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Collectie Anefo/Nationaal Archief - Rob Croes

American presidents and their special relationship with Leiden

President John Quincy Adams studied in Leiden. His father, John, who was also president, also stayed here and received a lot of support from professor and publisher Johan Luzac. And how are presidents Bush and Obama linked to Leiden?

Traces in the city and university

The recently deceased American president George Bush Sr. visited Leiden on 17 July 1989. Like other American presidents, he had a special bond with Leiden. What clues did they leave behind? 

Student house of John Quincy Adams

It's a well-kept secret because nothing about the big terracotta-coloured corner house on the Langebrug, number 45, gives away that an important person once lived here: John Quincy Adams (1767 - 1848). He was the sixth President of the United States, from 1825 to 1829, following in the footsteps of his father John Adams, the second president of the US.  Adams Sr., along with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, was one of the initiators of the American Declaration of Independence. This was endorsed by the Continental Congress on 4 July 1776, marking the official foundation of the United States of America. John Sr. brought his sons John Quincy and Charles with him to Europe when he became ambassador there. His mission was to gain support for the new American state. After a stay in France the family moved to the Netherlands, where John Adams worked for two years. Initially they all lived in Amsterdam, but John Sr. thought that Leiden was a better place for his sons and sent them to the oldest university in the country.

Enrolment at Leiden University

In January 1781 John Quincy and his brother Charles enrolled at Leiden University. The admissions register from that time containing their names can still be found in the University Library. At no. 146 'Johannes Quincy Adams, Americanus'. He was only 13 at the time, but that was not such an unusual age to enrol in those days. Jan Postma, former mayor of Leiden, reconstructed  the Adams' family's time in Leiden in his article 'John Adams en zijn Leidse vrienden' (Jaarboekje voor geschiedenis en oudheidkunde van Leiden en omstreken, 2011). Postma used their correspondence and diaries for this. 

'The Company and Conversation are better' in Leiden

Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, who had remained in America, that he had sent his secretary with both sons to Leiden 'there to take up their Residence for some time, and there to pursue their Studies of Latin and Greek under the excellent Masters, and there to attend Lectures of the celebrated Professors in that University. It is much cheaper there than here [Amsterdam]: the Air is infinitely purer; and the Company and Conversation are better. It is perhaps as learned an University as any in Europe.' 

Inspiration for American universities

John Quincy was a particularly good student who took classes in ancient languages, medicine and law. In his letters he asked questions about their studies, the professors and the organisation of the university because he was seeking inspiration for the foundation of American universities. 

Collaboration with professor and publisher Luzac

According to Postma, father Adams was influenced by his contact with Leiden professors, dignitaries and clergy at the time. He formed a lifelong friendship with publisher and professor Johan Luzac (1746-1807), who later became Rector Magnificus of the University. Luzac published the French-language paper Gazette de Leyde. The newspaper commanded international respect due to its solid reporting on international developments and was read in both Europe and America. Luzac reported in his paper about the young American state. In 1781, the year of their stay  in Leiden, Great Britain had conceded in the War of Independence. Luzac helped Adams publish papers that called for recognition of the United States by the Republic of the United Netherlands. 

Written plea to States General

Adams often visited Leiden, once staying six weeks. In the house on Langebrug he wrote an important memo to the States-General of the Republic in which he referred to the tolerant climate in Leiden, which had led the Pilgrim Fathers to seek refuge there in the 17th century. The Republic agreed and was the third country in Europe after France and Spain to support the struggle against England. This was important because the young state was trying to raise loans in Europe. Adams and Luzac remained in contact for the rest of their lives and wrote about the developments in their own countries. 

Return to the US

It is said that son John Quincy learnt to speak fluent Dutch in Leiden, but he did not stay there for long. After a year he travelled to Russia for a long diplomatic posting. After a number of years in Europe the family returned to the US, where John Adams became president after George Washington (from 1797 to 1801). 

Another president in the family

Son John Quincy studied law at Harvard and, like his father, was ambassador to the Netherlands (1794-1797). After a post as minister for Foreign Affairs he became president in 1825. That was not a success. Adams Jr. wanted a strong central government, but the states did not accept that. After his first term he entered Congress and later the House of Representatives. He became a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery.

Nine presidents descendants of Leiden pilgrims

No fewer than nine American presidents have indirect links to Leiden. They are descendents of the Pilgram Fathers, a group of English puritan protestants who fled via Amsterdam to Leiden after a conflict with the Church of England. Many of them left for America in 1620 to found their own colony there. In the United States they are known as the founding fathers of modern America. 

Bush and Obama

Genealogical research, confirmed by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, has revealed that, through his mother's line, Barack Obama is a direct descendant of the Leiden pilgrim family Blossom. Thomas and Anne Blossom had six children, two of whom were Elizabeth and Peter. Obama is a descendent of Elizabeth. Surprisingly enough, former presidents George Bush Sr. and Jr. are descendants of Peter, which makes Obama and Bush distant relatives. Presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Ulysses Grant, Calvin Coolidge, Zachary Taylor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are also descendents of Leiden Pilgrims. 

Bush visit to Leiden

President George Bush Sr. referred to his distant ancestors when he visited Leiden on 17 July 1989 and gave a speech in the Pieterskerk where Leiden Pilgrim Fathers are buried. ‘And it was here in Leiden that the Pilgrims came to escape persecution - to live, work, and worship in peace. In the shadow of the Pieterskerk, they found the freedom to witness God openly and without fear. (…) And it was from this place the Pilgrims set their course for a New World. In their search for liberty, they took with them lessons learned here of freedom and tolerance.’

No tangible traces of the current American president, Donald Trump, have yet been found in Leiden.

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