Abigail Adams on How Great Characters are Formed

“The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties,” Abigail Adams wrote in a letter to her 12-year-old son, John Quincy.

It was January 1780, four years into the American Revolution. She was running the family farm in Braintree, Massachusetts. He was onboard a French warship crossing the Atlantic with his father, then Minister to France.

John Quincy had not wanted to take the trip or live in France. He had been before. Now, he wanted to stay home and, like other boys his age, get ready for college.

Go, his mother insisted. Go for the learning, the perspective, the internal transformation the trip would likely demand. A judicious traveler was like a river that increased its strength the further it flowed from its source, she thought.

“It is not in the still calm of life, or repose of pacific station, that great characters are formed,” she reminded John Quincy in her letter.

She was a woman who believed that everything was most beautiful in motion, that people were made for action, not inertia. While she did not want to be separated from John Quincy, she knew he held potential that could not come alive by remaining on the farm in Braintree.

And so the mother wrote her son:

“When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the Heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into Life and form the character of the Hero…”

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