John Quincy Adams
During his long and successful life, he served as a U.S. congressman and, as a diplomat, helped keep Great Britain out of the Civil War. He edited letters of his grandmother Abigail Adams and 10 editions of John Adams’ diary. He also wrote an autobiography that includes close and personal observations of his father and grandfather.
Those diaries and his later autobiography reveal much about the two presidents.
Both had three sons, with whom they were ridiculously strict and demanding. John Adams later rued his harsh treatment of his sons, and rebuked John Quincy for following his own example. Charles Francis often resented his father’s treatment, and perhaps judged him more harshly than his grandfather because of it.
Of the two, Charles said his grandfather was the more active minded and interesting. “His was a truly inquiring and observing disposition; and, moreover, he had a fairly pronounced taste for social life,” wrote Charles in his autobiography.
“His chief difficulty lay in a tendency to introspection, which was almost morbidly developed by the journalizing habit. His diary was his daily confidant; and he grew to desire no other.”
His father, he wrote, “was built on more rigid and narrower lines. He was even less companionable. He was never the companion of our sports and holidays.”
Charles Francis Adams
Charles Francis Adams, born Aug. 18, 1807, was John Quincy’s youngest son. He started keeping a journal at the age of 13 and maintained it for 60 years. His own son, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., observed, “He took to diary writing early, and he took to it bad.”
John Adams lived in ‘the old house, down the hill,’ in Quincy, while John Quincy’s family lived in ‘the house on the hill’ built by his father two years after he was born.
John used to time the rising and setting of the sun every day. “I can see him standing or sitting, watch in hand, noting the earliest and last rays of the summer day,” wrote his grandson. “There is nothing of that period I more vividly recall. A somewhat solitary man, he was to me, hardly more than a child, an attractive as well as a great one.”
As a father, John Quincy alternated between severity and permissiveness. On the one hand, he expected his sons to have distinguished careers in public service. He criticized their shortcomings and complained they were ‘content with the blast of mediocrity.’ On the other, he paid their debts and, once they grew to manhood, allowed his two eldest sons to drift.
By 1824, it was clear his two brothers would not carry on the family tradition. Charles began to study his father. He wrote in his diary that he was ‘uncommonly eloquent’ and ‘how immeasurably he rises above all others.’ He also found him hard to understand. “He is the only man, I ever saw, whose feelings I could not penetrate almost always, but I can study his countenance for ever and very seldom can find any sure guide by which to move. This is exactly the manner which I wish to obtain…”
As a boy, Charles Francis chafed at having to entertain his grandfather, usually by reading to him. “His curiosity and interest is lost in almost every thing now, few subjects will keep his mind many minutes and it requires a person much more skilled in giving amusement … than I am to amuse him,” wrote Charles.
‘Not a holiday temperament’
To his young grandson, John Adams always seemed to be writing. “I can see him now, seated at his table in the middle of the large east room, which he used as a library, a very old-looking gentleman, with a bald head and white fringe of hair — writing, writing — with a perpetual inkstain on the fore-finger and thumb of the right hand. He was kind and considerate to his grandchildren, and seemed to like to have us in that library of his, walled in with over-loaded bookshelves; but his was not a holiday temperament.”
He took grave, sedate walks, but he never seemed to relax, wrote his grandson. He used to wander alone around the unkempt old farm, with a hatchet and saw in hand, pruning the pear and cherry trees and watching his seedlings. His grandson couldn’t imagine him playful.
John Quincy Adams was much the same.
“Neither of them cared for innocent outdoor amusement, were indifferent to Nature and afflicted with an everlasting sense of work to be accomplished,” wrote Charles. “They were, in a word, by inheritance ingrained Puritans, and no Puritan by nature probably ever was really companionable.”
Charles resented his father’s workaholism. He once took him and his brother John to fish for smelt. Wrote John Quincy Adams: “The weather was charming. I idled away the morning…perhaps this consumption of time is scarcely justifiable; but why not take some of life for simple enjoyments, provided that they interfere with no known duty.”
Hereditarily warped, railed Charles, years later. “He had no conception of the idea that in idling away that soft, kindly September day in companionship with his two boys just home from school, and all close to Nature, he was saving one day at least from utter loss.” That his father had to excuse himself to himself, “even now saddens and irritates me,” wrote Charles.
“I would to-day give much to feel at home on a boat or a bicycle. I have since sailed a great deal, and bicycled somewhat; but it was in both cases too late!”
Charles Francis Adams died on Nov. 21, 1886.
This story was updated in 2022.
Benedict Arnold might not have turned traitor if Betsy DeBlois had returned his affections. But the beautiful 16-year-old Loyalist broke the heart of the lame, 36-year-old father of three.
The winter of 1777 was a turning point for the ambitious Arnold. He expected promotion to major general because of his military successes — and despite his failures. Wounded twice in battle, he had captured Fort Ticonderoga, led a failed expedition through the Maine wilderness to capture Quebec and fought bravely at the Battle of Valcour Island in Lake Champlain. George Washington respected him and his men admired him.
Washington in late 1776 had put him in charge of freeing Rhode Island from the British, who had taken control of Newport. Rhode Island’s militia had but 4,000 men, so Arnold went to Boston to recruit troops.
Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ DeBlois was the teenaged daughter of a rich Loyalist who lived in Boston. John Quincy Adams knew her. “She puckers her mouth a little and contracts her eyelids a little, to look very pretty; and is not wholly unsuccessful,” he wrote about 10 years later.
Betsy and her parents had left for Halifax on Evacuation Day. Her father, Gilbert DeBlois, sailed for England, and since the siege proved safe Betsy and her mother returned to Boston to protect their property.
Arnold met Betsy DeBlois, then 15, at a party given by Henry Knox and his wife. His own wife had died less than two years ago.
Arnold fell hard for young Betsy DeBlois, known as ‘the belle of Boston.’ She probably led him on. Her mother, though, had little use for the battle-scarred soldier she viewed as lowbrow.
Though European luxury items were impossible to obtain in America, the lovelorn Benedict Arnold managed to fill a trunk full of expensive silk gowns for the heavenly Betsy Deblois. From Watertown, Mass., he sent a letter to Lucy Flucker Knox on March 4, 1777, along with the dresses and a love letter for Betsy.
“Conceive the fond anxiety, the glowing hopes, and chilling fears that alternately possess the breast of … your obedient servant …Benedict Arnold,” he wrote.
Betsy wouldn’t accept the gift.
Benedict Arnold suffered more blows to his pride as his career began to founder. He had little luck finding recruits in Boston for his Rhode Island assignment. Then Congress passed him over for the promotion he wanted so desperately.
To add insult to injury, Lucy Knox asked if she could keep a scarf from the trunk, and Catherine Greene wanted one of the dresses. Arnold said no.
Arnold persisted, both with his promotion and with the heavenly Betsy. On April 26, 1777, he wrote her to say if she liked and respected him his tender sentiment would light the taper of her love.
“You have inspired in me a pure and exalted passion which cannot admit of an unworthy thought or action,” he wrote.
Betsy ignored Arnold’s pure and exalted passion because she loved someone else. She planned to marry Martin Brimmer, an apothecary apprentice. Brimmer’s son would become mayor of Boston and whose grandson would head the city’s Museum of Fine Arts.
The DeBlois family disapproved of the match. Betsy’s grandfather cut her out of his will because of it. And just as the wedding was about to take place on July 24, 1777, Mrs. DeBlois forbade it. According to one story, she locked Betsy in her room and nailed the window shut so she couldn’t marry Martin Brimmer.
Even as he lobbied for his promotion, Arnold persisted with his love object. On April 8, 1778, he sent Betsy DeBlois another letter. It was a single elaborate sentence of 202 words. In it, he wrote that he ‘took up his pen with trembling hands 20 times,’ ‘struggled in vain to erase her heavenly image from his heart,’ and asked if she would ‘doom a heart so true and faithful to languish in despair.’
(Read the whole thing here.)
The idol of his soul politely suggested he ‘solicit no further.’
Then he sent her another letter along with a gold ring set with four diamonds. She sent it back.
Betsy DeBlois never married and lived until her 80s. She inherited her mother’s house on Tremont Street, having been restored to her grandfather’s will after her break up with Martin Brimmer. She lived there in ‘single-blessed-ness and high respectability’ until about 1840, when she moved to Roxbury. She was said to have been almost to the last “a straight, tall, elegant woman.”
Arnold was appointed military governor of Philadelphia, where he met and fell in love with Peggy Shippen, an 18-year-old Loyalist. He kept copies of his letters to Betsy DeBlois and recycled some of his best lines to Betsy. This time they worked.
Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen married on April 8, 1779. Peggy approved of his switching sides and didn’t mind him plagiarizing himself. They lived happily together until his death. Together they now rest in peace in a London kindergarten.
This story was updated in 2022.
There’s more to being a Boston Brahmin than simply having an early Puritan ancestor, graduating from Harvard and living on Beacon Hill.
You must not flaunt your wealth. You must shun glitzy resorts and you must be thrifty, perhaps traveling by T. The one new suit you buy a year must adhere to the Boston Brahmin dress code, now known as preppy. You must speak in your own British-sounding dialect. (To hear it, click here.)
You should probably marry a relative. Fortunately, you have plenty of choices, including Appletons, Bacons, Cabots, Codmans, Coolidges, Crowninshields, Forbes, Hunnewells, Lodges, Lowells, Parkmans, Perkins, Russells, Saltonstalls, Shattucks, Shaws and Winthrops.
You must eat roast beef on Sunday night and cold leftovers on Monday. That’s where the expression ‘cold roast Boston’ comes from. It was a favorite of Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a Brahmin who persistently failed to stay out of the newspaper.
According to the Boston Brahmin code, you must only be mentioned in the newspaper when you are born, married and died. But many Brahmins, like Weld, couldn’t help but generate ink by taking high government office. Or running colleges, winning literature prizes or founding prep schools and orchestras. Or actually running newspapers themselves, like Boston Brahmin Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., coined the phrase in 1861 in his novel Elsie Venner. In it he described Boston’s aristocracy as the “Brahmin Caste of New England.” Holmes wrote they believed destiny had set them apart to create a shining city on a hill. And they embraced the values of their Puritan forebears: hard work, thrift, culture and education.
Many Boston Brahmin families made their fortunes as merchants and financiers before Holmes published his novel. If you hadn’t made your money by then, the only way into the caste was to marry into it.
Some Brahmins were already wealthy when they arrived in the early 17th century. Weld used to joke that his ancestors sent the servants ahead on the Mayflower so they could prepare the summer cottage.
Brahmin Oliver Ames, on the other hand, made his own fortune. He started manufacturing shovels in 1803 in Easton, Mass. His sons, Oliver, Jr., and Oakes, then accumulated enough money to underwrite the Union Pacific Railroad. His grandson, Frederick Lothrop Ames, was an original stockholder of General Electric, and the family’s real estate holdings enabled them to build the Colonial Theatre and parts of MIT. They also built the Ames Building, the tallest building in Boston from 1893 to 1919. Another grandson, also Oliver Ames, won election as the 35th governor of Massachusetts.
Boston Brahmin vs. Boston Irish
The Boston Brahmin had no love for the Irish immigrants who arrived on famine ships during the 1840s. Young Brahmins founded the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 shortly after they graduated from Harvard. The League had as its champion Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., who sponsored a bill in Congress that would have required newcomers to pass a literacy test to enter the country
As the Irish began to accumulate wealth and power, the Brahmins found themselves having to make concessions. In 1901, March 17 was declared a holiday. Of course it’s St. Patrick’s Day, but to save face the Brahmins called it Evacuation Day. It marks the day in 1776 when British troops left Boston.
Boston Brahmins founded the New England Watch and Ward Society, a puritanical group of private citizens active from 1878 to the 1920s. It made Boston a target of scorn and – unintentionally – heightened interest in the books and plays it banned.
Brahmins also founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Peabody Essex and Isabella Stewart Gardner museums, WGBH, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Athenaeum.
They followed their Puritan ancestors who started Boston Latin School, the first high school in the country. Brahmins founded elite college preparatory schools like Choate (now Choate Rosemary Hall), Groton, Andover and Phillips Exeter. Then they sent their children and grandchildren to them.
Sociologist Harriet Martineau visited Boston in the 1830s and concluded its Brahmins were “perhaps as aristocratic, vain, and vulgar a city, as described by its own “first people,” as any in the world.”
Novelist John P. Marquand lampooned the circumscribed life of the Boston Brahmin in The Late George Apley. When Apley’s grandfather moved to the South End, he was shocked to see a man in shirtsleeves across the street. So he sold his house the next day and retreated to Back Bay.
George Apley also has a family estate in Milton (Nahant or Beverly would have worked as well). He stays at the Boston hotels in New York, London and Paris and doesn’t know what he would have done in life without the Club. (One Boston club, The Tennis and Racquet Club, had rooms heated only by fireplaces as late as 1958.)
T.S. Eliot‘s poem The Boston Evening Transcript gently mocks the Brahmin caste to which he belonged (though his family moved to St. Louis). The Transcript, published from 1830 to 1941, was the paper of record. The Brahmins loved its book reviews, music criticism, college sports page, bridge department and genealogy column.
In 1935, the Atlantic magazine printed a critique of the Brahmin by S. Foster Damon. In it, he wrote, “The Brahmins still lived on the water side of Beacon Street or the sunny side of Commonwealth Avenue, they still dined at two and had ‘tea’ at six, they read the Atlantic and the Transcript, held four receptions a year, escaped the Egyptian heat of summer by moving to the North Shore; sent their sons to Harvard and their dead to Mt. Auburn.”
More to the point was the poem by John Collins Bossidy:
And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots
And the Cabots talk only to God.
The Kennedys most certainly were not Boston Brahmins.
Boston Brahmin by Marriage
Isabella Stewart Gardner became a Boston Brahmin, at least technically, when she married John Lowell Gardner, Jr. However, she didn’t always adhere to the Brahmin code. Gardner posed for a painting in a low-cut dress, walked a lion down the street on a leash and scrubbed the steps of an Anglo-Catholic Church during Lent.
Former Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry is a classic example of Brahmin by marriage. His father was descended from Austro-Hungarian Jewish immigrants who converted to Catholicism. His mother had the Forbes ancestors and a maternal aunt who paid for his prep school education.
The Forbes family had made an early fortune in the China trade, built the transcontinental railroad and went on secret missions for Abraham Lincoln. The family made even more money investing in Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Allan Forbes headed Boston’s State Street Bank and Trust Company in the 1950s. The family has its own quiet resort, Naushon Island, where a Forbes once grilled a stablehand on his thoughts about the Plantaganets.
When Kerry ran for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1996, he opposed his distant cousin: William Weld. And when he ran for president in 2004, he followed in the footsteps of other Brahmin presidents and presidential aspirants: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Photo: William Weld, By Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50569492. This story about the Boston Brahmin was updated in 2022.
John Adams and John Quincy Adams may be tied for the honor of worst presidential father, or “Tiger Dad,” according to Joshua Kendall.
Kendall presents psychological profiles of every president as a parent in his book First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama. Franklin Pierce and Calvin Coolidge, for example, were grief-stricken by the loss of their sons. Chester A. Arthur indulged his children, and his son Alan grew up into a polo-playing playboy. The Adamses were ridiculously strict, with sometimes tragic results.
“John said to John Quincy, ‘Unless you’re president you’re a failure,” Kendall said in an interview with the New England Historical Society.
John Adams, Tiger Dad
John Adams was obsessed with instilling greatness in his sons John Quincy, Charles and Thomas.
He demanded they translate Thucydides at age 10 and sent them to foreign cities as preteens to work under fellow diplomats. When 14-year-old John Quincy was in Petersburg, Russia, working as secretary for diplomat Francis Dana, Adams criticized his letter writing.
You have not informed me whether the Houses are brick, stone or wood, whether they are seven stories high or one…You have said nothing about the religion of the country; whether it is Catholic or protestant.
In 1794, John Adams even chastised his teenaged son for possibly not becoming president of the United States:
You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. And if you do not rise to the head not only of your own profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness and obstinacy.
John Quincy Adams responded to his demanding father and became not only president but secretary of state and member of Congress, where he led opposition to slavery.
“The first and deepest of all my wishes is to give satisfaction to my parents,” John Quincy Adams once wrote.
John Adams’ other two sons didn’t fare so well. Both became drunks and failed as lawyers. Thomas ended up living with his parents, unable to support himself and disappearing for days on drinking binges. He died in a carriage accident at 59.
Kendall writes that Charles may have been gay. “Some think he may have had a relationship with Baron von Steuben,” he said. John Adams eventually disowned Charles, which horrified Abigail, Kendall said.
Adams later rued his harsh treatment of his sons, and rebuked John Quincy for following his own example.
Following Father’s Footsteps
John Quincy Adams demanded as much from his sons as his father had, with a similar outcome. A genetic disposition to alcoholism and depression may have contributed to the failures of two of his sons. George Washington Adams and John Adams II both died young.
John Quincy Adams so intimidated his son George Washington that the boy dumped a girlfriend after simply dreaming his father chastised him for kissing her. And he wouldn’t let his 14-year-old son Charles come home from Harvard for Christmas because of his grades. Charles spent the holiday studying at school.
John Adams II drank himself to death at the age of 31.
George Washington Adams managed to graduate from Harvard and to start a mediocre law practice, but he drank heavily, ran up debts and fathered an illegitimate child with a chambermaid.
As John Quincy Adams was preparing to leave the presidency, he ordered George to Washington to help his parents move to Boston. George was said to have ‘quivered with fear’ at the prospect of his parents’ reproach. Distraught, George boarded a steamship in Providence, and on June 9, 1829, he fell or jumped overboard and drowned, an apparent suicide.
According to Kendall, John Quincy Adams felt extreme guilt over George’s death. He softened with his youngest son, Charles, who became a success: ambassador to Britain, member of Congress and historian.
And as the father of seven children, Charles did not repeat the mistakes of his father and grandfather.
This story was updated in 2022.
In honor of President’s Day, the New England Historical Society brings you another guide to how to eat like a president.
We focus on New England presidents beginning with John Adams and including one or two diversions such as Abraham Lincoln. (Though it’s worth pointing out that Legal Seafood’s clam chowder has been served at every presidential inauguration since Ronald Reagan.)
Eat Like a President
Paul Revere talks in his memoirs about meeting John and the other Sons of Liberty, like Samuel Adams and Dr. Joseph Warren, to start a revolution. The tavern isn’t exactly where it was back in the day, but absent the karaoke bar and table tents it’s quite evocative of the Revolutionary era.
Their son, John Quincy Adams, was notoriously indifferent to food despite his exposure to many fine international cuisines. He liked fruit, and was known to say, “Five or six small crackers and a glass of water give me a sumptuous dinner.”
Pie at the White House
Franklin Pierce was another president who liked solid, traditional fare. It was a preference he would have picked up at his father’s tavern in Hillsborough, N.H., where a Christmas dinner was once held for Revolutionary War veterans. Pierce and his family were fond of maple syrup and New Hampshire fried pies, made with dried apples.
Abraham Lincoln, though not a New Englander, had relatives in Massachusetts. His distant cousin Levi Lincoln supported his political career. You can visit Sturbridge Village and see his former mansion where Abraham Lincoln dined in September 1848.
I had been chosen to Congress then from the wild West, and with hayseed in my hair I went to Massachusetts, the most cultured State in the Union, to take a few lessons in deportment.
Lincoln, Gardner said, added
That the dinner at Governor Lincoln’s by reason of its elaborate hospitality and social brilliancy was different in kind from any function he had ever attended before. He remarked upon the beauty of the china, the fineness of the silverware and the richness of all the table appointments, and spoke of the company of distinguished and thoroughly educated whom he met there in the animated, free and intimate conversation inspired by such an accomplished host as Governor Lincoln.
Picky Presidential Eater
Calvin Coolidge, as a state lawmaker and governor, enjoyed dining at the private Algonquin Club on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. He was a fastidious eater who believed chicken should be raised close to where they were eaten and kept chickens at the White House. They had an unusual flavor because the chicken yard was built on top of Theodore Roosevelt’s mint bed.
Coolidge liked roast beef, Vermont pickles and corn muffins. According to the Food Timeline, his fastidiousness created a problem for the White House chef, who couldn’t get the recipe for corn muffins right. First Lady Grace Coolidge finally sent off to a Northampton inn to get the recipe.
Dwight Morrow was a classmate of Coolidge’s at Amherst and the father of Anne Morrow, the wife of Charles A. Lindbergh. (Coolidge later appointed Morrow as Ambassador to Mexico.) Morrow used to like to tell the story of when he and Coolidge went to the same boarding house to take their meals. Hash was served frequently. When it was served, Morrow said Coolidge turned very grave. The landlady had a dog and a cat. As the hash was being served, Coolidge would ask “Where’s the dog?” and the dog would be brought in. Then he’d ask “Where’s the cat?” — and the cat would be called in. Only then would he help himself to the hash.
The Modern Era
Like Coolidge, Kennedy liked corn muffins. He also dearly loved Boston clam chowder. White House chef Rene Verdon remembered,
He asked me to prepare it for him on many occasions…I did everything I could to satisfy Mr. Kennedy’s New England liking for good fish cookery. Quite naturally, as a Catholic, he had it every Friday.
When vacationing on Cape Cod, the Kennedys liked the homemade ice cream from the Four Seas ice cream parlor in Centerville, near the family compound in Hyannisport. Jackie Kennedy’s favorite flavor: peach.
George H.W. Bush was as fastidious about vegetables as Calvin Coolidge was about everything else. He hated broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. Barbara Bush said,
The day he was 60, he said to me: `I am never going to eat broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower or cabbage again.’ And he hasn’t!
Bush and his family liked lobster and ice cream, though. When vacationing in Kennebunkport, they enjoyed Mabel’s Lobster Claw, a seafood restaurant that’s been serving tourists since the 1950s. The Bushes allegedly liked the peppermint stick ice cream.
And on the walls of Frank Pepe’s Pizza Napoletana in New Haven hangs a framed photo of Bill Clinton. Though now a vegan, he liked a good white clam apizza in his day.
This story about eating like a president was updated in 2022.