John Adams and John Quincy Adams may be tied for the honor of worst presidential father, or “Tiger Dad,” according to Joshua Kendall.
Kendall presents psychological profiles of every president as a parent in his book First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama. Franklin Pierce and Calvin Coolidge, for example, were grief-stricken by the loss of their sons. Chester A. Arthur indulged his children, and his son Alan grew up into a polo-playing playboy. The Adamses were ridiculously strict, with sometimes tragic results.
“John said to John Quincy, ‘Unless you’re president you’re a failure,” Kendall said in an interview with the New England Historical Society.
John Adams, Tiger Dad
John Adams was obsessed with instilling greatness in his sons John Quincy, Charles and Thomas.
He demanded they translate Thucydides at age 10 and sent them to foreign cities as preteens to work under fellow diplomats. When 14-year-old John Quincy was in Petersburg, Russia, working as secretary for diplomat Francis Dana, Adams criticized his letter writing.
You have not informed me whether the Houses are brick, stone or wood, whether they are seven stories high or one…You have said nothing about the religion of the country; whether it is Catholic or protestant.
In 1794, John Adams even chastised his teenaged son for possibly not becoming president of the United States:
You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. And if you do not rise to the head not only of your own profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness and obstinacy.
John Quincy Adams responded to his demanding father and became not only president but secretary of state and member of Congress, where he led opposition to slavery.
“The first and deepest of all my wishes is to give satisfaction to my parents,” John Quincy Adams once wrote.
John Adams’ other two sons didn’t fare so well. Both became drunks and failed as lawyers. Thomas ended up living with his parents, unable to support himself and disappearing for days on drinking binges. He died in a carriage accident at 59.
Kendall writes that Charles may have been gay. “Some think he may have had a relationship with Baron von Steuben,” he said. John Adams eventually disowned Charles, which horrified Abigail, Kendall said.
Adams later rued his harsh treatment of his sons, and rebuked John Quincy for following his own example.
Following Father’s Footsteps
John Quincy Adams demanded as much from his sons as his father had, with a similar outcome. A genetic disposition to alcoholism and depression may have contributed to the failures of two of his sons. George Washington Adams and John Adams II both died young.
John Quincy Adams so intimidated his son George Washington that the boy dumped a girlfriend after simply dreaming his father chastised him for kissing her. And he wouldn’t let his 14-year-old son Charles come home from Harvard for Christmas because of his grades. Charles spent the holiday studying at school.
John Adams II drank himself to death at the age of 31.
George Washington Adams managed to graduate from Harvard and to start a mediocre law practice, but he drank heavily, ran up debts and fathered an illegitimate child with a chambermaid.
As John Quincy Adams was preparing to leave the presidency, he ordered George to Washington to help his parents move to Boston. George was said to have ‘quivered with fear’ at the prospect of his parents’ reproach. Distraught, George boarded a steamship in Providence, and on June 9, 1829, he fell or jumped overboard and drowned, an apparent suicide.
According to Kendall, John Quincy Adams felt extreme guilt over George’s death. He softened with his youngest son, Charles, who became a success: ambassador to Britain, member of Congress and historian.
And as the father of seven children, Charles did not repeat the mistakes of his father and grandfather.
This story was updated in 2022.