The Horribly Dressed, Socially Awkward, Genius President
According to research conducted by Professor of Psychology at UC Davis Dean Simonton, a rather interesting facet of early U.S. Presidents was their propensity to be insanely intelligent compared to their contemporaries. This is perhaps no better illustrated than with the subject of our video today. A man who is generally considered the most intelligent of all U.S. Presidents. Despite this, fascinatingly, from his days of representing his country starting at 14 to his death at the age of 80, arguably the 4 years he spent as President were among the years of his life he accomplished the least, for reasons we’ll get into later. This was also a time period he would later note was “The four most miserable years of my life…” Nevertheless, while his Presidency itself was relatively undistinguished, though arguably about a century ahead of his time in some of what he tried to accomplish, the rest of his life was anything but, with few in history influencing the long term course of the United States more than the man of the hour- the horribly dressed, extremely socially awkward, genius, sixth President of the United States John Quincy Adams.
While we’ll get into the interesting details of Adam’s many idiosyncrasies shortly, as well as why he is generally considered a genius on the level of the likes of Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin in raw intelligence, we should probably first give a brief synopsis of the almost unparalleled number of things Adams did over the course of his life to help shape the United States, as well as how he managed to achieve the nation’s highest office despite being someone who one of his own staff members once noted “has no manners, is gauche… and is only fit to turn over musty law authorities. You would blush to see him in society, and particularly at Court circles, walking about perfectly listless, speaking to no one, and absolutely looking as if he were in a dream.”
So let’s dive into it, shall we?
Rather a Grave in the Ocean
The son of the eventual second U.S. President John Adams, John Quincy Adams was quite literally molded from his teen years to reach the heights only 44 others have so far to date. On this note, while it’s a bit of a cliche for parents to make remarks like “when my child grows up to become President”, John Quincy Adams’ parents seem to have taken this idea very seriously, to the extent that anything less would have been a disappointment.
Lest you think that statement hyperbole, the Senior Adams would write in a letter to John Quincy on April 23, 1794, “You come into Life with Advantages which will disgrace you, if your success is médiocre.— And if you do not rise to the head not only of your Profession but of your Country it will be owing to your own Laziness Slovenliness and Obstinacy.”
His mother, Abigail, was also not messing around, writing to John Quincy when he’d just completed a risky trip across the big blue at the age of 10, “For dear as you are to me, I had much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean you have crossed… rather than see you an immoral profligate or a graceless child.” She also would later write to him, “How unpardonable would it have been in you, to have been a Blockhead.”
Going back to his father, while there were periods he wasn’t always exactly present, for example being heavily involved in the American Revolution, including one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, when not around, the senior Adams still wrote to his son regularly, encouraging him to read, and in some cases translate, certain works he felt important for his son to study in depth, from Virgil, Horace, Aristotle, and Plutarch, to Thucydides and Hugo Grotius, as well as generally pushing John Quincy in all facets of his education and life to excel. Taking to such things like a fish in water, the Jr. Adams soon found his knowledge on many subjects superior to even some of his teachers throughout his formal schooling.
Abigail stated of this, “If you are conscious to yourself that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others…, reflect that you have had greater opportunities of seeing the world, and obtaining a knowledge of Mankind than any of your contemporaries, that you have never wanted a Book, but it has been supplied you, that your whole time has been spent in the company of Men of Literature and Science…”
The senior Adams would also write on December 28, 1780 to his son who had apparently recently taken up ice skating, that even in this he should endeavor to excel, writing, “as your Constitution requires vigorous Exercise, it will not be amiss to spend some of your Time in swimming, Riding, Dancing, Fencing and Skaiting, which are all manly Amusements, and it is as easy to learn by a little Attention, to perform them all with Taste, as it is to execute them in a slovenly, Awkward and ridiculous Manner…” And on this point, “Every Thing in Life should be done with Reflection, and Judgment, even the most insignificant Amusements. They should all be arranged in subordination, to the great Plan of Happiness, and Utility. That you may attend early to this Maxim is the Wish of your affectionate Father.”
And attend to this John Quincy did. With his natural genius, pressure from his parents to excel and work hard, in combination with proper training and guidance from those parents, along with access to the best schools and tutors, and getting to spend the years from 10-17 roaming around Europe rubbing elbows with some of the most distinguished people of the era, all forged a young man whose brain few men of his age could match.
Speaking of his time in Europe, beyond helping his father out in various ways in his diplomatic activities all over Europe, at 14 John Quincy served as a secretary and translator to famed American diplomat Francis Dana in St. Petersburg. When he wasn’t doing things like that, he was busy attending school, studying Greek, Latin, French, law, fencing, dance, music, art, etc.
From there, returning to the United States at the age of 17 in 1785, he attended Harvard and ultimately graduated second in his class. After this, he studied law at Theophilus Parsons, and then spent a few years building up a thriving law practice before, in 1794, President George Washington offered Adams a position as U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands. His work there and reports back were by all accounts exceptional, and a couple years later this all saw him appointed ambassador to Portugal and later Prussia. In all of this, his youth traveling around Europe with his father doing similar things served him extremely well.
By 1802, he was back home serving in the Massachusetts Senate and a year later became a U.S. Senator. While Senator, he also variously taught as a professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, as well as a professor of logic at Brown University.
Ultimately resigning as Senator, from here, in 1809 he took a position as the U.S. Minister to Russia and by 1811 was even nominated to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, something that the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed… Except turns out Adams didn’t want the job and became one of only seven people in all of U.S. history to turn down such a position once their nomination was confirmed. He later would serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Britain before, in 1817, being appointed to a position that was then considered something of a stepping stone to President- U.S. Secretary of State.
A Great Man in the Wrong place, at the Wrong time
While many of his activities in all of this were extremely noteworthy, perhaps most significant of all, his ideas helped form the basis for the famed Monroe Doctrine, which has had a massive effect on the United States and other American nations ever since. In a nutshell, among other things, this closed the Americas off for further colonization by European powers, with any such activities or hostilities against an American nation by such entities being, from that point on, considered by the U.S. an attack on the United States itself. As you might expect given the nation was only a few decades old, this was an extremely bold declaration. But, in the end, also effective.
Former Managing Editor of The Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Margaret A. Hogan, would sum up Adams’ work as Secretary of State, “As a diplomat, he set the essential marks of American foreign policy for the next century: freedom of the seas, a halt to further European colonization in the Western Hemisphere, continental expansion, reciprocal trade, and isolationism from European affairs. His formidable skills as an international diplomat ushered in two generations of peace with Europe.”
Unsurprisingly from all this, Adams is generally ranked as one of the best Secretary of States in U.S. history.
From here, before getting into Adams’ many interesting personality quirks and habits, we should probably briefly discuss his Presidency, which started out quite interesting, before becoming much less so. You see, John Quincy was not elected President via the popular vote, nor even the electoral college. Both of those went to his main rival Andrew Jackson, largely on the strength of the slave states backing Jackson and more or less shunning Adams’ as a rumored slavery hater, even though it wouldn’t be until later in his life that he’d make this a political cause he’d champion. But back to his election, as Jackson had not won the needed majority in the electoral college, the House of Representatives was tasked with choosing the next President. All that went into that decision would take an entire video of its own to adequately cover, but suffice it to say for the purpose of this video, Adams, not Jackson was chosen- a matter of some extreme controversy at the time, and something, combined with Adams’ loathing of party politics, that hindered to a great degree Adams’ ability to accomplish much during his Presidency, with Congress refusing to pass many of his initiatives. Not helping matters either, the party he’d campaigned under split into the National Republican Party and the Democratic Party.
That said, many of the things he tried to accomplish would have likely been nation changing had he managed it, including trying to push something akin to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in promoting a massive string of internal improvements to the country in the form of roads and canals and many other public projects. He also pushed for the federal government setting the national agenda, a rather unpopular notion in many quarters at the time, but in all of this things that would later be huge boons to the United States when actually implemented later in history.
On all this, while Adams was arguably the right man at the right time for so many of his jobs serving his nation before and after his presidency, during it, historian George Dangerfield would posit Adams was, to quote, “a rather conspicuous example of a great man in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the right motives and a tragic inability to make himself understood.”
While he may have been able to make up for things if elected in a second term more properly, it was not to be for countless reasons that seemingly had less to do with his abilities and actual conduct as President, and more to do with people’s perception of him, which was further skewed by one of the earliest truly vicious presidential campaigns in U.S. history. In this one, Jackson and his side were quite happy to not so much focus on the issues, but vilify and exaggerate, or sometimes even just make up, perceived flaws in Adams- something commonplace in politics today, but at the time, at least to the extent, not. As for Adams’ side, while he tended to shun that style of politicking, and also attempted to stay above, to quote him, the “baneful weed of party strife,” his followers weren’t so principled- happy to sling mud right back at Jackson, though seemingly not as effectively.
Making matters worse for his chance at reelection, Adams also had little interest in effectively campaigning at all. Even largely ignoring campaigning via public functions, perhaps not a surprise for a man who disliked socializing. For example, when asked to come do some politicking while helping to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, he nixed the idea. Later, given he could speak German and spent significant time in the region as an ambassador, he was also encouraged to go open a canal in a German speaking area of Pennsylvania to help boost his standing there, something he likewise declined stating, “This mode of electioneering suited neither my taste nor my principles.”
In yet another invite to press the flesh at a major agricultural fair in Baltimore, he once again declined, stating if he accepted, it would just encourage more such events. He states, “From cattle-shows to other public meetings for purposes of utility or exposure of public sentiment, the transition is natural and easy. This is no part of my duty.” He further went on, “My journeys and my visits, wherever they may be, shall have no connection with the Presidency.”
And even in 1827 when he otherwise probably should have been out campaigning his heart out, when returning to his home town of Quincy, he asked everyone who knew he was going home to not tell anyone. Perhaps explaining his reasoning why here, during his Presidency when a huge crowd did turn out to see and honor him, Adams remarked “I have no pleasure in these scenes.”
On all this, his refusal to go out campaigning directly, as well as his refusal to directly address the accusations against him by his opponent and co., left many of those closest to him extremely frustrated. This was, in some respects, a quite simple man who, for example, despite being relatively well off often ate plain crackers for meals instead of fancy dinners, and who one of his favorite activities was to sit at home by himself and study his Bible- things which contrasted sharply with the elitist, corrupt, aristocratic “professor” version of Adams that Jackson’s supporters pushed. Given this, the person who knew him best, his wife Louisa, lamented, “If he would only lend himself a little to the usages and manners of the people without hiding himself and… rejecting their civilities, no man could be more popular because his manners are simple, unostentatious, and unassuming.”
Ironically given his character was so frequently attacked, Adams himself very clearly had an extremely strong sense of morality and the importance to never stray from doing the right thing, a frequent source of musings in his journal. For example, he once wrote, “It is essential. that you should form and adopt certain rules or principles for the government of your own conduct and temper. Unless you have such rules and principles, there will be numberless occasions on which you will have no guide for your government but your passions.”
He also frequently wrote about other famed individuals of his era, analyzing how their poor character inevitably led to their downfall, and lamenting how much more they could have been if they’d cultivated better moral centers, including discussing everyone from Lord Byron to Napoleon. On the latter, writing in 1814, “The Emperor Napoleon says that he was never seduced by prosperity; but when he comes to be judged impartially by posterity that will not be their sentence. His fortune will be among the wonders of the age in which he has lived. His military talent and genius will place him high in the rank of great captains; but his intemperate passion, his presumptuous insolence, and his Spanish and Russian wars, will reduce him very nearly to the level of ordinary men. At all events he will be one of the standing examples of human vicissitude, ranged not among the Alexanders, Caesars, and Charlemagnes, but among the Hannibals, Pompeys, and Charles the 12th.”
That said, the way he was elected to his first term and how that was perceived didn’t exactly help with the whole idea that he was a corrupt politician through and through. Even his love of playing pool was used as a point against his character, including a major point of contention being his installing a billiard table in the White House, with billiards actually being illegal in some regions of the country at the time- something Adams seemingly thought ridiculous and not worth caring about, simply stating it was “a resource both for exercise and amusement.”
The United States Telegraph reported of this in an editorial written by one Duff Green, “Can it be that the President’s House is to be converted into a place of resort, where gamblers may idle away an hour? Is it right that the President, as the head and father of a moral, religious and money-saving people, should set such an example – should throw the weight of his character and situation on the side of games of hazard? Who can number the cases, in which young and old already justify their gambling practices by the example – at least by the Billiard table of the President?”
To be fair on that last point, there is one case in 1826 where a jury in Mississippi ultimately let one man off for his illegal public billiard table with the defense successfully arguing their client had “as good a right to establish a billiard table as the President of the United States.”
Doubling down on the scandal, it was even claimed, thanks to an error in bookkeeping, that he’d used public funds to pay for the pool table, though in reality he’d purchased it with his own money. Despite this error being corrected internally, Adams seemed to see little point in caring if the wider public knew the truth or not. And his opponents likewise didn’t seem to care to correct their statements about it all.
Even the defense of all this, such as the National Gazette in Philadelphia correctly pointing out the billiard table was “a common appendage in the houses of the rich and great in Europe, and by no means uncommon as such in the United States” didn’t help, because Adams’ opponents just used it in support of the idea that Adams, who had spent a large portion of his life abroad, and his foreign wife were elitist and aristocratic who spent too much time, to quote one account “in the houses of the rich and great in Europe.”
Needless to say, the combination of all of this saw Jackson become President and Adams becoming only the second U.S. President at the time to not serve a second term, the other individual being his father.
That said, while he initially floundered a bit after losing his election bid, he ultimately bucked the trend of leaving politics after being President, and decided to continue on in lesser roles, becoming the first President to serve in Congress after being President, and still the only one to serve in the House of Representatives after holding the nation’s highest office- both things U.S. history after should be very grateful for.
We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident
If John Quincy Adams’ Presidency was relatively unremarkable, his time in Congress after was not, though much of what he advocated would be accomplished by his successors, such as Abraham Lincoln adopting many of the arguments Adams used when trying to put an end to slavery in the United States. As alluded to, slavery became the area Adams’ focussed on the most in the waning years of his political life, notably also along with fighting for women’s rights and Native Americans- all things which in his era generally weren’t exactly highly praised, but have seen historians today view his work outside of his Presidency much more favorably in retrospect. As for the slavery question, he stated it was his goal to “bring about a day prophesied when slavery and war shall be banished from the face of the Earth”.
Speaking of Lincoln, he is often credited as a Congressional pallbearer at Adams’ funeral but when really digging into it, evidence seems to be that in reality John Wentworth represented Illinois in this role. That said, Lincoln was a freshman Congressman at the time of Adams’ death and, like Adams at that time, a Whig. Perhaps unsurprisingly from this, as just noted, Lincoln embraced many of Adams’ ideas on this front in trying to rid the nation of slavery. For example, Adams argued that the Declaration of Independence was a foundational document defining the United States every bit as much as the Constitution. This was an important supposition, as Adams’ stated, “The fault is in the Constitution of the United States, which has sanctioned a dishonorable compromise with slavery.” Whereas the Declaration of Independence, in strong contrast, states very clearly “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Not just pushing the Declaration of Independence and its ideas as guiding and core principles of the nation, Adams also claimed in a speech he gave on July 4th, 1837, “The inconsistency of the institution of domestic slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, was seen and lamented by all the southern patriots of the Revolution; by no one with deeper and more unalterable conviction, than by the author of the Declaration himself.”
Going further on the hypocrisy, he wrote back in 1820, “The discussion of this Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls. In the abstract they admit that slavery is an evil, they disclaim it, and cast it all upon the shoulder of Great Britain. But when probed to the quick upon it, they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vain glory in their condition of masterdom. They look down upon the simplicity of a Yankee’s manners, because he has no habits of overbearing like theirs and cannot treat negroes like dogs. It is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principle. It establishes false estimates of virtue and vice: for what can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?”
Another method of attack against slavery Adams pushed was to try to not allow its spread any further into new territories. In this way, inevitably the non-slave regions would come to dominate the political discourse of the nation over time. Of course, in the end, Adams well knew that the issues of slavery could well split the nation he loved and had dedicated his life to. Nevertheless, he championed the cause, stating, “if the dissolution of the Union must come, let it come from no other cause but this.”
In all this, while he may have been the wrong man at the wrong time during his presidency, he was unequivocally the right man at the right time afterwards in this fight. His age and popularity among those electing him to Congress basically set in stone allowing him the freedom to do and say whatever he wished without too much concern. Further, his extreme stubbornness and willingness to advocate for what he felt was right regardless of what anyone else thought or who he pissed off, as well as general attitude of if you push him, he will push back with extreme vigor, also proved a huge boon. On this note, over the course of his time fighting to end slavery in the United States, including defending the captives from the famed 1841 United States v. The Amistad before the Supreme Court, correspondents indicating he’d soon be murdered became something of a regular occurance for Adams, such as one that stated, “You will when least expected, be shot down in the street, or your damaged guts will be cut out in the dark.”
Yet while these often caused others who knew him a great deal of anxiety, Adams himself generally seemed little concerned and simply kept fighting the fight regardless. In the end, all resulting in one Virginian slave holder lamenting that Adams was the “acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.”
Or, as the aforementioned Adams Family Papers Editor, Margaret A. Hogan, would sum up, “The same high-minded and rigidly uncompromising stance on moral issues that so weakened his effectiveness as a President served him well as a representative in Congress. In taking up the battle against slavery, Adams greatly redeemed himself in the eyes of history…”
In all this, he ultimately helped lay much of the foundation for what Lincoln and his supporters built on.
Going back to the Amistad case, as just alluded to, he famously helped represent the defendants. Briefly, in this one a group of captured Africans were being transported from Cuba on the ironically named ship Amistad (meaning “Friendship”) when they managed to free themselves and take the ship, in the process killing some of the crew. Afterwards the remaining crew tricked them into landing in the U.S. where the over 50 rebellious alleged slaves were subsequently taken into custody. The case deciding their fate went all the way to the supreme court where Adams and co, working pro bono, ultimately managed to successfully argue the individuals were legally within their rights to rebel as they did, even to the extent of killing some of their captors.
So that’s a relatively brief synopsis of some of the things Adams did to help guide the young nation in massively significant ways both abroad and domestically. But what about the man himself? And just how smart was he?
Inferior to None
Determining just how intelligent a given person in history was can be notoriously difficult with any degree of accuracy. However, it turns out we can actually know a lot about this in John Quincy Adams’ case. Not just from his life being relatively well documented through his various prominent positions, but because the man himself kept a journal of his daily activities and thoughts going all the way back to when he was 12 years old, and continuing the practice to his death at 80. This was a daily habit he began at the encouragement of his father, with Adams writing in his journal, “My Pappa enjoins it upon me to keep a journal, or a diary, of the Events that happen to me, and of objects that I See, and of Characters that I converse with from day, to day.” And while he often lamented the time it took to do this, the some 15,000 very candid and self-critical pages he’d write in this way have since become one of the most widely studied journals of any individual in history. This is thanks to his involvement and often direct observation in matters all over the globe in various courts, right down to his presence in France when Napoleon escaped from Elba.
Ironically from how well studied these are and that, for example, his journals are accessible online for anyone in the world to read, he once beseeched his wife, Louisa, to make sure to never allow his letters to be seen by anyone but herself, writing in August of 1822 when discussing the first woman he fell in love with, “I have burnt none of your journals, and shall keep them all. I do not even ask you to burn this or any other of my letters; but I entreat you not to mislay them, or let them get into any other hands than your own. Consider with what ineffable ridicule you would cover me, if you should suffer my confession of my first love to get abroad—and how I never told my love, But let concealment like a woman in the bud. Pray on my damask cheek.”
This all brings us to the question of ranking his intelligence. While of course, the idea of someone’s IQ is a rather nebulous concept, and evaluating people from history on this front and their intelligence in a specific ranking just doubles down on the uncertainty. Once again, in the case of Adams, given those around 15,000 pages of writings in his journal and countless accounts from others in his era regarding his apparent very obvious brain power, it’s perhaps easier than with some others to assess with a reasonable level of accuracy.
As for that evaluation, according to a 2006 study, Presidential IQ, Openness, Intellectual Brilliance, and Leadership: Estimates and Correlations for 42 U.S. Chief Executives, done by the aforementioned Professor Dean Simonton of UC Davis, after extensive evaluation of all U.S. Presidents up through 2006 when the study was published, Simonton determined Adams roughly had an IQ of about 168. Which not only put him thoroughly in the genius category, but a genius of geniuses. And if you’re curious here, the least intelligent president according to the study was Ulyses S Grant, although his IQ was still rated at around 120, well above average. With some of the other most intelligent Presidents of all time including runner ups Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy.
Going back to Adams, the aforementioned Congressional librarian George Watterston would describe his intelligence, “[I]n close argumentation, in logical analysis, in amplification and regular disposition, he is said to have been inferior to none…”
He was also reportedly fluent in, beyond English, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin, Russian, and Spanish, though he did lament in his journal how difficult he found German to learn when he set his mind to doing so after becoming a U.S. ambassador in Prussia, though he got there in the end- learning foreign languages being nothing new to him at that point. In fact, before the age of 20, as previously alluded to, he had already translated works by Horace, Virgil, Aristotle, and Plutarch, as well as during his freshman year at Harvard translated the entire New Testament from Greek to English, as you do… because where else are you going to get a copy of the Bible in English?
The Deeper I Go
Among many other academic pursuits, one curious element of his brain was his obsession with measuring things, even down to his own gate. He states, “I have found, by experiments frequently repeated, that my ordinary pace is two feet six inches and eighty-eight one-hundredths of an inch, or about twenty-nine French inches, and that in my ordinary pace I walk one hundred and twenty steps to a minute.”
Important on this he developed a hobby of studying different weights and measures systems, as you do, such as Russia’s, England’s, and even the then relatively new French metric system. This obsession, however, was not exactly appreciated by his wife, who stated, “Mr. Adams too often passed [the evening] alone studying weights and measures practically that he might write a work on them: no article however minute escaped his observation and to this object he devoted all his time.”
The man himself would state of his passion for the subject, “The deeper I go, the deeper and darker appears the deep beneath, and although the want of time will soon force me to break away from the subject without even finding its bottom, yet it now fascinates and absorbs me to the neglect of the most necessary business.”
He would even at one point skip a vacation with his family to continue to pursue the subject once Congress tasked him with compiling a report on it as they contemplated adopting or creating a uniform standard for weights and measures in the Untied States. Louisa would write of this to their son John, “Your father [is] more deeply immersed in business than ever and less capable of participating in any domestic enjoyments…his whole mind is so intent on weights and measures that you would suppose his very existence depended on this report.”
That said, it would appear to the man himself it was not so much that his own life depended on it, but so many others, with his report potentially helping to set what the U.S. would do, and thus significantly affecting every citizen in some way, with Adams writing, “Weights and measures may be ranked among the necessaries of life, to every individual of human society. They enter into the economical arrangements and daily concerns of every family. They are necessary to every occupation of human industry; to the distribution and security of every species of property; to every transaction of trade and commerce; to the labors of the husbandman; to the ingenuity of the artificer; the studies of the philosopher; to the researches of the antiquarian; to the navigation of the mariner, and the marches of the soldier; to all the exchanges of peace, and all the operations of war. The knowledge of them, as in established use, is among the first elements of education, and is often learnt by those who learn nothing else, not even to read and write. This knowledge is riveted in the memory by the habitual application of it to the employments of men throughout life. Every individual, or at least every family, has the weights and measures used in the vicinity, and recognized by the custom of the place. To change all this at once, is to affect the well-being of every man, woman, and child, in the community. It enters every house, it cripples every hand.”
Needless to say, he took it extremely seriously.
After being tasked with the report, what followed was three and a half years of extremely obsessive work on the subject, while also performing his other duties, ultimately producing a Report Upon Weights and Measures which was noted by his father John Adams as “a Mass of historical, philosophical, chemical, mathematical and political knowledge which no Industry in this country but yours could have collected in so short a time.”
Quincy Adams himself would, upon its completion, consider it his greatest written achievement, writing in his journal, “It is, after all the time and pains that I have bestowed upon it a hurried and imperfect work; but I have no reason to expect that I shall ever be able to accomplish any literary labour more important to the best ends of human exertion, public utility, or upon which the remembrance of my children may dwell with more satisfaction.”
While he may have felt his children would admire him for this work, after he’d finished it, his wife would simply write, “Thank God we hear no more of Weights and Measures.”
As for Congress, after considering the report, and in particular Adams’ recommending that “no innovation upon the existing weights and measures should be attempted”, and simply that the U.S. should declare its measures “as they now exist” as official and create and give metal measurements to the states and territories, they decided to take no action on it.
But if after hearing all this you’re now wondering if perhaps John Quincy Adams was on the autistic spectrum, given a thorough analyses of his insane amount of personal writings that survive through today, accounts of him, behavior patterns, etc, the general consensus is that yes, he likely was, though of course there is always some level of speculation when evaluating historic figures in this way.
The Iron Mask
On this note, as with seemingly many stereotypical geniuses and those on the spectrum, while Adams had a reputation as one of the elite orators and writers of his era, even earning the nickname “old man eloquent”, this did not apparently translate to ability to speak to other humans in more casual social settings, and he seems to have struggled mightily when it came to social graces, something he frequently lamented. For example, stating in his June 4, 1819 journal entry, “I am a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners; my political adversaries say a gloomy misanthropist, and my personal enemies an unsocial savage. With a knowledge of the actual defect in my character, I have not the pliability to reform it.”
His son Charles Francis would expand, “he makes enemies by perpetually wearing the iron mask.”
In another account, during his time as an ambassador in Russia, as we mentioned earlier, one of his own staff members, future General John Spear Smith, in a letter to his father Senator Samuel Smith written on June 9, 1810, stated Adams, “has no manners, is gauche, never was intended for a foreign Minister, and is only fit to turn over musty law authorities. You would blush to see him in society, and particularly at Court circles, walking about perfectly listless, speaking to no one, and absolutely looking as if he were in a dream. Dry sense alone does not do at European Courts. Something more is necessary, which is something Mr. [Adams] does not possess.”
In another account, it was noted, “Of all the men whom it was ever my lot to accost and waste civilities upon, [Adams] was the most dogged and systemically repulsive. With a vinegar aspect, cotton in his leathern ears, and hatred to England in his heart, he sat in the frivolous assemblies of St. Petersburg like a bull-dog among spaniels.”
Yet another contemporary stated, “many were the times that I drew monosyllable and grim smiles from him and tried in vain to mitigate his venom.”
That said, Congressional librarian George Watterston was not quite so harsh, stating, Adams was, “[N]either very agreeable nor very repulsive…. He is regular in his habits, and moral and temperate in his life. To great talent, he unites unceasing industry and perseverance, and an uncommon facility in the execution of business… He is evidently well skilled in the rhetorical art…[yet] with all his knowledge and talent did not attain the first rank among American orators. He wanted enthusiasm and fire; he wanted that nameless charm which, in oratory as well as poetry, delights and fascinates, and leads the soul captive.”
Interestingly given his lack of perceived passion seeming to hold him back in oratory and poetry, he once wrote, “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I would have made myself a great poet.” And in his own time, he was an avid composer of poetry, and even penning many hymns, as well as translating poems by certain foreign poets to English, such as Christoph Martin Wieland’s Oberon. Further, for whatever it’s worth, famed poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson would ultimately include Adams’ poem The Wants of Man in a collection of Emerson’s favorite poems.
But in any event, one newspaper account during his first presidential campaign would likewise try to be as fair as possible to the man, stating, “a man of inherent talent for business, of great acquirements, of undoubted patriotism, but of cynical irascibility, which the court discipline of forty years has not quite subdued. He is a good theorist on the subject of ‘Etiquette,’ but the most indifferent man in the world as to the practice. He is neither so good as friends, nor so bad as his enemies, would make him appear. His faults will be remembered and exaggerated of course; but it is our duty not to forget his merits.”
As for Adams, he would write seemingly a dyed in the wool introvert credo, “Solitude and silence are natural allies…” And of socializing, he wrote on July 15, 1820, “I went out this Evening in search of conversation; an art of which I never had an adequate idea. Long as I have lived in the world I never have thought of conversation as a school, in which something was to be learned. I never knew how to make, to control or to change it— I am by Nature a silent animal, and my dear mother’s constant lesson in childhood, that children in company should be seen and not heard confirmed me irrevocably in what I now deem a bad habit. Conversation is an art of the highest importance, and a school in which for the business of life, more may perhaps be learnt than from books— It is indeed, and must be desultory and superficial; and as a school consists more in making others talk, than in talking. Therein has been and ever will be my deficiency— The talent of starting the game— A man who has that need talk but little himself—when once the ball is set in motion, it will roll, and in considering conversation as a school, I mean it as a school to learn, and not to teach.”
While still a relatively young man on January 1, 1788, he also lamented in his journal a particular party he attended and the various amounts of idiocy observed as ever at such events, for example noting, “After we had sat a little while the infallible request to sing made its appearance. One could not sing, and another could not sing, and a total incapacity to sing, was declared all round the room. If, upon such occasions every one would adhere, to his first assertion, it would be very agreeable; at least to me: for in these mixt companies when the musical powers are finally exerted, the only recompense, for the intolerable tediousness of urging, generally is a few very insipid songs, sung in a very insipid manner. But the misfortune is, that some one always relents, and by singing furnishes the only materials for a conversation, which consists in entreaties for further gratifications of the same kind…. When we had gone through this ceremony, and had grown weary of it; another equally stupid succeeded; it was playing pawns: a number of pledges were given all round, and kissing was the only condition upon which they were redeem’d. Ah! what kissing! ‘Tis a profanation, of one of the most endearing demonstrations of Love. A kiss unless warm’d by sentiment, and enlivened by affection, may just as well be given to the air, as to the most beautiful, or the most accomplished object in the Universe.”
Now, you might at this point be wondering how someone with so little social grace could become President. Well, there were a number of factors at play. But let’s now talk a little about Adams’ wife, Louisa, without whom, his life may have taken a very different path, and very possibly never one that saw him in the Whitehouse, which we’ll get into in a bit. The then only foreign born First Lady, born in England and raised in England and France, Louisa was the daughter of American merchant Joshua Johnson and an English mother Catherine Nuth. Despite her father being a supporter of the American Revolution and an American himself, Louisa did not visit the country until after marrying Adams.
As for their relationship, the couple’s marriage was considered to have been, shall we say, occasionally difficult, with the pairs’ rather strong and contrasting personalities rubbing each other the wrong way on more than one occasion. As Louisa would write, “Happy indeed would it have been for Mr. Adams if he had broken his engagement, and not harassed himself with a wife altogether so unsuited to his peculiar character, and still more peculiar prospects. When we were married every disappointment seemed to fall upon us at once. … [O]ur views of things were totally different on many essential points.”
They nonetheless were married for a half a century, and over time seemed to have grown to genuinely admire one another, despite their differences and Adams’s, shall we say extreme frankness and occasional focussing on what could go wrong instead of looking on the bright and optimistic side of things. At the least, explaining himself on these two points, he wrote to Louisa in response to her sarcastically complaining about this facet of his personality, “[P]leasing contemplations…do not alone su[ffic]e for the happiness of any person’s life, and…the tenderest attachment may sometimes discover itself by pointing the attention of its beloved friend to useful reflection. I do most sincerely wish that you may never find from experience that pleasing contemplations are summer friends, ready to fly from the first appearance of difficulty; but I am sure that you will often have occasion to know that reflection, and the habit of seeing by anticipation the inconveniences and evils inevitably annexed to every approaching prospect, is in reality a kind and benevolent adviser. As I prefer suffering the mortification even of a sneer from you, rather than the future reproach of having excited false though pleasing contemplations, I readily renounce all pretensions to address in the art of pleasing, and hope you will find me throughout life rather a true and faithful than a complaisant friend.”
John Quincy would also write of his affection for Louisa, “ [C]ould you…for a moment harbour the thought that there is any quarter of the world, or any situation in life which can diminish your worth in my estimation, or render your society less essential to my happiness? No Louisa. You are the delight and pride of my life.”
Going back to Adams’s confession of the first woman he ever loved to his wife and how he never told that woman of his feelings, he concluded that letter, “Happily for me, when many years afterwards I did tell my love, and you was the hearer, it was for a worthier object, and a better purpose. That was an affection, for this world, and I humbly hope, for the next. and so I am yours.”
To which Louisa replied, “[B]e assured the world itself without you will ever be an aching void to your [Louisa].”
She would also write summing up their relationship later in life, “Much of bad and good has fallen to our lot: but take it all in all we have probably done as well as our neighbors, and have been as much blessed as mortals usually are who cannot pretend to any extraordinary degree of perfection.”
On this frank assessment of their relationship, he would also write in his journal on July 26, 1811, “I have this day been married fourteen years, during which I have to bless God for the enjoyment of a portion of felicity, resulting from this relation in society, greater than falls to the generality of mankind and far beyond anything that I have been conscious of deserving…. Our union has not been without its trials, nor invariably without dissensions between us. There are many differences of sentiment, of tastes and of opinions in regard to domestic economy, and to the education of children, between us. There are natural frailties of temper in both of us; both being quick and irascible, and mine being sometimes harsh. But she has always been a faithful and affectionate wife, and a careful, tender, indulgent, and watchful mother to our children, all of whom she nursed herself. I have found in this connection from decisive experience the superior happiness of the marriage state over that of celibacy, and a full conviction that my lot in marriage has been highly favored.”
The Principal Gainer
Going back to Adam’s social deficiencies and his political life, they also seem to have made a great team in this way right from the start while serving in Berlin and Russia, with Louisa seeming to have helped make up for her husband’s lack of social graces, quickly endearing herself to those courts.
Much more significantly, back in the U.S., she also played the same role, helping to significantly bolster Adams’s position and breadth of social contacts. If her husband himself had little interest or inclination in socializing and networking amongst the elite of the nation, she’d just invite them all into their home with extreme regularity, and make these occasions events few would turn down an invitation to. Towards this end, she established weekly parties at their home featuring a who’s who of individuals from the earliest portions of U.S. history. Including Lousia instituting something of a new form of invite practice, often not just inviting specific guests to one party, but multiple parties at a time. But spaced out and with different individuals carefully selected to be invited to different sets of parties. In the end, it was generally considered that their gatherings were the epicenter of social activities in Washington DC, with the only other parties matching at the White House itself.
On her thoughts on this and the importance of her husband improving his social standing, Louisa wrote John Quincy, “Take a good deal of small talk; a very little light literature; just sufficient attention to dress to avoid the appellation of a dandy: a considerable affectation of social affability; with as much suavity as will induce the fawners who surround him to fancy they rule him; a fine house, a showy carriage, and a tavern kind of keeping establishment; and you have the man whose popularity will carry everything before him.”
Of course, she knew well her husband’s deficiency here, and wrote to her father-in-law John Adams, lamenting, “…how much the greatest talents are obscured by that want of ease and small talk which, though in itself trifling, always produces the happy effect of socializing a company and by insensible degrees warming it into brilliancy and solidity. This is one of those arts that everybody feels, but few understand, and is altogether inexplicable.”
On this note, Louisa did her best to help her husband improve his social graces, writing to him, “[T]he constant hints of your most devoted friends would almost urge me who am so far very far inferior to you in every thing, to give you a lecture on common sense; or in other words on that worldly and every day sense, which is so essential to adapt us for the common intercourse of society… To you nothing is impossible…. At this critical time when all is warm in your favour, when the flash of superior talent has found its way into every soul susceptible of feeling; you should if possible seize the happy occasion to show yourself to your countrymen; and convince them that the coldness and austerity of which they complain, is not a part of your nature; but has only been produced by situation and circumstance. You will not I know be displeased at this expression of my wishes; for one of the qualities for which I have most respected you has always been that of bearing to hear the truth without impatience when it affects yourself. This is indeed an epitome of my favorite fable, and I think if I go any further I shall certainly share the fate of the Frog, and burst with my new born dignity of adviser.”
In a somewhat teasing response, Adams wrote his wife back discussing how he decided to utilize her advice on women, who thanks to it, now seemed, in more modern terms, inclined to universally throw themselves at him. He states, “Your letter contains so much excellent advice, that last Saturday evening at the Theatre where I was seeing Booth in Sir Edward Mortimer, and Mrs Burke in Little Pickle, I determined to commence my practice upon it, and I made myself as amiable as possible to Mrs. Gales and Miss Kitty Lee, who were in the same box with me. Now to commence a course of politesse and gallantry with the thermometer at 100 was truly distressing, and that I was enabled to undertake it proves to you how deeply I was convinced by your eloquence. I asked Mrs. Gales how it was possible for a woman to love a man with such honours as those of Sir Edward Mortimer. She said his misfortunes made him interesting, and I loved her the more when I heard [such] tenderness fall from her tongue. But as Mrs. Gales has a husband and I have a wife, I thought it was time to stay the use of my fascinating powers there; and with Miss Lee I was still less successful, having only had the advantage of supplying her with a play-bill. Now you must know there are already two conquests upon which I calculate, both achieved by your advice. And I have a presentiment that if I ever do acquire the faculty of being irresistible my greatest achievement, will be upon the Ladies of the [fair]—who as Montesquieu wisely observes are the best possible judges of some of the qualifications which constitute a great man…”
In another instance, when Adams’ was in the process of more or less destroying an opponent quite handedly, Louisa stepped in, writing, “…all your best friends are anxious that you should leave Jonathan the remnant of life which your last allowed him; and take as little notice of him as he merits. That the matter stands so fairly for you now, and that the public voice is so strongly expressed and manifested, that any future scourging would look like torturing a poor reptile, already crushed beyond recovery; and create a sensation of pity and compassion towards him which would re–elevate him to the notice and attention of the world, and give him claims upon society which are now lost forever. … Once more let me beseech you to spare your miserable opponent, and leave him to write himself into darker and deeper infamy than that into which he has plunged…”
On this one, Adams did not give a quippy reply, but rather a heartfelt one, writing, “Your journals…have become a sort of necessary of life to… me. Whatever the cause of the confidence which you say you have but recently acquired of writing to me whatever comes into your head, as I am the principal gainer by the acquisition—hope it will be permanent. Your advice is always acceptable, and if I do not always profit by it, mayhap it is sometimes from the waywardness of my own nature; and sometimes from an honest difference of opinion. Yet it is not always lost upon me…” And, indeed, in this case he took his wife’s advice and proceeded to ignore his public attacker and move on.
Going back to the parties, Congressman Elijah Hunt Mills wrote in December of 1820 of attending one of these events, “On Tuesday evening I went to Mrs. Adams’s, where I found forty or fifty people of different sexes collected from all parts of the Union, and crammed into a little room just large enough to contain them when standing up in groups… On Thursday I dined at the same house, and as the party consisted mostly of people with whom I am well acquainted, I passed the time very pleasantly… Mrs. Adams is, on the whole, a very pleasant and agreeable woman; but the Secretary has no talent to entertain a mixed company, either by convention or manners.”
That said, he did follow this up with, “He is, however, growing more popular, and, if he conducts with ordinary prudence, may be our next president…”
In 1821, Adams himself would take note of how the parties seemed to be enhancing his political clout, stating of one such, “Among the company was Henry Brush of Ohio…. In the course of the evening he told me, commencing rather abruptly the conversation, that he had made up his mind that I was the most suitable person for the next Presidency…”
The pinnacle of these gatherings occurred during the run up to the election. In this one, Louisa decided to throw a grand ball honoring, ironically given how they’d soon become bitter political rivals, Andrew Jackson on the anniversary of his 1815 defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans. Noteworthy here, Adams had hoped Jackson would agree to become his Vice President, stating “the Vice-Presidency was a station in which [Jackson] could hang no one, and in which he would need to quarrel with no one.” Louisa also hoped that, failing that, the prestige and overt popularity of Adams via this party in which reportedly over a thousand of the most elite of the nation attended, would dissuade Jackson from running against her husband.
For the party, she had the furniture cleared from most of the house, made Adams’ study into a ballroom, took the doors off the hinges for ease of entering and exiting rooms, had pillars installed to ensure the second floor of the house didn’t collapse under the weight of people, and even had fires lit a couple blocks around the house to guide guests to the event.
Elijah Hunt Mills would write of this one, “I went last night, for the first time this season, to an evening party at Mr. Adams’s. It was a party given, as you know, in honor of General Jackson. He was kind enough to insist on my going in a carriage with him. We arrived about eight o’clock, and such a crowd you never witnessed. Eight large rooms were open, and literally filled to overflowing. There must have been at least a thousand people there; and so far as Mrs. Adams was concerned, it certainly evinced a great deal of taste, elegance, and good sense. I wandered, or rather pushed my way, through all the rooms, gazed on the crowd, came round to the supper-room about half-past nine, and left there about ten. Many stayed till twelve and one. I am good for nothing, to describe such a scene in detail; but it is the universal opinion that nothing has ever equalled this party here, either in brilliancy of preparation or elegance of the company.”
In another account published in the Hartford Courant, one William Robinson stated, “Conviviality and pleasure reigned throughout the evening; and I never saw so many persons together, where there was apparently so much unmingled happiness. No accident occurred to mar the festivity and enjoyment of the party, and at 12 o’clock closed an entertainment, which is universally acknowledged to have exceeded any one ever given at Washington.”
Going back to John Quincy, Robinson would give a rather glowing account of the man compared to many others. Stating, “Mr. Adams, who is known to be proverbially plain, unassuming, and unostentatious in his manners, never playing the courtier, nor professing what he does not feel, received his guests with his usual cordiality and unaffected politeness. Without aiming at parade and show, he never fails to place his company at their ease, and to render his entertaiments pleasant and agreeable. His simplicity and sincerity of manners more than compensate for that polished and practised courtesy, which some others possess. Among his neighbors and in private life, the character of Mr. Adams is usually respected and esteemed; and it is only amidst the conflicts and turmoils of politics, that he has made enemies.”
Needless to say, these parties did their job of helping Louisa’s socially awkward husband nevertheless somehow have his home become the epicenter of where the who’s who in Washington DC went to socialize and, in so doing, helping her husband’s popularity among the elite considerably. Something that was even more important for Adams than most, given, once again, it would ultimately be Congress, not the voters, who would choose him as President.
Curiously, and perhaps also demonstrating the purpose of the parties was to bolster her husband’s political standing, once Adams became President, Louisa became relatively reclusive. While holding some parties at the White House, these tended to be small gatherings and nothing like she’d put on before.
Moving on from Adams’ social graces to his general dress, let’s just say, Adams did not seem to care much at all about his attire, variously described as occasionally “slovenly” and frequently poked fun of in the press, with one 1822 Philadelphia newspaper even claiming he occasionally attended church barefoot, though Adams would state this, at least, was incorrect. That said, of his oft’ lamented general style, he stated in a letter to Louisa while courting her, “the tailor and the dancing master must give me up, as a man of whom nothing can be made.”
Another account that appears in the 1856 work Recollections of a Lifetime, by Samuel Griswold Goodrich, quotes an unknown author about what one could expect if invited to meet Adam’s in the White House: “He sees a little man writing at a table, nearly bald, with a face quite formal and destitute of expression; his eyes running with water—his slippers down at the heel—his fingers stained with ink—in summer wearing a striped sea-sucker coat, and white trowsers, and dirty waistcoat, spotted with ink—his whole dress altogether not worth a couple of pounds; or in a colder season, habited in a plain blue coat, much the worse for wear, and other garments in proportion…. This person, whom the ambassador mistakes for a clerk in a department, and only wonders, in looking at him, that the President should permit a man to appear before him in such dress, proves to be the President of the United States himself!”
That said, those today might find him a little more stylishly dressed than his contemporaries in his chosen wear. For example, rather than powdered wig and knee breeches or bothering at all with a well tailored outfit, during his inauguration, Adams chose to go with a simple homespun suit, which featured full-length trousers. Upon his head was nothing but his own natural hair, which was cut relatively short- also not exactly the fashion of the time. And on the lack of knee breeches and powdered wig, he was the first U.S. president to forgo both of these things at their inauguration.
As a brief aside here on this inauguration, this was one of the earliest examples in the U.S. of someone explicitly pointing out a security issue with these events such as they were conducted at the time. The journalist wrote, “Within that little space was concentrated a mass of intellectual strength, calculated, when called into energetic action, to shake this continent from one end to the other, and to cause its motion to be felt throughout the civilized world. There, within a few feet of each other, stood Adams, and Monroe, and Clay, and Marshall, and Jackson, and Cheves, and Calhoun, and Webster, and Story, and Emmet, and Tazewell, and Wirt. The explosion of a single shell would have created a chasm such as this country would have felt for a century.”
In any event, going back to Adams’ apparent lack of fashion sense, Congressional librarian George Watterston would go on, “Mr. Adams is extremely plain and simple both in his manners and habilements; and labours to avoid alike the foolery and splendor of ‘fantastic fashion’ and the mean and inelegant costume of affected eccentricity…”
That said, Adams frequently lamented his ineptitude when it came to style, and his appearance. Even in one commissioned portrait of himself by his cousin Ward Nicholas Boylston, arguing so much that several months after Adams’ head was masterfully painted, the two were still arguing about what he should be wearing, with Adams wanting an everyday outfit to be depicted, while Boylston wanted to have him matching Quincy Adams’ fathers’ much fancier garb in the famous John Singleton Copley portrait of the second President.
Boylston bristled at having the portrait paint Adams so plainly, writing “[T]he intention of the pantaloons I shudder at. What? To convey the idea of the very first character in the nation as a sailor or hornpipe dancer is too intolerable to be admitted.”
Quincy Adams retorted, “I have confirmed myself in the opinion that the portrait should be painted in plain black pantaloons and boots under them. A round hat should be also introduced, whether in one hand or on a table is immaterial.”
Boylston replied, “The pantaloons…appear to meet universal disapprobation in Boston, and likewise in the circle at Quincy, particularly by my ever-beloved friend your father, who declares war against them, insomuch he says if he can procure a painters brush, & he lives to see it finished, in the manner you have directed, he will deface them and desires me to give you his opinion.”
Three years later in 1828 the portrait remained unfinished, all the way to the deaths of both Boylston and famed portraitists Gilbert Stuart, who produced portraits of the first six U.S. Presidents along with about a 1,000 others comprising the who’s who in America at the time. Ultimately the painting was completed by Thomas Sully after being bequeathed to Harvard. The pants won out.
Beyond clothes, Adams apparently particularly disliked his natural stern look. For example, another first for Adams was seemingly the first photograph of a U.S. President that has survived through today. (If you’re curious, William Henry Harrison had his photo taken two years earlier in 1841, but that photo has been lost to history.) In any event, Adams had his photo taken by Philip Haas in 1843, as well as many others after, but stated, “They are resemblances too close to the reality and yet too shadowy to be agreeable.” And, further, “The features of my old age are such as I have no wish to have transmitted to the memory of the next age. They are harsh and stern beyond the true portraiture of the heart; and there is no ray of interest in them to redeem their repulsive severity.”
That said, later in life, his natural stern look he seemed to dislike would serve him well in Congress when, after suffering a stroke in November of 1846 at the age of 78 and being unable to speak beyond a whisper for a time, the color of his head was jokingly used to gather his opinion on what was being discussed. For example, on one occasion, as described by then U.S. Representative John Wentworth, “A Southern fire-eater was vehemently denouncing Northern anti-slavery men, when Father Adams’ head fired up with his usual indignation. Some waggish member exclaimed to the orator: “He says you are lying.” The speaker at once dropped the line of his speech, assumed a belligerent attitude, and exclaimed: “Who says I am lying?” “Adams,” “Adams,” replied several members. The laughter which followed was greatly increased when Mr. Adams, ‘putting his hand upon his head, gave a significant nod, as much as to say: “I do say he was lying.””
Every Breath We Draw
Speaking of his look and clothing, or in this case complete lack of it, upon returning to the United States in 1817 at the age of 50 after his time as a diplomat in Europe, Adams felt that fine dining had left him, in his opinion, somewhat squidgy around the edges. Something he was determined to do something about. Towards this end, he began a routine he’d keep almost to the end of his life, despite the occasional danger of it, including one instance shortly after he became President resulting in the news publishing he had died. As for the specific routine, on the non-dangerous side, he took to walking and jogging when it was cool out. When it was warm, however, he took to swimming in the Potomac River, something that became one of his passions, being, to quote, “conducive to health, cleanliness and comfort.”
On this one, waking up at the ungodly hour of around 4a-5a, Adams took to walking the approximate 2 miles to the Potomac River where he’d strip down completely nude and go swimming. As one 1821 account by British Ambassador to Washington Stratford Canning described, “The Secretary of State was seen one morning at an early hour floating down the Potomac, with a black cap on his head and a pair of green goggles on his eyes.”
The combination of swimming and about 3-4 miles walked every day quickly got Adams in tip top shape and Congressman Charles Jared Ingersoll would write, “Mr. Adams ascribes his uninterrupted health during the several sickly seasons he has lived in Washington to swimming. He walks… to the Potomac for 8 successive mornings from 4 to 7 o clock according as the tide serves, and swims from 15 to 40 minutes then walks home again. For the 6 mornings of low tide he abstains, swimming 8 days out of 14. I have no doubt that it is an excellent system. (He is extremely thin.)”
Keeping trim was further aided by the fact that he also liked to push to see just how long and far he could swim and keep meticulous track to try to continually improve. For example, in August of 1822 he decided to start seeing how long he could go without ever letting his feet touch the ground, ultimately finding he could swim for 20 minutes this way. However, once he’d set his mind to it, within a month he’d increased this to 50 minutes, and wrote, “I should have begun this habit earlier in life.”
That said, one summer after deciding to continually push himself to greater stamina he began to find the dangers of the tide difficult to deal with in several days in July of 1823. For example, on July 8th, three days before his 56th birthday, he states the combination of breeze and current made it extremely difficult to swim, and that, “It sometimes occurs to me that this exercise and amusement, as I am now indulging myself in it, is with the constant risk of life. Perhaps that is the reason why so few persons ever learn to swim; and perhaps it should now teach me discretion.”
His closest call occurred on June 13, 1825, only a few months after becoming President. He was aboard a canoe with his valet, Antoine, crossing the river with the goal of then swimming back across after. However, the boat ultimately proved to have a leak, filled and they were forced to abandon ship, as it were. He states, “We were as near as possible to the middle of the river, and swam to the opposite shore. Antoine, who was naked, reached it with little difficulty. I had much more, and while struggling for life and gasping for breath, had ample leisure to reflect upon my own discretion. My principal difficulty was in the loose sleeves of my shirt, which filled with water and hung like two fifty-six pound weights upon my arms… I had been about three hours in the water… This incident gave me a humiliating lesson and solemn warning not to trifle with danger. The reasons upon which I justify to myself my daily swimming in the river did not apply to this adventure. It is neither necessary for my health, nor even for pleasure, that I should swim across the river, and, having once swum across it, I could not even want it as an experiment of practicability. Among my motives for swimming, that of showing what I can do must be discarded as spurious, and I must strictly confine myself to the purposes of health, exercise, and salutary labor.”
A month later, another elderly swimmer drowned more or less in the same spot Adams’ frequently liked to swim from. With the witnesses telling Adams’ the individual, “went in to bathe with four other persons; that he was drowned in full sight of them, and without a suspicion by them that he was even in danger. They had observed him struggling in the water, but, as he was an excellent swimmer, had supposed he was merely diving, until after coming out they found he was missing. They then commenced an ineffectual search for him, which was continued late into the night…” Adams then writes, “I stripped and went into the river. I had not been more than ten minutes swimming, when the drag-boat started, and they were not five minutes from the shore when the body floated immediately opposite the rock, less than one hundred yards from the shore, at the very edge of the channel… I returned immediately to the shore and dressed… I returned home musing in sympathy with the distressed lady, and enquiring uncertainly whether I ought to renounce altogether my practice of swimming in the river. My conclusion was that I ought not – deeming it in this climate indispensable to my health; so that whatever danger there may be in the exercise – and that there is much danger, this incident offers melancholy and cumulative proof – there would be yet greater danger in abstaining from it, or in substituting any other effective exercise in its place. We are, and always must be, in the hands of God, and to Him are indebted for every breath we draw.”
As for his wife’s view on the matter, after this event she wrote to their son George, “The greatest cause of uneasiness which I at present suffer, is your Fathers passion for Swimming; which keeps me in hourly terror of some horrible calamity—The day before yesterday poor old Mr Shoemaker was drowned. He is said to have been one of the best Swimmers in the Country. God preserve us all my Dear Son from this distress prays your most affectionate Mother.”
Later in life he also lamented his inability to continue to progress in his stamina, and instead went the other way more and more each summer. Writing on July 27, 1828, after being unable to swim back to shore, “I found myself so fatigued that I called the boat to me, and clung to her till she was rowed to the shore… The decline of my health is in nothing so closely brought to my conviction as in my inability to swim more than fifteen or twenty minutes without tiring.”
But this didn’t stop him continuing the practice almost all the way up to his death in 1848 at the age of 80, though in his waning years he did decrease the frequency of his swims. For example, at 76, he stated he even struggled just to undress himself for the swim and then “swam about five minutes, and came out washed and refreshed. It was my exercise for the day.”
The End of the Earth
Speaking of that death, Adams continued to serve his country to quite literally his last moments on this Earth. Something he more or less predicted at the age of 76 in 1844 in a New Year’s Day journal entry in which he wrote, “Tomorrow recommences the struggle, which, for me, can terminate only with my life. May the Spirit from above in life and death sustain me!”
As for those last moments, on February 21, 1848, during a session of Congress, his body betrayed him. Speaker of the House Robert Winthrop described the scene, “Mr. Adams rose impulsively…with a paper in his outstretched hand, exclaiming, with more than his usual earnestness and emphasis: ‘Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker!’ … But before he could…add another syllable, his hand fell to his side and he sank upon the arm of his chair, only saved from dropping to the floor by being caught by the member nearest to him. … Business was at once suspended, and the excitement and confusion which ensued can be imagined better than described. More than two hundred Representatives…were seen rising from their seats and pressing forward toward their beloved and revered associate….Fortunately there were several physicians among the members of the House. Dr. William A. Newell, afterward the Governor of New Jersey…took the lead in repressing the throng, securing air for the sufferer, and rendering all the medical aid which was possible. He cooperated with the others in removing Mr. Adams on a sofa into the Rotunda, and thence, with but little delay, at my urgent instigation into the Speaker’s official chamber.”
As for his last words, while requesting to speak and make his opinion known in Congress would have been fitting, it was also claimed he muttered, “This is the end of earth. I am content.” when he was laid on the couch in the Speaker’s chamber. After this, he reportedly passed out. Two days later, on February 23, 1848, he breathed his last.
In the end, John Quincy Adams holds a rather unique place among U.S. Presidents for a number of reasons, not just that he is generally considered to have been the most intelligent of them all. More significant was the fact that while most U.S. Presidents see their Presidency as the pinnacle of their political and life achievements, and where they accomplished the most, when it comes to John Quincy Adams, his four years as President were arguably among the least influential of his well over a half century serving his country, with so many of the things he did before and after having far greater effect, both in his own time, and through to today.
Thus, while Adams’ Presidency is generally ranked somewhat slightly below average, his overall contributions to the course of the United States among the pantheon of U.S. politicians throughout history, like his genius, is generally ranked near the very top.
Fitting for a man who, when his fiance requested to not have to wait another three years to get married simply because matters of state were calling him away, responded to her by saying, “My duty to my country is in my mind the first and most imperious of all obligations, before which every interest and every feeling inconsistent with it must forever disappear.”
For the record here, Louisa’s father thankfully had a talk with his son-in-law to be, and convinced him to get married sooner rather than later, which they did on July 26, 1797.
Speaking of that rather understanding wife who in the end did seem to have deep affection for her husband, despite him variously being described as “easy to admire, but difficult to like, much less love.” Adams biographer James Traub would sum up, she found her husband “exasperating, tendentious, intolerant, self-absorbed, and yet, in the end, magnificent.”
Louisa ultimately died of a heart attack on May 15, 1852, four years after her husband. Perhaps reflecting how well known and respected she herself was in Washington DC, she was the first woman in American history that Congress honored by adjourning for her funeral.Expand for References
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