Saturday, March 15, 2008

John Adams Boston Walking Tour

HBO's seven-part series miniseries on John Adams premiers on March 16. This mammoth production, estimated to cost $100 million, will finally put the spotlight on John Adams, one of our underappreciated founding fathers, in light of being one of the leading voices of the Revolution, our first vice president, and our second president.

I'm sure many people who watch the miniseries will like to learn more about John Adams. The best place in the Boston area to do that is the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy. The park includes the birthplace of John Adams, the adjacent house where he moved after marrying Abigail and which is the birthplace of John Quincy Adams, Peacefield—the estate in which he summered while president and where he lived in the decades after his presidency, and his final resting spot at the United First Parish Church.

Unfortunately, while the visitor center at the Adams National Historical Park is open limited hours during the off-season, the homes are not open to tours again until April 19. Still, there are some sights around Boston related to John and Abigail Adams that you can visit right now if you want to get your Adams fix. I've put together this walking tour with five sights in Boston related to John Abigail Adams. (Click here for the Google map of the route.)

1. Boston Massacre site. On a small traffic island on the Congress Street side of the Old State House is a small circle of inlaid stones that commemorate the location of the Boston Massacre, which occurred on March 5, 1770. A lawyer, John Adams agreed to take the case to defend the British soldiers. Yes, that's right, this founding father, who believed in the importance of the rule of law, took up the case of the British soldiers, and he successfully defended them. The HBO mini-series opens with Adams's involvement in the Boston Massacre trial.

2. John Adams Courthouse. Along with his second cousin, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin, John Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution in 1779. The Massachusetts Constitution, the oldest written constitution still in use in the world, would be a model for the U.S. Constitution. The John Adams Courthouse in Pemberton Square (behind Center Plaza across the street from City Hal Plaza) is the seat for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts Appeals Court, and the Social Law Library, the oldest law library in the country. At great expense, a massive restoration of the courthouse was completed in 2005, and the building is magnificent in its architecture and interior. Particularly impressive is the courthouse's Great Hall. A room off the Great Hall has an exhibit on Adams and the Massachusetts Constitution.

3. Boston Public Library. It's a bit of a walk from the courthouse to the Boston Public Library, but it's a pleasant one along the Freedom Trail and through Boston Common. The library held an advance screening of the miniseries last week (the picture shows them setting up) and for good reason. The BPL hosts the John Adams Library, which you can search and browse online. It's a pretty cool feature. Deposited with the Boston Public Library in 1894, the John Adams Library includes over 2,700 volumes collected by the second president during his lifetime as well as hundreds of additional books later donated by his family members. It's one of the greatest private collections of its day, and the Adams Library remains one of the largest original early American libraries still intact. Adams made thousands of annotations in the books, which make them particularly valuable for scholars. The John Adams Library is permanently housed in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Department at the Boston Public Library.

4. The Boston Women's Memorial. This is one of the newer additions to the Commonwealth Avenue Mall (located between Fairfield and Gloucester Streets). The Boston Women's Memorial celebrates three important contributors to Boston's rich history - Abigail Adams, Lucy Stone, and Phillis Wheatley. In the innovative memorial, Abigail is standing at ground level, not on a pedestal, so it's possible to get face-to-face with her.

5. Massachusetts Historical Society. The final stop is at 1154 Boylston Street right near the Fenway. The Massachusetts Historical Society houses the Adams Family Papers, which includes 250,000 documents. They include the fascinating letters between John and Abigail Adams (the microfilm for all the letters is five miles long), diaries, speeches, and legal and business papers.

In celebration of the HBO miniseries, the exhibition “John Adams: A Life in Letters” will be on display at the Society’s headquarters through May 31, 2008. The exhibition is free and open Monday-Saturday, 1:00-4:00 PM. The selection of items on view focuses on Adams’s correspondence with Abigail and later his renewed correspondence with an old friend and colleague who had become his bitter political rival, Thomas Jefferson. The exhibition also includes diaries kept by John Adams, his manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence, and a first printing of the Massachusetts State Constitution. In addition to the earliest portraits of John and Abigail Adams by Benjamin Blyth, the Society will exhibit Mather Brown's portrait of John Adams, painted for Thomas Jefferson, together with views, engravings, memorabilia, and a costume worn by Laura Linney as Abigail Adams from the HBO miniseries. If you can't make it to the exhibit, the Society is posting some of the letters that are connected to the miniseries on a special web site.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this - I plan on doing it on Saturday - I fell in love with the miniseries and often take Boston for granted (our rich history) so with the warm weather this is the jump start I need! Nice work!

Chris Klein said...

Glad you liked it! Enjoy it. Should be nice weather.

Anonymous said...

We also fell in love with the mini-series and plan on taking our 10 year old daughter to Boston this summer to learn more about John Adams so we REALLY appreciate this information. It is immensely helpful as I wasn't quite sure where to start. So, when is your book going to be available? The islands sound fun too. We are coming from Texas.

Chris Klein said...

Thanks also for the post! Summer is a great time to visit Boston. The book should be available the first week in June. You can preorder it right now on Amazon. Spectacle Island and Georges Island for the two major islands for visitors and are the easiest to visit because of their frequency of ferry service. Spectacle is more of a parklike option. If you're a history buff, Georges has a Civil War-era fort that housed Confederate prisoners of war. Hope you have a great time!

Anonymous said...

In the miniseries, John and Abigail lived closed to the massacre site, thus in Boston. I wonder, if there is any evidence of that this truly happened, and if there is clearer understanding of the location of his residence downtown? In the series, Abigail and John discuss, as far as I understand, their Quincy residences as "the farm". I am guessing that Quincy was not quite as tightly built as now (not even the small house areas), but more or less countryside.

Chris Klein said...

Here is what John Adams wrote in his diary in 1772 about his homes in Boston and Braintree (which is now Quincy): "In April 1768 I removed to Boston, to the white House in Brattle Square, in the Spring 1769, I removed to Cole Lane, to Mr. Fayerweathers House. In 1770 I removed to another House in Brattle Square, where Dr. Cooper now lives, in 1771, I removed from Boston to Braintree, in the Month of April, where I have lived to this Time. I hope I shall not have Occasion to remove so often for 4 Years and an half to come."

Brattle Square is no longer. It was located around the present-day City Hall and Government Center area.

You are correct that Quincy was far more pastoral in the days when John and Abigail lived there. Much open land surrounded the houses. No Dunkin Donuts and funeral parlors like there are today.

Jenny said...

I loved the miniseries. I am visiting Boston for the first time and john Adams sites are high priority

Chris Klein said...

Jenny, Thanks for posting. If you like history, you'll love Boston.

Alex Gary said...

John Adams is fascinating to me. Jefferson did so much to sink his presidency. If you want to see where Adams - and Jefferson rank in a new game, Presidential Poker, go to