Episode 5: John Quincy Adams vs. The Internet

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.

Listen now:

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#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.”

I feel like the whale picture would pair well with many things JQA actually said, but I have so many questions for the person or robot who made this image.

And the Smithsonian’s Presidents Visual Encyclopedia included it as their only quote from John Quincy Adams:

Quote Investigator and Politifact trace the quote back to its truly inspiring source: Dolly Parton in The Most Important Thing I Know.

(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.

Reputable sites like MentalFloss have shared this story, usually citing the Presidential Pet Museum.

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.

from Cracked’s video “John Quincy Adams Wanted To Meet Mole People.”

Author J. L. Bell of Boston1775 really got to the heart of the story and how the confusion here is literally visionary in his post “Travelling within the nutshell of the earth“?

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!


1 Comment

  1. April 24, 2020 / 7:42 pm

    As a huge fan of JQA, I really enjoyed this podcast. Very entertaining as well as informative.

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