George Washington could have kept on presidentin’ forever if he wanted – he was extremely popular and there were no term limits yet to stop him. Instead he chose to bow out after two terms, leaving Americans with a very different character at the helm. I think I know how they felt.
When Shelley Long left Cheers after five incredible years, I was devastated. I felt betrayed, confused, and worried for my future. I was heartbroken at six years old.
|This picture is to analogies as Cheers is to television shows.|
I eventually warmed to Kirstie Alley, but Rebecca Howe was no Diane Chambers. And according to every historical ranking ever, John Adams was no George Washington. I’m no historical ranker (though I hold no historical rancor for those who are) so when I compare America’s first two executives, it’s on my own terms.
I’m pitting Washington and Adams against each other in eight wildly different categories. I’m less interested in objective evaluations of who was the “better president” and more interested in answering one highly subjective question – who would I rather have beers with at Cheers?
Category #1: Brute Strength
I’ve never been to Boston, but every non-Cheers depiction of it tells me there’s a 100% chance my peaceful drinks would be interrupted by a wicked awesome bar brawl, probably with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. If that’s the case, I want to be with someone who can hold their own.
Washington was a majestic 6’2″ tall. Adjusting for inflation, that’s like nine feet today. Nine feet of stoic elegance demanding respect. Adams was about 5’7″ and portly, with a round Charlie Brown head.
Winner: I love Charlie Brown and I personally identify more with Adams’s body type, but I have to give this one to Washington. He could take on Affleck, Damon, and the entire Boston Red Sox with his sheer Washingtonian might.
Category #2: Past Experience
The best stories shared over drinks are the ones you lived firsthand. Which man would have not only the best stories, but ones I’d want to hear? That all depends on their experiences.
Before becoming president, Washington was a surveyor and a planter who moonlighted as a super famous legendary war hero. Adams wished for the glory of a soldier. When he watched Washington go off to lead the Continental Army, he wrote, “I, poor creature, worn out with scribbling for my bread and my liberty, low in spirits and weak in health, must leave others to wear the laurels.”
But let’s be clear. Adams’s “scribbling” was nothing to scoff at. He helped write the Declaration of Independence and most of the Massachusetts Constitution that served as a model for the national one. As a foreign diplomat he was dining at Versailles while Washington was embroiled in battle, but both efforts were essential to winning the war.
On my honeymoon, my wife and I had a great time visiting Versailles, touring the palace and renting a golf cart that automatically shut down when we went beyond the designated area. But when John Adams visited Versailles, he got to dine with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. He called her “an object too sublime and beautiful for my dull pen to describe.” That makes me want to be there. I bet I could be really good at eating at the Court of Versailles if I practiced.
|Sadly, John Adams never got to take golf cart rear view selfies at Versailles.|
Adams would have fascinating stories to tell about his time in Europe, but the truth is those stories would just make me jealous. Washington, on the other hand, would have firsthand accounts of bloody battles, the ravages of war, and unforgiving wilderness filled with danger.
Winner: I would love to hear Washington’s tales for the same reason I enjoy Law & Order: Special Victims Unit but don’t want to live it. For enthralling me without making me jealous, Washington takes this round.
Category #3: Conversational Skills
Having fascinating experiences doesn’t matter much if you can’t put them into words. I want to drink beers and break bread(ed jalapeno poppers) with someone who can keep up their end of the conversation.
Adams was such a gifted speaker that it’s almost unfair to compare these two on their ability to talk. It’s like on Jeopardy when a contestant is introduced with “Tim is a marine biologist from Miami” and one of the categories is “Manatees in Florida.” Or “Janelle is a dried flower expert from Peoria” and somehow there’s a category of “Potpourri.”
|I’ll take “Unfair Advantage” for 800, Alex.|
According to David McCullough, “Once, to give a client time to retrieve a necessary record, Adams spoke for five hours, through which the court and jury sat with perfect patience. At the end he was roundly applauded because, as he related the story, he had spoken ‘in favor of justice.’” More likely they applauded because he was finally done talking. Five hours?! If justice takes that long, I might lean toward the side in favor of corruption if they kept their soliloquies under twenty minutes.
The point is, Adams had a gift for rousing people with his words. He was extremely well-read and could speak extemporaneously ad nauseam. Washington was the opposite, famous for being a man of few words. McCullough wrote that Adams himself “wished he talked less, and he had a particular regard for those, like General Washington, who
somehow managed great reserve under almost any circumstance.”
Winner: For captivating captive audiences – and having the self-awareness to realize he talked too much – I’m going with Adams.
Category #4: Popularity
Popularity doesn’t matter. That’s what unpopular kids are told to make them feel better. In politics, popularity is everything. It’s also a factor in deciding who I’d rather have drinks with. If someone is well-regarded, they might be better company. If someone is universally hated, they could make any beer taste bitter.
When it comes to popularity, it’s hard to compete with a demigod. Washington was the only president unanimously elected by electors, and perhaps the only man popular enough to convince America to ratify The Constitution. Even
today, he’s an essential part of our daily tasks. It’s hard to do laundry, park your car, or poorly compensate a stripper without sticking George Washington’s face in something.
Adams was a more divisive figure, entrenched in a time when political parties first took their foothold in American politics. In America’s first fifty years, only two presidents served a single term – John Adams, and his son.
Their nicknames were another good indicator of their popularity. George Washington was called “the father of his country,” and “His Excellency.” Adams was derisively called “His Rotundity.” Even his honorable nickname “The Colossus of Independence” sounds like a fat joke.
Winner: Washington’s enormous popularity had to go to his head, right? It’s not like he was only honored after his death. His nation’s capital was named after him while he was still president. How does your ego even handle that?
I think I’d prefer John Adams’s quasi-popularity. He had no shortage of ego himself, but enough detractors to keep it in check.
Category #5: Family
Family matters. Wow. I literally just now realized the title of that 90s sitcom could be read as a phrase and a complete sentence. “We have to discuss these family matters, Harriet, because family matters.” I…I need a minute.
|Family does matter, except when it comes to ratings. Then neighbors matter way more. You know what I’m talking about, Judy.|
Okay I’m back. When it comes to choosing your friends and drinking buddies, their families can be a factor. For one, because they may come up in conversation and you’d hope they’d be interesting. But also because people are shaped by their families. So whose family most appeals to me?
Martha Washington may have been a fine woman, but she destroyed her letters with George after his death, in effect destroying most evidence of her personality and their affection. We have hundreds of letters from Abigail Adams to prove what a remarkable, brilliant, forward-thinking woman she was and how devoted and in love she was with John. She kept him grounded, emotionally and financially. Thomas Jefferson said Adams was lucky to be “under the direction of Mrs. Adams, one of the most estimable characters on earth, and the most attentive and honorable economists.”
Washington had no children of his own, and his one surviving stepson was a disappointment. John Adams had four children who survived into adulthood. Though his son Charles died of acute alcoholism, his son John Quincy went on to become the sixth president of the United States.
|John Quincy Adams, 1843. The earliest surviving photograph of a president who looks like he stole Christmas.|
Upon becoming president, one of the greatest honors Adams ever received from Washington was a letter where Washington said, “If my wishes would be of any avail they should go to you in a strong hope that you will not withhold merited promotion for Mr. John [Quincy] Adams because he is your son.”
Winner: The Adams family takes this prize.
Category #6: Religiosity
Someone’s religion wouldn’t stop me from having a beer with them, unless it actually forbade the consumption of alcohol. That could put a damper on things. What could sway me is someone’s beliefs on the role of religion in government.
Like the only boy who could ever reach Dusty Springfield, John Adams was the son of a preacher man. He didn’t subscribe to church beliefs about Jesus’s divinity and other miracles, but he lived a righteous life. Writing about his youth, Adams said that though he was “very fond of the society of females…they were all modest and virtuous girls and always maintained their character through life… My children may be assured that no illegitimate brother or sister exists or ever existed.” Washington, as a young man, didn’t let his beliefs get in the way of gambling and wenching.
What troubles me is that unlike Washington, Adams wasn’t sold on the separation of church and state. If that came up in conversation I’d have to steer us to a more agreeable topic, like what a jerk Alexander Hamilton was.
At Washington’s inauguration, it is said he added the words “so help me God” at the end of his oath and kissed The Bible. Detailed firsthand accounts of his inauguration never mentioned that and it wasn’t reported until nearly a hundred years later, so it probably never happened. Washington’s actual religious beliefs were a personal mix of deism and Protestantism, and he didn’t believe government should be involved in the matter.
Winner: Adams was religious enough that he preferred not to travel on the Sabbath. Washington would cross an icy river on Christmas to murder you. Washington takes the crown for his unpredictability.
Category #7: Views on Slavery
John Adams was vehemently against slavery, and well aware of the irony of fighting for freedom when hundreds of thousands of Americans were anything but free.
George Washington used his slaves’ teeth to make his dentures. (And some hippo ivory, but still…)
|Let’s tell kids they’re made of wood.|
Winner: I think I’m gonna go with Adams on this one.
Category #8: Sense of Humor
This is my top factor in the beer test. After a certain number of beers, I give up on learning and 100% of my intelligence is directed toward making people laugh and laughing in return. I get along best with people on the same page.
George Washington may not have been on that page. During the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton bet Gouvenor Morris a dinner that he didn’t have the nerve to approach Washington, slap him on the back, and say, “My dear general, how happy I am to see you look so well!” Morris went through with it and won the dinner, but according to author Kenneth C. Davis, “Morris would later confess that the withering look he received made this the worst moment of his life.”
|George Washington made Lilith look like Patch Adams.|
Whether or not that’s true, it speaks to Washington’s reputation for being too formal and having no sense of humor. Adams could come off as pompous, but in close quarters he usually won people over quickly. He could talk with anybody about anything, and he loved a good joke. When opponents spread a lie that he sent Charles Pinckney to England to get three mistresses – two for Adams and one for Pinckney – Adams responded, “If this be true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two.”
Winner: Maybe Washington’s formality was put on, a show of what he thought the dignified ruler of America should act like. Even so, I wouldn’t want to take the chance that he wouldn’t let his hair down for me.
John Adams had the intelligence of Frasier Crane, the obnoxiousness of Cliff Claven, the charm of Sam Malone, the humor of Norm Peterson, and the occasional out-of-touchness of bartenders Coach and Woody. Washington was a hero and a legend, but Adams would make a much better drinking buddy.
Washington gets points for beating up Ben Affleck, having a wealth of grisly experiences to relate, and not imposing his personal feelings about religion onto the government. That’s 3 points to Washington.
Adams takes the cake in never letting there be a lull in conversation, not being too popular, having an impressive family, hating on slavery, and being able to take a joke. That’s 5 points Adams. Let’s just give views on slavery double points and make that an even 6 points to Adams!
John Adams wins this arbitrary match-up 6-3! Once we figure out the logistics behind time travel and entering a sitcom, he is entitled to meet me where everybody knows your name so we can enjoy some beers named after his cousin Sam.
Sources: John Adams by David McCullough, Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents by Kenneth C. Davis, Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner, Recarving Rushmore by Ivan Eland.