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Historic America

The Other Adams Family
Eric D. Lehman

On a bright August morning, my girlfriend and I drove into downtown Quincy, Massachusetts, searching for the Adams National Historic Site. Where was this house? The map displayed the icon in the center of the downtown, and we circled the blocks, confused.

John Quincy Adams
Finally, we found the ubiquitous National Park Service sign and a parking garage nearby. Still confused, we walked through a strange building that was a combination of shopping mall and office building. We entered a small glass shop emblazoned with the sign, and the woman behind the counter grabbed the phone. "You’ve got 1 minute until the tour starts. I’ll have them wait." We ran outside and boarded an old fashioned trolley that had been adapted to gasoline. It took us through the back streets of Quincy in a roundabout manner, to the John Adams birthplace, nowhere near the spot on my Boston area map.

A sweet little frog-like park ranger gave us tours of the two houses – one a brown salt-box, the birthplace of John Adams, vice-president under George Washington, and second president of the United States. The second was a gray house that was the later residence of John and Abigail, and the birthplace of their son John Quincy Adams, our sixth President. The houses gave an excellent feel of the way people lived in colonial times, but without a great deal of impressive items. "Most of the antiques are at the big house." Yet another house? I began to see why this site had no central location and was scattered across the Quincy landscape.
The trolley took us to the Old House, the later mansion of John Adams and three succeeding generations of Adamses, up to 1927. We were immediately shocked by what it contained, an amazing collection of genuine pieces like I’ve seen in no other historical house in America. It was full of valuable paintings, including two American paintings from the 1600s, of which there are only 70 in existence. Artifacts from all the generations of Adams remained in the house – Abigail’s candlestick holders, fine china actually from the early china trade, the priceless Waterford crystal piece that John Quincy broke by using it as a planter for his botanical experiments, and furniture, like the actual chair John Adams suffered his fatal stroke in.
Brendan, our long-haired guide, told the story about that stroke, one I had heard many times before, but that nevertheless left me on the verge of tears again. Jefferson and Adams had become bitter rivals for many years after they collaborated in the founding of America. Once Jefferson left office they renewed their earlier friendship in a series of letters. On his death bed on Independence Day, 1826 John Adams uttered his last words: "Thomas Jefferson survives." But he did not. Jefferson died on the same exact day, fifty years exactly from the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the document that both of them had worked so hard to defend and put into practice.

Brendan then took us into a separate building: John Quincy Adams’ library, the first presidential library. It was one of the most amazing rooms I had ever seen, with 14,000 volumes on two floors in a barn-like structure. We learned that John Quincy became a U.S. representative after he was President, apparently not thinking that continuing to serve his country in this capacity was any shame. During this time he represented the Amistad Africans in the Supreme Court of the United States and successfully argued that the Africans should be considered free.

Brendan gave us a spiel at the end of the tour about the Adams family and what they had given to the nation. They have been overlooked by much of the hero-worship that Americans seem to lavish on the early founders of the country. Why? Were they not glamorous enough? Was it that each served only one term? Both had been far ahead of their times – John pushing for a stronger federal government, which made him a lot of enemies in the South, including his rival Thomas Jefferson, whose ideology passed on while Adams’ flourished. Adams had also kept us out of a foolish war with France over the actions of some corrupt French bureaucrats, and as we know, keeping people out of war never makes one popular. Adams wasn’t tall or handsome, and that is unfortunately no doubt a factor, as well.

John Quincy promoted free trade and a modernization program that would come to fruition long afterwards, and his integrity in not replacing government officials who openly undermined his presidency in favor of Andrew Jackson, was his undoing. Brendan used Quincy’s later service to his country through his strong voice as a springboard for his last question to us, one that haunts me to do this day, in everything I write, in every political discussion, in every decision I must make that could affect the future of my nation. "What will your voice be used for?"
© Eric D. Lehman May 2007
University of Bridgeport
Our East Coast Correspondent

Dream Surgery
Eric D Lehman
Subhash began regaling Andy with plans for the trip that he and I would take when we’re thirty. "We’re leaving the wives in Sydney or Melbourne and renting an old Army Jeep, and just going, heading into the outback, Midnight Oil blasting on the stereo, seeing Ayer’s Rock, the desert, maybe going all the way to the wilds of the west coast."

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