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Secretary Robert McCormick Adams and John Gonzales

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Featured in Torch Supplement, September 1994

Secretary Robert McCormick Adams and John Gonzales, former president of the National Congress of American Indians, discuss the National Museum of the American Indian at a reception held at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in August 1990.

Harvard Observatory Team, Photographing Eclipse

National Portrait Gallery
An innovator during photography's formative years, John A. Whipple (standing, left of center tent pole) made the first daguerreotype to capture the moon's surface in sharp detail (1851) and later joined the Harvard Astronomical Expedition to photograph a rare solar eclipse (1869). Whipple maintained a studio in Boston for several decades and, while in partnership with photographer James Wallace Black, advertised daguerreotypes in "every variety of style," including those suitable for inclusion in "Gold medallions [and] Lockets."

Samuel Adams

National Portrait Gallery

Samuel Adams

National Portrait Gallery

J. Adams Patent Model Revolver

National Museum of American History

J. Adams Patent Model Double Action Revolver

National Museum of American History

Eve Finding Abel [sculpture] / (photographer unknown)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
On photo mount label: J. A. Jackson. Even finding the body of Abel. ?Collection of Mrs. J. B. Leeds. Mus. neg. L649. Classification number: 282/J. Accession: 190424. On second photo mount label: (typed) SCULPTURE / AMERICAN / XIX CENTURY / Jackson, John Adams / Eve finding the body of Abel / Marble group / Lent by Mrs. Morehead; inherited from Mrs. Morehead by Mrs. J. B. Leeds / Loan no. X 0L7 IV / Neg. no. L 649 B LS.

1 photographic print : b&w, 8 3/4 x 6 3/8 in. (trimmed), mounted on 9 3/4 x 13 7/8 in. board.

Ex. collection: William G. Morehead, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Opening of Adams-Clement Collection

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
The opening of the Adams-Clement Collection in the West Hall of the Arts and Industries Building takes place on April 18, 1951. The photograph shows Dr. Remington Kellogg, Director of the United States National Museum, at the podium with Mr. Thomas Beggs, Secretary Wetmore, and others in the background. Collection includes paintings, jewelry, china, letters and other family material donated to the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the National Museum of American Art, and the United States National Museum, Department of History by Mary Louisa Adams Clement of Edge Hill, Warrenton, Virginia, descendent of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams.

Prison Scene

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Marshall P. Wilder

National Museum of American History

Letter from John Quincy Adams to Asbury Dickens, Secretary of the Columbian Institute, August 6, 1826

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Letter from Mr. Adams, dated Quincy, 6 August 1826, [sic] acknowledging the receipt of resolutions in honor of the memory of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Communicated to the Institute 12 August, 1826.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

National Portrait Gallery

Peter Boylston Adams?

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Charles Francis Adams

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Form of a letter from Asbury Dickens to John Quincy Adams and M. Randolph, July 27, 1826

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Form of a letter from the Secretary to the relatives of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Dated July 27 1826. Accompanying the minutes of the Institute, 12 August 1826.

Letter from John Quincy Adams to Asbury Dickens, Secretary of the Columbian Institute, June 1, 1824

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Unsigned letter advising the removal of the books, and other property of the Columbian Institute, to room No. 44, in the Capital prior to the next slated meeting of the Institute. Dated June 1 1824. Note: In Mr. Shefford's opinion the handwriting is that of John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State.

Letter from William Elliot to John Quincy Adams, President of the Columbian Institute, December 19, 1822

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Letter from William Elliot to John Q. Adams, President of the Columbian Institute, relative to books, instruments, etc. left by Rudolph Schaer, dated 19 December 1822.

Portrait of John Elm and Adam Metoxen, Students 1879

National Anthropological Archives
Black and white gelatin glass negative

Adams Memorial

Smithsonian American Art Museum

John Quincy Adams Kept a Diary and Didn’t Skimp on the Details

Smithsonian Magazine

Dazzled by the sights and sounds of Paris in 1778, John Quincy Adams, at the time almost a teenager, dashed off a quick note home. “My Pappa enjoins it upon me to keep a journal, or a diary, of the Events that happen to me, and of objects that I See, and of Characters that I converse with from day, to day,” he wrote to his mother Abigail. The 11-year-old balked at the daily labor of a duty he later called “journalizing,” but John Quincy’s life soon proved colorful enough to set down for history. He survived a Spanish shipwreck and braved Catherine the Great’s Russia. He lived with Benjamin Franklin in France, graduated Harvard in two years, and held key diplomatic posts in Napoleon’s Europe—all before the age of 40.

Adams grew up abroad and came of age with the new country. He was the son of patriots, a polymath, a statesman, and the United States’ sixth president, and plenty of what we know about Adams’s globe-trotting past comes from the rich diary he kept (and still tweets!) in 51 volumes, which are held at the Massachusetts Historical Society and available online.

Here are a few pivotal moments in John Quincy Adams’s diary that made him, well, John Quincy Adams:

Adams’s famous parents had great expectations and good advice.

Adams monitored the war’s developments from the homefront in Quincy, Massachusetts, with mother Abigail and siblings Charles, Thomas, and Nabby (a nickname for Abigail). Later, he accompanied his father through Spain, France, England and Holland on diplomatic missions. Here’s the inside back cover of his 1780 diary, where he sketched ships named the Frightful and the Horrid. Young Adams, who later ventured into casual pen-and-ink work, also drew Boston soldiers marching with musket balls and a whimsical mermaid. Thanks to his studies at the Leiden University and an adolescence in Europe, Adams returned to the newly formed United States with a cosmopolitan outlook.

(From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Awarded junior standing, he completed Harvard’s coursework at breakneck pace. From London, where his father was busy opening the first American embassy, Abigail reminded her son that education was a privilege. “If you are conscious to yourself that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing, reflect that you have had greater opportunites of seeing the world, and obtaining a knowledge of Mankind than any of your cotemporarys, that you have never wanted a Book, but it has been supplied you, that your whole time has been spent in the company of Men of Literature and Science,” Abigail wrote, adding: “How unpardonable would it have been in you, to have been a Blockhead.”

At first, Adams wanted to be a poet.

As a young man, John Quincy Adams dabbled in writing verses and odes. His diplomatic career kept him rattling along across continents, with plenty of travel time to hone the craft. “You will never be alone, with a Poet in your Poket. You will never have an idle Hour,” John Quincy heard from his father in 1781. He took the words to heart. He scribbled Romantic verse in his diary on the road, when congressional sessions dragged on, and in moments when he needed solace. Adams never thought he was very good at it.

His fame as a poet shone—briefly—in the twilight of his political years. But he couldn’t put down the pen, as he explained in this melancholy diary entry from October, 16, 1816: “Could I have chosen my own Genius and Condition I should have made myself a great Poet. As it is, I have wasted much of my life in writing verses; spell-bound in the circle of mediocrity.” Later, JQA wrote poems on demand for autograph-seekers.

Adams’s career path cut right through Napoleonic Europe.

By the early 1790s, as a fledging lawyer, John Quincy had turned to the family trade of foreign diplomacy. In this 1794 entry for July 11, his 28th birthday, he records observing President George Washington’s meeting with representatives from the Chickasaw nation. Adams celebrated the day surrounded by paperwork, much as he would for the rest of his professional life. His diary, which operated as catharsis and conscience for the budding statesman, at times sat idle as he pushed through drafting reports.

When he skipped a few days, Adams hustled to catch up the journal “in arrears.” Here, he modestly billed a line or two of big news at the top: his commission to serve as the next U.S. minister to the Netherlands, just as his father had done. So John Quincy looked to the family archive for a “course of reading” that would orient him to the job, digging through “large folio volumes containing dispatches from my father during his negotiations in Europe.” To tackle a thorny diplomatic field like Napoleon’s Europe, Adams made himself a syllabus and stuck to it—an instinct, that, like rereading the family papers for advice, became a lifelong habit.

JQA’s private life was filled with turmoil.

He loved Shakespeare’s tragedies and had strong feelings about quality opera, but Adams’s private life was rife with drama. After a moody courtship (he loathed her favorite books, she mocked his clothes), Adams wed Louisa Catherine Johnson (1775-1852), the sociable daughter of a Maryland merchant based in London. Between a string of diplomatic postings to Prussia, Russia, France and England, they had four children, of whom only Charles Francis Adams outlived his parents. Often, public service called Adams away from home. As a boy, he had fretted over his father’s possible capture and his siblings’ safety. As a husband and parent, John Quincy struggled to teach his children, through distant letters or Bible lessons, in matters of morality. In his diary, he always worried that he hadn’t done enough to protect them—no matter that some of his peers found him cold and grumpy at court. See this warm-hearted bit from his diary for September 6, 1818, as Adams settled into a new job as President James Monroe’s Secretary of State and drafted a formative new doctrine for what became known as the Era of Good Feelings: “Among the desires of my heart, the most deeply anxious is that for the good-conduct and welfare of my children.”

John Quincy Adams’s success came in Congress, not the presidency.

By antebellum political guidelines, Adams seemed like a natural choice for the nation’s highest office in 1824: a seasoned diplomat with founding-era family credentials. As president, he had finalized boundary lines with Canada, stemmed Russian advance into Oregon, established a policy to recognize a roster of new Latin American nations, and acquired Florida. But Adams’ plans for internal improvements, and his wider vision for developing national networks for the arts and sciences, met with little support, as did his bid for reelection.

After a vicious campaign, he was ousted by the Tennessean Andrew Jackson. This stark entry for March 4, 1829 reveals his hurt. Citizens converged for the inauguration festivities but early-riser Adams stayed in, shunning visitors, before taking a solitary ride in the afternoon. Adams, who had taught rhetoric at Harvard and preferred classical orations that nodded to Shakespeare and the Bible, bitterly disliked Jackson’s blunter approach. His successor’s inaugural address, Adams wrote bitingly, “is short, written with some elegance, and remarkable chiefly for a significant threat of Reform.”

On his way home, a fellow rider stopped the former president to ask if he knew who John Quincy Adams was, so that he could deliver papers? Barely a day out of office, Adams likely felt pushed aside to make way for a Jacksonian era bustling with new people, ideas and goods. He dove quickly back into politics, entering Congress to represent Massachusetts in 1831 and served until his death on the job in February 1848. While there, he successfully defeated the gag rule, and persuaded President Martin Van Buren to champion the bequest that brought the Smithsonian to life. If he was exhausted, “Old Man Eloquent” tried hard not to show it. He kept up his daily loop of congressional meetings, signed away fast poems for fans, and stayed up until four o’clock in the morning to compose speeches that he delivered from New York to Ohio.  

Adams’s views on slavery and race evolved over the course of his career.

(From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Raised by two fervent antislavery advocates, Adams’ outlook on slavery—and what ending it meant for the American union—took many turns in his diary’s pages. When, in 1841, Adams took up the Amistad case and defended 53 captive Africans, the trial’s physical and spiritual toll was mirrored in his journal. The Amistad case weighed on him, and Adams pushed back. Over two days, he argued for almost nine hours, demanding the Africans’ liberty. His diary, like “a second Conscience,” kept ticking along in the trial’s aftermath. “What can I, upon the verge of my seventy-fourth birthday, with a shaking hand, a darkening eye, a drowsy brain, and with all my faculties, dropping from me, one by one, as the teeth are dropping from my head, what can I do for the cause of God and Man? for the progress of human emancipation? for the suppression of the African Slave-trade?” an elderly Adams wrote in his diary on March 29, 1841. “Yet my conscience presses me on—let me but died upon the breach.”

Want to read a president’s diary? Join the Adams Papers' first-ever transcribe-a-thon on July 15, or get involved in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s newly launched #JQA250 appeal.

Asa Gray

National Portrait Gallery

The Russian-U.S. Relationship Goes Way Back to John Quincy Adams

Smithsonian Magazine

A statue of John Quincy Adams stands outside of Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow. In 1809, President James Madison asked Adams, at age 42 already one of America's most seasoned diplomats, to serve as the first American ambassador to Russia. The President needed a man with the prudence and the tenacity necessary to persuade the young Czar Alexander to respect the interests of the United States, a neutral power in the colossal battle between England and Napoleonic France. Adams would justify that faith, and earn that statue.

This was not Adams' first trip to a country most Americans viewed more in the light of legend than history. Almost 30 years prior, when Adams was 14 years old, his father, John Adams, sent him to serve as the secretary to Francis Dana, who was being dispatched to Russia to seek aid for the revolutionary cause. Catherine the Great refused to receive the American emissary, and neither diplomat nor secretary had much to do. But this remarkably perspicacious boy paid close attention to the world into which he had been cast. “The Sovereign,” he wrote to his mother Abigail, “is Absolute, in all the extent of the word. . . .And the nobility have the same power over the people, that the Sovereign has over them. The Nation is wholly composed of Nobles and Serfs, or in other words, of Masters and Slaves.” The system, he wrote, is disadvantageous even to the ruler, for the nobles continually rebel against absolute power.  Young though he was, Adams was very much a republican in the land of absolutism.

The Adams of 1809, the future president and son of a former president, was a man of wide experience. He had served as minister in The Hague and Berlin, and had represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. Adams knew Europe well, but Russia was not Europe. Adams thought about Russia much as many Europeans thought about America—as a vast, dynamic, semi-civilized and almost dream-like place.

Even among the aristocrats who represented the nations of Europe in the Russian court, Adams cut a commanding, and quite forbidding, figure. “He sat in the frivolous assemblies of St. Petersburg like a bull-dog among spaniels,” as a British visitor put it, “and many were the times that I drew monosyllable and grim smiles from him and tried in vain to mitigate his venom.” Adams was not nearly so venomous towards other nations as he was towards America's former colonial master, but he was a stubborn and single-minded advocate. We know from Adams' own journal entries that he continually pressed Count Rumiantsev, Russia's foreign minister, to break with Napoleon's so-called Continental System, a series of embargos that kept English goods, whether carried by English ships or neutrals like the U.S., out of the ports of Europe. Russia had been compelled to enforce the system after suffering humiliating defeats by Napoleon’s army in 1806. Dozens of American ships had been bottled up in the Gulf of Cronstadt, outside of St. Petersburg.

Adams had an unexpected advantage over the much older men of the court, who had left their families at home: he had his young wife Louisa, their two-year-old son Charles Francis, and a pretty sister-in-law. While the 31-year-old Czar Alexander trained his wandering eye on Louisa’s sister, he and his wife Elizabeth were also much taken with Charles Francis. They had lost two children before the age of two, the last one only 18 months before the Adamses arrived, and they practiced their English with Charles Francis, though the boy was more comfortable in French and German.

Whether because of Adams' relentless prosecution of his country's cause, or the Czar's fondness for his family, or perhaps even Alexander's partiality to the United States, it had become clear by late 1809 that Russian policy was tilting away from France and towards the U.S. and other neutrals. On December 31, 1810, the Emperor issued a ukase lifting all restrictions on exports from Russia and on imports coming by sea, while at the same time imposing a heavy tariff on goods arriving overland, most of which came from France. Alexander thus broke decisively with the Continental System. This was a tremendous diplomatic triumph for the U.S., since most cargo carried to Russia by ship came in American vessels, whether the cargo was American or English. Napoleon concluded that he could not subdue Europe unless he invaded Russia, which he would do, ill-advisedly, 18 months later.        

In the early 19th century, when correspondence traveled no faster than a horse and carriage or a sailing ship, diplomats had a great deal of time on their hands. Adams engaged in learned banter—always in French—with his fellow ministers, several of whom were as erudite as he. (One of Adams' colleagues whiled away his time translating Horace's Latin Odes into Greek.) He went on long walks even in the blinding white winters, often meeting no one save the Czar himself, out with his carriage.

The most painful rituals were social. Adams and Louisa were invited to lavish dancing parties, balls, masquerades, luncheons and winter carnivals where ladies shot down ice hills on sleds. Everyone gambled, at cards and dice. Louisa was even more shocked at the debauchery than was her husband, who by now felt that he had seen everything. However, Adams barely survived on a modest American salary, and could reciprocate nothing, a source of great embarrassment.

Adams was deeply impressed by Russian piety, noting that even the gentry fasted for the 40 days of Lent—and then gorged themselves on the stupendous feats of Easter. Everything was strange and outsized. Men wagered on which day the ice on the Neva would break; and when, in mid-May, it finally it did so, the governor of St. Petersburg brought the Czar an ice-cold glass of river water, and the Czar rewarded him with a hundred ducats. The Russian palaces were vast, the furnishings dazzling. At Catherine's Winter Palace, the magnificent decorations were decaying from wanton neglect. But Adams found the gravestones of three imperial greyhounds—"Sir Tom Anderson, Duchesse, and Zemire"—with inscriptions written in impeccable French verse.

Adams never lost his fascination with Russia; nor did Czar Alexander's fondness for the United States flag. But the bond between the two nations, the one the defender of autocratic orthodoxy, the other of republican liberty, was not a natural one. After Russia defeated Napoleon and humbled France, the Czar placed himself at the head of the Holy Alliance, a league of princes dedicated to stamping out all traces of republican thought in Europe. In 1817, Adams became Secretary of State in the administration of President James Monroe. He was the chief intellectual force behind the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which stipulated that since "the political system of the allied powers"—the Holy Alliance—was "essentially different" from that of the United States, the U.S. would "consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety." The New World, that is, would be republican, and the U.S. would be its guarantor. The ideological struggle that would come to define U.S. relations with the Soviet Union in the 20th century was thus prefigured by the friction between republican America and autocratic Russia.

Adams himself delivered a version of Monroe's speech—in the form of a note verbale—to Baron de Tuyll, Russia's minister to the U.S. He wanted Russia to understand that the United States would not tolerate any attempt to transplant authoritarian rule to North or South America.

The Adams of 1823, like the Adams of 1781, was a zealous patriot and a passionate republican. He would never permit his partiality towards Russia to supersede his defense of liberty.

James Traub is a Foreign Policy columnist, a lecturer in international relations at New York University and the author of John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. 

He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.

John Quincy Adams Once Approved an Expedition to the Center of the Earth

Smithsonian Magazine

In the 1864 science fiction classic, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Professor Otto Lidenbrock deciphers a message that reads: "Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jökull of Snæfell, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the Kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth. I did it." And so starts an imaginative and lively adventure

Today, Jules Verne’s subterranean adventure seems quaint in comparison to fictional space expeditions. However, at the time it was published, many wondered what lay deep beneath the Earth’s surface. A few people truly though planet was hollow. ​ Decades before, a real-life journey to the Earth’s center nearly happened thanks to a notoriously passionate proponent of the Hollow Earth theory and an American president, writes Esther Inglis-Arkell for

It was the 1820's. John Cleves Symmes, Jr., an American army officer was traveling around the country on the lecture circuit, proclaiming his theory of a Hollow Earth, one that envisioned the planet as several solid concentric spheres, according to a circular he published, featured by Rebecca Onion at Slate’s history blog "The Vault." Symmes was asking for "one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea…" with plans to slip between those concentric spheres, which he believed were open at the poles "12 or 16 degrees."

For, Inglis-Arkell writes that Symmes lobbied Congress for funding for the epic journey. They said no. However:

John Quincy Adams said yes. Adams was president as the result of a decision of the House of Representatives, after an election in 1824 that gave no single candidate a needed majority. Although Andrew Jackson had more votes, he was too devisive. The House went for Adams, but soon repented of it. The trip to the center of the Earth wasn’t the main factor in that – Adams was a proponent of a more powerful federal government and so clashed with the representatives of the states – but it certainly didn’t help. Even at the time, the theory was considered laughable by most. Adams still backed it, but his unpopularity led to a single term in office, and the conquering Jackson killed any momentum for the idea.

It’s possible that Adams was more intrigued by the journey to the Arctic pole than the potential to find a way to the center of the Earth. His support for the idea might have stemmed from his ardent interest in the natural world.  Nina Burleigh pulls from Adams’ diary in her book The Stranger and the Statesman, excerpted here at

I saw the sun rise and set, clear, from Charles' house on the hill. The pleasure that I take in witnessing these magnificent phenomena of physical nature never tires; it is a part of my own nature, unintelligible to others…. The sensations which affect me at the rising and setting sun are first, adoration to the power and goodness of the Creator…mingled in the morning with thanksgiving…and in the evening with sadness…and with humble supplication for forgiveness of my own errors and infirmities.

Adams’ passion drove him to pursue the founding of a national observatory, a quest that opened him to ridicule from his political enemies, Burleigh writes*. However, he was ultimately successful with the Navel-Observatory in Washington, D.C. and helped ensure that the money from James Smithson’s estate go toward the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. So though the journey to the center of the Earth never happened, Adams did find a more useful way to advance knowledge of the natural world. 

*Correction: an earlier version of this story said that Adams was nicknamed "Governor Moonbeam" for his strange theories. That nickname was in fact given to a much more recent politician — California's Governor, Jerry Brown — for his own brand of off-kilter ideas.  

Letter from J. Cox Barnett to the Honorable John Quincy Adams, President of the Columbian Institute, July 10, 1824

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Letter from J. Cox Barnett, to John Q. Adams [sic], acknowledging the receipt of a letter from A. Dickins notifying home of his election as a corresponding member of the Columbian Institute. Dated 10 July 1824. Presented [and read] 5 December 1824.
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