President John Adams & Popular Culture

John Trumbull's painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The painting can be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill. The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda.

On this day in 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the second and third Presidents of these United States passed away, John Adams (1735-1826) & Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826).

Curiously the Bacon side of the family share a common immigrant ancestor with John Adams, their 9th Great Grandfather, Joseph ADAMS Sr (1626-1694). Joseph was John Adams’ Great Grandfather, which makes him a 2nd cousin, 8x removed. Proud family lore indicated a common ancestry but, reflecting on President Adams’ mediocre legacy and representation in popular culture, is proud the correct descriptor?

Gilbert Stuart, John Adams, c. 1800-1815, National Gallery of Art 42933

Contemporary Criticism

Adams was an attorney, diplomat, writer, and founding father of the United States of America. As the first American ambassador to Great Britain in 1785, he restored relations with King George III, being the first to coin the phrase ‘we are two countries separated by an ocean and a common language’. The King agreed to “receive with Pleasure, the Assurances of the friendly Dispositions of the United States.” However in the same visit, an old friend’s description of Adams was less than complimentary:

His abilities are undoubtedly equal to the mechanical parts of his business as ambassador, but this is not enough. He cannot dance, drink, game, flatter, promise, dress, swear with the gentlemen, and small talk and flirt with the ladies; in short, he has none of those essential arts or ornaments which constitute a courtier. There are thousands who, with a tenth of his understanding and without a spark of his honesty, would distance him infinitely in any court in Europe.

Jonathan Sewall, London, 1786 – John Adams, David McCullough 2001

The polarizing and contradictory character of John Adams is no better conveyed than in his rivalry with Alexander Hamilton. Developed during the Revolutionary War, events came to a head when Hamilton convinced at least 7 of the 69 electors not to cast their vote for Adams, to ensure that Adams did not accidentally become president and that George Washington would have an overwhelming victory. This was not a one-sided affair as Adams made highly critical statements about Hamilton. He made derogatory references to his womanizing, real or alleged, and slurred him as the “Creole bastard” or the “bastard Bratt of a Scotch Pedlar.”

Personal attacks on John Adams were commonplace. He was derided for his combative nature and stubbornness as he debated and lectured the senate. Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania became Adams’s fiercest opponent and repeatedly expressed personal contempt for him in both public and private. He likened Adams to “a monkey just put into breeches.” Mocking Adams’ physique, he was referred to by the title “His Rotundity,” and references were made to his diminutive stature. Despite being 5′ 7″, Adams’ was preceded as president by 6′ 3″ Washington and followed by 6′ 2″ Jefferson.

Representation in Popular Culture

John Adams, by David McCullough 2002

Biographer David McCullough, attempting to redeem the character of the second president, describes Adams as one of the most respected members of Congress. However it’s Adams’s often-quoted description of himself in Congress as “obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular” that is remembered, despite being from a letter written in 1822.

In Emmy Award-winning HBO series, John Adams, they represent the president as vain, stubborn, passionate about justice, and committed to the tenets of democracy. In order to find balance, they counter his character with the vilification of Alexander Hamilton, making Paul Giamatti’s naturalistic performance as Adams, the hero of his own show. The counterpoint to this series would be Hamilton: The Musical.

The film/musical 1776offers many characters who differ from their historical counterparts. Specifically central to the drama is the depiction of John Adams as more cartoonishly “obnoxious and disliked” despite there being zero contemporary references. Perhaps John Adams’ contentious opinions of contemporary historical heroes colored people’s opinions, such as when he sarcastically predicted that Benjamin Franklin will receive from posterity too great a share of credit for the Revolution. A quote then accentuated for comic effect on film:

Franklin smote the ground and out sprang—George Washington. Fully grown, and on his horse. Franklin then electrified them with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them—Franklin, Washington, and the horse—conducted the entire Revolution all by themselves.”

John Adams, 1776, Columbia Pictures 1972
1776 (Film) directed by Peter H Hunt, 1972

Leaping to Adam’s defense, Roger Ebert gave1776two stars and declared, “This is an insult to the real men who were Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest … The performances trapped inside these roles, as you might expect, are fairly dreadful.” However this appears to be too little too late as generations of school children have viewed screenings of the film in their history classes.

Hamilton (musical), by Lin-Manuel Miranda, 2015

Most recently, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’sHamilton, the title character is obviously the hero, depicted as an ambitious, fiery character, with a particular hatred for John Adams. Adams’ is referenced with frequent mockery but is not even dignified with an actor or lines.

In the second act, after the retirement of George Washington as president, the rivalry between Adams and Hamilton heats up in the song “The Adams Administration.” The musical is driven along at great pace with historical inaccuracies, such as Adams’ firing Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, but this assists in conveying the relationship dynamics between the two men, to the audience, whilst simplifying the narrative.

What is historically correct is the fact that Hamilton doomed Adams’ re-election campaign by publishing a letter which described Adams as someone with“great and intrinsic defects in his character,”which made him unfit for office. However, the musical maintains Adams as a comic foil for perceived political posturing (or incompetence), as seen in the song “I know him.”

“John Adams?!
I know him
That can’t be
That’s that little guy who spoke to me
All those years ago
What was it, eighty-five?
That poor man, they’re gonna eat him alive!”

King George III, “I Know Him”, Hamilton The Musical, Lin Manuel Miranda


In my opinion President John Adams will continue to polarize audiences as his contentious actions will be weighed in both a positive and negative light — dependent upon your own opinions. True, he avoided all-out war with France, when many Americans perceived them as allies, but he achieved that by raising a standing army and expanding the navy with property taxes! Similarly, he signed the Alien & Sedition acts to strengthen national security but, the acts made it harder to become a citizen, and allowed deportation of those considered ‘dangerous‘. Furthermore consider this…

During the [1800 Presidential Election] campaign, he was criticized by both the Republicans, who supported Jefferson, and his own party, the Federalists… Adams was called a monarchist, a warmonger, and an indecisive leader during wartime. He was tarred as a vain eccentric with an “ungovernable temper.” He was attacked for his conservative outlook and for his tendency to act irresponsibly and capriciously without consulting his cabinet and advisors. His enemies spread rumors that he was insane, and like Jefferson, he was branded as a libertine.

John Adams: Great or Not? Alan Gevinson, Teaching History

Read more about your 2nd President and make your own judgement. Adams’ last words included an acknowledgement of his longtime friend and rival: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Adams was unaware that Jefferson had died on the same day, just hours beforehand. Reaching 90 years of age, Adams was the longest living US President until Ronald Reagan overtook him in the 21st Century.


  • Joseph ADAMS Sr (1626-1694) & Abigail BAXTER (1634-1692)
    • Hannah ADAMS (1652-1726) & Samuel SAVILLE (1643-1700)
      • Hannah SAVILLE (1674-?) & John CLEVERLY (1667-1725)
        • Benjamin CLEVERLY (1710-1789) & Sarah BAXTER (1710-1782)
          • Henry CLEVERLY (1748-1795) & Elizabeth DEFILER (1747-1822)
            • Holdah CLEVERLY (1775-1822) & Robert A HAYDEN (1769-1853)
              • Charles D HAYDEN (1805-1876) & Rebecca T ARNOLD (1807-1893)
                • Samuel W HAYDEN (1834-1896) & Mary B SWAN (1842-1899)
                  • Sarah L HAYDEN (1876-1953) & Silas C BACON (1879-1959)
                    • Mary H BACON (1912-1998) & Robert MORRIS (1911-1989)
                      • Direct Line…
    • Joseph Adams Jr (1654-1736) & Hannah Bass (1667-1705)
      • John Adams (1690-1761) & Susannah Boyston (1708-1797)
        • President John Adams Jr (1735-1826) & Abigail Smith (1744-1818)



Family archivist, genealogical researcher, writer, and always open to receive questions, comments, and feedback via


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