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25 Facts About John Adams

Lawyer, statesman, president, gadfly, New Englander: John Adams was a lot of things, but boring wasn't one of them. Here are some interesting facts about Mr. Adams.

1. None of Adams’ family members were present for his inauguration.

According to David McCullough’s Pulitzer-winning biography, the 2nd President of the United States had a relatively lonely inauguration.

2. He was not a slaveholder.

Of the first five American presidents, Adams was the only non-slaveholder. His predecessor, George Washington, owned over 300 slaves at the time of his death.

3. But he was against abolition.

In 1801, two abolitionists sent a pamphlet by Warner Mifflin to John Adams. He responded that, while he was opposed to slavery and had never owned a slave in his life, he did not support the abolitionist movement—he thought it was dangerous and potentially destabilizing. From the Lehrman Institute:

Adams, despite being opposed to slavery, did not support abolitionism except if it was done in a 'gradual' way with 'much caution and Circumspection.' Adams dismisses radical abolitionist measures as 'produc[ing] greater violations of Justice and Humanity, than the continuance of the practice' of slavery itself. Adams also wrongly asserts that 'the practice of Slavery is fast diminishing.' Rather than declining, slavery was growing in America. The 1790 census counted almost 700,000 slaves. According to the census of 1800, the year before Adams wrote this letter, that number had grown to almost 900,000. In closing, Adams writes that he does 'wish you Success in your benevolent Endeavors to relieve the distress of our fellow Creatures, and Shall always be ready to cooperate with you, as far as my means and Opportunities can reasonably be expected to extend.'

4. He was the only non-Virginian of the first five presidents.

He was from Braintree, Massachusetts, which is now named Quincy, after his son.

5. Adams died on the same day as Thomas Jefferson.

The two staunch rivals kicked the bucket on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

6. Adams did not attend Jefferson’s inauguration.

He skipped it even though Jefferson had been Adams’ Vice President. Told you they were rivals. 

7. Adams’ last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

And they were erroneous. From the White House:

On July 4, 1826, he whispered his last words: "Thomas Jefferson survives." But Jefferson had died at Monticello a few hours earlier.

8. His son John Quincy became the sixth president.

The only other father-son presidential duo is George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

9. He defended two British soldiers who were accused of being responsible for the Boston Massacre

In 1770, as tensions in the colonies were at a fever point, Adams defended the pair at trial and they were found not guilty.

Looking back, Adams called his defense of British soldiers in 1770 "one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country." From the University of Missouri-Kansas City:

The day after British soldiers mortally wounded five Americans on a cobbled square in Boston, thirty-four-year-old Adams was visited in his office near the stairs of the Town Office by a Boston merchant, James Forest. "With tears streaming from his eyes" (according to the recollection of Adams), Forest asked Adams to defend the soldiers and their captain, Thomas Preston. Adams understood that taking the case would not only subject him to criticism, but might jeopardize his legal practice or even risk the safety of himself and his family. But Adams believed deeply that every person deserved a defense, and he took on the case without hesitation. For his efforts, he would receive the modest sum of eighteen guineas.

The Preston case came to trial in the Queen Street courthouse in October. Adams, and his young assistant, Josiah Quincy, defended Preston against a prosecution team comprised of Josiah's brother Samuel and Robert Paine. Adams succeeded in casting grave doubt as to whether Preston ever gave orders to shoot, and the Boston jury acquitted the captain.

10. He lived to be exceptionally old.

Gilbert Stuart

He was 90 years old when he died. No president lived longer than Adams until Reagan and then Ford, who were both 93 when they passed.

11. He spent a night sleeping in the same bed as Benjamin Franklin.

Matt Soniak actually wrote a whole article about this amazing incident:

Ever been on a road trip where the sleeping conditions were less than ideal? Such indignities aren’t just for average citizens like you and me. Even founding fathers and future presidents had to bunk with one another on occasion.

In September 1776, just a few months after the thirteen American colonies announced their independence from Britain, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams got stuck shacking up together for a night. As part of a delegation sent by the Continental Congress, they were on their way from Philadelphia to Staten Island to negotiate with Admiral Richard Howe of the Royal Navy for a possible end to the Revolutionary War. As they passed through New Brunswick, New Jersey, the negotiators - Franklin, Adams and South Carolina politician Edward Rutledge - decided to stop for the night and find a place to sleep.

The local taverns and inns were nearly full, though, and there were only two rooms for the three men. “One bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me,” Adams wrote in his autobiography, “in a chamber a little larger than the bed, without a chimney and with only one small window.”

That window would be a problem for the two men.

Read more about these strange bedfellows here.

12. The British wanted him hanged.

Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull

According to David McCullough's John Adams, after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the British drafted a list of pardonable Americans should the document be retracted. John Adams wasn't on that list, so if the Revolutionary War had been won by the British, he would have been hanged.

13. Adams was the first person to propose the idea of a U.S. military academy in 1776.

Even though it wasn’t until after the war that West Point was created, Adams can be thought of as the Father of the U.S. Military Academy.

14. His personal diary was read aloud and laughed at in Congress.

While in Paris, Adams wrote effusively about the hospitality of the French aristocracy. He was dazzled by their compliments (one French gentleman called him “The Washington of negotiation”). According to McCullough, he sent these embarrassing bits of his diary back to Philadelphia as part of a report on his progress, “perhaps by his own error.” Some in Congress found his vanity hilarious.

15. He was the first president to live in the White House.

Adams and his wife Abigail moved into the White House in 1800, before it was even completed, and lived there for four months before his term ended.

16. Before becoming President, he observed the Sabbath

Wikimedia Commons

During the Revolutionary War, Adams refused to travel or work during the Sabbath. He eventually dropped this practice in Paris.

17. He was a hopeless romantic.

“I am with all the ardour of youth yours,” he wrote to Abigail in 1793 (he was 58). Since Adams and Abigail were so often living separately (he in Philadelphia and she in Massachusetts—a true 18th century long distance relationship), there are scores of love letters between them that remain in existence.

“I am warm enough at night, but cannot sleep since I left you.” (1793)

“I can do nothing without you.” (1776)

They called each other “dearest friend” in their letters, or, when he wasn’t in a hurry, “best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world.”

18. He tried to save the home of one of his harshest critics.

According to McCullough, in 1797, a fire engulfed the shop and home of the publisher Andrew Brown, who had been an ardent critic of Adams as Vice President. Adams, who was already the President-elect of the United States, was seen carrying buckets of water to try help put out the flames.

19. He complained about cleaning up after wild parties.

Thinkstock (sunglasses & party blower)

When he moved into the President’s House following Washington’s departure, Adams found the space in great disarray, largely because Washington’s servants had been having parties there. He wrote to Abigail that there was “not a chair to sit in. The beds and bedding are in a woeful pickle. The house has been the scene of the most scandalous drinking and disorder among the servants that I ever heard of.”

20. As President, He Refused Protection Outside His House For Over a Year

John Trumbull

He eventually agreed to have a guard outside his house in response to a spate of violence between gang members in Philadelphia.

21. He is one of only 10 presidents to serve a single term.

He lost his re-election bid to Jefferson in 1800.

22. He created America’s oldest band.

Wikimedia Commons

In 1798, Adams signed an act of Congress for the creation of the United States Marine Band, “the oldest continuously active professional musical organization in our country.”

23. The final official dinner that Adams gave as President was for a delegation of Native Americans.

This was on February 16, 1801.

24. He signed some of the nastiest bits of American Legislation ever.

According to the Library of Congress, the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 “increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years, authorized the president to imprison or deport aliens considered 'dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States' and restricted speech critical of the government. These laws were designed to silence and weaken the Democratic-Republican Party. Negative reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts helped contribute to the Democratic-Republican victory in the 1800 elections.”

Adams never deported anybody under the law, even though his critics feared that he would.

That being said, under the act, numerous people were charged for expressing views that were critical of the president and the government. These included James Callender, who wrote a number of essays criticizing Adams (these became his book The Prospect Before Us). He called Adams a “repulsive pedant” and gross hypocrite.

The Sedition Act and the Alien Friends Act expired in 1800 and 1801.

25. He was a bad dancer.

This is according to David McCullough's biography. Perhaps Adams didn’t want his son John Quincy to have this trait, as John Quincy studied dance while he was living with his parents in Paris. 

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise stated. 

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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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