I Lived like John Quincy Adams for a Week (and This is What I Learned)

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

It is an oft-repeated maxim that “what we love we shall grow to resemble.” Well, I love John Quincy Adams, and in the past few years I’ve noticed several of his habits cropping up in my life. Thinking that all of his habits are good, I made the decision that for one week I would live as closely as I could to the way JQA lived.

Knowing a week wasn’t enough time to kick start a political career, I went to John Quincy’s diary and looked at a more leisurely time in his life—July 1803. In July, he summarized his daily routine thusly: “Rise between 5 and 6. Bathe and walk about two hours— Read or amuse myself with George untill 9. Breakfast— At Market— Read or write untill 2. p.m. Dine— Read again untill Sunset— Walk an hour. Lounge away the time untill 10.”

Detail of diary entry of John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams’s diary entry summarizing July 1803.

That sounded doable. Keeping in mind that I have seven hours a day of mandated Adams time (How cool is that?!), I sketched out this daily schedule for myself.

5:00 a.m. — Wake and study the Bible
6:00 a.m. — Walk
7:30 a.m. — “Bathe”
8:00 a.m. — Read John Tillotson’s Sermons
9:00 a.m. — Work
2:00 p.m. — Lunch
3:00 p.m. — Work
5:00 p.m. — Read William Winterbotham’s View of the United States
7:00 p.m. — Walk
8:00 p.m. — Dinner and “lounge”
10:00 p.m. — Sleep

We know from an 1811 letter to his son George that John Quincy read the Bible cover-to-cover once a year, spending approximately an hour every morning in meditation. In July 1803 John Quincy also read John Tillotson’s Sermons to further nurture his spirit, so I did too.

The morning walk was easy enough to duplicate, but skinny dipping in the Charles is now frowned upon. Since JQA’s morning swim was as much about healthy circulation as it was about exercise, I substituted an ice cold shower. (If you can recall Janet Leigh’s shrieks in the Psycho shower scene, you have an idea of how that went.)

Adams also noted that he was reading William Winterbotham’s An Historical, Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical View of the American United States, which is available to read online. Like JQA, I allowed Winterbotham to fill my evenings (and was as antsy as a Labrador to get out for my evening walk). Of course, one cannot imitate John Quincy Adams without meticulously keeping a diary, so I ended each day with pen in hand.

What was it like to be John Quincy Adams? Exhausting, if my experience is anything to go on. I wanted to weep every time I finished work and had to open Winterbotham. It took substantial willpower to step into a cold shower each morning. Even so, I would recommend the experiment to anyone.

Purposefully recreating his actions allowed me to understand Adams in a way I never had, and it reminded me of the best thing about John Quincy—his industry was always for others.

He pored over religious readings to keep his moral compass calibrated so that he could act justly throughout the day. He used exercise as a tool to help him focus. (I can’t convey the level of mental clarity after a long walk and cold shower. You’ll have to try it.) Once grounded and focused, he studied his country so that he could serve it effectively.

As I lived the life of 36-year-old Senator Adams, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the advice a ten-year-old JQA received from his mother: “Improve your understanding for acquiring usefull knowledge and virtue, such as will render you an ornament to society, an Honour to your Country, and a Blessing to your parents.” No wonder Abigail was so proud.