You’d think it would cause quite a stir if a US president was seen skinny-dipping the Potomac River.
However, for many years, that was just part of John Quincy Adams’ daily routine.
Adams followed his famous father‘s footsteps to become the sixth president of the United States. Over the course of his life, he held various diplomatic positions, worked as secretary of state under President James Monroe, and served one term as president (before being defeated by Andrew Jackson).
However, Adams’ political career wasn’t over after that loss. He went on to represent Massachusetts for 17 years in Congress and actually died inside the US Capital building.
“John Quincy Adam was the only son of that generation to live up to the Adams family legacy,” Massachusetts Historical Society digital projects editor Neal Millikan told Business Insider. “He was a very serious person. He took his duties very seriously.”
Adams’ diligent, meticulous personality is reflected in his diaries. He kept up daily journals from the time he was 12 to his death at the age of 80. Millikan is currently working on creating a digital edition of John Quincy Adams’ diaries, complete with transcriptions and subject analysis.
She spoke with Business Insider about Adams’ rigorous morning ritual. In the winter months, he’d skip the swimming and kick off his day with a two mile walk around Washington. However, when the weather was nice, he’d take to the water.
Adams himself summarized his routine in a July 1818 diary entry:
“I rise usually between four and five — walk two miles, bathe in Potowmack river, and walk home, which occupies two hours — read or write, or more frequently idly waste the time till eight or nine when we breakfast — read or write till twelve or one, when I go to the office; now usually in the carriage — at the office till five then home till dinner. After dinner read newspapers till dark; soon after which I retire to bed.”
On one or two occasions, the tide nearly washed away Adams’ clothes while he was bathing. However, according to Millikan, that was just the way people swam in the 19th century.
“It wasn’t really that odd that he bathed naked,” Millikan says. “He talks about other people leaving their clothes on the rocks. Sometimes he would go alone. Sometimes if his sons were home from Harvard, they would go with him. Sometimes his valet, Antoine, would go with him. He also tried to get a Dutch diplomat whom he met, Mr. Ten Cate, to go with him. Sometimes he would, sometimes he wouldn’t.”
The president had also undergone a frightening experience in 1825, only three months after being elected to the office.
“He was actually out on a little rickety boat in the Potomac with his valet Antoine,” Millikan told Business Insider. “The boat filled with water. He had to jump overboard, and he was pretty much fully dressed. In his diary, he talks about how the loose sleeves of his shirt were filled water and how they were like two weights upon his arms. He almost drowned.”
That incident didn’t throw Adams off from swimming, however. Over the years, he went from bathing for 20 minutes to taking the plunge for a full hour.
On June 19, 1823, he wrote: “I follow this practice for exercise, for health, for cleanliness and for pleasure — I have found it invariably conducive to health, and never experienced from it the slightest inconvenience.”
However, in the same entry, Adams says that not everyone agreed with him: “Dr. Huntt and all my friends think I am now indulging it to excess — I never before this day swam an hour at once; and I must now limit my fancies for this habit, which is not without danger — the art of swimming ought in my opinion to be taught as a regular branch of education.”
Millikan says that the president’s physician may have worried that Adams, who was 56 in 1823, was over-exerting himself.
Over time, Adams did reduce his exercise, as age and work caught up with him. However, one morning in 1846, the 78-year-old former president returned to the Potomac River for another swim.
“He commented in his diaries that some young men saw him,” Millikan says. “They were shouting, ‘John Quincy Adams!’ He put his clothes on one rock, and they put their clothes on another rock, and they all went swimming together.”
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