Charles Adams (1770–1800)

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Charles Adams
Charles Adams.jpg
BornMay 29, 1770
DiedNovember 30, 1800(1800-11-30) (aged 30)
Sarah "Sally" Smith
(m. 1795)
  • Susanna
  • Abigail
Parent(s)John Adams
Abigail Smith
FamilyAdams political family
Quincy political family

Charles Adams (May 29, 1770 – November 30, 1800) was the second son of the second President John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams (née Smith). He was also the younger brother of the sixth President John Quincy Adams.[1]


As a child, smallpox had broken out killing many. He and his family got inoculated for the disease. He and his younger brother Thomas were not showing symptoms, so they both had the procedure done a few more times. His mother, Abigail Adams, and brothers Thomas and John Quincy had mild symptoms, but he and his sister Nabby were both very sick, though both recovered within weeks.

At the age of nine, he traveled with his father and older brother, John Quincy, to Europe, studying in Passy, Amsterdam, and Leiden. He matriculated in Leiden on January 29, 1781.[2][3] In December 1781, 11 year old Charles returned to America unaccompanied by family members. He had been feeling homesick and returned. In 1784, Abigail and Nabby moved to England to live with John Adams, who was working there at the time. John Quincy would join them later.

While attending Harvard College starting in 1785, the 15 year old Charles got into a lot of trouble, though his most famous act was running naked through Harvard Yard while drunk along with a group of friends. He almost got kicked out, which was the first recorded case of Primal Scream. John Quincy and Thomas would later attend Harvard soon after Charles.

After graduating from Harvard College in 1789, he moved to New York City, where plans had been made for him to work in the legal office of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was named Secretary of the Treasury and Adams moved to the law office of John Laurance to continue his studies.[4] Adams passed the bar examination in 1792.[5]

On August 29, 1795, Adams married Sarah "Sally" Smith (1769–1828), the sister of his brother-in-law, William Stephens Smith. They had two daughters, Susanna Boylston (1796–1884) and Abigail Louisa Smith (1798–1836). Abigail married the banker and philosopher Alexander Bryan Johnson and their son, Alexander Smith Johnson, became a judge. At the age of 37, Abigail Louisa died of uterine cancer.[6]

Adams was an alcoholic who engaged in extramarital relationships and made questionable financial decisions. He was disowned by his father and sometimes lived apart from his family.[7]


It is a common myth that Adams died on November 30, 1800 of cirrhosis, a disease often caused by alcoholism. In a letter from Abigail to John Quincy after his death she stated Adams died in New York City of "dropsy of the chest" or pleurisy.[8][9] Pleurisy can be caused by a multitude of respiratory diseases, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and even cancer. He was the first child of a president to die while the president was in office. He was 30 years old.

Depictions in popular culture[edit]

In 2008, HBO presented the miniseries entitled John Adams based on the book by David McCullough. The biographical presentation depicts President John Adams as a neglectful father to Charles Adams, and suggests that the elder Adams' failures as a father negatively influenced Charles' development. Historians have pointed out the inaccuracies of the series' representation of their relationship.[10]


  1. ^ "The Adams Children". American Experience. PBS. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
  2. ^ Album Studiosorum Academiae Lugduno Batavae MDLXXV-MDCCCLXXV, kol. 1136.
  3. ^ Index to English speaking students who have graduated at Leyden university / by Edward Peacock, F.S.A. - London : For the Index society, by Longmans, Green & co. 1883, p. 2, 1136.
  4. ^ Kaplan, Fred (2014). John Quincy Adams: American Visionary. New York: HarperCollins. p. 100. ISBN 9780061915413.
  5. ^ "Massachusetts Historical Society: Adams Biographical Sketches". Retrieved December 3, 2020.
  6. ^ "Massachusetts Historical Society: Adams Family Resources". Retrieved December 3, 2020.
  7. ^ Kendall, Joshua. "The First Children Who Led Sad Lives". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved Dec 3, 2020.
  8. ^ "The Forgotten Story of Charles Adams".
  9. ^ "From Abigail Smith Adams to John Quincy Adams, 29 January 1801".
  10. ^ Jeremy Stern (October 27, 2008). "What's Wrong with HBO's Dramatization of John Adams's Story". History News Network. Retrieved March 18, 2011.

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