What about fencing? Though not a typical back to school subject today, fencing was one of several disciplines that John Quincy Adams, who became America’s sixth president, wanted his children to study. His experience sheds light on what life was like 200 years ago, revealing that parents were just as concerned about education then as they are now.
When President James Madison appointed him as the nation’s top diplomat to Russia in 1809, John Quincy faced an agonizing decision. What should he do about his older sons, George, age eight, and John, age six? Should he and his wife take them to Russia?
Fears of a shipwreck wiping out his entire family and a desire for his sons to receive an education in America led John Quincy to leave his sons in the care of his father, mother, and brother in Boston. Needless to say his wife, Louisa, was heartbroken over this decision.
Though living on the other side of the world in Russia, John Quincy frequently thought about his sons’ education.
“I write to you both together to assure you that although far distant from you, I always bear you both in my thoughts with tender affection,” he wrote George and John.
In a letter to his brother Thomas, John Quincy asked him to be a father to his sons and make sure that George learned French, improved his handwriting, and developed athletic skills in skating and horseback riding.
He also wanted George to learn the proper way to handle a musket. Yet, that was not the only sport on John Quincy’s mind.
“I wish, indeed, he could have an opportunity to take lessons of drawing and of fencing, of both of which I learnt a little at his age, or soon after, and of which I always regret that I did not learn more.”
Drawing developed coordination skills, but fencing was even better.
“The second [fencing] is a very good exercise, and besides its tendency to invigorate the constitution, contributes to quicken the operations of the eye, and to give firmness and pliancy to those of the hand.”
John Quincy also bought decks of cards, similar to trading cards today, and sent them by ship to his sons. Letters would often take six months to reach America from Russia. Though not a game like today’s Pokemon, these cards were designed to teach children French and the history of Rome, Greece, and France.
We may not be able to relate to teaching our kids fencing or the agony of communicating only by letters every six months, but we can understand the desire to give children a great education and help them get back to school. Technology changes, but the human heart and the love of parents for their children doesn’t change.
Discover more about this story in American Phoenix.
Author Jane Hampton Cook is known for making history memorable and relevant to today’s news, current events, and modern-day life. A frequent guest on the Fox News Channel and other outlets, Jane is the author of eight books, including American Phoenix, America’s Star-Spangled Story, and Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Jane is also a former White House webmaster. She lives with her husband and three sons in Fairfax, Virginia.