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The Foundation of National Morality—John Adams (1735 – 1826)

John Adams—second president of the United States and Revolutionary War hero—married Abigail Smith in 1764. Theirs was a remarkable marriage, not only for the constancy of their devotion, but also for their offspring, one of whom, John Quincy Adams, would become president himself. The couple counted the spiritual and moral nurture of their children a high duty and privilege, indeed, “a sacrament.” Often separated from Abigail by government assignments (e.g., as emissary to both France and England), John was keenly aware of the mother’s critical role in child raising. In this passage, he honors Abigail and other mothers for their “national service” in the home.

The foundations of national morality must be laid in private families. In vain are schools, academies, and universities, instituted, if loose principles and licentious habits are impressed upon children in their earliest years. The mothers are the earliest and most important instructors of youth. The vices and examples of the parents cannot be concealed from the children. How is it possible that children can have any just sense of the sacred obligations of morality or religion, if, from their earliest infancy, they learn that their mothers live in habitual infidelity to their fathers, and their fathers in as constant infidelity to their mothers? Besides, the catholic [universal] doctrine is, that the contract of marriage is not only a civil and moral engagement, but a sacrament; one of the most solemn vows and oaths of religious devotion. Can they then believe religion, and morality too, any thing more than a veil, a cloak, a hypocritical pretext, for political purposes of decency and conveniency?1


John Adams, “Diary,” Works of John Adams, vol. 3 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1865), 171-172.