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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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Courtesy Sotheby's
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You Can Buy the Oldest Surviving Photo of a U.S. President
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Courtesy Sotheby's

The descendent of a 19th-century U.S. Congressman has discovered a previously unknown presidential portrait that is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president, The New York Times reports.

Previously, two 1843 portraits of John Quincy Adams were thought to be the oldest photographs of a president still around. Currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, one of them was found on sale at an antique shop in 1970 for a mere 50 cents. Now, an even older photo of the sixth president has been uncovered, and it’ll cost you more than 50 cents to buy it.

Adams sat for dozens of photographs throughout his life, so it’s not entirely surprising that a few more surviving portraits would be uncovered. At the time this newly discovered half-plate daguerreotype was taken in March 1843, Adams had already served out his term as president and had returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. The photo was taken by Philip Haas, who in August of that same year would take other daguerreotypes that we previously thought were the oldest surviving photos. (Despite his apparent willingness to be photographed, Adams called them “all hideous.”)

John Quincy Adams sits in a portrait studio in 1843.
Courtesy Sotheby's

After having three daguerreotypes taken that day in March, Adams gave one of them to his friend and fellow Congressman Horace Everett, inscribing it with both their names. Everett’s great-great-grandson eventually found it in his family’s belongings and is now putting it up for sale through Sotheby’s.

It isn't the oldest picture of a U.S. president ever taken, though. The first-ever was actually a portrait of William Henry Harrison made in 1841, but unlike this one, the original has not survived. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of it, which was made in 1850.)

The head of the Sotheby’s department for photographs, Emily Bierman, told The New York Times that the newly discovered image is “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.” (She also noted that the former POTUS is wearing “cute socks” in it.)

The daguerreotype will be on sale as part of a photography auction at Sotheby’s in October and is expected to sell for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. Start saving.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Great Presidential Pardon Heist

Awarded by the Commander-in-Chief, presidential pardons override previous rulings handed down by any other federal judge or court. Some presidents are more generous with pardons than others, but overall, they’ve been granted with increasing frequency since Washington issued the first 16, including two for participants of the Whiskey Rebellion. By contrast, Barack Obama pardoned, commuted, or otherwise granted clemency to 1927 people.

Despite the increasing number, receiving a pardon is no easy task. First, there’s a required waiting period of five years. Applicants must write an essay about why they are seeking clemency, including documentation; they also need at least three character references, and they have to go through a “very thorough” federal review. And that’s just for starters.

However, if you’re determined to get a presidential pardon, there are other ways to go about obtaining one (though we don't recommend it)—as long as you don’t care whose name is on the certificate. Just ask Shawn Aubitz.

Some time in the middle of his 14-year career as a curator with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Aubitz realized he was sitting on a gold mine: The files, letters, maps, and photographs he handled every day could command big bucks from the right collectors. From 1996-1999, he pulled off the historical heist of the century simply by surreptitiously slipping documents into his briefcase. Over the three-year period, Aubitz made off with hundreds of items, including 64 pardons and 316 photos taken by astronauts.

Though the number is rather staggering, the thefts weren’t discovered until 2000, when a National Park Service employee noticed a suspicious item for sale on eBay and notified the National Archives about the auction. The National Archives Office of the Inspector General quickly took action and discovered a total of four National Archives documents on eBay. The items were traced to Aubitz, who pled guilty to the crimes in 2002. In court, Aubitz blamed his actions on “a compulsive need to amass collections for self-esteem and approval,” but also admitted that his motives were financial—he used more than $200,000 in ill-gotten funds to pay his credit card debt. Aubitz served 21 months in prison for his crimes and paid $73,793 in restitution.

Because Aubitz provided the names of his buyers, many of the pilfered items were recovered, such as a warrant for the seizure of Robert E. Lee's estate during the Civil War. Many are still missing, however, including pardons issued by 10 presidents, from James Madison to Rutherford B. Hayes. So, history buffs, if you’re not totally sure about the origins of that Andrew Jackson-signed pardon hanging on your study wall, contact NARA at MissingDocuments@nara.gov.

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