John Quincy Adams’s Life in 9 Boats

It was rarely smooth sailing.

In honor of John Quincy Adams’s 250th birthday, here are nine pivotal boat-related incidents that capture the love, danger, embarrassment, and tragedy of his epic life.

1. The Cannons of the HMS Lively

When war broke out in the colonies, John Quincy Adams was just seven years old. His father, John Adams, was off Continental Congressing in Philadelphia, so young Johnny was the man of the house when the cannons started firing.

The ships were ten miles away in the Boston Harbor, but the explosions were loud enough to hear in the Adams home. It started when the 20-gun post ship HMS Lively fired its cannons at the American fort on Breed’s Hill. Soon after, the British General Gage ordered all 128 cannons in the harbor to fire on the Americans.

The British love burning things – Charlestown, the White House, toast.

John had warned Abigail to “fly to the woods with our children” in case of any danger. Since nobody listens to John Adams, Abigail instead grabbed Johnny and ran toward the danger to get a better view. From atop Penn’s Hill, Johnny watched Charlestown burn in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Among the casualties was his family’s dear friend and physician, Joseph Warren, who once saved the boy’s finger from needing to be amputated.

As early as seven, Johnny saw war as an encroaching reality. The rest of his life would be spent in the pursuit of peace, but first he would find himself on the other side of the cannons.

#2 The Boston’s Deadly Atlantic Crossing

At the age of 10, Johnny boarded the 24-gun frigate The Boston to cross the Atlantic with his father, who had been appointed commissioner to France. What started as a smooth journey soon turned into a character-building nightmare.

USS Boston, 1776 Frigate by James A Flood

Two weeks into the voyage, a massive storm battered the Boston for days, ripping away its main topmast and making a “universal wreck of everything in all parts of the ship.” Father and son huddled together for safety below deck in the violently rocking boat. Lightning struck three crew members and one of them went “raving mad” for three days before dying.

Johnny’s bravery and curiosity endeared him to the crew. He started learning French from one passenger and during calmer seas picked up the basics of sailing and navigation from the ship’s captain. John Adams wrote that his son’s behavior during the storm “gave me a satisfaction that I cannot express – fully sensible of our danger, he was constantly endeavoring to bear up under it with a manly courage and patience.” Funny how seeing multiple people around you get struck by lightning has a way of making you behave.

#3 Learning and Leaking on La Sensible

After a year in Paris, the Adams men returned home on the French king’s frigate La Sensible. Johnny had become so skilled in French that he spent the voyage expertly teaching English to the new French ambassador to the U.S. and his secretary.

They said “he was a master of his own language like a professor.” The little genius ran a tight ship, sternly and skillfully correcting their every syllable, and they loved him for it. “We must have Mr. John,” they said.

Just three months after their homecoming, John was appointed to negotiate peace with the British, and he and Johnny found themselves back on La Sensible, along with Johnny’s little brother Charles. The second voyage on the ship was less about sophisticated cultural exchange and more about desperately trying to stay alive.

The frigate had sprung a dangerous leak, and everyone on board had to take turns manning the pumps. They landed at the first available port in Spain, and were forced to travel over mountains and rough terrain to Paris in what Johnny called “the worst three weeks” of his life.

The 13-year-old Adams may have been thinking of the Boston and La Sensible when he drew two fictional boats on the inside cover of his diary in 1780: “The Frightful” and “The Horrid.”

#4 Not Ready to Mary

At 28 years old, the wunderkind John Quincy found himself back in Europe as the resident minister to the Netherlands. He was intent on avoiding the greatest ship of them all (a relationship), but when he met Louisa Johnson he couldn’t help himself from falling in love and proposing.

But as soon as they were engaged, John’s stubborn love for his bachelor routine (reading and billiards) caused him to put off the actual marriage for as long as possible. When he expected to be named an ambassador to Portugal, he told Louisa they could finally marry, if only they could find an American ship to safely transport them to Lisbon – a near impossibility in that treacherous time.

Louisa’s father, Joshua Johnson, managed the impossible. He was secretly in serious debt and desperate to marry off his daughter, so he arranged for one of his own trading schooners, the Mary, to be converted to a honeymoon bower to take the newlyweds to Lisbon – all John had to do was come to London and seal the deal.

Just after viewing the Love Boat and probably saying “Now’s as good a time as any, I guess,” John got word that he was instead being sent to Berlin. His first love – his beloved books – were already on their way to Lisbon, so he was forced to make due with Louisa.Joshua’s plan worked, but John and Louisa would never board the Mary.

Lucky for him, she was an incredible woman who would stand beside him for the rest of his life. Once they were married, he learned to appreciate how she matched his wit and more than made up for the social graces he lacked. And, she loved books almost as much as he did.

#5 Parenthood On A Packet Boat

John Quincy and Louisa were back in the states in 1803 when he was elected to the United States Senate. That meant packing up their two-year-old son George Washington Adams and newborn John Adams II to journey 500 miles from Quincy, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C.

Having had such great luck with boats in the past, Adams insisted on taking the water route to New York City. Their departure was delayed due to terrible weather, and the impatient and persuasive John Quincy convinced the captain to take their packet boat out into the choppy water.

Once the family finally started recovering from debilitating seasickness, little George grabbed the keys to his parents’ trunks and hurled them overboard. Then the tiny maniac tossed in both his shoes next before he could be stopped.

The miserable 20-day trip was the perfect start to John Quincy Adams’s career in Washington.


#6 The “Safe Enough” Canoe

The Bathers by Peter Waddell

John Quincy Adams’s skinny dipping in the Potomac is legendary (although the popular legend about a female reporter ambushing him for an interview is fiction.)

One morning, just four months into his presidency, Adams went out for a swim on the Tiber Creek with his 22-year-old son John and valet Antoine. He decided to take a nearby canoe across the creek and swim back.

“I thought the boat safe enough,” Adams wrote in his diary, “or rather persisted carelessly in going without any due attention to its condition.” Young John wisely thought the boat looked too dangerous and opted to swim. John Quincy and Antoine made it halfway across the river as the boat filled with water and a sudden storm swept in. Both men jumped overboard into the rough water as the boat sank.

The naked Antoine reached the far shore without much trouble, but the 57-year-old John Quincy’s loose sleeves filled with water and “hung like two 56 lb weights upon my arms.” He struggled, but eventually made it across the river. “By the mercy of God our lives were spared,” he wrote, “and no injury befell our persons.”

John Quincy Adams came very close to being the first president to die in office, and the hubris and embarrassment of dying in such a stupid way would have haunted his legacy forever.

#7 Tragedy Aboard The Benjamin Franklin

The Benjamin Franklin by Thomas G. Chambers

Passengers aboard the steamship Benjamin Franklin said George Washington Adams was paranoid and speaking wildly on the night of April 30, 1829.  It was just two months after his father John Quincy had stepped down from the presidency after a landslide defeat to Andrew Jackson, and George was on his way to help his parents move out of Washington, D.C.

The 28-year-old had grown up battling two common Adams problems, depression and alcoholism, and he had recently fathered a child with chamber maid named Eliza Dolph—a secret he was desperately trying to keep from leaking. The scandal might have been too much for him to deal with. That night aboard the Benjamin Franklin was the last time anyone saw him alive. All that was left of him on board were his cloak and hat. His body was found a month later in Long Island Sound, not far from where he threw his parents’ keys and his shoes overboard when he was two.

John Quincy and Louisa were absolutely devastated by the loss. Books were a great source of distraction and healing for John Quincy, as was his other addiction – politics. Two years after leaving the White House as an unpopular president, he returned to the national scene, this time as one of Massachusetts’ Congressmen in the House of Representatives.

#8 Freedom and Fame from La Amistad

On August 26, 1839, the USS Washington spotted a suspicious-looking “long, low black schooner near Long Island, New York: the Spanish ship La Amistad. The ship was transporting 53 African slaves from one Cuban port to another when the slaves rebelled and killed the captain and some of the crew.

The question of what to do with the slaves became an international cause célèbre. In Cuba, slavery was legal, so by Spain’s reasoning the slaves were property and should be returned to their masters or executed for mutiny. But the United States had outlawed the international slave trade, which meant the men were illegally enslaved and their rebellion was in self-defense.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and John Quincy Adams agreed to defend the slaves, pro bono. He hadn’t argued a case in front of the Supreme Court in 32 years, but this particular case gave him the two things he craved most: a righteously indignant cause, and a chance to infuriate the South.

JQA’s closing argument didn’t just go over well – it killed. Literally. One justice actually died of a heart attack the night after Adams spoke, delaying the second day of his argument for a week. Another justice called JQA’s speech “extraordinary for its power, its bitter sarcasm, and its dealing with topics far beyond the record and points of discussion.”

The Court decided 7 to 1 in favor of the slaves. They won their freedom and were returned to Africa, and John Quincy Adams, “Old Man Eloquent,” won late-in-life popularity and respect for rocking the boat as “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.”

#9 The Rob-Roy and the Final Frontier

The 10-year-old boy who learned to navigate by the stars while crossing the Atlantic grew up to become even more fascinated with the night sky. In his inaugural address, Adams wrote about building a national astronomical observatory, a “lighthouse in the sky.” His critics scoffed at the idea.

When the Cincinnati Astronomical Society invited Adams to speak at the cornerstone-laying of the first observatory in the western hemisphere in 1843, he jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, the month-long trip involved a week on a canal packet boat called the Rob-Roy, which the frail 76-year-old Adams called “a trial such as I had never before experienced.”

As the boat crawled through the narrow Ohio Canal at two and a half miles per hour in a snowstorm, Adams suffered inside the cramped quarters. With the windows shut to keep the snow out, the fires burning inside made it unbearably hot and Adams suffered from a headache, sore throat, feverish chills, and a violent cough.

But the worst part, he said, was the locks. “The most uncomfortable part of our navigation is caused by the careless and unskillful steering of the boat in and through the locks, which seem to be numberless, upwards of two hundred of them on the canal. The boat scarcely escapes a heavy thump on entering every one of them. She strikes and grazes against their sides, and staggers along like a stumbling nag.”

Canal lock in Ohio, circa 1880

He finally made it off the drunken horse of a boat and arrived at the observatory where he managed to give a rousing two hour speech emphasizing the importance of cultivating the arts and sciences. It was the last public speech he ever delivered.

Having seen war encroach on his backyard at a young age, John Quincy Adams spent his life traveling to negotiate peace and promote freedom and science and art.

It’s always dubious to imagine what historical figures would do if they were alive today, but I’d like to think John Quincy Adams wouldn’t hesitate to sign up for a spot on a space shuttle where he would spend three years perfecting the rousing speech he would give at the grand opening of a base on Mars.


The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: 1779 – 1848 (Library of America)

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel


1 Comment

  1. David P Sculley
    October 12, 2023 / 4:12 pm

    Fun and interesting Piece! But I think you legt out one vessel that had some influence on young JQA. Before returning from France with John on the La Sensible, father and son spent several weeks aboard the American frigate Alliance, upon which they expected to return to America. Many years later, JQA recalled fondly time spent in their small cabin reading a French translation of Don Quixote de la Mancha and walking with the ship’s captain Pierre Landais through small and picturesque port towns of Brittany. The Adams’ lost their berths on Alliance when it was reassigned to John Paul Jones squadron in support of the Marquis de Lafayette’s proposed invasion of England.

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