John Adams: The Independent President

John Adams, like George Washington, did not enjoy his inauguration either, though for somewhat different reasons. His wife and political confidant, Abigail, was at home in Quincy, Massachusetts caring for John’s dying mother. In addition much of the attention that day was focused on Washington as people wept over the first president’s departure. Adams was also on the outs with his long time friend and now political enemy Thomas Jefferson.

John Adams, 1823 by Gilbert Stuart

John Adams, 1823 by Gilbert Stuart

Adams had reason to feel lonely on his inauguration day, but most of his public career characterized him as a “loner.” While his daughter expressed concern over his narrow election victory in a letter (he won 71 votes to Jefferson’s 68), he wrote back that he didn’t believe in “extravagant popularity.” Adams never quite trusted public opinion and felt that the more unpopular an idea was, the more likely it was to be right. Before the presidency he never held an administrative position and tended to take on causes that were unpopular with the public, such as defending British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.

Any politician who is unwilling to negotiate with others is unlikely to be successful for long, and Adams lost his re-election bid in 1800 to Thomas Jefferson. At the time, however, Adams was more concerned about family matters than election results. His son Charles, an alcoholic, had died. Since he was no longer president, John and Abigail would have more time to care for Charles’ widow and their grandchildren. Adams did live long enough, however, to see his son John Quincy Adams elected as President of the United States.

Building the White House

In 1790, the United States Congress decided that a new capital city should be built to accommodate the new federal government. Virginia and Maryland offered land along the Potomac River, but there were no buildings on the site. President George Washington took a personal interest in the planning for the Capital and the President’s House—the place where all future chief executives would live.

After firing the first architect hired to construct the house, Washington agreed to hold a contest for the best design. Ads in the major newspapers stated the requirements for the President’s home and promised payment of $500 to the winner. Though no architecture schools existed in America yet, the design of James Hoban, an Irish immigrant who already designed state buildings in South Carolina, caught Washington’s attention. The design called for a three- story house with stone columns in the front. Other features included large windows and high ceilings.

Washington wanted the home to be grand enough for European rulers to admire it, and he thought Hoban’s plan met that requirement. The President also believed the United States would become a great country, and its leader needed a house that could grow with the increasing power of the nation. “It was always my idea, that the building should be so arranged that only a part of it should be erected for the present, and…to admit of an addition in the future as circumstances might render proper,” Washington later wrote. Hoban’s box-like design with wings that could be expanded later was a perfect match.

The Modern White House

The Modern White House

Though Washington put Hoban in charge of the construction site, he remained so involved with the project that Hoban never made any changes without consulting him. One design element Washington insisted on was that the exterior of the house be made of stone. Though Hoban found just enough stone for a scaled down, two-story version of the original plan at Aquia Creek in Virginia, one problem remained. The sandstone from the creek absorbed water easily, which caused the stone to weaken. Hoban ordered his workers to apply a thick coat of white paint to the exterior walls. As work continued, people living in the area referred to the building as the White House—a nickname that eventually stuck.

By 1796, workers completed the interior walls of the White House. Stonemasons brought in from Scotland hand-carved flowers, medallions, and other decorations around the entrance and windows. Two years later, a roof was added.

The year 1800 was the deadline for the project’s completion. By then, John Adams was President and he moved in with his wife. Despite the grand exterior, the thirty inner rooms of the house were not complete. Abigail Adams wrote “Not one room or chamber is finished of the whole. It is habitable by fires in every part, thirteen of which we are obliged to keep daily, or sleep in wet and damp places.” In a few months, the Adams’ moved out when Thomas Jefferson became President. He and the next occupant, James Madison, made the inner rooms of the White House more comfortable.

Unfortunately, during the War of 1812 British soldiers burned the White House and everything inside was destroyed. A rainstorm helped preserve the exterior of the house, however. James Hoban was summoned to help with the rebuilding process so that the White House would look almost the same as when it was first constructed.

Abigail Smith Adams–Future First Lady

Girls in the eighteenth century were expected to learn household chores and the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The girls in the Smith family of Braintree Massachusetts, however, gained more knowledge than many of their friends. While they learned to sew and cook from their mother, they also had access to their father’s impressive library. Abigail, nicknamed Nabby, was especially eager to spend her spare time reading authors such as Shakespeare. Though her mother thought her daughter was wasting time on topics women did not need to know, Abigail’s father encouraged his daughter’s curiosity. He taught her not only to read literature and history, but also to ask questions about what she read.

In addition to reading, Abigail also spent hours writing. She learned to write by copying sentences in a notebook. Writing was one way that young girls at the time could communicate privately with friends, and Abigail took full advantage of the opportunity. She and her friends shared their everyday experiences and the crushes they had on boys as they wrote by candlelight. Abigail even practiced writing some letters in basic French, but did not learn Latin as many eighteenth century boys did.

Abigail’s curiosity made her unwilling to accept things simply because she was told they were true. She became skilled at debating various topics with her family—a skill she would later use in conversations with her husband John Adams about America’s relationship with Britain. One friend said to her during a debate, “Nabby, you will either make a very bad, or a very good woman.” As it turned out, Abigail’s skills made her the perfect partner for the man who would take a major role in starting the American Revolution.