Kurt's Historic Sites

United First Parish Church

John Adams

Interment Location Visited Sequence in Graves I Have Visited
Quincy, MA Summer 2003 1st Declaration Signer visited; 1st President visited; 1st Vice President visited

Photographed October 30, 2019.

The United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, is nicknamed “the Church of the Presidents” because it holds the remains of John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, who served as the second and sixth chief executives respectively. Also known as the “Stone Temple,” the church was constructed primarily from granite gifted by John Adams, who did not live long enough to see it erected. The 25-foot Doric columns on its portico were carved of granite from a different quarry, as the former president’s quarry was not that deep. This 1828 building is the fourth to house its congregation, which was originally formed in 1636 as a branch of the Church of Boston. It has been independent since 1639 and Unitarian since 1750.

The presidents are joined in the basement crypt by their wives, first ladies Abigail Adams and Louisa Catherine Adams. The tomb was privately controlled by descendants until it was deeded to the congregation in 1903. Those who were unable to enter the burial chamber in the preceding decades did have memorial tablets they could read in the sanctuary upstairs. The tablet to the right of the altar was commissioned by John Quincy Adams to commemorate his late parents. The bust of John Adams atop it was sculpted by artist Horatio Greenough.

Photographed June 7, 2019.
Photographed October 30, 2019.

John and Abigail Adams’ sarcophagi are viewable through the wrought iron gate to the family crypt. This photo shows the second president’s grave decorated with a wreath, shortly after it was placed to commemorate the 284th anniversary of his birth. The tradition of laying wreaths at the interment sites of all late U.S. presidents on their respective birthdays began during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.

The U.S. flag that rests on John Adams’ sarcophagus sports 15 stars and 15 stripes, which is accurate to the time he was president. Likewise, his son’s sarcophagus is covered by a flag with 24 stars and 13 stripes, which was the banner’s design for the entirety of his White House tenure from 1825 to 1829.

Photographed July 29, 2019.
Photographed May 9, 2004.

The Adamses were the first famous people whose graves I visited, back in summer 2003 when I was eight years old. No pictures exist from that outing. I returned to the church on Mother’s Day 2004 to remedy that situation, holding 1950s Louis Marx Company figurines of the Adams presidents as my father photographed me beside their real-life counterparts. Immediately after I completed my history master’s degree in 2019, I interned with the church’s History and Visitors Program and led tours of the Adams crypt three days a week.


Fast Facts

Born: October 30, 1735 in Braintree, Massachusetts

Spouse: Abigail Smith Adams (m. 1764-1818)

Political Affiliation: Federalist Party

Vice Presidential Term: 1789-1797 under George Washington

Presidential Term: 1797-1801

Vice President: Thomas Jefferson

Died: July 4, 1826 in Quincy, Massachusetts

Cause of Death: Heart Failure

Age: 90

Last Words: “‘Help me, child, help me.”

Interment: United First Parish Church, Quincy, Massachusetts

"Our American Constitutions, indeed, are still in some respects imperfect deficient and erroneous. They must be amended, or We shall never have either a National or a State Government. All will be Governments merely of exclusive and monopollizing Parties if not Factions. It is certainly difficult to convince The People of the Truth, when it interferes with their Prejudices."
- John Adams
May 17, 1821 in a letter to daughter-in-law Louisa Catherine Adams

Background

John Adams was born in the town of Braintree in the Province of Massachusetts Bay on October 30, 1735. His mother, Susanna, came from the prominent Boylston family of the Boston area. His father, also named John, was a great-grandson of Priscilla Mullins and John Alden, who arrived in North America aboard the Mayflower in 1620. From his property at Penn’s Hill, the Adams patriarch worked as a farmer and a cobbler. He also held a leadership position in the First Parish Church, where he was a deacon.

Lacking a college education himself, Deacon John desired that his offspring receive the best education they could. This was particularly true of his eldest son, who bore his name. “[M]y father had destined his first born, long before his birth to a public Education,” the younger John Adams wrote in his autobiography. At one point in time, Deacon John was concerned that his progeny was more interested in playing marbles and flying kites than reading books. When John told his father he did not want to attend college, the deacon asked what he would do instead. “Be a farmer,” the boy replied. To teach his child a lesson, Deacon John took him early the next morning to collect thatch — a combination of plants such as grass, reeds, and straw. The work was difficult and John was covered in mud, but at the end of the long day he told his father he liked farming. “Ay but I dont like it so well,” the deacon replied, “so you shall go to School to day.”

John disliked school because he felt his teacher, Mr. Cleverly, did not pay enough attention to his students and taught too slowly. When John was a teenager, he asked his father to remove him from school and let him farm full-time. He added, though, that if he had a better instructor, he would study as hard as he could and enroll in college as soon as he was prepared. That same night, Deacon John convinced Joseph Marsh, a local scholar, to take John as a pupil at his boarding school down the street. Under Mr. Marsh’s supervision, John became an avid reader. 

In 1751, when John was fifteen years old, Marsh decided his student was prepared enough to apply to college. Marsh was supposed to present John to the president and fellows of Harvard College for his admissions examination, but the teacher was sick when the day arrived and did not want to travel to Cambridge. Terrified to present himself before these educated men without Marsh’s help, John considered returning home at first. Then he thought about how upset his father would be with both him and his teacher, and he decided to face his fears and take the test. John passed and was admitted to Harvard.


Photographed July 11, 2011.

The second president was born on the second floor of this 1681 saltbox house, in the room behind the window on the far right of this picture. The JA birthplace, along with with the neighboring JQA birthplace and the family homestead of Peacefield, is part of the Adams National Historical Park. Though the area was part of Braintree when John Adams’ life began in 1735, this land was annexed by the newly-formed town of Quincy in 1792. Braintree still exists in a smaller form, and it is not uncommon for tourists who wish to see the historical park to mistakenly sojourn there instead of Quincy.

Deacon John expected his son to graduate from Harvard and then follow in his footsteps as a leader in the church. But when young John was at Harvard, he began to doubt that parish work was the right fit for him. A significant factor in his decision was the trial of the minister of Lemuel Bryant, minister of Braintree’s church. Bryant’s rhetoric contradicted the Calvinist doctrines and Puritan principles that were popular in New England during this Great Awakening period, such as predestination. This placed him in conflict with many church and town elders. John Adams was privy to the discussions that were held between his father and others in the back of their saltbox house at the Penn’s Hill farm. He read pamphlets and other writings on the matters at hand and was disenchanted by the “Spirit of Dogmatism and Bigotry in Clergy and Laity,” he reflected in 1804. He continued, “I perceived very clearly, as I thought, that the Study of Theology and the pursuit of it as a Profession would involve me in endless Altercations and make my Life miserable, without any prospect of doing any good to my fellow Men.” By the time he graduated from college in 1755, John Adams was still unsure what career he wanted to pursue, but was confident that his father would understand his decision to not enter the church.

Adams then pivoted toward a law career — not an unwise path for a skilled public speaker who was studious and argumentative. In August 1756, he entered a contract with attorney James Putnam of Worcester to study law under him for two years at a cost of $100. John worked as a schoolmaster in order to pay his mentor’s fee. When the contract expired in 1758, John returned home to Braintree and lived with his parents. After another year of studying independently, he was admitted to the bar in November 1759. Adams’ first case was Lambert v. Field, which involved a man’s horses crushing his neighbor’s crops. Adams represented Joseph Field, who was pursuing damages. The case was decided in favor of Lambert because Adams made a simple error in the writ he filed. Losing on a technical error enraged Field and embarrassed his twenty-four-year-old attorney.

One of Adams’ mentors, leading Boston attorney Jeremiah Gridley, advised his informal pupil in 1758 to not wed at a young age so that he might avoid debt and focus on becoming better at his profession. The young lawyer followed these instructions for six years, until, at age twenty-eight, he married nineteen-year-old Abigail Smith of Weymouth. Abigail’s maternal grandfather was Colonel John Quincy, a prominent Braintree resident. John was not impressed with Abigail when they first met in 1759. He wrote in his diary that she lacked “fondness [and] Tenderness.” As they spent more time together, however, John’s opinion drastically changed. He came to describe her as “Prudent, modest, delicate, soft, sensible, obliging, active.” Nine months after their October 1764 Wedding, Abigail gave birth to daughter Nabby. Almost precisely two years later, Abigail and John welcomed their firstborn son. The pair named him after Abigail’s grandfather, who died two days after the birth of his namesake.

As John Adams’ family grew, he continued to strive to “Spread an Opinion of myself as a Lawyer of distinguished Genius, Learning, and Virtue.” In the pre-Revolution era, John represented clients regardless of whether their allegiance lay with the Crown or the American colonies. In King v. Stewart, he represented a loyalist merchant whose home was broken into by upset neighbors. Richard King’s papers were burned and his family was intimidated, in part because of debts owed to him and suspicions that he was going to be appointed as a collector for the 1765 Stamp Act, which imposed an unpopular tax on the colonies. King pursued compensation, and his barn and a second house were burned in response. When the case went to court years later, his lawyer, John, wrote to Abigail, “These private Mobs, I do and will detest.”

John was involved in Sewall v. Hancock, and the publication of the case details and his arguments in newspapers contributed toward increasing public anger with British authority. In this dispute, ship owner John Hancock was sued by the advocate general for smuggling wine. Action was taken in Admiralty Court, which deprived Hancock of a trial by jury, something that would not have happened in Great Britain. In the draft of his argument on behalf of Hancock, John stated, “The Parliament in one Clause guarding the People of the Realm, and securing to them the Benefit of a Tryal by the Law of the Land, and by the next Clause, depriving all Americans of that Priviledge… Is he not degraded below the Rank of an Englishman?” John believed that all English subjects had the right to a fair trial, whether it be a colonist like Hancock or soldiers from Britain itself.


Years after John Adams represented John Hancock in his case against Sewall, the two men signed the Declaration of Independence. Both are commemorated with statues that bookend the Hancock-Adams Common, which was dedicated in Quincy Center in September 2018. The statues were created by Soviet Russian-born sculptor Sergey Eylanbekov, whom I met on November 19, 2019. David McCullough, whose biography of Adams won a Pulitzer Prize, helped unveil the bronze Adams. The gold dome of the United First Parish Church is peaking out above the statesman’s shoulder in this image.

Photographed November 10, 2018.

Beneficiaries of Adams’ belief in the right to a fair trial included the eight British military members charged with murder in what has become known as the Boston Massacre. On the night of March 5, 1770, troops under the supervision of Captain Thomas Preston fired upon a gathering of angry colonists. Tensions were high and Captain Preston doubted that he and his men could receive a fair trial. However, their lawyers John Adams and Josiah Quincy managed to assemble a jury entirely comprised of non-Boston residents.

Photographed September 5, 2018.

The front left room of the John Quincy Adams birthplace served as John Adams’ law office. It was also in this space that he drafted the Massachusetts Constitution in fall 1779. The commonwealth’s vital document is the oldest-functioning constitution in the world. A modern copy of it sits on the round table in the center of the office.

John Adams was often separated from his family in the 1770s and 1780s, whether he be in Philadelphia or Europe. Likewise, this metal likeness of him in Quincy was divided from statues of his wife and eldest son, as Hancock Street ran between them. Abigail and JQA were installed in 1997, and John’s effigy was dedicated in 2001. All were sculpted by Lloyd Lillie. These three statues were removed in 2016 when Quincy Center was overhauled and the Hancock-Adams Common was created.

Photographed May 29, 2010.
Photographed July 11, 2011.

Peacefield, the home into which the Adamses moved when they returned from Europe in 1788. Four generations of the family lived here, with its run concluding in 1927 upon the death of Brooks Adams. In that 139 year span the property underwent significant changes. Those included the addition of new wings to the farmhouse, a portico, and the construction of the separate stone library.

Adams was the first president to reside and work at the White House in Washington, D.C. An excerpt from the letter he wrote to the first lady upon moving in is carved into the mantel in the State Dining Room.

Photographed June 7, 2015.
Photographed July 29, 2019.

One of the projects the former president occupied himself with in his final years was penning epitaphs for his ancestors buried in Hancock Cemetery beside Quincy’s Hancock Meeting House. This image shows the inscription “the Lawyer John Adams” wrote for his paternal grandparents, Joseph and Hannah Adams. The monument was erected in December 1823. Adams noted that his grandmother was the daughter of Ruth Alden Bass, who herself was the offspring of Mayflower pilgrims John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. Adams reserved his longest elegy for his great-great-grandfather, Henry Adams. Henry established the Adams line in Braintree and was the first burial at Hancock Cemetery, being interred there in 1646.

Nonagenarian Adams’ frailty kept him essentially confined to his second floor study at Peacefield. In summer 1826 he collapsed in the arm chair tucked into the corner, which signaled his approaching end. His death on July 4th — the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence — made Charles Carroll of Carrollton the last survivor of the 56 men who signed the founding document of the United States.

Photographed September 5, 2018.
Photographed July 11, 2011.

Adams’ funeral was held on July 7, 1826, three days after his passing. Reverend Peter Whitney oversaw the service. It occurred in the same Hancock Meeting House where Adams was baptized as an infant. His remains were then laid to rest in Hancock Cemetery, where Abigail Adams was entombed six years prior. Both John and Abigail were exhumed from this vault on April 1, 1828 and lowered into the crypt beneath the First Parish Church. The stone temple, which was still under construction, would go on to replace the wooden meeting house.

Sources Consulted

Adams, John. John Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, May 17, 1821. Letter. From National Archives, Founders Online. Accessed December 13, 2021. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-3905.

Butterfield, L.H., et al. Ed. Diary and Autobiography of John Adams vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961.

Butterfield, L.H., et al. Ed. Diary and Autobiography of John Adams vol. 3. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961.

Chervinsky, Lindsay M. “The Households of John Adams.” White House Historical Association. January 3, 2020. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-households-of-john-adams.

Deion, Kurt. “Capstone Essay: Adams National Historical Park Self-Guided Tour – Phase Two.” Capstone, University of Massachusetts Boston, 2019.

Deion, Kurt and Bob Damon. “Church of the Presidents.” Clio: Your Guide to History. Updated June 21, 2021. Accessed December 14, 2021. https://www.theclio.com/entry/84857.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2001.

Smith, Page. John Adams vol. I. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962.

Treadway, Susanna Boylston Adams Clark. Susanna Boylston Adams Clark Treadway to Abigail Louisa Smith Adams Johnson, July 9, 1826. Letter. From National Archives, Founders Online. Accessed December 30, 2021. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4665.

Westland, Bill. “Lemuel Briant.” United First Parish Church, April 27, 2020. https://ufpc.org/ufpc-vignettes/f/lemuel-briant.

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