Adams National Historical Park | BIRTH HOMES OF JOHN AND JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

Birth homes of John and John Quincy Adams (National Park Service photo)

Birth homes of John and John Quincy Adams (National Park Service photo)

The houses in which John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams were born are situated on their original locations within what was at the time the boundary of Braintree in an area known as Penn’s Hill (the town of Quincy wasn’t founded until 1792). These are the oldest surviving presidential birthplace homes in the United States. The road in front of the houses has always been there as well. Finished in 1648 and known by a variety of names—Coast Road, Plymouth Road, Country Road, Plymouth Turnpike—it was a public highway that connected Plymouth with Boston.

The houses themselves were built before the Adamses moved in. The house in which John Adams was born (I will call it the JA House) was purchased along with roughly six acres of farmland by John Adams Sr. in 1720 from James Pennimen. Pennimen had built a house on the property sometime within ten years of the sale, but it is not known if this was an addition to a house that was built by his father around 1681 or if that house was torn down to make way for a new one. John Sr. also bought an additional five adjacent acres from John Vasey, inherited twelve adjacent acres when his father died in 1731, and purchased eighteen acres from the neighboring Payne Family.

Birth home of John Adams, Adams National Historical Park

Birth home of John Adams, Adams National Historical Park

The house in which John Quincy Adams was born (I will call it the JQ House) is the older of the two birth homes. A house on the property was built around 1660 by William Ellis, who then immediately sold his 52-acre farm to Gregory Belcher. After Belcher’s death in 1663, the property passed to his son Samuel, then to Samuel’s brother Gregory Jr. in 1679 when Samuel died. Gregory Jr. built a house that matches closely to the description of the house standing today, then expanded it in 1716. As with the JA House, it is not known if this was an addition to the original 1660 house or if that house was torn down to make way for the new one.

When Gregory Jr. died in 1727, the land was split between his three sons. The JQ House and 9.5 acres went to the son who was also named Gregory. When he died in 1728, and his wife shortly thereafter, his daughter Abigail inherited the property and leased it to tenant farmers. Abigail married in 1742 and sold the farm to Lewis Vassall. Upon his death, the property was sold to John and Richard Billings, and it is from these two brothers that John Adams Sr. purchased the JQ House and the land in 1744. Now both of the eventual birth houses of his son John and grandson John Quincy were in the Adams Family.

Birth home of John Quincy Adams, Adams National Historical Park

Birth home of John Quincy Adams, Adams National Historical Park

As they stand today, both houses have a design known as a “salt box” due to the sloped roof in the back, which resembled the shape of boxes in which table salt was sold. Called a lean-to, these backside additions were added on after the original construction of both houses. The JQ House addition was done by the Belchers, whereas John Adams Sr. made the addition to the JA House himself in 1750.

Original John Quincy Adams birth house and its rear addition, Adams National Historical Park

Original John Quincy Adams birth house and its rear addition, Adams National Historical Park

When John Adams Sr. purchased the Pennimen farm and JA House in 1720, he was 29 years old and single and remained single until 1734 when he married Susanna Boylston from Brookline. It was in the JA House that all three of their sons were born—John Jr. (1735-1826), Peter (1738-1823), and Elihu (1741-1775). John Jr. lived in the house until he was fifteen years old, at which time he entered Harvard College and moved to Cambridge. After graduating in 1755, he took a job as a school teacher in Worchester and lived there for a few years before deciding to become a lawyer. He remained in Worchester while interning under John Putnam, then returned to Braintree in 1759 to live full time in his birth home along with his parents. He opened his own law practice and used a room in the house as his office.

As mentioned, John Sr. purchased the adjacent farm, including the JQ House, in 1744. He continued living in the JA House and rented the new land to tenant farmers. When he died in 1761 at the age of 70, the farm was split between his three sons. Peter got the JA House and 35 acres (though his mother and John Jr. continued to live there), John Jr. got the JQ house (which was rented at the time) and 40 acres, and Elihu got another house on the property and 92 acres. In 1774, John Jr. bought the JA House and property from Peter.

It wasn’t until John Jr. (who I will henceforth refer to as JA) married Abigail Smith in 1764 that he moved into the JQ House, though they did live in Boston from 1768 to 1770, and again from 1772 to 1774 (he rented the JQ House to his mother and her new husband when away). When in Braintree, JA engaged in farming and continued running his law office from the house. It is here that he wrote the Massachusetts Constitution along with Samuel Adams (his second cousin) and James Bowdoin in 1779. He and Abigail had six children, four who survived infancy: Abigail aka “Nabby’ (1765-1813), John Quincy (1767-1848), Susanna (1768, died a year later), Charles (1770-1800), Thomas (1772-1832), and Elizabeth (1777, stillborn).

JA was a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses. This required him to move to Philadelphia in August 1774, and he remained there until the end of 1777. Due to the obvious dangers of the time, Abigail and the children remained in Braintree, and he returned only twice for stays of six and two months. (The trip between Boston and Philadelphia took a minimum of two weeks by carriage, and allowing for expected bad weather and stops to see friends along the way, up to a month.)

In early November 1777, JA accepted a position as one of the commissioners assigned to negotiate an alliance with the French. He returned home briefly before leaving in mid-December for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he was to catch the frigate Boston to France. However, the ship did not depart until mid-February 1778. John Quincy, who was ten years old at the time, traveled with him.

Other commissioners, including Benjamin Franklin, had gone to France earlier, and by the time JA arrived in April, much of the work had been done. However, he insisted on staying to organize the commission’s financial affairs and other records. It was only when word reached Paris in February 1779 that Congress had officially ended the commission that he decided to return home. He left Paris in early March only to end up in Lorient, France, waiting for a ship to America. It took until mid-June before he could depart, and he arrived back in Braintree in late July.

JA returned to Paris in November, arriving in early February 1780 after a detour through Spain. This time he took both John Quincy and Charles with him (Charles was sent home in 1781). He was to negotiate with the French about how to end the war, though they preferred to deal with Benjamin Franklin. By July, French officials wouldn’t even speak with him, and soon afterwards he went to Amsterdam to secure a loan.

JA had no initial success in the Netherlands either. The Dutch did not want to risk ending up on the wrong side in a war with England. The British had just taken Charleston, South Carolina, and things did not look good for the Americans. Then, in October 1781, George Washington and his French allies defeated British General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, which ended the war for all practical purposes. In June 1782, JA finally succeeded in securing a loan of $2 million from the Dutch, and in October he returned to Paris to begin negotiating a treaty to officially end the war. He was one of three Americans who signed the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783 (the others were Benjamin Franklin and John Jay).

During 1783, discussion between JA and Abigail arose—by letter—about her and Nabby coming to live in Europe with him. In mid-June 1784, the two set sail from Boston and arrived in London in late July. Charles, who had since returned from Amsterdam, and Thomas remained home with relatives. JA was in the Netherlands at the time, but traveled to meet them in London. The family ended up living in Auteuil, France, just outside of Paris. In February 1785, JA was appointed Minister to Great Britain, and the family moved to London in May. Even then, JA and Abigail were often apart due to his travels throughout Europe.

The Adamses remained in London until April 1788. When they returned to the United States, they moved into a larger house on what is now Adams Street, a house JA called Peacefield. The Penn’s Hill farm and houses were used as rental properties. (The National Park Service refers to Adams’s estate as Peace field. However, in the letters of JA and Abigail, the way the name is written flip-flops between Peace Field, Peacefield, and Peace field.)

JA didn’t initially live at Peacefield for long either. The following year he became the first vice president of the United States, serving under George Washington for eight years, then the second president of the United States from March 1797 to March 1801. During this time he lived in New York City (the first capital of the new nation) until July 1790, then Philadelphia (the interim capital while Washington, D. C., was being developed) through June 1800. In the final months of his presidency, he and Abigail moved into the President’s House (as the White House was initially called) in the new capital—John on November 1, 1800 and Abigail later that month when she arrived from what was now Quincy.

In total, Abigail lived with her husband for roughly two-and-a-half years while he was vice president, and for two of the four years that he was president. However, JA usually came back to Peacefield each summer for six months, even when he was president (if you can imagine that). During all this time, JA purchased more land at both the Penn’s Hill farm and at Peacefield, and continued to do so up until he ran into financial trouble in 1803 when his bank failed.

To help his parents, John Quincy purchased the two birth homes and 91 acres of the Penn’s Hill farm, and when his father died in 1826, he inherited the rest of the farm, roughly 200 acres in total. He and his wife, Louisa Johnson, spent the summers of 1805 and 1806 at his birth home, but most of the time the farm and houses were used as rental properties. John Quincy and Louisa had another residence of 600 acres in north Quincy called Mount Wollaston, plus they spent a lot of time in Europe and Washington in the ensuing years, including four years when he was president from 1825 to 1829.

By the 1830s, Quincy was changing from a farming community to a city of light industry. As a result, John Quincy began selling small parcels of land for real estate development, and continued to do so up until his death. His son Charles Francis would go on to inherit both the Penn’s Hill and Mount Wollaston farms, plus the Peacefield estate (which John Quincy had inherited from his father). John Quincy and Louisa had four children: George (1801-1829), John II (1803-1834), Charles Francis (1807-1886), and Louisa, who died a year after her birth in 1811. George committed suicide and John II became an alcoholic after his brother’s death and also died at an early age. Thus, by the time John Quincy died in 1848 and Louisa in 1852, Charles Francis was the only child left to inherit all of his father’s property.

Charles Francis never lived in any of the birth homes, but continued to rent the land and houses. Beginning in 1882, only four years before his death, he began subdividing the property for development. There were many new roads and rail lines in Quincy, and there was a large demand for real estate. He gave much of the remaining Penn’s Hill farm to his son Charles Jr. in 1884, keeping for himself only a few parcels here and there, including a .34-acre lot where the birth homes were situated.

To manage what remained of Charles Francis’s property when he died in 1886, his heirs formed the Adams Real Estate Trust. Nearly all of his remaining Penn’s Hill farmland was sold off by 1889, and only the small lot with the birth homes was kept. The Trust leased the houses up until 1896, and even considered demolishing them due to the fact that they were in poor condition and didn’t bring in much rent money.

In the meantime, the city of Quincy formed the Quincy Historical Society in 1893, appointing Charles Francis Jr. as its first president. In 1896, the Historical Society moved into the JQ House and agreed to pay for its restoration. That same year, the Adams Chapter of the Daughters of the Revolution began using the JA House as its headquarters, and also began a year-long renovation project. Both homes were opened to the public as museum houses in 1897—the JQ House in June and the JA House in October.

In 1940, the Adams Real Estate Trust gave the birth homes and land to the city of Quincy, which agreed to pay for the maintenance and preserve them for the public. The Daughters of the Revolution continued to manage the JA house until 1950, then bowed out when only one member remained, leaving the Quincy Historical Society in charge of both. In the mid-1950s, the city of Quincy purchased the two adjacent lots and removed the houses, expanding the Birth Homes property to .75 acres.

By the mid-1970s, maintenance of the aging houses was too much for the city to bear, and it approached the National Park Service about taking over the property. The Adams National Historic Site had been in existence since 1946, but it included only the Peacefield estate. Congress authorized the transfer in 1979, and the National Park Service began a four-year restoration of the houses to return them to their appearance when John and John Quincy Adams owned them. The houses reopened to the public in 1984.

Today the public is allowed inside the houses by guided tour only. Tours are held seasonally, and there is a fee. Purchase tickets at the Visitor Center on Hancock Street or online at Recreation.gov. See the Guided Tours web page here on National Park Planner for more details.

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Last updated on September 8, 2023
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