John Adams on Europe

John Adams Portrait

Marion Doss

If the president of the United States goes on record to praise a tour destination as beautiful or amazing, I would be inclined to mention it on tour.

So as the EF Tour Director for a group of fellow North Americans, it was from that angle that I introduced our imminent visit to the Alhambra—the 13th-century Moorish palace built into the hills overlooking Granada, Spain.

Microphone in hand, I readied an excerpt from Bill Clinton’s My Life (my group was Canadian, so I felt relatively assured that a mention of Mr. Clinton wouldn’t spark a partisan flare-up on the bus) and unleashed the following quote on them:

“I never got over the romantic pull of Spain, the raw pulse of the land, the expansive, rugged spirit of the people, the haunting memories of the lost civil war, the Prado, the beauty of the Alhambra. When I was President, Hillary and I became friends with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia. (On my last trip to Spain, President Juan Carlos had remembered my telling him of my nostalgia about Granada and took Hillary and me back there.  After thirty years I walked through the Alhambra again, in a Spain now democratic and free of Francoism, thanks in no small part to him.)” [Clinton, My Life, 172]

The group perked up, either owing to the content of the message or the fact that I delivered it in my best Bill Clinton voice.

The episode got me thinking of two things. One: Even someone as
smooth as Bill Clinton can screw up the titles of foreign dignitaries
(in the second name-drop, Clinton misidentifies Juan Carlos as
“President”); and two: Gee, how many other presidential travel
endorsements could I drum up?

My mind went directly to John Adams, the second U.S. president, and to one of my favorite books, John Adams, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by David McCullough. It’s
rich with excerpts of letters Adams wrote home from Europe, where he
was posted to secure French and Dutch help against the British in the
then-ongoing Revolutionary War.

It’s true that this 200-year backtrack takes me rather dramatically
from one end of the presidential bookshelf to the other—from President
No. 42 (Bill Clinton) all the way back to No. 2 (Adams). But in any
event, there wouldn’t be too many other stops along the shelf if one
were looking for presidential firsthand appraisals on life in
Europe—No. 3 Thomas Jefferson, No. 6 John Quincy Adams and No. 35 John F. Kennedy are
really the only other U.S. presidents who lived in Europe
(excluding, for our purposes here, those like No. 34 Dwight Eisenhower, who
clearly experienced Europe, but only as a battlefield).

And so all the way back to Adams’ perspective we go. And we’re lucky
to have such a window on Europe, because Adams’ time there—the late
1770s and early 1780s, i.e., just after America’s 1776 premiere—make
his among the very first truly “American” insights and thoughts on

If in 2008 we Americans complain of multi-leg flights, long layovers and delays,
consider the American traveler of 1778. Departing Boston on February 13
of that year, John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams (future U.S.
President No. 6) didn’t arrive in Bordeaux, France, until April 1.
That’s 48 days of travel—in other words, about four times the length of
the entirety of a typical EF tour to Europe, and that was just getting there. Adams later wrote about the voyage:

“No man could keep upon his legs, and nothing could
be kept in its place.  The wind blowing against the current … produced
a tumbling sea, vast mountains, sometimes dashing against each other …
and not infrequently breaking on the ship, threatened to bury us all at
once in the deep. … The noises were such that we could not hear each
other speak at any distance.
” [McCullough, John Adams, 182].

Of course, once at port, it would take four more days over land
before Adams reached Paris. So perhaps the 2008 definition of “long
airport transfer” could benefit from some perspective? Adams’ journal

April 5, Sunday

“Proceeded on our journey, more than 100 miles.”

April 6, Monday

“Fields of grain, the vineyards, the castles, the
cities, the gardens, everything is beautiful. Yet every place swarms
with beggars.”

April 8, Wednesday

“Rode through Orleans and arrived in Paris about nine
o’clock. For thirty miles from Paris or more the road was paved, and
the scenes were extremely beautiful.”
[McCullough, 188]

Finally in Paris, Adams spent his first nights at a hotel on the Rue
de Richelieu—where he was dumbstruck by the ‘glittering clatter’
(Adams’ phrase) of huge crowds and countless carriages on the Parisian
streets. In a letter to his wife, Abigail, he gushed:

“The delights of France are innumerable. The
politeness, the elegance, the softness, the delicacy is extreme. … The
richness, the magnificence, and splendor is beyond all description. …
If human nature could be made happy by anything that can please the
eye, the ear, the taste or any other sense, or passion or fancy, this
country would be the region for happiness.
” [McCullough, 192]

Perhaps by only modernizing the words a bit, we’d have the typical 2008 postcard text written after a busy day’s touring.

And just like that 1-in-100 tour group that happens upon a celebrity
sighting on tour (say, Kevin Spacey in London), Mr. Adams stumbled
across a whopper of a historical figure—the French Enlightenment writer
and philosopher Voltaire, then 83 and in the last month of his life.
Adams wrote of it:

“Although he was very advanced in his age, had the
paleness of death and deep lines and wrinkes in his face … [his eyes
possessed a] sparkling vitality. They were still the poet’s eyes with a
fine frenzy rolling.”
[McCullough, 195]

If that wasn’t impressive enough, then imagine sending this postcard to the folks back home:

“She was an object too sublime and beautiful for my
dull pen to describe. … She had a fine complexion indicating her
perfect health, and was a handsome woman in her face and figure. … The
Queen took a large spoonful of soup and displayed her fine person and
graceful manner, in alternatively looking at the company in various
parts of the hall and ordering several kinds of seasonings to be
brought to her, by which she fitted her supper to her taste.”
[McCullough, 203]

That was John Adams, reflecting on his meeting Marie Antoinette on May 8, 1778.

Adams would make the transatlantic trip several times. On a
subsequent trip across the Atlantic, winds blew the ship off its
France-bound course, landing the passengers instead at the northwest
tip of Spain, just above La Coruña. From there, he and his party would
travel by mule, passing through Burgos and Bilbao on the way to the
Pyrenees and the French border (where they would go by carriage to
Paris). Adams remarked on the Picos de Europa (jagged mountain peaks
just off Spain’s northern coast):

“There is the grandest profusion of wild irregular mountains I ever saw.” [McCullough, 230]

And of the Spanish taverns along the way, and by extension, Spanish daily life in 1779:

“We got nothing at the taverns but fire, water … and
sometimes the wine of the country. … Smoke filled every part of the
kitchen, stable, and other part[s] of the house, as thick as possible
so that it was … very difficult to see and breathe. … The mules, hogs,
fowls and human inhabitants live … all together. … Nothing appeared
rich but the churches, nobody fat but the clergy.”
[McCullough, 230]

Despite the hardships of the journey, Adams’ inner tourist was alive
and well—not to mention well-informed and ultimately
frustrated—because, according to McCullough, upon leaving Spain, Adams
specifically regretted not having the chance to visit the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, end-point of the famous pilgrimage route.

After another stint in Paris, Adams was sent north to Holland. In
Amsterdam, he giddily engaged in cultural compare-and-contrast (as
every model EF traveler should do), measuring the Dutch against the
French and others:

“Their industry and economy ought to be examples to
the world. They have less ambition, I mean that of conquest and
military glory, than their neighbors, but I don’t perceive that they
have more avarice. And they carry learning and the arts, I think, to a
greater extent.”
[McCullough, 247]

But there’s always room for valid criticism from a visiting
foreigner, for rarely is touring all rose petals and no rough edges.
Adams described the Amsterdam air as “not so salubrious,” and he was
right; the Amsterdam canals were famously filthy in the 18th century,
and the contaminated and foul-smelling water was the culprit for a
frequently striking illness that was known at the time as “Amsterdam
fever” [McCullough, 246/7].

Perhaps there is a unbridgeable difference between Adams’ touring
and our student groups’ touring—after all, we often go on tours and
merely see the stage on which a long-ago history took place, while
Adams seems to have been one of the actors performing alongside the
stars. There’s even an institute in Amsterdam named after him; doubtful one of us typical EF travelers would garner a similar honor.

But maybe Mr. Adams wasn’t so different from us after all. While at
Amsterdam, Adams visited the nearby city of Leiden, where the English
who fled religious persecution in 1609 (and who would later become
known as the Pilgrims) stayed during the 11 years before their
Mayflower set sail and ultimately hit land at Massachusetts. Standing
before the Pieterskerk cathedral, a structure that would have been a
central feature in the area the Pilgrims lived in some 170 years
earlier, an onlooker recorded that “Mr. Adams could not refrain from
tears in contemplating this great structure” [McCullough, 253].

Had it been possible, I dare say he’d have asked someone to take his picture in front of it.

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