Can you imagine traveling the world for seven years of your childhood? Our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, did just that!
As we’ll see, there were downsides: His ship was struck by lightning. They were also attacked by the British military. But on the positive side, he learned to speak seven languages, and the knowledge that he gained around the world shaped the rest of his life—and the early history of our nation.
What kind of impact would that sort of international travel have on you? Would you sit back and let the opportunity pass you by?
John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767, in Braintree, Massachusetts. John Quincy grew up in a family with strong political heritage because of his father, John Adams, who would play an integral role in forming the United States of America and serve two terms as president of the nation. John Adams really valued education. He said, “A taste for literature and a turn for business, united in the same person, never fails to make a great man.” He encouraged his son to take every opportunity to educate himself. That is a big reason why John Quincy was so successful.
His father and his mother, Abigail, taught him the basics from an early age, but a lot of his education came from firsthand experiences. For example, 8-year-old John Quincy witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 with his mother. In a letter that he wrote 70 years later, this legendary statesman remembered the battle vividly: “I saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard Britannia’s thunders in the Battle of Bunker’s Hill and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own.”
Growing up in such troubled times, John Quincy had to mature pretty fast. In 1778, 10-year-old John Quincy left the comfort of his home and accompanied his father overseas on a diplomatic mission to Paris, France. He spent about seven years in Europe with his father, with only a short return back to America in 1779. During this time, Adams learned many things that would greatly help him in his political future.
This was a difficult trip. There were several mishaps on the voyage to Europe. In the Atlantic, they were hit by a brutal storm that nearly sunk the ship. A lightning bolt damaged the main mast of the ship and injured some of the crewmen. One man was so badly injured that he died three days later and was buried at sea. This was the first time that young John Quincy—then just 10 years old—had ever been this close to death.
Later in the journey, the ship was attacked by a British naval vessel, and the crew had to fight back. If they had been captured, it would have meant almost certain death for all the American revolutionaries on the ship—especially John Quincy’s father. As a diplomat and an official of the U.S. government, John Adams didn’t have to join in the fight, but he did—and the British vessel was defeated and captured.
On the Adams’s second voyage from America to Europe, the weather was entirely calm, but the ship sprung a leak. Every passenger on the ship had to take turns pumping the water out to keep the ship afloat. This went on for weeks. Once John Quincy and his father safely arrived in Europe, they then walked from Spain to France. Travel was no easy task in those days. And no matter where they went, John Quincy never stopped learning.
The Adams men visited places such as the Netherlands, Russia, England, Sweden and Prussia, and John Quincy learned seven languages during his travels. Traveling in itself was an educational experience for John Quincy, but he never missed out on an opportunity to learn. The first formal schooling that he received was at Passy Academy, located just outside of Paris, France. After finishing his schooling at the academy, he enrolled at Leiden University in 1781. At age 14, he was already in college! His time there was cut short, however, because an offer was extended to him to serve under Francis Dana, the U.S. Minister to Russia.
John Quincy gained valuable experience while working under Francis Dana, serving as his private secretary and interpreter. He was also determined to continue his education, even though no longer in formal schooling. Dana wrote to John Quincy’s father in August 1781 and shared that the 14-year-old had asked for a tutor: “Your son is still with me at the Hotel de Paris. He is desirous of my procuring him a private instructor.” John Quincy also worked as a secretary for his father during the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris in 1783, furthering his knowledge of foreign affairs and policies. After completing his work with Dana and his father, John Quincy returned to America. Back in his home country, he got a law degree at Harvard and then took the Massachusetts bar exam, which he passed in 1790, making him a full-fledged lawyer. He practiced law in Boston for four years before he was offered a job working for the U.S. government.
With his firsthand knowledge of international relations and extensive knowledge of the law, Adams was a valuable asset for the government. After he wrote several articles expressing approval of President George Washington’s foreign-policy decisions, Washington appointed him as U.S. Minister to the Netherlands in 1794.
Because of his vast travels and experience—as well as his education in and knowledge of foreign countries—this was only the first of several diplomatic roles that John Quincy held for the U.S. government. During his career, he served as the U.S. Minister to Prussia, England and Russia. He helped negotiate the Treaty of 1818, in which Great Britain agreed to give the United States all of the lands south of the 49th Parallel, as well as the Adams-Onis Treaty in 1819, in which Spain ceded all of Florida to the United States.
John Quincy continued his political journey as Secretary of State for President James Monroe from 1817—1825; during this time, he constructed the Monroe Doctrine, which would dictate U.S. foreign policy for decades. Without Adams’s extensive education in both the United States and foreign countries, as well as his education in law, it is unlikely that he would have been able to write such a long-lasting document.
In 1825, John Quincy Adams succeeded James Monroe as president and was one of the most educated presidents that we have ever had. Education does not have a dollar value attached to it, but it is one of the most valuable things you can gain. John Quincy Adams is a prime example of a student who gained a lot of his education outside the classroom—and he became, arguably, the most qualified president ever!
Herbert W. Armstrong even wrote about this subject in his Autobiography, quoting his Uncle Frank: “Education comes from study—from books—from lectures—from contacts—from travel—from thinking about what you see and hear and read—and from experience” (emphasis added). Education doesn’t come from just one source. Becoming educated is a mindset—an attitude that John Quincy exemplified. He never stopped educating himself, no matter where he was in the world. Throughout his travels, John Quincy took advantage of every opportunity to learn. This is the same mindset we should have in our lives—even if we never get the chance to travel the world.