Plan a Visit
with the Adamses of Braintree

History is alive and well in our own backyard

By Dorothy Malcolm

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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 preacher-farmer’s son.

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 decency.

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 one.

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 their heirs.”

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.

All tours 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.

All material produced and maintained by Dorothy Malcolm dba Verbatim-Ink.   Not to be reproduced without permission.