Plan a Visit
with the Adamses of Braintree
History is alive and well in our own backyard
By Dorothy Malcolm
Click to see larger image
Article first appeared in “The
Boston-South Summertime Guide—2002,”
CNC/Herald Media Publishing, Boston
“Sit down, John! Sit down, John! For God’s sake,
John, sit down!…You’re obnoxious and disliked, you know that, sir!”
The above quotes are not historical, but the words
of musician/lyricist Sherman Edwards who wrote the musical, “1776.” The lines
are sung by the entire Continental Congress in Philadelphia, chastising Mr.
Adams of Massachusetts for his tenacious resolve for independence.
Humorous as those lines may
strike us, no truer words on earth could have better described our vociferous
second president. And perhaps, no truer man on earth could have been a more
committed patriot and president than the man from Braintree, a
John Adams sacrificed his
popularity and the esteem of his peers for the birth and first steps of his
beloved new nation. How patriotic is that—how utterly selfless? Image and
political correctness was not on John Adams’ mind when he tried to forge a new
country. He could have cared less about his own PR. This man loved his country.
He came from good stock, hearty New England people who thrived on integrity and
In the 18th-century
and into the 19th, what is now Quincy was originally Braintree, and
at a farmstead on what is now Independence Ave., John Adams was born in 1735 to
Deacon John Adams and Susanna Boylston. Deacon John had aspirations for his
family and sent his eldest son, John to Harvard for the best legal education he
could get. When John married Abigail Smith of Weymouth, they moved into the
house not 75 feet away from his birthplace; in a property his father had purchased.
It was there that John and
Abigail started their life together, where John began his law career, his son
and our sixth president John Quincy Adams was born; and it was in that house
that John, along with his second cousin Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin wrote the
Massachusetts Constitution. Both of these simple, humble and sparsely-furnished
homes are open to the public. Yet meager as they may be, it is where the
side-by-side birthplaces of America’s first
father-and-son presidents drew their first breaths.
On a feminine and feminist note,
it was also in this humble farmhouse that Abigail Adams proved her mettle. In
the words of Adams Houses’ Collections Curator, Kelly Cobble: “It was in
this house that Abigail shined. She worked the farm alone, raised the children
alone, lived through the war alone, and became the remarkable woman we remember
her for.” And it was in that humble house too, that some of the greatest love
letters between husband and wife in the history of our country, perhaps the
world, were exchanged. John was in
Philadelphia, France and elsewhere for so much of their marriage and Abigail
soldiered on—alone—still adoring the man she had honored and loved from day
An example of Abigail’s moral
fiber and sense of survival was during the time John was in Europe.
He was able to send her sets of Chinese
export porcelain, the Blue Willow pattern (a classic, still popular today), but
which Abigail referred to as her “blue and white.” According to Adams’ Collections
Curator, Kelly Cobble, “Two very prominent elements regarding this china set
represent John’s time in Europe. In the 1780s, he was able to send her the
china because he had access to it [a near-impossible acquisition for any early
American]; and as much as Abigail was attached to it, that china helped raise
her economic level because she was able to barter her china for necessities for
the farm in Braintree. She traded pieces of it for food, coffee and pins, the
most bare necessities.”
What is left of Abigail’s “blue
and white” china is on display at the large house they bought in 1788, about a
mile down the road, known as the “Old House.” The Adams’ manse on Adams Street,
Quincy was John and Abigail’s home when John was nationally eminent and
subsequently affluent, as evidenced by the furniture, art and porcelain.. The
old house was built in 1731 and it became the family home to four generations
of Adamses from 1788 to 1927. And what an illustrious crew John and Abigail
spawned—a son who became president, a grandson who became the U.S. Civil War
Minister to Great Britain, great-grandsons who distinguished themselves as
literary historians, and present-day progeny who are authors, attorneys and in
diverse callings still contributing familial potential, character and resources
to the Adams’ legacy.
Tourists and natives who visit
the “old house’ in Quincy feel like they’re taking a step back in time. The
atmosphere is both homey and awesome, and in-the-moment, like John or Abigail
might join their guests at any time—so imbued is the old house with this
feeling of immediacy.
In the dining room stands the
table used by four generations of Adamses. According to Kelly Cobble, “It’s an
early 18th-century piece, a tri-fold table [drop leaf] with two
leaves; plus two semi-circle side pieces which can be added to make it either a
separate round table or a long oval table seating six to eight.” Abigail often
used her “blue and white” china on this table for both entertaining and
leisurely dinners with John. And John
Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa Catherine used both her mother-in-law’s “blue and
white” and her own fine porcelain acquired in Europe and Russia. Louisa
Catherine’s china and dessert set is decorated with a peony motif. All these
are on display at the old house.
Upstairs in John and Abigail’s
bedroom is their original four-poser bed. “The same size as today’s double
beds,” Cobble said, “It’s an 18th-century Dutch piece and it’s
absolutely the epitome of its time. It was made to be draped with heavy fabric
in the winter and lighter material in summer.”
In John’s study upstairs, in the
corner of the room, is the wing chair in which he is believed to have died.
Cobble and the National Park Rangers who conduct the tours agree John suffered
a stroke in that very chair, but was most likely moved to his bed.
According to Cobble, there are
three authentic chairs belonging to John Adams. “The one in John’s study, one
in the guest room and one in the
president’s and Abigail’s bedroom,” said Cobble. “The material on the chair in John’s study
is actually a reproduction of an 18th-century
print, a chintz of birds and flowers. It’s not upholstery but is actually a
slipcover made by the Brunswig & Fils company.”
Cobble stressed that “The old
house had been the home of this family, not just a museum or presidential library.
Various generations of Adamses changed things, changed the décor
and updated the style…three styles are prominent in the house: the middle-class
prosperity of John Adams in the late 18th and early 19th-century;
the more sophisticated furnishings, like the Empire pieces that John Quincy and
his wife Louisa Catherine brought to the house in the early 1800s from living
abroad; and the Victorian furnishings John Quincy’s son, Charles Francis Adams
introduced to modernize and make his home life more comfortable. There’s three
generations of furniture, porcelain and decorative arts in this house.”
The portraits and oil paintings
in the old house are some of the best in the country.
There are two portraits of John and Abigail in the “long room”
[the large formal parlor] that was originally done for them by artist, Gilbert
Stuart. John Adams also sat for Stuart
when he was 88 years old. At one point, when the Adamses had fallen on
difficult times, debtors had come to claim the Stuart portraits of the second
president and first lady that had hung in the long room. We know this because
Abigail had the receipts and all the necessary documentation. Gilbert Stuart’s
daughter Jane, however, also rendered remarkable copies of her father’s work that
are currently housed there.
All presidential libraries and
homes have books and manuscripts to document their presidencies, and the small
stone library adjacent to the old house is no exception. This one-room library,
with loft, is the
venerable repository of letters, maps and historic documents that both
presidents, father and son, had worked on and presented to the nation. Even the
desk on which John Adams had co-written the Massachusetts Constitution is
housed in that reserve of treasured documents.
Because the two Presidents Bush
are not the only father-son presidents in U.S. history, a special “Father and
Son Exhibit” honoring the Adamses and Bushes is currently being held at the
George H. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.
“We’re participating in a
fantastic exhibit at the Bush Presidential Library near Houston,” said Cobble.
“It’s a great father/son presidential exhibit that we have donated items to.
They have two of the Adams presidents’ original peace treaties: one that
John Adams negotiated in 1783, which was the definitive peace treaty that ended
the war and declared independence from Great Britain.
Some of the detail and minutia in “this treaty includes
information about land boundaries and maritime rights,” said Cobble.
“The other is from the Treaty of
Ghent, which John Quincy Adams negotiated about 1812.
And in this Texas exhibit, original letters and documents from
the Adams’ papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society are on exhibit as
well…they have maps, letters and portraits. It’s quite a significant loan of
our documents and objects down there,” she said.
Cobble’s enthusiasm and pride is
obvious. “We are so fortunate to have
the birthplaces of our own early American presidents here as well as that of
Indeed we are fortunate—we have
the two birthplaces, the presidents/generational home, the presidential
library, and the tombs of our second and sixth presidents (and wives), all
within a two-mile radius—and all in our own backyard.
Visiting these sites helps shed light on both the obdurate
natures and national benevolence of a father and son, both presidents of an
emerging nation who sacrificed personal happiness to alleviate the growing
pains of their beloved, newborn country.
To see all the sites of the Adams National
Historical Park, the park service has made it perfectly easy for tourists—and
natives—to enjoy this treasure trove of history and decorative arts while being
conveyed from site to site by trolley.
begin in Quincy Square at the Visitor Center, 1250 Hancock St. (site of the old
Bargain Center) in the Presidents Place Galleria. There is a brief orientation,
some exhibits, a bookstore and the sites’ only public restrooms are there.
Validated parking is offered in the Presidents
Place Parking Garage (accessed via Saville Ave., off Hancock Street). The
Visitor Center is directly across from the Quincy T Station.
They offer guided tours to include the birthplaces,
the old house and the United First Parish Church where both presidents and
their wives’ tombs are situated. Daily departures with tours lasting about 2.5
hours; the last trolley departs at 3 p.m. Advance reservations are required for
groups of eight or more by calling 617-770-1175.