The perfect example of classic New England architecture – a 17th century saltbox house.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
Few places connect the present to the past quite as seamlessly as the Adams National Historical Park, home of eleven buildings including the John Adams house, John Quincy Adams house, and Peacefield. Here, stories of four generations of America’s founding family are brought to life, in the very places where history happened.
The Adams family’s mark on our nation was so bold that its effects can still be felt in all aspects of civic life today. Members of the Adams family served as governors, congressmen, presidents, and drafters of the longest written state constitution in the U.S. They witnessed firsthand the Revolutionary War, drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence, and through their determined patriotism, guided America through its first years as a country. They took enormous strides in shaping the American public’s view on slavery, foreign policy and government.
As a self-proclaimed New England history enthusiast, this is a destination that’s always been on my “bucket list.” After having finally experienced it firsthand, I recommend you put it on yours, too.
(Don’t worry – you don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy it, either! My less history-inclined travel buddies left with nothing but positive remarks and a renewed interest in their old history class reading lists.)
Tours of the park begin at the visitor center, where a short film gives context to the characters, places, and stories that guests will immerse themselves in along the way. Visitors begin to learn about a duty-driven patriot with a stringent commitment to principles, a little boy whose sense of service grew with each melted-pewter musket ball he crafted, and an upstanding matriarch that very well could have served as president herself. Plus the other generations that came after them. Talk about a legacy to live up to.
Guests are then paired with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide before setting off to experience Quincy as the Adams would have, all those years ago.
A quick trolley ride transports passengers back in time and to the birthplace of America’s second president, John Adams. The weathered saltbox structure is the perfect representation of classic New England architecture — right down to its wooden timber frame and sturdy central chimney. The original, four-room John Adams house was built in 1681, and further construction added two more rooms on each floor. The property was purchased by John’s father in 1720, and 15 years later, John Adams was born.
John Adams House #1 (John Adams Birthplace)
It was here that the young founding father learned from his father, a prominent deacon in the town, to stay true to his morals. Many years later, he’d find a good use for this sense of right and wrong — a successful career in law. His unwavering commitment to justice guided him in his controversial but famous decision to defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.
John Adams soon found himself the proprietor of a successful law practice and a growing sense of patriotism. The young colonies were well on their way to becoming a country, and he and his contemporaries found themselves caught up in the romance of it all. John Adams, though, also found himself caught up in a romance with the beautiful and quick-witted Abigail Smith, a young lady who cared about education and the revolution just about as much as he did. After a two-year courtship, they married and settled in the house next door. This second “John Adams house” became the birthplace of the country’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams.
John Adams House #2 (John Quincy Adams Birthplace)
Abigail Adams was incredibly well-read for a woman of her time, and some have even said that she was equipped to serve as president herself. But of course, despite a famous letter to her husband urging him to “remember the ladies” in the new laws of the U.S., 18th century society forbade her from becoming a president. So instead, she raised one.
John Quincy Adams was born in his parents home in 1767 — truly a child of the Revolution. When he was just a month shy of his eighth birthday, he and Abigail watched the battle on Breed’s Hill from another nearby hill, and he helped her craft musket balls for the war effort out of melted pewter from the family’s fireplace. He had his first taste of diplomacy while accompanying his father on a trip to France at the age of ten. His global exposure helped him become fluent in seven languages — a critical skill when your future includes serving as U.S. Minister to both the Netherlands and Prussia before the age of 30.
Having completed tours of the John Adams house and John Quincy Adams house (aka the two birthplaces), we hopped back on the trolley and headed toward a Georgian-style estate that John Adams dubbed “Peacefield.” Here, we’d take a peek into John, Abigail, and John Quincy’s later lives, and learn about the lives of the next two Adams generations to come.
John and Abigail purchased the property sight-unseen in 1787. They were on a diplomatic trip to Europe, and knew they wanted more space than their humble saltbox could afford them. When they moved in the next year, Abigail was intensely dissatisfied with the low ceilings and small living areas. It was comparable in size, she said, to a “wren’s nest.” In 1800, she had the first addition built. Eventually, the old home would double in size.
Though many of the decorations in the birthplaces are replicas, the pieces on display at Peacefield are not. These decorations are mostly artifacts, curated over the years by four generations of Adams that lived in the home and now by the National Park Service.
Outside the home is a carefully maintained arrangement of natural splendor. John Adams loved farming and used the land to grow crops. Now the land is used for a stunning English-style garden, fashioned by the third generation of Adams. Their newfound wealth (the product of Charles Francis Adams marrying the daughter of the most wealthy man in Boston at the time) allowed them such extravagances. There are still remnants of John’s original farming, though. Two old trees that John Adams himself planted — a yellowwood and a black walnut — still grace the grounds.
Finally, we made our way to my personal favorite spot on the tour — the Adams Stone Library. The unassuming facade disguises a book-lover’s dream on the inside: 12,000 books of all genres and ages, accumulated over the years by all four generations of the family. Historic paintings, old religious texts, and the personal desks where some of the Adams’ most influential works were written — it’s all here.
From the library it is a quick trolley ride back to the visitor center, where you can browse through the gift shop or cross the street for lunch at any one of the nearby eateries. (I recommend Gunther Tooties — so many great sandwich and bagel options!)
Touring the Adams National Historical Park is a must for anyone interested in history in the New England area. After all, what better way to learn about the early days of our country than to go see where it happened! Be sure to check the website for details on admission, tour times, and upcoming special events.
Adams National Historical Park. 1250 Hancock Street, Quincy, MA. (617) 770-1175; www.nps.gov
Have you ever visited Adams National Historical Park, including the John Adams house, John Quincy Adams house, and Peacefield?
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.