John Adams Gets Into Harvard, Barely

As a terrified applicant to Harvard, 15-year-old John Adams showed few signs of becoming a Founding Father, diplomat, statesman and president of the United States.


John Adams

He left his childhood home in Braintree, Mass., with a heavy heart. His tutor, Joseph Marsh, had promised to go with him on the 15-mile ride to Harvard, where he would take his entrance exams.

But on the day they planned to leave, Marsh took ill and told young John Adams he had to go on his own.

“Terrified at the Thought of introducing myself to such great Men as the President and fellows of a College, I at first resolved to return home,” wrote Adams.

He screwed up his courage, though, and rode on to Cambridge, alone. There he received another fright.

To enter Harvard, he had to translate a long passage of English into Latin. At first, though, he saw several words he didn’t know in Latin.

“Thinking that I must translate it without a dictionary, I was in a great fright and expected to be turned by, an Event that I dreaded above all things,” he wrote. But Mr. Mayhew, his examiner and future teacher, brought him into his study and showed him a dictionary, a book of grammar, pen, paper and ink. He then told John Adams to take his time. Adams did and got into Harvard, with a scholarship, no less.

John Adams at Harvard

The Massachusetts Puritans established Harvard to prepare young men for the ministry and for government.


Colonial engraving, Harvard College

Deacon John Adams wanted his smart eldest son to attend Harvard so he could become a minister. John Adams wanted none of it, thinking the ministry would make his life miserable. Instead, he found his calling at Harvard, though only tentatively.

He studied hard, joined a speaking club and made many friends among Harvard’s 100 students. The college was tiny back then, with one president, two professors and four tutors. Each class had one tutor who until graduation taught them everything but theology, mathematics and natural philosophy.

That John Adams graduated in the middle of his class had to do with the Puritans’ caste system rather than his academic accomplishment. Until 1770, the school ranked students according to their social standing. John Adams would have ranked lower than 15th out of 25 had his mother not belonged to the prominent Boylston family of Brookline. His father, a pious farmer who made shoes in the winter, never owned more than 200 acres.

But Harvard rewarded exceptional students by giving them speaking parts at graduation, regardless of their social rank. John Adams got to speak, which in turn earned him a job as a teacher in Worcester. That, in turn, allowed him to save enough money to study law, which his friends and teachers at Harvard had urged him to do.

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