Conversation Starters for That John Quincy Adams Birthday Bash You're Probably Throwing

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Next week (July 11) is John Quincy Adams' birthday! While the idea of celebrating the 250th birthday of some dead guy with killer muttonchops surely appeals to any flosser, your guests might feel weird attending a party in honor of a president they know nothing about. But a skilled host can diffuse the awkwardness with these conversation starters. Feed these lines to guests and they’ll party like it’s 1799.

Have you been to the bathroom yet?

You simply can’t have a John Quincy Adams party without an alligator in the bathroom. The president had a pet gator, which was gifted to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. He kept it in a tub in the East Room, claiming that he enjoyed watching “the spectacle of guests fleeing from the room in terror.” If you’re looking for cheap entertainment, stock the tub with an inflatable gator (or splurge on a real one). Then sit back and enjoy the show.

I hear the Potomac’s lovely this time of year.

John Quincy Adams got his exercise by taking a daily dip in the Potomac . . . naked. Every morning at 5:00 a.m., the president would walk to the river, strip down, and go for a swim. But as with any intense exercise, skinny-dipping carries its risks. When Adams refused an interview with reporter Ann Royall, she hiked down to the river while he was swimming, gathered his clothes, and sat on them until he agreed to talk. Adams eventually cooperated, making him the first president (naked or clothed) to grant an interview with a female journalist.

Care for a game of billiards?

If the conversation’s falling flat, pool is always a reliable fallback. Adams adored the game and installed a billiards table in the White House shortly after becoming president. The new addition quickly became a subject of controversy when Adams billed the government with the $61 tab (which he later reimbursed). Nonetheless, political enemies charged that the pool table symbolized Adams’s aristocratic taste and promoted gambling.

So, Florida. That place is awesome, right?

Lots of people love the Sunshine State. But few take the time to thank John Quincy Adams while sunbathing on the steamy beaches. As Secretary of State, Adams negotiated the Adams-Onis Treaty, which allowed the U.S. to purchase Florida and set a new boundary between the U.S. and New Spain. That’s right – Disney World might not have been built if it weren’t for the man of the hour.

How about that election? Pretty dirty, huh?

While Americans decry the ugly effects of partisanism, the truth is that politics used to be a lot dirtier. The election of 1828 – when incumbent John Quincy Adams got crushed by longtime rival Andrew Jackson - is famous for the mudslinging tactics employed by both sides. Adams said Jackson was too dumb to be president, claiming that he spelled Europe “Urope.” He also hurled insults at Jackson’s wife, calling her a “dirty black wench” for getting together with Jackson before divorcing her first husband. Jackson retorted by calling Adams a pimp, claiming that he had once procured an American girl for sexual services for the czar while serving as an ambassador to Russia. Makes Obama and Romney seem downright chummy.

On a scale from 1 to 10, how awful would it be to be president?

John Quincy Adams might have said 11. He once stated, “The four most miserable years of my life were my four years in the presidency.” But even if he hated being commander-in-chief, Adams couldn’t bear to be out of the political loop for too long. After finishing his term as president, Adams served 18 more years in the House of Representatives, where he campaigned against further extension of slavery. In fact, he died shortly after suffering a stroke on the house floor.

Don’t you hate making small talk at parties?

Although Adams was nicknamed “Old Eloquent” for his unparalleled public speaking ability, he couldn’t make small talk to save his life. Aware of his own social awkwardness, Adams once wrote in his diary, “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, control, or to change it.”

So, if all else fails and the party gets really awkward, encourage your guests to make small talk about how much they hate small talk. Because small talk is just the worst, right?

Could You Keep Up With Theodore Roosevelt's Ruthlessly Efficient Daily Routine?

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An avid outdoorsman, politician, and quote machine, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was never one to sit idle. The 26th president of the United States (1901 to 1909) regarded the calendar as something to be conquered and fulfilled, never squandered. He employed a number of routines to help him achieve his goals during his presidency and beyond, and each was ruthlessly efficient—particularly when he was on the campaign trail.

In his role as running mate to presidential candidate William McKinley in 1900, Roosevelt adhered to a strict schedule that packed more into one day than some people accomplish in a week. In his book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, author Edmund Morris detailed Roosevelt's activities:

7:00 a.m. Breakfast

7:30 a.m. A speech

8:00 a.m. Reading a historical work

9:00 a.m. A speech

10:00 a.m. Dictating letters

11:00 a.m. Discussing Montana mines

11:30 a.m. A speech

12:00 p.m. Reading an ornithological work

12:30 p.m. A speech

1:00 p.m. Lunch

1:30 p.m. A speech

2:30 p.m. Reading [Scottish novelist] Sir Walter Scott

3:00 p.m. Answering telegrams

3:45 p.m. A speech

4:00 p.m. Meeting the press

4:30 p.m. Reading

5:00 p.m. A speech

6:00 p.m. Reading

7:00 p.m. Supper

8-10 p.m. Speaking

11:00 p.m. Reading alone in his car

12:00 a.m. To bed

Clearly, Roosevelt had an effective strategy for fulfilling the obligations of his working life while still making time for reading in order to enrich his intellect. The habits grew out of his experience at Harvard, where he balanced his schoolwork with athletic pursuits and other interests. Roosevelt devoted fragments of each day to study and refused to entertain any interruptions. Studying or reading for even half an hour with an appropriate amount of focused intensity, he believed, was more beneficial than sitting for twice as long while distracted by friends, food, or daydreaming.

When he became president following the assassination of McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt's responsibilities grew exponentially, but he remained insistent on a highly organized approach to the day. During one week in February 1903, Roosevelt took up to eight meetings in an hour, averaging 7.5 minutes to conduct whatever business was on the table. During this time, he was also posing for his official presidential portrait by artist John Singer Sargent. Rather than sit for one or two marathon sessions, Roosevelt agreed to pose for just one half-hour a day. On Sunday, he cleared his schedule to unwind and keep up with correspondence.

The ability to concentrate has only gotten harder in an era of screens and buzzing phones, and you might think Roosevelt had it comparatively easier. It might help to remember that, in 1912, he was shot by a would-be assassin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin just before going on stage to give a scheduled speech. He managed to complete the 84-minute speech with a bullet lodged in his ribs. For Roosevelt, nothing was going to interfere with the day's routine.

Think you know everything there is to know about T.R.? Test your knowledge with our quiz, "Did Theodore Roosevelt Do That?"

Can a Person Refuse a Presidential Pardon?

Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Presidential pardons have been in the news, which has led to an onslaught of questions about just how far a president's pardoning powers extend—and what would happen if the person being offered the pardon declined it altogether? Is such a thing even possible, or does the pardoned individual in question have no choice in the matter? Believe it or not, it's an issue that has come up a few times over the past two centuries—and the answer isn't exactly a clear-cut one.

To fully answer the question, first an important distinction has to be made between commutation and pardoning. Both are part of the pardoning powers given to the president, but differ in levels. Speaking to ABC News, Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown University, explained that "Pardon is an 'executive forgiveness of crime'; commutation is an ‘executive lowering of the penalty.'" And the answer to the question depends on that distinction.

UNITED STATES V. WILSON

In 1833 the Supreme Court heard the case of the United States v. George Wilson. On May 27, 1830, Wilson and co-conspirator James Porter were both sentenced to death after being convicted of robbing a U.S. postal worker and putting the carrier’s life in jeopardy. While Porter was executed just over a month later, on July 2, 1830, Wilson managed to escape the sentence. President Andrew Jackson decided to pardon Wilson for the death penalty charge on the understanding that he had yet to be sentenced for other crimes (for which he was looking at a minimum of 20 years). For some reason Wilson waived the pardon, possibly because of confusion about what case he was being tried for at the time and what cases the pardon was for.

In 1833, the Supreme Court ultimately weighed in on the issue, ruling “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.” (Strangely, the details of whether or not Wilson was ever executed are lost to time.)

BURDICK V. UNITED STATES

This right of refusal was affirmed in 1915. George Burdick, city editor of the New York Tribune, refused to testify regarding sources for articles on alleged custom fraud by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights [PDF]. President Woodrow Wilson then gave a pardon to Burdick, protecting him from any charge he may incriminate himself of during his testimony. The idea behind the pardon was to force Burdick to testify, under the theory that he could no longer be convicted for any acts he may reveal. But Burdick rejected the pardon, continued to invoke his rights, and was found guilty of contempt.

The Supreme Court ruled that Burdick was within his rights to refuse the pardon and as such he did not lose his Fifth Amendment rights.

BIDDLE V. PEROVICH

A 1927 ruling added a new wrinkle to the pardoning issue. In 1905, Vuco Perovich was sentenced to hang for murder, which President Taft commuted to life imprisonment a few years later. Perovich was then transferred from Alaska to Washington, and later to Leavenworth. Perovich eventually filed an application for writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his commutation was done without his consent. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that "the convict’s consent is not required."

This ruling has led decades of legal scholars to wonder if the Perovich ruling overturned these earlier cases, with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. arguing “Whether these words sound the death knell of the acceptance doctrine is perhaps doubtful. They seem clearly to indicate that by substantiating a commutation order for a deed of pardon, a President can always have his way in such matters, provided the substituted penalty is authorized by law and does not in common understanding exceed the original penalty" [PDF].

In other words: You may be able to refuse a pardon, but you would not be able to refuse a commutation.

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