Tag Archives: John Adams

One town, two presidents, three houses, four generations

Ryan and I got a firsthand look at the revival of popular interest in John Adams when we tried to schedule a visit to Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, MA.  We’d planned on an afternoon visit, but since tour tickets are limited and on a first-come, first-served basis we decided to call first.  It’s a good thing we did, because every single tour for the day was already full, and we’d called not long after lunch.  Capacity crowds aren’t unusual at the site.  From what the staff told me, ANHP has been doing a brisk business in ticket sales for some time, ever since David McCullough and HBO made John Adams fun again.

Or perhaps I should say they introduced us to a man who had always been fun.   Adams had such a vivid personality, and expressed that personality so fully in his writing, that he’s the most flesh-and-blood of all the Revolutionary demigods.  When you read John Adams, there’s no Washingtonian marble exterior to crack, no haze of Jeffersonian contradiction to penetrate.  He jumps right down off his pedestal, pokes his finger in your chest, and spouts whatever’s on his mind.  Irritating but engaging, stubborn but fiercely loyal and determined, he has all the makings of a great TV character.  No wonder people flock to the places he lived.

Anyway, we picked another day to visit and headed out early.  It was worth the effort, because there aren’t many places where you can see two presidential birthplaces for the price of one, just as there aren’t many historic sites interpreted as well as this one.

As of this writing, the visitor center is located at the Presidents Place Galleria, a sort of office/retail building in Quincy.  I think ANHP is in the process of moving to new digs, but until then you won’t find much in the way of an exhibit.  What you will find is an excellent film narrated by Laura Linney, which offers an overview of four generations of Adams family history, from the American Revolution all the way to the Gilded Age of Henry and Brooks Adams.

The park has its own trolley service to conduct visitors to the three historic homes.  The first two homes are right next to each other, both of them constructed in the distinctive New England “salt-box” style.  The first is the house where John Adams was born in 1735.  (Tourist with sailor hat not included.)

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Just across the lawn sits the house where John and Abigail set up housekeeping and where John started his law practice, made a political name for himself as America and England headed toward war, and wrote the Massachusetts Constitution.  Their son John Quincy was born here, too, so you’ve got two presidential birthplaces less than eighty feet apart.

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The third home, and the focus of the tour, reflects the elevated stature the Adamses enjoyed due to John’s public service in the Revolution.  Peacefield, or the “Old House,” is the home John and Abigail bought while overseas, and served as the family seat until 1927.

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The house still has many original furnishings, and each room boasts a mixture of items from all four famous generations of the Adams family.  Some of these items are priceless.  I was especially excited to see the desk where John Adams wrote the letter that mended his relationship with Thomas Jefferson, initiating one of the most remarkable bodies of correspondence in American history.

Some of ANHP’s most valuable assets aren’t in the collection at all, but walking around in uniform.  The guides are some of the best interpreters working at any historic site I’ve ever visited; their knowledge is encyclopedic and their delivery is polished and engaging.  I’d venture to say that our tour of Peacefield was probably the finest historic house tour I’ve ever taken.  The ranger was in total command of his subject matter and his audience.  It’s no small thing to master the history of an entire family when the family in question produced two presidents, some accomplished diplomats, and one of the country’s most distinguished men of letters.

There are a couple of other neat Adams-related things to see in Quincy.  A nice statue of Abigail and a young John Quincy stands not far from the visitor center.

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And you’ll definitely want to set aside some time for a tour of United First Parish Church, which is just across the street. Established as a Puritan church in the 1630′s, it became a Unitarian congregation in the 1700′s.  The current building, with its columned portico and a sanctuary with a beautifully carved ceiling, dates from 1828.  John, Abigail, John Quincy, and Louisa Catherine Adams are all laid to rest in the crypt.

Our tour guide took us inside the burial chamber, a small, stone room with a low ceiling whitewashed walls.  It’s about as intimate an experience with history as you can have.  I should’ve taken a picture, but it just didn’t seem right to dig my camera out with two sets of presidents and first ladies lying there.

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In recognition of Valentine’s Day

…I recommend you spend a few moments perusing the remarkable letters exchanged between John and Abigail Adams.  They don’t make marriages like that anymore.

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Fly on the wall (2)

While we’re on the subject of credibility in historical films, there’s another scene from HBO’s John Adams that’s worth looking at, one which illustrates authenticity of a different kind—the authentic depiction of historical personalities

Before watching the scene, we’ll set the stage with a few descriptions of the characters involved.  Here’s David McCullough describing Jefferson and Adams in the book on which the series is based: “Where Adams stood foursquare to the world, shoulders back, Jefferson customarily stood with his arms folded tightly across his chest.  When taking his seat, it was as if he folded into a chair, all knees and elbows and abnormally large hands and feet” (p. 111).

Joseph Ellis describes Jefferson as “a listener and observer, distinctly uncomfortable in the spotlight, shy and nervous in a distracted manner that was sometimes mistaken for arrogance” (p. 32).

Finally, here’s Edmund S. Morgan on Benjamin Franklin: “[He] could not see anything without asking himself what it was, how it got that way, what made it tick.  He had that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why” (5).

Now here’s the scene, with Adams and Franklin critiquing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence:

I’d say these guys did their homework. 

Good writing, good acting, and good direction can bring us as close as we’re likely to get to seeing historical figures in the flesh, and when it happens, it magic.

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Fly on the wall

I have no idea why this review of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto just appeared on one of Roger Ebert’s “far-flung correspondents” blogs, since the movie came out a few years ago.  Anyway, it’s well worth a read, because it touches on an important issue regarding historical films.

Every historical movie will have some inaccuracies, either intentional liberties or simple mistakes.  But regardless of how many historical flaws Apocalypto contains, it’s also saturated with details that “allow us to feel when the credits roll, that we actually attended the events depicted here, what some call ‘the fly on the wall’ theory.”  In other words, a movie like this creates a credible past.

Moviemakers create worlds, and it’s healthy for us to remember that when we’re talking about the past, a different world is exactly what we’re dealing with.  Historical filmmakers should build their worlds from the ground up in the same way that good science fiction filmmakers do.  Otherwise, the world they create won’t be credible.  It will be nothing but the past lightly grafted onto the present, like a poorly-done reenactment.

For a great example of a credibly, thoroughly authentic past, take HBO’s John Adams.  There is nothing modern about the world the characters inhabit.  Indeed, there’s nothing modern about the characters themselves.  They lack make-up.  They have bad teeth.  Even their speech is distinctive, since the filmmakers tried to reconstruct colonial dialects.  (The result is sort of halfway between a British accent and modern American English; it’s like an entire nation inhabited by William F. Buckleys.)

The world of John Adams wouldn’t be a vacation for anybody but a hardcore reenactor.  It would have all the hallmarks you’d associate with visiting a Third World village: unfamiliar speech, uncomfortable living conditions, strange food.  Watch this excerpt from the first episode, and then ask yourself how long it would take you to get accustomed to living in this world:

This is a world where it’s hard to keep out the cold, where children curtsey when their father arrives home, where simmering imperial tensions can explode in the blink of an eye.  This isn’t modern America in knee breeches.  These people live differently, speak differently, behave differently.  They are different, and they inhabit a different America.  It’s a remarkable artistic achievement.

There aren’t many ways that entertainment media can advance historical understanding.  Drawing attention to neglected people or incidents is one of them.  Creating worlds with this level of authenticity is another.  It reminds us of a fact we too often forget, one summed up memorably in Leslie Hartley’s dictum: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  Movies like this are a valuable corrective for those occasions when we feel too comfortable with the past, when we forget the span of years that separates us from the people who lived there.

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History in your veins

Here’s an interesting news story, via a blog devoted to John Brown, about an event attended by descendants of Brown and his followers.  One of the attendees was Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter, Alice Keesey Mecoy of Allen, Texas.

For some reason the notion that I’m sharing the planet with John Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter struck me as pretty darn cool.

I had a similar feeling a few years ago when I saw a local TV spot here in East Tennessee.  It was a campaign ad for Andrew Jackson VI, who was running for a judgeship in Knox County.  The background music was an instrumental version of “The Battle of New Orleans.”  I had no idea there was an Andrew Jackson VI, and I certainly didn’t know he lived in Knoxville.  But lo and behold, it was true.

Technically, of course, he’s not a biological descendant of Andrew Jackson, who fathered no kids of his own; he’s descended from Rachel Donelson’s nephew.  But Old Hickory adopted the nephew and named him Andrew Jackson, Jr.  That’s good enough for me.

I actually met a John Sevier descendant once.  She was a delightful lady, and strikingly resembled the Peale portrait of him.

I decided to see what I could find out about people who are carrying history around in their genes.  Web browsers make it a lot easier to indulge this kind of idle, unproductive curiosity.

  • News story about the release of the John Adams dollar coin, with a picture and quote from a seventh-generation descendant.  I think he looks more like Sam Adams than John, but that’s just me.
  • Jefferson descendants have their own organization.  Benefits include burial at Monticello.  Last I heard there was a Hemingses-need-not-apply policy, but that might have changed by now.
  • Madison’s relatives also have a group of their own, with a spiffy website.
  • There’s also a group for Washington relatives, although His Excellency (like Jackson) had no biological children of his own, and thus no direct descendants. 
  • No Lincoln descendants left either, though if I had one of those John Adams dollar coins for every time somebody told me they were in Abe’s direct line, I could buy an original Gettysburg Address.  But here’s an item about a modern-day Abraham Lincoln who claims a distant relation.  Imagine the trouble this guy has passing checks.
  • Back in May, a Virginia reporter caught up with U.S. Grant’s great-great-grandson—who’s a Confederate reenactor.
  • A fellow named David Morenus has a website on his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandma, Pocahontas.
  • Davy Crockett’s descendants and relatives are taking applications for new members at their website.
  • If you’re one of the millions of Mayflower descendants, maybe you’ll be interested in joining this group.  Given the math, though, this is about as exclusive as having your name listed in the white pages.
  • Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., direct descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, runs a foundation that opposes modern-day slavery, which seems very appropriate.
  • Here’s an old news item about an event with appearances by various relatives of Ohio’s presidents.  One of the guests of honor was a guy named Rick Taft, great-grandson of you-know-who.  According to the news item, he’s a lawyer and software developer.  Here’s a picture and blurb from his company’s website. 
  • The same event also hosted Stephen Hayes, great-great-grandson of Rutherford B.  He’s a consultant with one of those firms which have really impressive-sounding names, the kind for which you see commercials on television that never actually explain what service they offer.  I think this one finds people to run companies.  (Wouldn’t it be easier to just promote somebody from the ranks?)

And finally, for the rest of us whose family trees are undistinguished, weep no more.

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Happy Original Independence Day

Go out to your backyard tonight and set off those fireworks a couple of days early.  When your irate neighbors open their windows and lean out to ask you what the heck you think you’re doing, you can give them a little history lesson. 

The Continental Congress actually voted to make America independent on July 2, 1776.  That was the day the delegates adopted the resolution, presented by Richard Henry Lee, that the colonies were in fact “free and independent States.”  No wonder John Adams assumed independence was settled when he wrote to Abigail on July 3.

The Fourth of July, therefore, is not the “original” Independence Day, but the anniversary of the formal acceptance of the Declaration of Independence by Congress.  And, of course, it’s also the anniversary of our victory over the aliens.

Here are a few other independence-related myths from HNN.  Anyway, it’s the independence that counts, right?

(Independence Hall photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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The Revolutionary War on film

I’ve been looking up early American course syllabi recently to see if I’m on track with my ideas for teaching a colonial course this fall.  Not long ago I ran across a website with teaching resources, including a list of films dealing with early American history. 

For reasons I’ve never understood, the Revolution hasn’t fared well on the silver screen.  There are a few period films that I enjoy watching.  1776 remains a personal favorite of mine, because it helps restore some of the suspense and urgency that two and a half centuries have worn away from the debate over independence.  I’ve also got to confess that I’m a fan of The Patriot.  It’s a compelling story told well, and it focuses on the critical war in the South, even if it plays fast and loose with the facts.  A&E’s made-for-TV films The Crossing and Benedict Arnold: A Queston of Honor also deserve an honorable mention.  I haven’t seen HBO’s Adams miniseries yet, but I’ve heard some great feedback.  Still, the Revolutionary War can’t match the Civil War or WWII in terms of number and quality of film adaptations.

This hasn’t always been the case.  As the filmography at the above website shows, the Revolutionary War was a pretty popular subject during the infancy of moving pictures.  From the early 1900′s to the 1920′s, filmmakers were turning out Revolutionary War stories at a surprisingly high rate.  Similar projects often appeared close to the same time: Paul Revere and Nathan Hale were both popular subjects in the 1910′s, and Francis Marion got his own film in 1911 and again in 1914. 

It’s clear that moviemakers were interested in the Revolution from the first days of putting stories on film.  It’s also clear that interest in making Revolutionary War films didn’t keep up with this initial burst of enthusiasm.

There are a lot of stories from the War of Independence I’d like to see on the screen, but it doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon.  Countingdown.com lists quite a few WWII movies in the works, but I couldn’t find any Revolutionary War-related projects in any genre.  Maybe the current Founding Fathers craze will bring more filmmakers around.

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