John Adams: Superspreader


The Most Delightful Month of John Adams’s Life

It’s always dangerously speculative to start a sentence with “If John Adams were alive today,” as if you could easily transport anyone across centuries and expect a relevant hot take on the issues of today.

That said, if John Adams were alive today he would probably spend all his waking hours defending himself on Twitter and wandering library and supermarket aisles in equal amounts of awe. (What is this manga? What is this peanut butter and who, pray tell, put it in my chocolate?)

John Adams would also be first in line for the COVID-19 vaccine. I base this on his strong feelings about the pre-vaccination process of inoculation he underwent for smallpox in 1764. It was a torturous and risky ordeal (that we documented in our first podcast episode) and he believed people who opposed inoculations were “lost in blindness.”

This is why I was struck by a letter from Adams about his experience with influenza during a state convention in 1820. What he meant as a letter to his daughter-in-law Louisa Adams about one of the best months of his life today reads like a contact tracing nightmare.

Adams was 85 years old when he was selected as a delegate to revise the Massachusetts state constitution he drafted in 1780 — the very constitution he drafted forty years earlier. He understood the selection to be ceremonial, saying he did not “feel much like a maker of mender of constitutions in my present state of imbecility.” But he was well enough to attend and extremely glad he did, even though it left him with a case of influenza that laid him up for weeks.

He wrote to Louisa after he recovered, saying, “I have had the influenza, and with great difficulty have got the better of it — but not perfectly cured.” Apparently it started as a cold that just got worse. “I attended every day the Convention,” he wrote, “and the air of that hall — instead of curing my cold imperceptibly increased it from day to day.”

Did he really expect the air of a crowded room to cure his cold? There was still a lot to learn as far as how colds and flus were spread in 1820, and Adams likely spread his disease far and wide. He wrote, “The unceasing hospitality of the gentlemen in Boston compelled me most willingly to accept invitations to dinner, almost everyday.”

Here is where the contact tracing list begins: “The company was most fascinating — an assemblage of the power, authority, wealth, genius, learning, and politeness of the State — the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, the President of Harvard College, the President of the Senate, the Chief Justice and other Judges, Mr. Webster, Mr. Prescot, Mr. Storry, some of the best of the clergy, strangers of distinction, electors of President and Vice President, and whatever characters there were most precious composed the company.”

Yes, Adams met all the most precious and important people in Boston — “the best company of the world” he called them — and he had difficulty hearing in his later years so they probably all leaned in good and close to pay their respects and soak up some of those Adamsic flu droplets.

The fun didn’t end after dinner. Adams wrote, “Add to all this the ladies were very charmingly solicitous to invite me to parties in the evening — and in this enchanting delirium, I passed a whole month and three days.” Whether the “enchanting delirium” was from alcohol or fever, who can say? And I know he doesn’t mention dancing, but I’d like to picture a sweaty old John Adams swaying to the music like a narc at a rave who just accidentally took the real stuff.

Finally, after infecting most of Boston’s high society (including “as many visits to widows as if I was looking out for another wife,”) Adams became too sick to continue his superspreading ways. “How my shattered nature held out so long, I know not,” he wrote.

He held out so long because after frolicking at night, he recharge his batteries each day by listening to his favorite thing ever: smart people arguing. The debates at the Convention reinvigorated his soul and kept his disease-addled body going…to a point. “At last however nature gave way,” he wrote, “and I fell sick, hurried home to Quincy, and here have been confined to my chamber and house from the 18th of December to this day.”

Adams had some understanding that his behavior was risky – to himself. He said to Louisa, “Now let me ask you a serious question — do you not think that this was the most boyish folly that ever was committed by man of eighty five years? I acknowledge it. But it was one of the most delightful months of the eighty five years.”

I can’t help but be struck by how the influenza and partying of an elderly man reads so differently today. It also strikes me that Adams saw himself as a debilitated “superannuated old dotard,” but he also saw “old people” as a somewhat separate group. Near the end of his letter to Louisa, he wrote, “The weather has been extremely severe for a long time — I expect it will carry off a great number of old people — for who can stand before such cold?” Neither his influenza nor the weather carried him off that winter; he lived five more years.

One night years earlier when Adams was a spry 40, he argued with the medical advice of 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin about how sickness was spread. They were forced to share a bed together in tight quarters and Adams wanted the window closed, fearing the cold air would make them sick. Franklin insisted it stay open saying stagnant air in closed rooms was the real cause of sickness. Eventually Adams gave in, opened the window, and jumped into bed to hear Franklin’s thoughts “upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep.”

Adams may not have learned much in his later years about how diseases were spread, but in that glorious month in Boston he seems to have had a taste of what Franklin had in France that made Adams so jealous – respect and revelry.

It was almost more than his body could handle.

 


Sources:
From John Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, 5 January 1821,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-3866.
“From John Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, 7 February 1821,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-3876.
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