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25 Facts About John Adams

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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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This Newspaper Article Was Hyping the 2017 Eclipse All the Way Back in 1932
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If you’ve turned on a news station or browsed the internet recently, you’ve likely learned of the total solar eclipse set to pass over the U.S. on Monday, August 21. Many outlets (Mental Floss included) have been talking up the event for months, but the earliest instance of hype surrounding the 2017 eclipse may have come from The New York Times.

Meteorologist Joe Rao presented this news clip at a recent panel on the solar eclipse at the American Museum of Natural History, and fuel analyst Patrick DeHaan shared the image on Twitter earlier this year. It shows a New York Times article from August 1932, selling that year’s eclipse by saying it will be the "best until Aug. 21, 2017."

The total solar eclipse on August 21 won’t be the first to fall over U.S. soil in 85 years. The next one to follow the 1932 eclipse came in 1970, but an author at the time apparently predicted that "poor skies" would be likely for that date. That early forecast turned out to be correct: There were clouds over much of the path of totality in the southeastern U.S. The next total eclipse visible from America, which the article doesn’t mention, happened in 1979. Overcast skies were a problem for at least some of the people trying to view it that time around as well.

The upcoming total eclipse will hopefully be worth the decades of hype. Unlike the previous three, which only skimmed small sections of the lower 48 states, this next eclipse will be visible throughout day as it travels from coast to coast. Check out our field guide for preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.

1. LEECH COLLECTOR

Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collectors’ legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.

2. PURE FINDER

Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.

3. TOSHER

A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.

4. MATCHSTICK MAKERS

Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.

5. MUDLARK

Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.

6. CHIMNEY SWEEP

A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep
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Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

7. FUNERAL MUTE

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.

8. RAT CATCHER

An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
Getty Images/Rischgitz

Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.

9. CROSSING SWEEPER

The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

10. RESURRECTIONISTS

An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
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In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their body to medical science.

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