Happy Birthday To Our Second President

.. the often underappreciated (although never by the O’Malley family) John Adams.

Poor man. Anyone who came after George Washington would suffer by comparison. Gandhi could come after Washington and the collective historical record would respond with a “Eh.” John Adams spent the rest of his life trying to reclaim some legacy for himself – but the Alien & Sedition Act kind of cast a shadow over everything (that lasts to this day – I have heard people bring it up NOW as a way to discount all the amazing things he did. HA.)

I love John Adams BECAUSE of his flaws. I love him for his brilliance, and his dedication – I love him for his relationship wtih Abigail – and I love the two of them for being so FREE in their correspondence with one another so that we, centuries later, can read their letters and get to know them both. I love him for defending the British soldiers in the aftermath of the Boston massacre in 1770. It gives me a chill – his ability to detach, his ability to see the larger picture. In later years, Adam said that that controversial act of his was one of the things he was most proud of. That, to me, says so much about who this man was. John Adams said that this new nation should be a government “of laws, not of men”. Of course, he was a lawyer, so he WOULD say that … but by defending the redcoats – and by WINNING – he took a stand on the side of law and order against the mob. Even though he agreed with the sentiments of the mob. Extraordinary. It was the same thing as Alexander Hamilton (Adams’ sworn enemy later on) lambasting the mobbing people on the college lawns in New York, clamoring for the head of the President – known to be pro-British. Hamilton was a revolutionary by this point – and totally not pro-British – but mob violence was not the way to go, and he stood on the steps of the college and shouted at the mob to disperse. Amazing.

I love him for his fragile ego. I love him for his capacity to get his feelings hurt. Until the end of his life – he maintained that capacity. How many people get burnt by certain events along the way … and close themselves off to future hurts? He never did. He remained juicy, alive … read his letters back and forth to Jefferson at the very end. He is boisterous, fearless … and then, at times, reflective, contemplative.

I love his nervousness about his own legacy and how he kind of had a sense that he would not get the props he felt he deserved (uhm … quoting Eminem in a John Adams post, Sheila?)

I love him for his reliance on Abigail.

I love those damn LETTERS.

I love that the Constitution of Massachusetts – written by him (completed in 1779) is the oldest functioning written constitution in the world. Go, John.

Anyway. My affection for him knows no bounds. I suppose part of it has to do with the fact that he was a Bostonian – and that I have family who live in Quincy – so every time we would go to Thanksgiving dinner at their house, we would pass by the Adams homestead. He’s not a historical figure. He’s almost like a family member – that everyone passes on stories about. It seems like he is actually remembered. Growing up with a Boston family makes you feel like the Adams family is still alive, present, pulsing in the air around you, absorbed into the cobblestones where they walked …

They are not dead. Not really. They are in the air we breathe, they are all around us still.

Happy birthday, John Adams. Thank you, thank you.

Here’s a quote-fest from Adams … The dude was so quotable. If you haven’t read his letters (to his wife, and also the collection of letters between Adams and Jefferson) – I can’t recommend them highly enough.

JOHN ADAMS QUOTE FEST … Okay, I just threw these in hastily – these are my favorites – sorry about how the formatting is different – with some blockquotes, some not – whatever – I don’t have time to iron that all out. It’s the quotes that matter.


— “In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.” (hahahahaha)

— “If the way to do good to my country were to render myself popular, I could easily do it. But extravagant popularity is not the road to public advantage.” — John Adams, after becoming President by only three votes

— “I never shall shine, ’til some animating occasion calls forth all my powers.” — John Adams, 1760

— “The story of B. Bicknal’s wife is a very clever one. She said, when she was married she was very anxious, she feared, she trembled, she could not go to bed. But she recollected she had put her hand to the plow and could not look back, so she mustered up her spirits, committed her soul to God and her body to B. Bicknal and into bed she leaped — and in the morning she was amazed, she could not think for her life what it was that had so scared her.” — Journal entry of John Adams

Adams’ description of the first meeting of the Continental Congress, in 1774 – in a letter to Abigail:

“This assembly is like no other that ever existed. Every man in it is a great man — an orator, a critic, a statesman, and therefore every man upon every question must show his oratory, his criticism, his political abilities. The consequence of this is that business is drawn and spun out to immeasurable length. I believe if it was moved and seconded that we should come to a resolution that three and two make five, we should be entertained with logic and rhetoric, law, history, politics, and mathematics concerning the subject for two whole days, and then we should pass the resolution unanimously in the affirmative.”


— “If we finally fail in this great and glorious contest, it will be by bewildering ourselves in groping for the middle way.” — John Adams

— “It has been the will of Heaven that we should be thrown into existence at a period when the greatest philosophers and lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live … a period when a coincidence of circumstances without example has afforded to thirteen colonies at once an opportunity of beginning government anew from the foundation and building as they choose. How few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves and their children? How few have ever had anything more of choice in government than in climate?” — John Adams

— “Is there no way for two friendly souls to converse together, although the bodies are 400 miles off. Yes, by letter. But I want a better communication. I want to hear you think, or to see your thoughts. The conclusion of your letter makes my heart throb more than a cannonade would. You bid me burn your letters. But I must forget you first.” — John Adams to Abigail – amazing. Romantic. Moving. “But I must forget you first.”

— “Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.” — John Adams

— “In general, our generals were outgeneralled.” — John Adams’ comment after the disastrous battle on Long Island

— “He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise man, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” — Ben Franklin, 1783, about John Adams (in a letter to Robert Livingston)

— “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, artchitecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” — John Adams

— “You are afraid of the one, I, the few. We agree perfectly that the many should have full, fair, and perfect representation [in the House]. You are apprehensive of monarchy; I, of aristocracy. I would therefore have given more power to the President and less to the Senate.” — John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

— “Gentlemen, I feel a great difficulty how to act. I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” — John Adams

John Adams to Jonathan Sewall, July 1774:

“Swim or sink, live or die, survive or perish, [I am] with my country. You may depend upon it.”

— Thomas Jefferson, remembering John Adams’ speeches at the Continental Congress:

“John Adams was our Colossus on the floor. He was not graceful nor elegant, nor remarkably fluent but he came out occasionally with a power of thought and expression, that moved us from our seats.”

John Adams, in a letter to Jefferson, 1812:

“Whether you or I were right posterity must judge. I never have approved and never can approve the repeal of taxes, the repeal of the judiciary system, or the neglect of the navy. Checks and balances, Jefferson, however you and your party may have ridiculed them, are our only security.”

John Adams, in a July 3, 1776 letter to Abigail, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 2:

The Delay of this Declaration to this Time, has many great Advantages attending it. ? The Hopes of Reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by Multitudes of honest and well meaning tho weak and mistaken People, have been gradually and at last totally extinguished. ? Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their Judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. ? This will cement the Union, and avoid those Heats, and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago.

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. ? I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfire and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil, and Blood, and Treasure that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the Gloom, I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means, and that Posterity will triumph in that Day’s Transaction, even though We should not rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

— John Adams, in a 1793 letter, responding to the revolution in France:

“Mankind will in time discover that unbridled majorities are as tyrannical and cruel as unlimited despots.”

— “I think instead of opposing systematically any administration, running down their characters and opposing all their measures, right or wrong, we ought to support every administration as far as we can in justice.” — John Adams

— John to Abigail: Hartford May 2d 1775 – on his way down to Philadelphia. Adams is hoping that the disaster growing in Boston will bind the colonies together. That’s eventually what happened, but at the time, he wasn’t sure if it were a done deal.

“It is Arrogance and Presumption in human Sagacity to pretend to penetrate far into the Designs of Heaven. The most perfect Reverence and Resignation becomes us. But, I can’t help depending upon this, that the present dreadfull Calamity of that beloved Town is intended to bind the Colonies together in more indissoluble Bands, and to animate their Exertions, at this great Crisis in the Affairs of Mankind. It has this Effect, in a most remarkable Degree, as far as I have yet seen or heard. It will plead, with all America, with more irresistible Perswasion, than Angells trumpet tongued.

In a Cause which interests the whole Globe, at a Time, when my Friends and Country are in such keen Distress, I am scarecely ever interrupted, in the least Degree, by Apprehensions for my Personal Safety. I am often concerned for you and our dear Babes…

In case of real Danger, of which you cannot fail to have previous Intimations, fly to the Woods with our Children.”

JOHN ADAMS, journal entry, 1770:

“Ambition is one of the more ungovernable passions of the human heart. The love of power is insatiable and uncontrollable.

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.”

And lastly – one of my favorite Adams anecdotes. I love it because it came straight from his journal – so it’s a first-person account – and it feels like I actually can hear Adams speaking, I can feel his humor, his emotions … in a way that I never get with Jefferson or Washington – also great men, but just not personable writers. They had much more formality in their language. Adams had almost none, at least not in his journals and letters:

John Adams is sent as a delegate to France, to join Ben Franklin and Silas Deane (the stories of Silas Deane in France are hysterical – trying to be “undercover” – and yet barely speaking a word of French, etc.) Ben Franklin is living the high life (John Adams describes in his journal Franklin’s leisurely schedule with haughty scorn). John Adams was more stern, more simple, more “republican”, as he called it. He was talking as an anti-monarch.

Adams was overwhelmed by the politeness of the French, and by how eager they were to please the Americans. John Adams keeps all of his impressions of France, and the French people, in his journal, and in letters home to Abigail.

On his second or third night in France, he is at a dinner – and has the following exchange with a French woman, who asks him a particularly “brazen question”. John Adams blushed his way through the conversation, not being used to women with open and free airs, but his ANSWER to her question – how he ANSWERS the French woman’s question … It kills me.

It’s a perfect description of sexual chemistry.

John Adams’ Journal, 1778 April 1 Wednesday

One of the most elegant Ladies at Table, young and handsome, tho married to a Gentleman in the Company, was pleased to Address her discourse to me. Mr. Bondfield must interpret the Speech which he did in these Words “Mr. Adams, by your Name I conclude you are descended from the first Man and Woman, and probably in your family may be preserved the tradition which may resolve a difficulty which I could never explain. I never could understand how the first Couple found out the Art of lying together?”

Whether her phrase was L’Art de se coucher ensemble, or any other more energetic, I know not, but Mr. Bondfield rendered it by that I have mentioned.

To me, whose Acquaintance with Women had been confined to America, where the manners of the Ladies were universally characterised at that time by Modesty, Delicacy and Dignity, this question was surprizing and shocking: but although I believe at first I blushed, I was determined not to be disconcerted. I thought it would be as well for once to set a brazen face against a brazen face and answer a fool according to her folly, and accordingly composing my countenance into an Ironical Gravity I answered her.

“Madame My Family resembles the First Couple both in the name and in their frailties so much that I have no doubt We are descended from that in Paradise. But the Subject was perfectly understood by Us, whether by tradition I could not tell: I rather thought it was by Instinct, for there was a Physical Quality in Us resembling the Power of Electricity or of the Magnet, by which when a Pair approached within a striking distance they flew together like the Needle to the Pole or like two Objects in Electrical Experiments.”

When this Answer was explained to her, she replied, “Well I know not how it was, but this I know it is a very happy Shock.”

I should have added “in a lawfull Way” after “a striking distance,” but if I had her Ladyship and all the Company would only have thought it Pedantry and Bigottry.

Happy birthday, Mr. Adams, dear Mr. Adams. You are obnoxious and unpopular, it can’t be denied …

Or, another quote from 1776, a favorite musical (whoda guessed):


And for fun – here’s the song lyrics to “But Mr. Adams” – where it is hashed out who will write the Declaration. Naturally, it is quite a self-serving story Adams told (he’s the one who suggested Jefferson) – but still: SO funny. I love this song. I’m listening to it right now.

Mr. Adams, I say you should write it
To your legal mind and brilliance we defer
Is that so? Well, if I’m the one to do it
They’ll run their quill pens through it
I’m obnoxious and disliked, you know that, sir
Yes, I know
So I say you should write it Franklin, yes you
Hell, no!
Yes, you, Dr. Franklin, you
but, you, but, you, but
Mr. Adams, but, Mr. Adams
The things I write are only light extemporania
I won’t put politics on paper; it’s a mania
So I refuse to use the pen in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, refuse to use the pen
Mr. Sherman, I say you should write it
You are never controversial as it were
That is true
Whereas if I’m the one to do it
They’ll run their quill pens through it
I’m obnoxious and disliked, you know that, sir
Yes, I do
So I say you should write it, Sherman, yes you
Good heavens, no!
Yes you, Roger Sherman, you
but, you, but, you, but
Mr. Adams, but, Mr. Adams
I cannot write with any style or proper etiquette
I don’t know a participle from a predicate
I am just a simple cobbler from Connecticut
Connecticut, Connecticut, a simple cobbler he
Mr. Livingston, maybe you should write it
You have many friends and you’re a diplomat
Oh, that word!
Whereas if I’m the one to do it
They’ll run their quill pens through it
He’s obnoxious and disliked; did you know that?
I hadn’t heard
So I say you should write it, Robert, yes you
Not me, Johnny!
Yes you, Robert Livingston, you
but you but you but
Mr. Adams, dear Mr. Adams
I’ve been presented with a new son by the noble stork
So I am going home to celebrate and pop the cork
With all the Livingstons together back in old New York
New York, New York, Livingston’s going to pop a cork
Mr. Adams, leave me alone!
Mr. Jefferson, dear Mr. Jefferson
I’m only 41; I still have my virility
And I can romp through Cupid’s Grove with great agility
But life is more than sexual combustibility
Combustibility, combustibility, combustibili…
Mr. Adams, damn you Mr. Adams
You’re obnoxious and disliked; that cannot be denied
Once again you stand between me and my lovely bride
Oh, Mr. Adams, you are driving me to homicide!
Homicide, homicide, we may see murder yet!


This entry was posted in Founding Fathers, On This Day and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Happy Birthday To Our Second President

  1. Dan says:

    It’s kinda sad that I’ve lived in Quincy for 10+ years, currently live within walking distance of the big house (w/library no less) and have never been inside.

  2. Beth Parks Aronson says:

    I love that musical! I need to get a CD of it. I also remember loving The Adams Chronicles on PBS–must have been late 70s or early 80s.

    Can we bring some of these wise men back to life to replace the hideous substitutes we are living with right now????

  3. red says:

    Dan – it’s kinda like me and the statue of liberty! I’ve been there once in 10 years!

  4. nightfly says:

    Well… for today at least, Stand up, John! We thank you.

    (And – a reminder – “1776” at the former Neptune High School, coming this spring courtesy of NENA Productions. Small venue, affordable prices, great pub in the strip mall across the street.)

  5. JFH says:

    Living in Va, during my high school years, we kinda learned that we were to downplay MA and those from there in terms of the beginnings of the country. For example TJ, and the 3 James’s (Madison, Monroe and Mason) were far more important in the founding of the country than those Yankee Adams’s.

    It STILL makes Virginia’s upset that Plymouth gets more “press” than Jamestown.

    Know that I’m transplanted SCer, I also notice that Charlestonians have a chip on their sholder when it comes to the Boston and the surrounding areas fame during the Revolutionary role… Let’s face it, everyone’s heard of Bunker Hill, but how many have heard of the Battle of Cowpens? Edward Rutledge is kind of the villian in “1776”

    All that said, I think we all can agree that John Adams was probably the best one term president. BTW, I honestly think that Adams believed that the “Alien and Sedition Acts” would be treated in a constitutional manner.

  6. red says:

    Nightfly – I haven’t seen that show since the bicentennial!! I looove it! I would love to see it live again.

    “saltpeter …. pins …. abigail …”

    Love the music!

  7. EMS says:

    John Adams is beloved in my family as well. My bicentennial-born brother was named after him and not the flashier founding fathers, because my parents so admired the integrity of the man.

  8. red says:

    EMS – love it!

    My grandmother used to joke that my grandfather was having an affair with Abigail Adams.

  9. red says:

    JFH – Mr. Bingley tells very funny stories about going to college in Virginia and how people would refer to “Mr. Jefferson” as though he would come in from the next room.

    I grew up thinking, somehow, that we were somehow related to John and Abigail – because they were referenced so casually, and by their first names, etc.

  10. Hmmm.

    I guess today is “John” Day on my blog. That was a complete coincidence. More Johns (some of which I have written about): — John Ford (post — John Tyler — John Steinbeck (post — John Mayer — John Jacob…

  11. Pingback: Whom Do Great Men Marry? « YesterYear Once More

Comments are closed.