At eighteen, John Quincy Adams returned to Massachusetts after eight years in Europe.
Young Man JQ:
His Harvard education suited him well. Classes were small and elite. Only the best and brightest. John Quincy Adams, who had hobnobbed with the crème de la crème in the great capitals, made new friends and colleagues with his peers and professors.
When he read law with Theophilus Parsons, a Newburyport attorney, he continued those friendships, and periodically joined his pals at the local taverns for wine, brandy, and even a few songs. By twenty-two or -three, he was coming out of his solitary and somewhat cranky persona and began attending the usual parties, card games and local social events.
Perhaps hard to believe, considering 250 years of the acerbic JQA personality known today, he was generally personable and popular. In an Adams fashion.
Mary Frazier, Young Maiden
Mary Frazier was somewhere around fourteen or fifteen when she met young Mr. Adams, considered one of the most cosmopolitan, sophisticated and promising young men of his generation. His father had just been elected Vice President of the brand new USA. In the eighteenth century, fourteen was still too young, even in an age when girls matured early. Fifteen was definitely “courtable,” and sixteen was marriageable.
Early in their acquaintance, there was a gathering. JQ noted in his journal that “Miss Mary Frazier from Boston was of the party: she appears sensible and agreeable.” She was also a fine looking young woman, possessed of a pleasant disposition. Her father, Moses Frazier was a shipbuilder and Newburyport office holder. JQ began calling at the Frazier house. There is some confusion as to Mary’s receptiveness to young Adams’ attentions, but then again, no matter how “courtable” fifteen may be, fifteen is fifteen, and still very young. He, on the other hand, at twenty-two or -three, was not only interested, but “in love.” Or so he said. Or so he always said, even many years later.
The Courtship and Disillusion/Dissolution
In the eighteenth century, courtship was taken very seriously. Casual “dating” or “playing the field” is generally 20th century culture. If a young man regularly called on a young woman, or chose her as his frequent walking or dancing companion, the young man’s “intentions” came into question, usually by the parents. This approach was well within the cultural and historical framework of their time.
JQ was definitely interested; perhaps interested enough to consider marriage. In a letter to a college chum he admitted, “all my hopes of future happiness in this life center on that girl.” Mary (and again, this can be a little murky and second-hand) was likely flattered, but reserved. All sources however, indicate that she was less ardent than her suitor, who was around eight or nine years her senior. Nevertheless she seemed willing to agree to an engagement.
The Frazier parents were cool, despite JQ’s education and notable parentage. He had barely started a legal practice. He had no reliable income, and was likely to remain that way for several years.
When JQ’s mother Abigail Adams learned of a possible “engagement,” she was just as cool as Moses Frazier, and perhaps more direct, noting that he was still dependent on his parents for financial support. Abigail was concerned about his ability to provide for a new family before he established his law practice and advised him to “never form connections until you see a prospect of supporting a family.” Her discouragements were enough for John Quincy to delay a public engagement, something Mary did not want to put off.
The romance ended, and some historians suspect that the coldness of JQA’s personality began to morph into permafrost when his emotional attachment to Mary Frazier ended, possibly irritated by the fact that at twenty-two or -three he was still financially dependent on his parents. He renewed his commitments to career.
But Mary Frazier nevertheless found her way into a secret compartment of John Quincy Adams’ heart, small as it may have been. He was nearly thirty when he finally married Louisa Catherine Johnson, who never quite compared. While he undoubtedly cared for his wife – and they were married for a half century – the romance was cooler, and devoid of the pangs of his once and dearly remembered love.
He never forgot Mary Frazier, and in some ways, her halo glowed shinier with each passing year, and his fond remembrance became more dream than memory. He knew members of her family, and ran into them from time to time. Mary married – after JQ did, had a daughter, and died of consumption at thirty. Likely Mr. Adams grieved in his own way.
Very late in life, he was walking in Mt. Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, and came to her daughter’s grave. He shed tears. Even then. So late in his life he recalled Mary as “the most beautiful and beloved of her sex.”
One of the dear loves of JQA’s life was poetry. He loved it throughout his entire life. He wrote commendable poetry himself, and it is one of the few pleasures/pastimes he shared with his wife and children.
Sophisticated and cultured, JQ likely knew of the immensely talented and short-lived John Keats (1795-1821), a man young enough to be his son. One of Keats’ most famous works was Ode On A Grecian Urn, wherein the images depict a young man chasing his ladylove around the vase for eternity.
One could wonder if the Ode was nearer to his heart than even his beloved Cicero.
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Kaplan, Fred – John Quincy Adams: American Visionary – Harper, 2014
Nagel, Paul C. – John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life – Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
Unger, Harlow Giles – John Quincy Adams – DeCapo Press, 2012