Now might be the perfect moment for the Adams family.
200 years ago on July 25, 1820, John Adams considered making a trip to Washington, DC to visit his son, then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. It would be his first trip back to the capital since the end of his presidency in 1801 – he didn’t even stay for the inauguration of his Founding Frenemy Thomas Jefferson.
Adams considered the journey and wrote, “but if I should lay my bones in Washington they will erect no monument to me.”
He decided against the trip and never did lay his bones in the capital city again after his presidency, but he was right about one thing. A monument to him has never been erected in Washington, DC.
But it could be.
In fact, Congress has approved it. Several times.
What’s the status?
In 2001, Congress authorized the Adams Memorial Foundation to design and construct a memorial to be placed on federal land in Washington, DC, if they could raise private funds to do it within seven years. That deadline passed and was extended three times.
Then, in March 2019, as part of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, a federal commission was established to take over the responsibilities of the Adams Memorial Foundation. The text of the law specifies that this memorial is “for the purpose of establishing a permanent memorial to honor John Adams and his legacy,” and many understand that to include his wife Abigail Adams, their son John Quincy Adams, and John Quincy’s wife Louisa Adams, among others.
This commission is set to terminate on December 2, 2025. That might seem like a long time, but over a year has gone by without Donald Trump, Chuck Grassley, or Nancy Pelosi completing the first step of appointing members to the commission. There is every chance that this group, like their predecessors, might do nothing and miss the chance to erect a memorial in time for the 200th anniversary of Adams’s death and the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 2026.
If you’d like to nudge the process along, contact those three, or your representatives.
In the midst of a pandemic, focusing on an Adams family monument might seem like an odd priority for Congress. Or anyone.
But this memorial is already authorized, and I believe now is the perfect time to move forward. Important conversations are being had around the country – and the world – about the origins and impact of Confederate monuments and statues of slaveholders. Most of the conversations seem to be on Facebook and go nowhere, but even those represent the necessity of a reckoning with our past.
Perhaps it’s time to celebrate a founding family that actually abhorred slavery, and remind Americans than some founders were well aware that the idea “all men are created equal” rang hollow in a country so dependent upon human chattel slavery.
I’ve seen a lot of people claim the first ten presidents were all slaveowners, and that is false. Technically, ten of the first twelve presidents were. The notable exceptions are John Adams (#2) and John Quincy Adams (#6). John Adams considered slavery “an evil of colossal magnitude” and John Quincy Adams was called “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed” by a fellow Congressman from Virginia.
Calling out the Adams’ aversion to slavery reminds us that there were opposing voices even in high places. This is important because it means that the people who benefitted from and fought for slavery cannot be excused as mere products of their time, ignorant of their evils and unexposed to rational arguments about human rights. It is a reminder that speaking out against wrong matters. That’s exactly the sort of thing we used to consider patriotic.
But free speech…
Some people hear the name John Adams and consider him utterly unworthy of honor because of the Alien and Sedition Acts. I can’t defend those xenophobic, anti-free speech laws, but I will say that Adams was not a big fan of them himself. Who does he blame for pushing the Federalist Party to adopt them? Alexander Hamilton. And that guy is currently the hottest Disney prince since Aladdin.
While we’re on the subject of the Alien and Sedition Acts, let’s take a moment to talk about Thomas Jefferson (who, by the way, has a beautiful memorial in DC). Jefferson’s battle cries against those un-American acts helped him win the White House, but he had no problem with sedition laws himself; he just preferred to prosecute reporters he disliked at the state level, and behind the scenes to keep his hands clean. John Adams never did anything behind the scenes – he was an open book who never made a move without detailing and defending it.
So even though the Alien and Sedition Acts were signed by Adams, they were not his brainchild or his passion project – not in the way that, say, the Indian Removal Act was one of Andrew Jackson’s top priorities.
Why the Adams family?
Clearly I feel the Adamses are far better examples of humanity than some other monumented folks, but I realize that’s maybe not the best argument for memorializing them. There are, truly, many great reasons to honor the Adams family beyond how much less bad they are than others.
John Adams was the loudest voice for American independence and a skilled diplomat who secured vital foreign loans to help win the Revolution and as president kept us out of a war with France that would have crushed us.
And then there’s my beloved John Quincy Adams, maybe the best American diplomat ever. Forget his mediocre presidency – afterward he served in the House of Representatives for almost two decades (!) and fought hard against the acceptance and expansion of slavery.
And in Abigail’s words, we must remember the ladies. She was a brilliant and essential partner to John Adams and her proto-feminist words are still powerful today in a society where Congressmen think it’s acceptable to accost women. In 1776 she wrote to John:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”
John Quincy’s wife Louisa, the first foreign-born First Lady, was a keen and talented writer who held up the entire social grace half of their marriage and her story is begging to be told. She also had strong feelings about the study of history. In 1819 she wrote to her son:
“History is a little irksome to a young hand, but very soon becomes interesting and is always instructive. It is true it frequently represents human nature in a degrading point of view; but it represents it justly in all its varieties, which are equal to the sublimity of virtue, and to the lowest grades of execrable vice. This knowledge my beloved boy, teaches us to look into ourselves, and to curb those passions and propensities which are apt to rebel within us, against all the powers of exalted reason, and require more than mortal strength to check or to destroy.
…Many a tyrant was once good and innocent, and many have been urged to crime by misconceived ideas of virtue—continue this study. It will expand your mind, and guard you against false reasonings and false principles, things the most dangerous to youth, as once imbibed they are most difficult to eradicate.”
While I believe there are many women and people of color (and actual abolitionists) who have been overlooked – and I think the America of the future should memorialize their stories ahead of men like John Adams or John Quincy Adams who don’t need stones carved to cement their place in American history – I still think an Adams memorial is a step in the right direction.
Maybe breaking ground on a monument to the Adams family is one thing we could use right now, in this time of reeling and reckoning. A sort of marble compromise candidate for most people to get behind. A bronze Biden to bridge the gap between kakistocracy and equity, before we get some even more exciting monuments to look up to.