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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?

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Alexander Hamilton’s Son Also Died in a Duel
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
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When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, the scene must have been eerily familiar to the former Secretary of the Treasury. After all, his son died in a similar setting just three years earlier.

On November 20, 1801, 19-year-old Philip Hamilton and his friend Richard Price had a run-in with a young lawyer named George I. Eacker at Manhattan's Park Theatre. A supporter of Thomas Jefferson, Eacker had delivered a Fourth of July speech that harshly criticized the elder Hamilton, and his son was apparently determined to take revenge.

On that fateful day in November, according to biographer Ron Chernow, Price and the younger Hamilton "barged into a box where Eacker was enjoying the show ... [then] began taunting Eacker about his Fourth of July oration."

As onlookers started to stare, Eacker asked the two young men to go into the lobby, where he called the pair "damned rascals." Tempers rose, and although the trio went to a tavern in an attempt to settle their differences, they failed miserably. Later the same night, Eacker had a letter from Price challenging him to duel.

Customs of the time meant that Eacker had little choice but to accept or face social humiliation. He and Price met that Sunday in New Jersey, where the penalties for dueling were less severe than in New York. They exchanged four shots without injury—and considered the matter between them closed.

Philip Hamilton wasn't so lucky. Cooler heads tried to negotiate a truce with Eacker's second, but their efforts were also for naught. Once the duel had been scheduled for November 23 on a sandbar in today's Jersey City, the elder Hamilton advised his son to preserve his honor by wasting his first shot—by waiting until Eacker fired first or firing into the air, a move the French called the delope. The intent was to cut the duel short, and, if the other side fired to kill, plainly show they had blood on their hands.

Philip seemed to follow his father's advice. For about a minute after the duel officially began, neither man made a move. Then, Eacker raised his pistol, and Philip did too. Eacker fired, and Philip shot back, though it may have been an involuntary reaction to having been hit. The bullet tore through Philip's body and settled in his left arm. Despite being rushed to Manhattan, he died early the next morning.

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr also departed to New Jersey, this time Weehawken, to settle their infamous differences. This time, the elder Hamilton fired the first shot—and he aimed to miss. (According to his second, anyway.) Burr, on the other hand, seemed to have every intention of connecting with his target. He shot Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet lodged in his spine.

Just like Philip, Hamilton died the next day.

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