Abigail Adams’ Sorrow: Like Uncle, Like Nephews

Medical science today provides substantial evidence that alcoholism can be a hereditary failing, but even back in Colonial days, people suspected that it ran in families.

abigail and john

Abigail and John Adams were not without their share of sorrows in their fifty years of married life.

William Smith: Abigail Adams’ Brother

Abigail Adams (1744-1818), always a credible witness to her times, had an alcoholic brother, albeit couched in common 18th century euphemisms.  (Alcoholism is a modern term.)  William Smith was the third of the four children of William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith, and their only son.  Reverend Smith was a well-regarded Weymouth, Massachusetts clergyman and educator who strongly believed that his daughters deserved an education as well as his son.

Perhaps it was being surrounded by four intelligent and unusually perceptive women; perhaps it was the old Puritan mantra of “steady adherence to the Path of Duty, however rigorous”; perhaps it was his early marriage yielding more daughters.  Whatever it was, by the time William was thirty, he was well down the Path of Destruction.  Intemperate and chronically in debt, he deserted his wife and four children.  Eventually he would be involved in questionable, if not criminal escapades relating to forgery or counterfeiting or passing phony notes, and died at only forty-two.

Abigail Adams, always a fond sister and ardent protector of all things family, would seldom mention his name in her letters to her sisters, but references to “the poor man” and his follies, or “unhappy connections” would bear the tone of her sympathy.  It was such a painful correspondence, that the three Smith sisters would put a code on the outside of the envelope, so they would know to keep its contents very private.

Poor Charles Adams (1770-1800) 


Charles Adams, the second son of John and Abigail, died at only thirty, alcoholic and depressed.

If Abigail Adams believed her brother William to be possessed of a predisposition toward dissipation, it is unknown.  However there is one instance where she mentioned her hope that her own son Charles’ conduct would not “pain” his friends.  It was an intuition that would bear fruit.

Of the four children of John and Abigail Adams who lived to maturity, only John Quincy, their eldest son would achieve the prestige of a satisfied and even stellar life, in accordance with his parents’ fondest hopes and dreams.

Charles Adams, their second son, was always a weaker sort.  Even as a child, when Abigail had the family inoculated against smallpox, it was Charles who suffered the severe reaction when the rest of them had only minor symptoms.  Perhaps as some said, he was weaned too early; perhaps he was too attached to his mother.  John Adams had taken ten-year-old John Quincy to Europe with him, and the precocious boy flourished.  Wishing to do the same for his second son a few years later, the experience for both father and son would be sadly different.  A very reluctant nine-year-old Charles bade his mother a tearful farewell, and Charles was homesick thereafter.  He did not acquit himself either scholastically or socially, and in the end, his well-meaning but dispositionally impatient father sent him back to Abigail.

Charles eventually attended Harvard where he was expelled for some escapade that today would barely raise a stir.  He subsequently read law in New York and later married Sarah (Sally) Smith, the sister of his brother-in-law, a non-blood related William Smith (which always confuses the Adams genealogy tree) and had two daughters.

When George Washington appointed John Quincy as Minister to the Netherlands, the older brother entrusted Charles with his finances.  JQ had saved a moderate sum and wanted his nest-egg invested wisely for the future.  Charles, swayed by his double-brother-in-law Smith, who was always on the edge of a “good deal,” made a foolhardy speculation which cost his brother’s entire savings.

Perhaps overcome by guilt, by dread of confession, by weakness or all of the above, Charles began slipping into a repetition of his Uncle William’s depredation.  The slide would be precipitous, causing the darling of his mother’s heart to “blead at ever pore,” and his father’s heart to harden at his son’s character flaws.  His father’s heart would soften in time, but Charles died at only thirty, drunk and slovenly.

The Thomas Boylston Adams Story

Thomas Boylston Adams (1772-1832), the youngest Adams offspring, grew up in the tumultuous times of the American Revolution, and would barely know his father, who was away for months and even years at a time.

thomas adams

Thomas Adams would take to drink to combat his “Blue Devils.” Abigail and John Adams put his inheritance into a trust so he could not squander it.

Nevertheless, he too went to Harvard and read law, although according to his mother and brother John Quincy, it was “to force his inclination.”  Tom wasn’t keen on law, but he acquiesced to the family profession.

In 1794, when JQ went to the Netherlands, Tom went along as his brother’s secretary.  When he returned home in 1800, he practiced law in Philadelphia with mediocre success.  The “Blue Devils” of chronic depression that would afflict him for life had already begun to surface.  His father, the retired ex-President, urged his youngest son to return with him to Quincy, perhaps sensing Tom’s frailties, and hoping the Adams name might have professional coattails.

Tom half-heartedly entered politics and was elected to the Massachusetts legislature, but resigned a year later.  He married when he was past thirty and sired several children – seven of whom lived to maturity.  But due to his lackluster success, he was forced to make his home with his parents for several years.

While he would prove to be an affectionate son, husband, father, brother and uncle, he began to struggle with the same alcohol demons and melancholy that had destroyed his Uncle William and his brother Charles.  It is also hinted that he had begun to gamble as well.

Some years later, when the elderly John and Abigail made their wills, Thomas Boylston Adams’ share of the inheritance was put into a trust.  They did not believe their forty-five-year-old son could handle the responsibilities.


Gelles, Edith B. – Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage – William Morrow, 2009

Levin, Phyllis Lee – Abigail Adams – St. Martin’s Press, 1987



About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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2 Responses to Abigail Adams’ Sorrow: Like Uncle, Like Nephews

  1. energywriter says:

    What a sad story, but one we need to know. Thank you. sd

  2. Dr. Theresa M. Rosania says:

    As a history buff, I will enjoy these blogs!

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