On a bright August morning, my girlfriend and I drove into downtown Quincy, Massachusetts, searching for the Adams National Historic Park. Where was this house? The map displayed the icon in the center of downtown; we circled the blocks, confused.
Finally, we found the ubiquitous National Park Service sign and a parking garage nearby. Still perplexed, we walked through a strange building – combination shopping mall and office building. We entered a small glass shop emblazoned with the sign. A woman behind the counter grabbed the phone. "You’ve got one minute until the tour starts. I’ll have them wait."
Can see why site has no central location
We ran outside and boarded an old fashioned trolley that had been adapted to gasoline. It took us through the back streets of Quincy in a roundabout manner, to the John Adams birthplace, nowhere near the spot on my Boston area map. A sweet little park ranger gave us tours of the two houses: one a brown salt-box, the birthplace of John Adams, vice-president under George Washington and second president of the United States. The second was a gray house that was the later residence of John and Abigail, and the birthplace of their son John Quincy Adams, our sixth President. The houses gave an excellent feel of the way people lived in colonial times, but without a great deal of impressive items. "Most of the antiques are at the big house." Yet another house? I began to see why this site had no central location and was scattered across the Quincy landscape.
The trolley took us to the Old House, the later mansion of John Adams and three succeeding generations of Adams, up to 1927. We were immediately shocked by what it contained: an amazing collection of genuine pieces like I’ve seen in no other historical house in America. It was full of valuable paintings, including two American paintings from the 1600s, of which there are only 70 in existence. Artifacts from all the generations of Adams remained in the house – Abigail’s candlestick holders, fine china actually from the early China trade, the priceless Waterford crystal piece that John Quincy broke by using it as a planter for his botanical experiments, and furniture, like the actual chair John Adams suffered his fatal stroke in.
Brendan, our long-haired guide, told the story about that stroke, one I had heard many times before, but that, nevertheless, left me on the verge of tears again. Jefferson and Adams had become bitter rivals for many years after they collaborated in the founding of America. Once Jefferson left office, they renewed their earlier friendship in a series of letters. On his death bed on Independence Day, 1826, John Adams uttered his last words: "Thomas Jefferson survives". But Jefferson died precisely fifty years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the document that both of them had worked so hard to defend and put into practice.
We were then taken into the John Quincy Adams’ library, the first presidential library and a separate building. It was one of the most amazing rooms I had ever seen, with 14,000 volumes on two floors in a barn-like structure. We learned that John Quincy became a U.S. representative after he was President, apparently not thinking that continuing to serve his country in this capacity was any shame. During this time, he represented the Amistad Africans in the Supreme Court of the United States, and successfully argued that the Africans should be considered free.
Brendan gave us a spiel at the end of the tour about the Adams family; what they had given to the nation. They have been overlooked by much of the hero-worship that Americans lavish on the early founders of the country. Why? Were they not glamorous enough? Was it that each served only one term? Both had been far ahead of their times – John pushing for a stronger federal government, which made him a lot of enemies in the South, including his rival Thomas Jefferson, whose ideology passed on while Adams’ ideology flourished.
John Quincy promoted free trade and a modernization program that would come to fruition long afterwards. His integrity in not replacing government officials who openly undermined his presidency in favor of Andrew Jackson, was his undoing. Brendan used Quincy’s later service to his country through his strong voice as a springboard for his last question, one that haunts me to this day, in everything I write, in every political discussion, in every decision I must make that could affect the future of my nation. "What will your voice be used for?"