John Quincy Adams swam naked in the Potomac, kept an alligator in the White House and won freedom for Africans who mutinied on the slave ship Amistad.
So, yes, he was principled but quirky, qualities that can get you a single term in the White House. Which is what happened to John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States.
John Quincy Adams
Born on July 11, 1767, John Quincy Adams was one of the smartest and best educated presidents the United States ever had. He traveled widely in Europe with his father as a boy and ardently opposed slavery throughout his long career. He also lost a brutal reelection campaign for president, after which he served as a U.S. congressman from Massachusetts.
But here are a few things about John Quincy Adams you may not have gleaned from the history books.
1. John Quincy Adams had strong feelings about kissing, not necessarily positive.
As a 20-year-old Harvard graduate studying law in Newburyport, Mass., he attended a New Year’s Party. He did not have fun. Some people started singing, and they wouldn’t stop though they weren’t very good. When that stupid ceremony ended, he wrote in his diary, an equally stupid kissing game started. He called it a ‘profanation.’
2. He liked to dance.
Perhaps because his father was such a bad dancer, John Quincy Adams had to study dance as a boy in Europe. He liked it, though, and called dancing ‘one of the most innocent and rational amusements that was ever invented.’ He attended dances from college through his 80th birthday. As a mark of his character he thought it petty to make fun of bad dancers. And when his son John got married in the White House, he surprised everyone by dancing a Virginia Reel.
3. His wanton niece seduced all three of his sons.
Like his father, John Quincy Adams had three sons, two disappointments and one success. He and his wife Louisa took into their household Louisa’s orphaned niece, a flirtatious girl named Mary Hellen. She slept with all three sons, dumping Charles Francis and George for John. She wisely rejected George, an alcoholic wastrel who committed suicide. But she should have stuck with Charles Francis, who grew into a renowned historian, statesman and author. John seemed promising enough at the time of their wedding, but failed at business, fell into debt and despair and died of alcoholism at 31.
4. He wore pants and his own hair to his presidential inauguration.
As a politician, John Quincy Adams came across as aloof and lacked the charm of many of his contemporaries. Though he was widely traveled, sophisticated and intelligent, he had simple tastes. He often dined on crackers in a city teeming with bon vivants. During his inauguration ceremony he wore a black, homespun suit with full-length pants rather than knee breeches – and no powdered wig.
5. John Quincy Adams nearly drowned as president.
In the summer of 1825, he and his manservant tried to paddle a canoe across the Tiber Creek, which once flowed through Washington, D.C., near the National Archives. President Adams thought he’d take off his clothes on shore and swim back. His son John, who joined them, warned them about the dangerous boat. He was right; the canoe sprung a leak and the wind kicked up. Adams and the servant jumped overboard and swam to the opposite shore. Adams took off his waterlogged clothes and lay gasping on the bank of the river until his rescue.
6. He was the first president to be interviewed by a female reporter.
Anne Royall, a travel writer and publisher, had a simple formula for success. She charged $5 for subscriptions and treated customers gently, while heaping invective on nonsubscribers. Fortunately for John Quincy Adams, he paid her $5 when he met her. He also told her to call on his wife and promised to get her a pension. According to an apocryphal story, she cornered him while skinny-dipping in the Potomac – something he did every day. She supposedly asked him about sound money and the Bank of the United States (he supported it). He later called her ‘the virago errant in enchanted armour.’
7. The color of his head gave the index of his feelings.
After he lost the presidency, John Quincy Adams returned to Washington as a congressman. He fought slavery with blunt and vehement oratory. He could barely speak after suffering a stroke that partially paralyzed him at 78. Another congressman, John Wentworth, wrote, “It was understood in the galleries, as well as in the house, that the color of his head was the index of his feelings, it often becoming as red, under the violent declamations of Southern men, as living coals of fire.” Once his head turned bright red as a Southerner denounced Northern abolitionists. “Some waggish member exclaimed to the orator: “He says you are lying.” The speaker at once dropped the line of his speech, assumed a belligerent attitude, and exclaimed: “Who says I am lying?” “Adams,” “Adams,” replied several members. The laughter which followed was greatly increased when Mr. Adams, putting his hand upon his head, gave a significant nod, as much as to say: “I do say he was lying.”
This story updated in 2023.