John Adams Writes to Abigail: ‘I must study politicks and war’

Many of John Adams’ best-known quotations came from letters he wrote to his wife Abigail.

His sons’ education was very much on his mind when he penned his famous remark, “I must study politicks and war…”

In 1780, Adams took two of his sons, John Quincy and Charles, on his second diplomatic mission to France, but he left Abigail behind.

John Adams

John Adams

He was told he risked a great deal to bring his two sons with him, but, as he wrote to Abigail, “I should have risked my All if I had brought you.”

Before taking that second trip, Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution along with Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin. Though his 1777-78 diplomatic mission was unsuccessful, the Continental Congress sent him a second time to negotiate a peace treaty with Britain. Adams, along with John Jay and Benjamin Franklin, negotiated a favorable deal.

John Quincy, then 13, had accompanied his father on his previous, 14-month mission to Europe. Charles, 9, was on his first overseas trip.

On the Adams’ voyage to Europe, the ship barely made it across the Atlantic and started to take on water in Spain. Rather than wait for the ship to be repaired, John and his sons traveled overland through the Pyrenees to France. The trip was long and tedious as the winter weather was bad, the roads difficult and accommodations poor. They reached Paris on Feb. 9, and on Feb. 10 the two boys were in school.

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams

John had strong opinions about education, believing it was essential to the future of the new nation. He believed Americans would have to defer their dreams of wealth until they severed their ties with Britain and learned to govern themselves.

On May 12, 1780, he posted a letter from Paris to Abigail describing rural scenes, gardens and palaces. Then he concluded:

I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelaine, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

This story was updated in 2017.

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