The Adams Family Reads the Classics

These two books show how deeply the Adams family of Massachusetts cherished classical learning for literary style and political instruction.

The signatures and bookplate in this edition of Pliny the Younger’s letters form a kind of Adams family tree. The book was given to Thomas Boylston Adams in 1793 by his father, John Adams, then vice-president of the United States, perhaps in honor of Thomas’s admission to the Pennsylvania bar at age twenty. It also bears the bookplate of the eldest son of John Adams: John Quincy Adams, who employed Thomas as a secretary during diplomatic missions in Europe during the 1790s. Pliny the Younger was a magistrate in imperial Rome. His letters supplied detailed information on Roman administration and social life. John Adams recommended them to his sons and his wife as “Modells of fine Writing.” Today we know the Adams family best through their letters; the same can be said for Pliny the Younger, one of the major sources of letters surviving from the ancient world.

John Adams practiced writing the Greek words for virtue and vice in the margins of this book. In the republican political thought shared by Adams and classical writers, virtue was the most important quality of citizens, implying selfless dedication to the republic.

The opposite of virtue was vice, the selfish pursuit of luxury that spelled the doom of republics from ancient Rome onward. A major architect of American republican government, John Adams relentlessly scrutinized his own character to cultivate virtue and exterminate vice. His favorite classical allegory was the parable of the Choice of Hercules, in which the young Hercules must choose between what Adams called “the Steeps of Virtue on one hand, and the flowery Paths of Pleasure on the other.”