Values: Public Service

Public service—and the personal sacrifice that it requires—ranked high on the list of values that John and Abigail Adams exemplified in their own lives and instilled in their children. Among John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Charles Francis Adams, there were two presidents, a vice president, three ministers to Great Britain, a minister to Prussia and the Netherlands, a secretary of state, a U.S. Senator, and two members each of the Massachusetts Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.

The personal costs of public service

Whether he said it facetiously or in earnest, John voiced his early reservations about public service in 1770 when he wrote to Abigail, “I have accepted a seat in the [Massachusetts] House of Representatives, and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and the ruin of our children.”

Smart, ambitious, and industrious, both John and John Quincy Adams would likely have grown wealthy had they remained in private life. Instead, they chose the modest compensation and personal hardships of public service. These included long separations from family, years of diplomatic service in foreign capitals, and the slurs cast by political enemies. Branded a traitor by the British, John Adams also faced the risk of death by hanging.

Destiny and legacy

Yet they persevered. Writing to John in 1775, Abigail articulated a conviction that public service was the family’s destiny and its legacy. “How difficult the task to quench the fire and the pride of private ambition, and to sacrifice ourselves and all our hopes and expectations to the public weal,” she wrote. “How few have souls capable of so noble an undertaking! How often are the laurels worn by those who have had no share in earning them! But there is a future recompense of reward, to which the upright man looks, and which he will most assuredly obtain, provided he perseveres unto the end.”