His Rotundity and a Hard Cider

When John Adams became the White House’s first resident on November 1 1800, he was alone. Staff had rushed to get it ready for him and it was replete with his furniture and a hanging portrait of George Washington. The yard, on the other hand, was filled with cannons and mud. There’s no way to know exactly what John Adams was thinking as he took in the house. He may have been damning his move-in luck, as the last time he moved was into the president’s house after George Washington’s servants had boozed hard the night before and left the place a wreck. He may have been planning the Abigail Adams Cannon Mud Garden (tours twice daily). Or he may have been grumbling at the portrait of Washington.    

John Adams’ life of dedicated public service is matched by few other Americans. He was a framer, member of the Continental Congress, and minister to France and the Dutch Republic. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and negotiate the Treaty of Paris. He was significant enough to the American revolutionary cause that he’d have been hanged by the British had he been captured. He was by almost all accounts a brilliant and dedicated politician, thinker, and statesman. But for all of his intellect, Adams may have had a bit of a George Washington problem.

The American Revolution and its heroes were fresh in the memory of the country. The wartime exploits of men like Ethan Allen and Henry Knox had become legend. America had fallen in love with the battlefield action and heroics of the glorious cause. John Adams and Ben Franklin had undoubtedly helped sway the cause in the meeting rooms of Europe, but tales of a negotiated loan didn’t hold a pub audience in rapt attention in young America. America admired action. America loved heroes. America adored George Washington.

From his looks to his demeanor, George Washington was every bit a military hero. He was tall, broad, and built like a brick outhouse. He was courageous and carried himself like a man whose underwear saluted him before climbing up his legs in the morning. He was the subject of legends and depicted in famous portraits. He was larger than life, an American hero. And then he was elected president. Unanimously. Twice. In the eyes of America, there was simply no alternative.

John Adams was a contrast in almost every way. No macho military man, he was a behind-the-scenes intellectual who looked like a behind-the-scenes intellectual, known these days as “IT guys.” He was short and round-bellied; his nickname was His Rotundity. In character, he was admired and known to be intelligent, but also to be vain, stubborn, and persnickety. After two terms of unanimously voted-in Washington, Adams’ election was a bitter and hard fought battle.

Persnickety perhaps, but His Rotundity did enjoy a drink. John Adams was from New England, which meant that hard cider was a part of his daily life. Cider was the beverage in New England, where farmers had a million apples and no efficient way to transport them. Instead, they made booze out of them and forget their problems. The cider was so prolific in New England that there was known to be “a pitcher on every table and a jug in every field.” The average New England household drank 52 barrels of cider a year. And John Adams helped.

Cider was known as the common drink of rich and poor and this proletariat legacy would stick around. In the presidential campaign of 1840, the Democrats and William Van Buren would try to cast Republican opponent William Henry Harrison as a bumpkin who would rather “sit in his log cabin drinking hard cider” than run the country. This backfired when the country decided that this activity sounded just fantastic, and Harrison and his running mate John Tyler seized the opportunity to adopt the log cabin and hard cider as campaign symbols. These symbols helped connect Harrison to the “common man.” The fact that Harrison died 31 days after his inauguration perhaps isn’t a ringing endorsement for running a campaign on a “I like to sit in a cabin and get shitfaced” platform, but there are schools named after him, so he got the last laugh.  

John Adams’ enjoyment of cider wasn’t politically driven. He had adopted the habit of drinking a tankard of hard cider every morning while a student at Harvard. He said that the practice helped “dilute the bile and phlegm in his stomach,” which is a very presidential way of saying it “made him poop good.” He continued this daily habit throughout his life, and while at the White House it was served to him alongside an epic breakfast. Each day, the second president was served poached salmon with egg sauce, toast and apple butter, porridge, ham steak, “scootin’ long the shore” (hash browns cooked in bacon fat and diced onions), and johnnycakes. Five months later, he was out of the White House. He’d lost his reelection bid to Thomas Jefferson, was rendered a single-term president, and was reminded yet again of how he wasn’t George Washington. But at least he had New England hard cider and johnnycakes.

Today, we drink a New England cider for His Rotundity. A New England cider is a barrel aged, fermented strong cider which undergoes a secondary fermentation with sugars and raisins. There’s not much effervescence, but that’s how it would have been in colonial America, so forego fizziness for authenticity. Also, they’re fermented to 8 to 12%, so after a few of them you won’t even notice if you are wearing pants. There are a few traditional New England ciders out there, one maker that delivers is Blackbird Cider. But don’t be persnickety, if it was once apples, then have at it. Celebrate John Adams moving into the White House by getting up early and washing down a massive breakfast with a few ciders to dilute your bile and phlegm. Enjoy, don’t worry about living up to the guy who came before you, and for goodness’ sakes, please revive “scootin’ down the shore” because we all need to try this.

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