Some of Old Man Eloquent’s favorite things.
From pet alligators to skinny dipping interviews, most things you see online about John Quincy Adams are fake news, which is a real shame because there are some great things he should be remembered for.
This is not a list of those things, but it’s a list of real things that meant something to our underrated sixth president.
As a young man, John Quincy Adams loved the flute – but he was careful not to play it too much as it was thought by some to be dangerous. At 19, he non-euphemistically told his sister:
“I have neither time nor inclination to blow so much as to injure my health. But it has been…my greatest amusement and the chief relaxation after study, and indeed it affords me so much pleasure that I cannot think of giving it up.”
He and his friends were sort of an 18th century jam band with flutes and violins, and their get-togethers sometimes spilled out into the public. One night they “sallied forth upon a scheme of serenading. We paraded around the town till almost four in the morning.”
The next day he told his diary he was “unfit for almost everything.” I’m betting he was hung over, but maybe he just blew too hard.
JQA was always sensitive and full of angst, and he loved writing poetry with emotional lines like these:
“From the recesses of my heart
Resentment’s bitter stings expel,
Bid all the fiends of hate depart
And love alone my bosom swell.”
Even his prose could be darkly poetic. As a young lawyer in a dead-end job he mused, “The present a deadly calm, and the future a chilling mist.”
Though he loved poetry, he hated the bouts of depression he could not control. Not even distractions like the theater or prostitutes could fill the void. “When will the vulture leave my bosom?” he once asked. When he couldn’t rise up to his own studious expectations at 19, he cried, “God of heavens!…take me from this world before I curse the day of my birth.”
Poetry was one of his lifelong loves and outlets. “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition,” he wrote later in life, “I should have made myself a great poet.”
John Quincy Adams was always looking to the stars, from the time he was 10 years old learning how to navigate by the sky on his first transatlantic voyage to the time he was president, proposing a national observatory – a “lighthouse in the sky.” But he once made the mistake of looking at one particular star without protection, and he paid for it the rest of his life.
At 23 years old, he charged up Beacon Hill to get a good look at a solar eclipse and wrote, “Hurt my eyes much by observing this same eclipse without a glass.” Five months later he was still complaining that he was “almost blind,” and his eyes never fully recovered.
At 78 years old, he still loved eclipses – and poetry. He wrote a sonnet to a solar eclipse that starts with this flowery language:
Celestial source of life and light on earth!
What envious rival intercepts thy rays?
Dares they own satellite arrest thy blaze?
For some reason he titled it “To the Sun,” but I would have gone with “F*ck you, Moon.”
There’s a metaphor here somewhere in this stargazing. You could say that John Quincy Adams was often so focused on his specific vision of a better world that he was blinded, and unable to fully see the political realities around him.
Like Icarus, but less flighty.
JQA was not a “good” dancer by his own admission, but he did study some dance in Paris and he attended his fair share of dances in Massachusetts. He was no George Washington, but he could probably cut a rug.
His love of dance really came to light when a small-town Footloose-style preacher tried to ban the “heinous sin” of dancing. Adams wrote a strongly worded treatise in defense of dance…in his diary:
“How one of the most innocent and rational amusements that was ever invented can find so many opposers is somewhat mysterious…There are many people here so warped in prejudice that they are really persuaded they should incur the divine displeasure, as much by dancing, as by stealing, or perhaps, committing murder.”
He concluded that “there are many who do not participate of the diversion and are envious to see others amusing themselves.” Haters gonna hate.
He saw to it that his sons were educated in what he considered the “essential qualification” of dancing. Did he mean the kind of dancing Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey did? Probably not. But it’s safe to say that nobody puts Quincy in the corner.
John Quincy Adams inherited his father’s love of books, and both men struggled to value their families more than their libraries. The senior John Adams once wrote to Abigail, “But above all I want to see my books,” but caught himself and squeezed in the words “except the wife & children” before he sent the letter.
The son cared a little less about his future wife’s feelings. While they were engaged, Louisa Johnson wrote to John Quincy that he was letting his “excessive fondness for books” usurp her place in his heart. He didn’t deny it – he just told her she would benefit from his attention to study.
In his elder years, JQA spent much time closed up in his library with his books, and with his father’s books that he inherited.
John Quincy Adams first fell in love with Russia when he was 14 years old and served as Francis Dana’s secretary. He returned almost 30 years later when James Madison appointed him as the United States’ first official minister to Russia.
JQA forged a close relationship with Tsar Alexander I, and he and Louisa were frequent guests in the royal court. Adams seemed to love Russia so much that he chose to stay there despite the strong efforts of everyone else to get him out of there.
Louisa began the trip distraught about leaving two of their sons behind, and things only got worse for her. Though she suffered through several miscarriages and the devastating loss of their 1-year-old daughter in Russia, JQA made no efforts to leave. His mother Abigail went behind his back to ask President Madison to have her son reassigned because Russia was too expensive and “ruinous.” Madison nominated him for the Supreme Court and the Senate unanimously approved his nomination. None of it worked.
JQA politely declined the Supreme Court appointment. He spent five years in his Russian post before he was reassigned as the U.S. ambassador to Britain.
You could take John Quincy Adams out of Russia, but you couldn’t take the conspicuous Russian hat and coat off of him when he got home. Those sartorial choices led to gossip that he was more alien than American, but that Russian outerwear paled in comparison to the general “negligence” he was accused of in the press when it came to his wardrobe.
His mother and wife both complained about his clothes, and Abigail feared that he dressed so poorly as a senator that the world might wonder “what kind of mother he had.”
Biographer Paul Nagel suspected John Quincy Adams’s seemingly careless wardrobe choices were “an easy and lifelong form of rebellion against his otherwise compulsive reverence for duty.”
Of course sometimes, he didn’t wear any clothes at all.
John Quincy Adams absolutely loved skinny dipping in the Potomac. To be fair, it wasn’t considered “skinny dipping” back then. It was just regular old swimming or bathing, since swimsuits weren’t really a thing. And as writer Shannon Selin points out, he wasn’t truly nude – he had a black cap and green goggles.
To work off some of those European pounds he put on, JQA started his swimming habit at age 50 and continued as much as he could until he was 78. He credited his good health to this routine and said it prolonged his life.
He considered giving up the habit after watching the drowned body of an acquaintance (an “excellent swimmer”) pulled to shore. This terrified Louisa, who said her “greatest cause of uneasiness” was JQA’s “passion for swimming which keeps me in hourly terror of some horrible calamity.”
After giving it some thought, John Quincy Adams decided:
“whatever danger there may be in the exercise – and that there is much danger, this incident offers melancholy and cumulative proof – there would be yet greater danger in abstaining from it, or in substituting any other effective exercise in its place.”
He loved skinny dipping so much that he decided the most dangerous thing he could possibly do was not go skinny dipping.
John Quincy Adams always followed his beliefs, and that sometimes meant being a traitor to his party.
His most dramatic party shift came when he went from being a thought leader in his father’s Federalist Party to a foreign policy darling in the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Then in the Election of 1828 he rebranded his following as the National Republican Party. After being obliterated by Andrew Jackson’s new Democratic Party, Adams spent the rest of his life joining whatever party was most successfully opposing Jackson and his policies. That led to a brief stint in the very specific Anti-Masonic Party before it was folded into the Whig Party. Adams was a man of conviction, but also capable of evolving.
As an ex-president in the House of Representatives, he finally evolved into his greatest form. And that brings us to the final thing he loved.
One of my favorite things about John Quincy Adams is his righteous indignation, and he loved directing his justifiable rage at the slaveholding southerners in Congress.
He once purposely brought up a petition to dissolve the Union just so he could get himself formally accused of treason by his southern enemies. They fell into his trap, not realizing that such an accusation would give him the right to speak in his own defense – for as long as he wanted. He spoke for two weeks, but instead of defending himself he delivered an unrelenting indictment of southerners and their desecration of American values.
Adams used brilliant parliamentary maneuvers like this and his own “bitter sarcasm” to help get rid of Congress’s “gag rule” against slavery discussion and to secure the freedom of the enslaved Africans aboard the slave ship Amistad. One Virginia representative called Adams “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.”
No one could force John Quincy Adams to do anything – he could not even stop himself from staring into the sun. Under enormous pressure his entire life, most of the things he loved were opportunities for him to exert control over something.
He always marched stubbornly to the beat of his own drum. Or flute.