Peacefield: A Modest Proposal
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain. –John Adams
Walking the dog yesterday I watched an old guy with two greying beagle hounds across the street, going the other way. I don’t know what it was about those dogs, maybe pulling too hard on the leash to see what this other dog was up to, but all of a sudden it came to me they might be city dogs who’d never chased a rabbit, never followed the wiff of that long-eared frightened thing low to the ground, baying as they ranged along—so in a sense didn’t know who they were. And this is one of those activities that would take doing to confirm one’s identity. Otherwise how would you feel that genetic inspiration coursing through your blood in hot pursuit of all you lived for, that consumed your attention and being? Maybe they’d never been around an older, wiser beagle, never been let off the leash to follow wherever it might lead, imitating its every move.
Which is the trail I was on when I got back to thinking about how education works, how learning might change people. And how to find what we’d modestly label a calling. When I was teaching we often heard the expression offered in good faith by administrators and parents, and even some teachers, of “exposing” young people to various ideas. As if education were a form of vaccination, offering a light and measured dose to prevent some dreaded disease. Which might be exactly how some parents saw it, when we assigned their flighty tenth grader to read the Communist Manifesto, praying it wouldn’t take. And we all know there are also lessons that you can’t watch, that call for hands-on doing, to let the virus have its chance at you, and let you feel its connection to yourself. Stirring up a chemical reaction in a test tube is like that. So is rolling a coil of clay to build a bowl, or sawing a carefully measured piece of wood, that has to fit. And so, in spades, is farming.
I recently visited the three homes in Quincy, Massachusetts, of the Adams family. Touring through their rambling and complicated homestead, what we saw and heard was the vast and intricate tale of a family legacy. The sheer sweep of history presents the tour guide with a daunting task. Peacefield sheltered and nurtured two presidents, members of Congress, ambassadors, diplomats, professors, thinkers and debaters, revolutionary men and women of letters. And that’s just those who lived there. George Washington dined there, as did the rest of the Founding Fathers. Think of those jostling ambitions and egos harnessed to advance the country’s destiny. This home, along with the birthplaces of John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, two older saltbox houses several miles to the south, is operated as The Adams National Historical Park. The main residence is set on forty acres on the outskirts of Quincy, nine miles south of the heart of old Boston, then half a day on the coach road, these days an easy fifteen minute drive.
Peacefield, named after the Peace of Paris John helped conclude in 1783 that ended the war and launched the infant nation, is a big house, but in no way would it count as a mansion. The original building is a wood frame clapboard summer house built by a local plantation owner in 1731. It was bought by John and Abigail Adams after the Revolutionary War in 1787 along with forty acres of farmlands and orchards, for 600 pounds. The following year they moved in, and the home through a series of additions and renovations remained the residence of the Adams family from 1788 until 1927. Each summer the extended family would gather around a hearty core of their elders.
For a family with as many luminaries over four generations as the Adamses could boast, their upward spiral into wealth and social status is predictable. But those visible trappings have a way of distracting us; even their variety and modest shine might obscure a more compelling story. I found myself asking the tour guides about the wells and privies; I wondered what happened to the old barns, and which of the trees and plantings around might have originated with John and Abigail. (Those grapevines along the front porch do.) I wanted to know about root cellars and what was preserved there, about hay, tools and animals—what Shakespeare’s Hamlet termed “country matters.” John Adams and his father, known as Deacon John, were both farmers, though John worked the law and politics in the off-season, while his father cobbled shoes. Abigail deserves equal recognition as a farmer, since she managed and worked the farm through John’s prolonged absences serving in Congress and abroad. When John Adams left the White House, he referred to himself humorously as “Farmer John Stonyfield,” embracing the chance in retirement to work crops and animals again at Peacefield. The name might have come as a wish on the wing, but it nested and prospered here.
In 1870 Charles Francis Adams, John Adams’ grandson and ambassador to the court of St. James during the American Civil War, built what amounts to the first presidential library, the Stone Library, on the grounds of Peacefield. This beautiful building, separate from the main house, is a gothic revival design of stone, with a slate roof, intended to be fireproof. The single two-storey room with its balcony houses 14,000 volumes, mostly his father John Quincy Adams’s collection in twelve languages, though there are also about forty volumes from his grandfather John Adams. The bulk of John Adams’s library is in the rare book collection of the Boston Public Library, where it remains accessible to the public as stipulated in his will. I couldn’t help noting this generational shift, the clear difference in intent between offering a legacy directly to one’s community, and building a shrine that for the living mostly stands aloof.
The Stone Library may also have been one of John Adams’s dreams, but the money for it would come from his grandson Charles Francis Adams’s marriage into the wealthy Brooks family. Which is another lesson about the young republic, where many of the leading lights deliberately avoided even the appearance of enriching themselves at the public expense. The furniture and trappings of the house show that John and Abigail did acquire a taste for the finer things. While in France John bought and shipped home many sets of china, which Abigail would sell off a little at a time at inflated Boston prices, to help meet household expenses. Their protracted stays in France and England gave the Adamses a craving for grander rooms with higher ceilings, which made Peacefield seem cramped when they got home. So in order to keep the upper stories on one level, they dug down the first floor of the addition to give the new rooms more vertical height.
Peacefield’s grounds also have an 18th century European style formal garden of flowers and footpaths that replaced the original fields near the house, though there is nothing grand in its scale or design. The rows seem to say flowers enough for a patriot. When Charles Francis Adams built the library, he also erected a Carriage House and stables in the same gothic revival style, of stone with interior wood beams and slate roofs, at the other end of the property. Both library and carriage house are glorious constructions, cost no object, clearly meant for the ages. Between them the venerable wooden house suffers a bit by comparison, showing itself a trifle timeworn and irregular, as if needing to be remade of sterner stuff.
Though the National Park’s staff is helpful and well-informed, their tour can’t help but show more care for rare and fragile things, than for elusive ideas. But the artifacts of this family pale beside its intangible connection to the country—a connection more complex than any collection of paintings and china and furniture, and even unique historic architecture, could convey. As but one example of their leadership, John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams are the only non-slavers among the first dozen presidents. Though there were slaves and slavers in eighteenth century Massachusetts, and in fact Abigail’s parents owned kept two slaves, there are no slave quarters at Peacefield.
What we see layered and still jostling through the rooms of Peacefield is a legacy of four generations in one place. Which is uncommon in this country, where families naturally tend to disperse, and rarely have an overriding sense of purpose or culture to bind them. And such staying together was uncommon even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among prosperous and well-connected families, when the lure of free land and opportunity still unfolded endlessly to the west. I think John Adams understood what happens as families gather and their cultural talents deepen, as we can see in his note above, which essentially says with families and countries it is always first things first—we’ll get around to the arts and sciences once we’ve secured the basics. He might list agriculture as a second-generation study, though in his life and his father’s life, it was the first-generation practice that fed and sustained all the rest. During the Revolutionary War some 96% of the nation’s population were subsistence farmers, though even then, among the members of the Continental Congress and later the framers of the Constitution, the farming Adamses were the exception rather than the rule.
Many millions of people around the world today think they understand the basics of farming. Leaping over how seed goes into the ground and is harvested, how animals are bred and raised for market, they fix on the so-called bottom line, how the money is made. Perhaps as a consequence those people have largely rejected farming as a calling, as right livelihood. So it might be well to recall national models such as John and Abigail Adams, who when it mattered, knew what to do and did it without fanfare, whether the moment called for defending British soldiers against charges of murder in the Boston Massacre, drafting a state constitution, melting down pewter spoons to cast musket balls—or getting in a hay crop before the rains came. Their values extended beyond expediency and profit to the greater social good.
With this in mind, the Adams homestead would make the perfect place for a demonstration farm, to bolster, repair and inspire the national identity. The public is not currently permitted to roam the grounds or view the carriage house and stables. The fields are safely seeded and mown, manicured into the kind of picturesque birthright later Adamses might fancy, noble but somehow disembodied. Still, most of the forty acres of land that remains could be farmed on a small and historically accurate scale. And the Adams Carriage House with its stables, like the Stone Library built to an impressive standard, would make a grand and permanent place to display tools, wagons and carriages of the Revolutionary period, when they weren’t actually being used in the fields. The Adams National Historical Park is already maintained on a seasonal schedule, closing for the winter. It would be easy to match a Revolutionary War era farm’s annual round to the needs of working fields there. We have Colonial era demonstration farms at Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation, and other fine farming museums around the country, but none that capture the moment of the nation’s birth. And for those whose interest was stirred, there might be opportunities for docents and volunteers, perhaps even the offer of hands-on apprenticeships, a pitchfork or scythe in the field for those who viewing the work might feel moved to join in.
John and Abigail might have enjoyed the thought that produce from their fields could be donated in the family name to Boston area food banks, and that the sale of heirloom seed packets from Peacefield could help defray the cost of maintaining intact such a vital and venerable treasure. The fields seen in use would ground the rest in the minds of visitors, and allow a subtler understanding of the roots of the Revolution.
Thinking back to those beagles, I realize that I wouldn’t have questioned their conduct if I’d never met a real beagle. One winter morning out hunting many years ago, the dog started a rabbit, and chased it around. But when I raised my singleshot gun, all I heard was the heavy hammer fall on a dud. I popped the swollen shell out, reloaded, and waited for the dog to work it back around. When the rabbit approached, again came an empty click, another dud. The dog kept on the rabbit’s trail up to the point it veered off, then stopped and stared up at me, as if to say did I know who I was, what I was supposed to be doing here. He was so focused he wouldn’t bark at a stranger, wouldn’t make a sound unless he was baying along a fresh trail—or on a chase in his dreams. To insure our cultural future, we all need to know who we are. And we need small farmers in the mold of John and Abigail, who feel the life and its ways in the blood, not just the pocketbook—whose identity rooted in the land and the world it will feed courses through them, who are prepared to lend a capable hand at a momentary need, but who are content to return to the field when the battle is done.