Only one diary survives from the United States’ first Congress, and it’s a gold mine of shade. Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay provided detailed firsthand accounts of the day-to-day struggles of the Senate’s first years in New York City, and multiple references to how much he hated Vice President John Adams and everything about him.
Adams called the vice presidency “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived” but he took its one real responsibility – being president of the Senate – very seriously. Too seriously, for Maclay’s taste. A major reason Maclay started his diary was so he could record his frustration with Adams for posterity.
As President of the Senate, Adams endlessly annoyed Maclay (and others) by obsessing over titles and etiquette, pondering whether George Washington should be called “Elective Majesty” or “His Highness The President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same” and whether they should stand or sit if the President entered the room. Maclay’s thoughts were pretty much “Just call him ‘The President’ and sit down, John.”
But even when John was sitting down he still found a way to irritate Maclay, who wrote:
“I have really often looked at him with surprise mingled with contempt when he is in the chair and no business before the Senate. Instead of that sedate, easy air which I would have him possess, he will look on one side, then on the other, then down on the knees of his breeches, then dimple his visage with the most silly kind of half smile which I can not well express in English. The Scotch-Irish have a word that hits it exactly–smudging.”
I don’t know what John Adams was doing in that chair. It sounds like he was texting Abigail, but this was 1789 and women couldn’t have cell phones back then. Adams was apparently just bored and smirking at his crotch. You know, smudging.
Maclay went on to criticize the awful vice-president for his stupid way of sitting: “God forgive me for the vile thought, but I can not help thinking of a monkey just put into breeches when I saw him betray such evident marks of self-conceit.”
He thought John Adams looked like a monkey wearing pants. Specifically, an arrogant monkey who was new to the very idea of pants. How crazy were the 1780s? They didn’t have universal cell phone suffrage, but freshly-breeched monkeys were common enough to be used as points of reference.
Adams was like a muse for Maclay, inspiring works of art like this uber-catty sentence: “[Adams] often, in the midst of his most important airs–I believe when he is at loss for expressions (and this he often is, wrapped up, I suppose, in the contemplation of his own importance)–suffers an unmeaning kind of vacant laugh to escape him.”
You can almost feel the hate seething from his pen as Maclay used multiple clauses and parentheticals to basically say: “Sometimes John Adams is so vain that his dumb ugly face goes duhhhhh.”
Maclay felt that you really could judge a book by its cover, and people by their dumb faces: “It is a silly opinion of mine, but I can not get rid of it, that every man, like a labeled bottle, has his contents marked on his visage.”
This is how he felt when he got up close to Adams’s face to really judge it:
“After Senate adjourned, I saw the Vice-President standing disengaged. I stepped up to him, asked for his health, and fell into common-place chat. He is not well furnished with small talk more than myself, and has a very silly kind of laugh. I have often looked with the utmost attention at him to see if his aspect, air, etc., could inspire me with an opinion of his being a man of genius; but…No; the thing seems impossible.”
Nevermind that John Adams was actually brilliant – William Maclay stared at him, a lot, and God forgive him, he saw dumb. That might be the one thing that he and Adams agreed on – the unfortunateness of Adams’s face.
Ten years earlier, John Adams wrote in his own diary, “When I look in the Glass, my Eye, my Forehead, my Brow, my Cheeks, my Lips, all betray this Relaxation. Yet some great Events…have at Times, thrown this Assemblage of Sloth, Sleep, and littleness into Rage a little like a Lion.”
In Maclay’s mind, John Adams was definitely not a raging lion – he was a howling monkey. But those were thoughts he kept to himself, in his diary. He had too much decorum to ever dream of saying them to Adams’s stupid face.