The truth behind the fun “facts.”
In the fifth episode of the podcast, Jess and I dive into the truth behind four popular stories about John Quincy Adams, including the inspirational “if your actions inspire others” quote, the pet alligator, the skinny dipping ambush interview with reporter Anne Royall, and the expedition to the center of the earth to visit the mole people.
Find Plodding through the Presidents on:
#1 The Inspirational Quote
According to thousands of tweets, John Quincy Adams is the source for this inspirational quote that is so inspirational it’s actually about inspiration: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
And the Smithsonian’s Presidents Visual Encyclopedia included it as their only quote from John Quincy Adams:
(Correction: In the episode, I say that Sara Martin, editor at The Adams Papers, spoke to Quote Investigator; she spoke to Politifact.)
To Smithsonian’s credit, when I reached out to them about this in 2017, they responded that one of their curators would work with their licensing team to make sure the quote was replaced with an authentic one in the next printing.[Update 6/4/2021 – Smithsonian made good on their commitment to update this quote, and the newest edition of their Presidents Visual Encyclopedia contains an authentic JQA quote.]
#2 The Pet Alligator
As the story goes, John Quincy Adams kept a pet alligator in the White House (a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette) and he loved terrifying his guests with it. I dug into this story and fell into a deep hole of circular sourcing and adorable children’s books.
It even graces a Snapple cap:
#3 The Skinny Dipping Interview
Writer and reporter Anne Royall was a force to be reckoned with, but did she really ambush a skinny-dipping John Quincy Adams by sitting on his clothes and refusing to get up until he granted her an interview? As I first wrote about in The Skinny on John Quincy Adams’s Skinny Dipping Interview, this story is rooted in a smear campaign against an intrepid woman, and not in truth.
Recent biographies of Anne Royall have done a great job of bringing her true story to light: A NotoriousWoman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian America by Elizabeth J. Clapp and The Trials of a Scold: The Incredible True Story of Writer Anne Royall by Jeff Biggers.
#4 The Mole People
According to this story, the brilliant John Quincy Adams somehow subscribed to the idea that the earth was hollow and filled with multiple inner earths inhabited by mole people, and he wanted to establish diplomatic relations with them. This crackpot theory popularized by a Cracked.com article and video somehow made its way to the Smithsonian Magazine.
As Bell put it on Twitter, “JQA is never as fun as we want him to be.”
Perhaps not, but I love him all the same.
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We’ll be back next week for our first season finale!