Learn 10 surprising facts about the most educated member of the Sons of Liberty who also served as the first vice president and second president of the United States.
1. Adams defended British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.
Although Adams joined with the Sons of Liberty in objecting to what he believed was unfair taxation by the British government, the principled attorney believed in the primacy of the rule of law. After the killing of five colonists in the March 1770 Boston Massacre, Adams volunteered to represent the nine British soldiers charged with manslaughter to ensure they received a fair trial. Adams argued that the soldiers fired in self-defense against “a motley rabble” and won a surprising acquittal for seven of the defendants, including the British officer in charge, Captain Thomas Preston. The two soldiers convicted of manslaughter were branded on their thumbs but avoided prison sentences.
2. He was a great pen pal.
The erudite Adams was a prolific writer of letters to friends and family. A devoted husband, Adams exchanged more than 1,100 correspondences with his wife, Abigail, since his patriotic duties often called him away from home for extended periods of time. Luckily for historians, most of the letters between the Adamses have been preserved in archives. (In contrast, only three letters written by George Washington to his wife, Martha, have survived.)
3. He was the principal author of the oldest written constitution still in use in the world.
Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, which was approved by voters in 1780 and is still in effect today. The document’s structure of chapters, sections and articles served as a model for the United States Constitution, and its Declaration of Rights itemized individual liberties such as freedom of the press and freedom of worship that were later enshrined in the federal Bill of Rights.
4. He was the first president to live in the White House.
When President Adams arrived in Washington, D.C., from Philadelphia on June 3, 1800, the new national capital very much remained an active construction zone. The President’s House, later known as the White House, remained far from completion, so Adams was forced to reside in temporary quarters at Tunnicliffe’s City Hotel. When the president finally moved into the White House on November 1, 1800, the mansion still reeked of wet plaster and paint fumes. Fireplaces roared in every room to combat the cold and dampness, and the first lady used the unplastered East Room to hang the presidential laundry. Defeated in the 1800 election, Adams lived in the White House for barely more than four months.
5. Adams participated in what may have been the nastiest presidential campaign in American history.
Modern-day mudslinging had nothing on the dirt thrown in the 1800 presidential election between Adams and the sitting vice president, Thomas Jefferson. While the Federalist Adams believed in a strong centralized government and the Republican Jefferson favored states’ rights, the debate went beyond policy differences to personal attacks. Campaign propaganda paid for by Jefferson charged that Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character” who smuggled prostitutes into the country from England and planned to marry one of his sons to a daughter of King George III to establish a royal bloodline in his family. The president’s supporters called Jefferson a coward, French radical and infidel who would seize the country’s bibles and allow “the refuse of Europe” to flood American shores. Abigail Adams lamented that the campaign had produced enough venom to “ruin and corrupt the minds and morals of the best people in the world.”
6. He blamed a day of fasting for his reelection defeat.
In both 1798 and 1799, Adams issued presidential proclamations calling for national days of “solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer.” In an 1812 letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Adams wrote, “The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office.” Adams argued in the letter that “nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion,” and he believed that his call for a fast day had become incorrectly viewed as the promotion of the Presbyterian Church (of which Adams was not a member) as a national religion, which caused an electoral backlash. Blaming defeat on a proclamation might seem far-fetched, but as David McCullough pointed out in his Adams biography, a swing of only 250 votes in New York City would have resulted in the president’s reelection.
7. Adams died on the same day as Thomas Jefferson.
Once fellow patriots and then bitter rivals, Adams and Jefferson revived their friendship after their White House days. Perhaps fittingly, the two Declaration of Independence signatories both died 50 years to the day after the document’s adoption on July 4, 1826. On his deathbed, the 90-year-old Adams whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” It wasn’t the case. Five hours earlier, the 83-year-old Jefferson had died at Monticello. With the deaths of Adams and Jefferson, only one signatory of the Declaration of Independence—Charles Carroll—remained alive.
8. He wanted the president to be addressed as “His Highness.”
The debate on how to properly address George Washington consumed Congress in the weeks after his 1789 inauguration. Adams, who presided over the Senate as the vice president, felt the office required a grand title to convey power on par with the royal courts of Europe. He scoffed that fire companies and cricket clubs had mere “presidents” and that Washington should be called “His Majesty the President” or “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” To many Americans who had just rid themselves of a monarch, the titles were too royal, and Congress agreed that Washington’s title should simply be “The President of the United States.” Opponents of the plump Adams seized on his titular suggestions to mock him as “His Rotundity.”
9. He founded one of America’s top scientific societies.
The Harvard-educated Adams cherished education and knowledge and wrote public support of science and the arts into the Massachusetts Constitution. In 1779 he proposed the establishment of the American Academy for Arts and Sciences, which still exists as a forum for scholarship and an incubator for practical ideas. According to Tom Shachtman’s book “Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries,” Adams ranked the founding of the academy as one of his proudest achievements.
10. There is no monument to Adams in Washington, D.C.
Unlike his presidential predecessor and successor, Washington and Jefferson, Adams has no monument to him in the national capital. In 2001, the U.S. Congress authorized the Adams Memorial Foundation to construct a monument to the second president and his family, including sixth president John Quincy Adams, on federal land, but site selection, design and fundraising work is ongoing.