By: Kurt Deion
When I first toured the Adams National Historical Park as an eight-year-old in 2003, it never crossed my mind that someday I would have the opportunity to help reshape the visitor experience there. Fifteen years later, that is what I am doing as a project intern.
Under the auspices of the National Park Service, the Adams National Historical Park maintains several buildings related to the politically-prominent Adams family, which are spread throughout Quincy, Massachusetts. These include the side-by-side saltbox birth homes of John and John Quincy Adams, the second and sixth presidents of the United States. The elder statesman spent his childhood at a plain, wooden structure on his parents’ farm at Penn’s Hill, and in his adulthood he moved to the neighboring house, where his son was born in 1767. This second home was where he established his burgeoning law practice, and where matriarch Abigail Adams raised their children alone when her husband was away supporting the American Revolution.
The Adamses uprooted from the Penn’s Hill farm in the 1780s and moved a few miles north to a residence that became known as Peace field. Naturally their belongings followed them, and short of disturbing the interior of the Peace field estate, in modern day the NPS is faced with a dearth of original furnishings to display at the birthplaces. At present, however, the ANHP is in the process of rethinking its historical narrative; in this context, the lack of artifacts at the saltbox homes creates an opportunity to refocus on the lives of the family members, such as John and Abigail. My internship responsibilities include identifying and prioritizing the stories that should be told at the birthplaces, via a self-guided tour.
Before I arrived at the ANHP, my supervisor had already outlined some general areas she wished me to investigate, such as John’s law career and his early romance with Abigail. Yet I was given much freedom within those parameters to prioritize particular stories at the birthplaces. In addition, because the Adamses were prolific writers, I had many primary sources as the foundation for content, for they left behind thousands of documents in the form of letters and diaries. And finally, the ANHP’s draft Visitor Experience Plan outlines their priority to implement the principles of inclusive history, which I learned about in the UMass Boston History MA program. My education at the university has emphasized the need to tell the accounts of groups marginalized by those in positions of power, which in the United States has historically been white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men. In my role at the ANHP, I must determine what stories are important that can also resonate with modern audiences regardless of age, race, and gender.
The correspondence exchanged between John and Abigail during their courtship and early marriage paint a picture of their thoughts as a young couple in 18th century Massachusetts. These letters also provide a good basis for any future research focused on Abigail’s maintenance of the farm in John’s absence, and her personal philosophies. I struggled more with discerning which of John Adams’s court cases to include in the tour. As I read through his annotated legal papers at the Boston Public Library, I found many of the lawsuits to be archaic and inaccessible in the 21st century. Some, however, revealed much about John Adams’s thinking about rights. In King v. Stewart, for example, Adams represented a loyalist whose home was ransacked in part because of his prospects as a Stamp Act collector. Adams also defended the British soldiers implicated in the Boston Massacre. These cases demonstrate Adams’s belief in the right to a fair trial and representation, even for those whose political allegiance differed from his own.
It was very rewarding to find those cases that resonate with current issues and principles of law. In Sewall v. Hancock, John Hancock was tried in for smuggling in Admiralty Court, which deprived him of a right to a trial by jury. As his attorney, John Adams argued that British Parliament was depriving American colonists of a right granted to their brethren across the Atlantic. This allowed me to draw a line from John’s experience as an attorney, to his resentment for the British Crown at the dawn of the Revolution, and also to his draft of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1779. When he drafted the document in his law office, it included the right to trial by jury. This and other protections, such as freedom of the press and prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments, were subsequently included in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I hope that the relevance of these documents in Americans’ lives today will help illustrate the importance and influence of John’s legal work.