At the time it was tradition for the older son to get a college education, in the case of Deacon Adams it was his older brother who got to go to college. Following this convention, Deacon Adams expected great accomplishments of his older son and his future, as determined by his father, was to become a minister of the church and as such he would be a spiritual leader of his community. Deacon Adams wanted John to attend Harvard College. However John had other plans, he wanted to be a farmer just like his father. John Adams did not have a good start in school. He attended Braintree Latin School which he disliked, specially his school master, he not enjoy reading books; instead he rather be shooting at the farm. It was when he was fourteen that he found inspiration in learning from Joseph Marsh who prepared him to go to Harvard.
The Latin School
At age six he walked to school to Dalme Belche’s house across the street where he got lessons in reading, arithmetic and Protestant religion with other kids his age. At eight he moved to Braintree’s Latin School headed by Joseph Cleverly where he was to be prepared for his entrance exams to Harvard. He disliked Cleverly and his school master and did not excel academically. When John was fourteen his father hired Joseph Marsh who had been in charge of the Latin School but was more liberal in his approach to teaching. Marsh ran a boarding school for out of town boys and agreed to take John as a pupil. Joseph Marsh had a great influence on JA; he inspired John who with great discipline and determination immersed himself in books and was ready to take the admission exams to Harvard in less than a year. He was accepted to Harvard College in 1751 at age fifteen, almost sixteen.
The Harvard Years – 1751 to 1755
John Adams was the first of the Adams to go to Harvard starting a tradition that continues to this day. John was fifteen years old when he was admitted in college, there were twenty five students in his class and according to his social background he ranked fifteenth. During his stay at Harvard he deepened his knowledge of Greek, Latin, rhetoric and logic; he learned natural science, moral philosophy and natural philosophy. He was also encouraged by some faculty to examine critically the various philosophical systems. He underwent an intellectual transformation; he grew fond of studying and books which undermined his love of the outdoors and sports, from that time on he was rarely without a book.
By his senior year John was leaning towards a career in law. When John was born most Harvard graduates entered the clergy as it was highly regarded in society. But by the time Adams graduated from college there was a secular wave of eighteenth century Enlightenment and many were choosing careers in law or medicine. Deacon Adams, an old Puritan, found the legal career as self-serving and lawyers inclined to do anything for their own advancement. However the legal career was starting to gain respectability among leading New England families. His professors and fellow students at Harvard advised him to study law because they thought he had the personality required for success in the profession and talent for public speaking. He wanted recognition and fame, and he also knew that financially a law career would be more rewarding than clergy career. John was bothered by having to make a decision; he had serious doubts about his theological beliefs and therefore entering the ministry. At the same time he did not want to disappoint his father who had sacrificed so much to pay for his studies; he was also haunted by his Puritan ethics as pursuing a law career would mean following his ambition of fame and recognition. As John graduated in 1755 he had not made a decision as to his future career.
Learning Law – 1756 to 1758
Upon graduation John took on a job as a teacher at the Central School of Worcester mainly to earn money to pay for his law education. It took a year for Adams to decide law was what he wanted and to overcome the moral dilemma of the legal career. James Putnam took John as an apprentice and he studied law for two years under his supervision. He moved in with the Putnams and paid them for room and board and $100 when he could. At this time Adams understood that he did not have to relinquish his moral beliefs for the practice of law.
It was customary in England and its colonies for a prospective lawyer to serve a two year apprenticeship with a reputable and established lawyer member of the bar. In England law was a set of customs and precedents taught by lawyers unlike in continental Europe where law was taught in universities.
For two years, JA taught during the day and studied law at night. He was a thrifty man but he had no reservations spending most of his money in books. By the end of the two years he became a well read man in legal and political literature of the eighteenth century. In 1758 when he was twenty three, John Adams was ready to practice the legal career.