, “directed not outward to a hostile environment,” as Bernard Bailyn writes, “but inward, into the ambiguities and tensions of his own nature.”[15]

Throughout his youth and early manhood, Adams was easily impressed by his surroundings.  As a boy in the country, his interest in outdoor pursuits amongst thickets and streams – “and Inattention to Books” – had consistently alarmed his father.  Once among a community of scholars and inquiry at Harvard though, his intellect spurred into action, and he “soon perceived a growing Curiosity, a Love of Books and fondness for Study which dissipated all my Inclination for Sports, and even for the Society of Ladies.”[16]

This cognitive energy would itself dissipate in Worcester. Adams was a man alone with his thoughts, ennui steadily gripping him.  Struggling to establish the same drive he had gained a reputation for at Harvard, he implored former Harvard classmates to write to him regularly, hoping to reignite, through their correspondence, embers within himself that their contact had first ignited in Cambridge. “I shall think myself happy if in your turn,” he wrote to Nathan Webb, “you communicate your Lucubrations [sic] to me.”  He was deeply “sorry that fortune has thrown me at such a distance from those of my Friends who have the highest place in my affections.”[17]  To another he pleaded, “Pray write me, the first time you are at Leisure. A Letter from you sir would ballance the inquietude of schoolkeeping.”[18]

When Adams was not searching for motivation to develop his legal knowledge, he was being distracted by the attractions of nature. “The weather and the season are, beyond expression, delightful,” he wrote in May 1756, and “the fields are covered with a bright and lively verdure; the trees are all in bloom, and the atmosphere is filed with a ravishing fragrance.” Overwhelmed by a vernal ecstasy, he spent the next day rambling about the countryside, “gaping and gazing.”[19]

Such natural revelry led Adams’ mind towards philosophy, and the pages of his diary were soon filled with theoretical speculations on the universe and human existence.  “But man, although the powers of his body are small but contemptible,” he philosophized in one entry, “by the exercise of his own reason can invent engines and instruments, to take advantage of the powers in nature, and accomplish the most astonishing designs.”  Gazing towards the heavens in another, he opined that “when we consider that space is absolutely infinite and boundless, that the power of the Deity is strictly omnipotent, and his goodness without limitation, who can come to a stop in his thoughts and say, hither does the universe extend and no further?” A few entries later he wrote that, when considering the magnificence of so many “planets, and satellites, and comets,” one could not help but be overwhelmed.  “Our imaginations, after a few faint efforts, sink down into a profound admiration of what they cannot comprehend.”[20]

Adams had allowed his mind to drift into the clouds and beyond, and as he approached the one-year anniversary of his arrival in Worcester he became palpably displeased with himself.  “I know not by what fatality it happens, but I seem to have a necessity upon me of trifling away my time.”  In his next entry, all he could record was, “I know not what became of these days.”

He had determined that he would pursue the law, but the pursuit itself had yet to begin and his self-regard was reaching its nadir.  “I seem to have lost sight of the object that I resolved to pursue.  Dreams and slumbers, sloth and negligence, will be the ruin of my schemes.  However I seem to be awake now; why can’t I keep awake?”[21]  The young schoolmaster was trapped in a MacBeth-ian state of paralysis and loathing, with “no spur … To prick the sides” of his intent, full only of “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself …”[22]  Instead of dedicating himself to reaching his professional aspirations, he was whiling away his time in physical and intellectual frivolity.

He could not allow this to continue, and a week later Adams informed his diary that he had contracted with Worcester attorney James Putnam to live in his home and to “study Law under his Inspection for two years.”[23]  The agreement stipulated that Worcester would pay for his board while he continued as schoolmaster and he would later pay Putnam a fee of one-hundred dollars “when I should find it convenient.”  His life would soon become “Reading Law in the night and keeping School in the day,” following Putnam on his court circuits when the opportunity allowed.[24]

The novitiate lawyer had won his battle against indolence, but concurrent to this had been a battle with his own ambitions, passion, and the deep sense of guilt these enflamed inside of him.  “Oh! that I could wear out of my mind every mean and base affectation,” Adams anguished in one entry, and “subdue every unworthy passion …”[25]  Months later he confessed, “Vanity … is my cardinal vice and cardinal folly; and I am in continual danger … of being led [on] an ignis fatuus chase by it, without the strictest caution and watchfulness over myself.”[26]

Combined with the scattered entries on his idleness, the self-remonstrations of Adams’ diary against his own passions – most notably his desperation for fame – depict a young man seeking to purify himself through self-accusation.  The aspiring lawyer was essentially prosecuting himself, and we can imagine Adams alone in his boarding room on many a night, a tight grip on his pen, admonishing himself by the light of a guttering candle in similar fashion to a medieval monk scourging himself in penitential confession of his sins.

For Adams this was psychologically necessary.  If overcoming his own idleness could make it possible for him to attain the fame he yearned for, he still had to make himself worthy of that fame. “The love of fame naturally betrays a man into several weaknesses and fopperies that tend very much to diminish his reputation, and so defeat itself.”[27]  It was one thing to achieve fame, it was quite another to trust himself with it.

The bitter, occasionally melodramatic self-criticism he engaged in in his Worcester diary can thus be interpreted as a process of harsh, but necessary preparation of himself.  As Peter Shaw writes, Adams conditioned himself for fame “not by stimulating his desire but by damping it.  In his Worcester diary he launched a lifelong, secret struggle with pride calculated to make him worthy of success.”[28]

If he was to trust himself with fame, he had to first find the peace of mind not to crave it.  “He is not a wise man, and is unfit to fill any important station in society, that has left one passion in his soul unsubdued,” he would advise himself.  The violence with which these passions convulsed inside of him led Adams to view them as wild beasts in need of strict subjugation.  “Untamed, they are lawless bulls; they roar and bluster, defy all control, and sometimes murder their proper owner.”  If he could accomplish this, not only would he be able to suppress his passions, but channel them in a productive direction. “But, properly, inured to obedience, [passions] take their places under the yoke without noise, and labor vigorously in their master’s service.”[29]

Adams’ solution to this conundrum – how he would make himself fit to fill an “important station in society” – was not to seek fame for its own sake, but to seek it at a personal cost.  It would become the second half of Ellis’s aforementioned “Adams Pattern:” to gain a reputation for laboring more than others in public service, to succeed, “but to do so in a way that assured his own alienation from success.”[30]  His pursuit of fame, begun in the obscurity of Worcester, would be a lifelong repetition of building his public recognition while making implicit, but indisputable gestures towards the contempt he felt he must have for fame and the popular acclamations of others.[31]   It was an internal bargain he made with himself: rise to elevated heights, but in so doing isolate himself from widespread love and affection.  This helps explain his unpopular decision to represent the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, “hazarding” at the time “a [personal] Popularity very general and very hardly earned.”[32]  So too, after personally undertaking so much of the political legwork in Congress to make independence possible, did he insist that Thomas Jefferson take the fateful lead in drafting the Declaration thereof – and to take the short- and long-term credit for independence.[33]

Adams would never quite be at peace with this bargain, and spent much of his adult life vituperating at the mythologized history of the Revolution he had taken a large share in leading.  “The History of our Revolution will be one continued [lie] from one End to the other,” he lamented bitterly to Benjamin Rush. “The Essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklins electrical Rod, Smote the Earth and out Spring General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his Rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy Negotiations Legislation and War.”[34]

Yet it was this self-bargain – made as a schoolmaster in Worcester, Massachusetts – that allowed Adams to internally dedicate himself to the personal quest of becoming a renowned lawyer in Boston, and in turn a renowned political leader of the soon-to-be United States.[35]

Adams left Worcester in 1758 and was sworn into the province’s bar in 1759, the same year as Great Britain’s victory over the French in the Seven Years’ War.  “This event,” as he remembered years later, “which was so joyfull to Us, and so important to England if she had seen her true Interest, inspired her with jealousy, which ultimately lost her thirteen colonies and made many of Us at the time regret that Canada had ever been conquered.”[36]

Finally freed from the obscurity of Worcester, the fates began to align for the schoolteacher-turned-lawyer, and John Adams embarked upon a personal and professional ascent that would mirror America’s own climb from thirteen isolated British colonies to one independent republic.  He had seen this fate coming, and now that he had resolved his own trajectory in life he would play a seminal role in realizing it.  Due in no small part to his own efforts, what Schoolmaster Adams had foreordained as America’s destiny would soon become history – America’s and his own.


[1] John Adams, “Diary & Autobiography,” in The Portable John Adams, edited by John Patrick Diggins (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2004), 4.

[2] John Adams to Nathan Webb, September 1, 1755, Founders Online, National Archives, (Original source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 1, September 1755 – October 1773, ed. Robert J. Taylor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 1–2).

[3] Adams to Richard Cranch, September 2, 1755, Founders Online, National Archives, (Original source: The Adams Papers, 3–4).

[4] John Adams to Jonathan Sewall, February 1760, in Gordon S. Wood, ed. John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1755-1775 (New York, NY: Library of America, 2011), 51.

[5] Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2001), 26.

[6] Adams to Webb, October 12, 1755, in Wood, ed. Adams: Revolutionary Writings, 3.

[7] Adams to Abigail Adams, October 7, 1775, in John P. Kaminski, ed.  The Founders on the Founders: Word Portraits from the American Revolutionary Era (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 22.

[8] Jefferson’s quote is taken from Daniel Webster’s eulogy of him and Adams, as quoted in John H. Hazelton, The Declaration of independence: Its History (New York: Da Capo Press, 1970), 162.  For a more detailed narrative of Congress’ road to declaring independence, John Ferling’s Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011) and Richard Beeman’s Our lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776 (New York: Basic Books, 2013) are exemplary.

[9] John Adams, “Autobiography,” begun October 5, 1802, in Wood, ed., Revolutionary Writings, 617.

[10] John E. Ferling, Setting the world ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5-6.

[11] Adams, “Autobiography,” in Wood, ed., Revolutionary Writings, 621-623.

[12] Adams, “Diary and Autobiography,” in Diggins, ed., Portable John Adams, 1-3.  For a more ordered and expansive window into Adams’ views on religious authority, see his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (Numbers I, II, and III), in Wood, ed., Revolutionary Writings, 110-125.

[13] Adams to Cranch. August 29, 1756, in Wood, ed., Revolutionary Writings, 26.

[14] Ferling, Ablaze, 20.

[15] Bernard Bailyn, Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 5.

[16] Adams, “Autobiography,” in Wood, ed., Revolutionary Writings, 618-621.

[17] Adams to Webb, October 12, 1755, in Wood, ed., Revolutionary Writings, 4.

[18] Adams to Cranch, September 2, 1755, Founders Online, National Archives, (Original source: The Adams Papers, 3–4).

[19] Adams, “Diary and Autobiography,” in Diggins, ed., Portable John Adams, 8-9.

[20] Ibid., 10-11.

[21] Ibid., 17.

[22] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. Jesse M. Lander (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007), 1.7.25-27.

[23] “22 Sunday.,” Founders Online, National Archives, (Original source: The Adams Papers, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 1, 1755–1770, ed. L. H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961, 42–44).

[24] Adams, “Autobiography,” in Wood, ed., Revolutionary Writings, 623-624.

[25] Adams, “Diary and Autobiography,” in Diggins, ed., Portable John Adams, 2.

[26] Ibid., 7.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Peter Shaw, The Character of John Adams (New York: University of North Carolina Press, 1976), 19.

[29] Adams, “Diary and Autobiography,” in Diggins, ed., Portable John Adams, 14.

[30] Ellis, Passionate Sage, 26.

[31] Shaw, The Character of John Adams, 25-40.

[32] Adams, “Autobiography,” 639.

[33] As he would recall telling Jefferson at the time, “I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular.”  Adams to Timothy Pickering, August 6, 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[34] Adams to Benjamin Rush, April 4, 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[35] Ferling, World Ablaze, 21.

[36] Adams, “Autobiography,” 626.


  • Geoff, thanks for a fine article. Your analysis clearly explains what made John Adams tick, *especially* regarding his defense of the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre. You demonstrate that in order to understand why a person is who he or she is, it’s necessary to understand how they got there.

  • Mr. Smock, I found your article most interesting, and certainly agree that one’s developmental experiences help create what we become. Yet, my research indicates John Adams’ actions in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War were also shaped by his political associations. For example, his legal defense of the British soldiers can also be viewed through the context of the political and organizational strategy of the radical group popularly known as the Sons of Liberty.

    1. Don’t disagree with you, Ken. There were many factors that influenced Adams into representing the British soldiers in the case: professionalism, the conviction that many of the Sons of Liberty cabal were using it purely for propaganda, and just his basic sense of fairness, etc. Nevertheless, it also presented him a golden opportunity to make a name for himself while simultaneously thumbing his nose at popularity and cheap fame. It was the quintessential Adams-ian action.

  • I’ve long derived comfort from many of the inadvertently hilarious entries in John Adams’ early diaries. Whenever I’m fearful of becoming an “ignoble shrub”, I take solace in knowing that even the great John Adams–the Atlas of Independence himself–sometimes fretted and fumed in his diary. Great article.

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