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Keeping up with the Adamses: My review of Adams National Historical Park.

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As you’ve noticed I have a lot of posts stacked up pertaining to my recent research trip to Boston, and this one is another museum review–and only escapes being a Presidential library review on a technicality. (More on that in a moment). Over Labor Day weekend, I went to the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts, to visit the birthplaces and residences of our second President, John Adams, and our sixth President, his son John Quincy Adams. Along with the JFK Library, this was one of the sites I most wanted to see in the Boston area.

I didn’t know that much about the ANHP before going there, except I assumed it contained three houses: the one where John (Sr.) was born in 1735, the one where John Quincy was born in 1767, and the estate called Peacefield to which John Adams retired when he left the White House in 1801, and where he died in 1826. I caught the Red Line train from west Boston to Quincy–which is pronounced Quinzy, by the way–and right outside the station saw signs telling me that the “Adams Presidential Center” was very close. This turned out to be a ticket counter and gift shop in a very modern, 2000s-era city storefront complex. There were no 18th century buildings anywhere in sight. Puzzled, after getting my ticket I learned that the three properties are in two different locations, far away from the gift shop Adams Presidential Center, and people on the tour take a special bus to get there. The bus wouldn’t leave for an hour, but there was a movie about the Adams family (no, not that movie) showing in a small theater which would pass the time.

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John Adams’s birthplace is a classic Colonial “salt box.” Sadly very little of it is original, having been rebuilt several times.

Having seen the “introductory movie” at the JFK Presidential Library, I have to say I’m not really a fan of these. The Adams one was at least good at setting up that the sites in the ANHP are connected to a multi-generational family, not just JA and JQA. Abigail, of course, was prominent, but also Charles Francis Adams (JQA’s son) and Victorian-era historian Henry Adams. Although the movie didn’t make that much impression on me, this multi-generational background proved to be important for what was to come.

We boarded the bus, me and a group of about 10 or so other tourists. The first stop was about 10 minutes away, an odd-shaped patch of grass on which sat two ancient-looking houses. A ranger gave us a short speech before taking us inside. The first was the John Adams birthplace. This was a plain brown salt-box house, typical of colonial New England, the first portion of which was constructed in 1681. John Adams, a farmer and local deacon, bought the place in 1720. Fifteen years later his eldest son was born here. The house is not much to see. Its rooms are very Spartan and almost empty of furniture, but this is evidently how the Adams family lived. There’s also not much original to the house: almost everything you see is a reconstruction, the vast majority dating from the 20th century. You’d have to dig underneath the place and look at the foundation to see anything that was actually there in 1735. But, the ranger gave us a very good summary of Adams’s early life and career–his successful law practice and land management, which enabled him to move to Boston where his revolutionary career began.

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The exterior of the “Stone Library” at Peacefield. This building was clearly the highlight of the tour.

The second house, the John Quincy Adams birthplace, is only a stone’s throw away. This is also a salt-box, but much more of it is original, and the furnishings inside show the Adams family’s upward socioeconomic trajectory. John Adams moved in with his wife Abigail in 1764, and it was here that the only child of a President ever to become President himself, until George W. Bush, was born. The ranger didn’t tell us much about this house because a large portion of our time there was spent in the presence of an actor, in period costume, who was portraying John Adams and quoted some dialogue from his letters. (No, it wasn’t Paul Giamatti or William Daniels). This was fun an interesting, but a little fluffy; there wasn’t that much historical information conveyed here, and as the real John Adams has been dead for nearly 190 years no one has any idea how accurate his performance is.

After the JQA crib, the rangers herded us back on the bus for another 15-minute ride. It was clear that Peacefield, the large house and grounds, was the main part of the show. The house was originally built in 1731, but John and Abigail purchased it in 1787 toward the end of John’s diplomatic service there. (They were both quite familiar with the house from their early lives; its former owners moved in their families’ circles). The house with its many reconstructions and additions is truly the heart of the Adams legacy. Here is a dining room, furnished circa 1800, where the family ate meals; a parlor, more Victorian in appearance, with paintings of family members collected over a century; and the upstairs bedrooms, in one of which John Adams died on July 4, 1826. I also saw Victorian-era kitchen appliances, a set of china the Adamses bought for the White House, and the butler’s quarters, which was quite interesting. Peacefield is not strictly a time capsule of the Early Republic period, but reflects several generations of the family living there. The last permanent resident of the house was Brooks Adams in 1927, and there are (a very few) 20th-century furnishings still there.

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The interior of the Stone Library. This photo is not by me, but by the National Park Service and is in the public domain.

The Peacefield house was cool, but far and away the best part of the tour was the Stone Library. This is a detached structure, built of stone (duh) by Henry Adams in 1870 to house John and JQA’s extensive 12,000-volume book collection in a separate building that wouldn’t go up like a Roman candle if Peacefield itself happened to catch on fire. The Stone Library was like something out of a movie. (In fact it has been used in movies, anachronistically it appears both in Spielberg’s Amistad and in the John Adams HBO miniseries). Two stories, with a tile floor and completely sheathed in bookshelves, it contains a treasure trove of the world’s knowledge collected by both Presidents Adams, who were the preeminent bibliophiles in America in their time. I curse the fact that I couldn’t take pictures of my own in there. It was beautiful, amazing and moving–and there was an intangible sense that this intellectual space is truly the spiritual center of the Adams family, and, by extension, the very nub of the American Revolution itself.

The only reason ANHP does not count as the official Presidential libraries of John Adams and John Quincy Adams is that their official state papers and letters are not archived there. But it’s close enough, I think, to be basically a de facto library for two Presidents. The centrality of the Adams clan to our early history is made very clear by the way these sites are presented. The rangers’ talks were interesting and accessible, and the things they showed us were genuine and fascinating. I did get a sense of who the Adamses were as people. On the whole I highly recommend the ANHP. I think history buffs and casual tourists alike will enjoy it.

All photos in this article, except the one of the interior of the Stone Library, are copyright (C) 2014 by Sean Munger and may not be used without my permission.

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