John Quincy Adams’ Swimming Adventures

From the age of 50 until two years before his death at age 80, sixth US President John Quincy Adams went swimming almost every summer in the Potomac River in Washington, DC. Sometimes he swam with one of his sons, or with his valet Antoine Giusta (a former Napoleonic soldier from Piedmont), or with whatever acquaintance he could rope into the activity. Often he would swim on his own. John Quincy Adams swam for exercise and for enjoyment. Despite the protests of his wife and friends, he refused to give up swimming, even after he nearly drowned.

The Swimming Hole, Thomas Eakins, 1885

The Swimming Hole, Thomas Eakins, 1885

In black cap and green goggles

Though John Quincy Adams learned how to swim as a child, he was not an obvious athlete. He was bookish, and spent most of his time reading, writing and in meetings. Adams was, however, concerned about his health. In 1817, after years as an American diplomat in Europe, Adams returned to the United States to become Secretary of State in President James Monroe’s administration (the position he holds in Napoleon in America). European dining had left him rather portly, so he began an exercise regimen. This involved walking and jogging in cool weather, and swimming when it was hot.

In the summer of 1818, John Quincy Adams habitually rose between 4 and 5 in the morning, walked two miles to the Potomac, bathed in the river, and then walked back. The whole ritual took about two hours, with about half an hour of that in the river. He continued the habit the following summer, finding it “conducive to health, cleanliness and comfort.” (1)

Like other river bathers, Adams swam in the nude, though he was not entirely uncovered. Stratford Canning, the British Ambassador to Washington (and cousin of British Foreign Secretary George Canning), noted in 1821:

The Secretary of State was seen one morning at an early hour floating down the Potomac, with a black cap on his head and a pair of green goggles on his eyes. (2)

In August 1822, at the age of 55, Adams began the experiment of seeing how long he could swim without touching the ground.

For safety I avoid going beyond my depth and swim in about five feet of water up and down the river, near the borders of the shore. (3)

In a matter of a month, he increased his stamina from 20 minutes to 50 minutes. Pleased with himself, he remarked in his diary, “I should have begun this habit earlier in life.” (4) That winter, Congressman Charles Jared Ingersoll wrote:

Mr. Adams ascribes his uninterrupted health during the several sickly seasons he has lived in Washington to swimming. He walks a mile to the Potomac for 8 successive mornings from 4 to 7 o clock according as the tide serves, and swims from 15 to 40 minutes then walks home again. For the 6 mornings of low tide he abstains, swimming 8 days out of 14. I have no doubt that it is an excellent system. (He is extremely thin.) (5)

A risky pursuit

With confidence in his endurance, the following summer Adams swam for even longer and ventured beyond his usual area. He soon recognized the risks.

July 8, 1823 – Swam with Antoine in the Potomac to the bridge – one hour in the water. While we were swimming there sprang up a fresh breeze, which made a surf, and much increased the difficulty of swimming, especially against it and the current. This is one of the varieties of instruction for the school. It sometimes occurs to me that this exercise and amusement, as I am now indulging myself in it, is with the constant risk of life. Perhaps that is the reason why so few persons ever learn to swim; and perhaps it should now teach me discretion. (6)

July 10, 1823 – Swam with Antoine to and from the bridge, but, as the tide was strongly rising, we were full three-quarters of an hour in going to it, and not more than twenty minutes in returning. This was one of my swimming lessons, and a serious admonition to caution. (7)

July 11, 1823 [John Quincy Adams’ 56th birthday] – Swam with Antoine an hour in the Potomac. We started for the bridge, but, after swimming about half an hour, I perceived by reference to a house upon the shore, beyond which we were to pass, that we had ascended very little above where we had left our clothes, and that the current of the tide was insensibly carrying us into the middle of the river. We continued struggling against the tide about twenty minutes longer, without apparently gaining a foot upon the tide. I then turned back, and in fifteen minutes landed at the rock where I had left my clothes, upon which, in the interval, the tide had so much encroached that it began to wet them, and in another half-hour would have soaked them through or floated them away. We had been an hour and five minutes in the water, without touching ground, and before turning back I began to find myself weary. (8)

July 19, 1823 – Swam in the Potomac with Antoine about three quarters of an hour: we went with great ease to the bridge; but the tide was going out, and ran so rapidly there that I found great difficulty in stemming it, and came into shallow water as soon as possible. The struggle against the tide was so fatiguing that I soon gave it up, and touched the ground. I have now the take on both ways, and know experimentally the danger of attempting to swim against a current. (9)

On August 9, Adams spent almost two hours in the water: an hour and a half swimming to the bridge against the tide, and 20 minutes returning. As a precaution, Antoine accompanied him in a canoe. Two days later, Adams tried to go beyond the bridge, but found it too hard against the tide and a brisk southwest wind.

Adams was not the only one alert to the dangers of his morning ritual. His wife Louisa, his doctor and others were advising him to cut back. In the summer of 1824, Adams speculated that “the remonstrances of my friends against the continuance of this practice will induce me to abandon it, perhaps altogether.” (10)

But John Quincy Adams did not abandon swimming. In fact, he set himself the new challenge of swimming across the river, something he accomplished on August 25, 1824.

Swam across the Potomac with John [Adams’ son]; Antoine crossing at the same time in a boat close at hand, to take us in had we met any insuperable difficulty. I was exactly an hour and a half from shore to shore. John was ten minutes less. We passed through thick grass in several places, but the tide was a spring tide at its full, and the water so high that we got through. We returned in the boat. Antoine swam about half the way back, but got so entangled in the weeds that he was obliged to get into the boat; but the water was not over his head. I landed, returning at the point at the mouth of the Tiber. We had been from home nearly four hours. The distance across the Potomac is upwards of a mile. (11)

City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard by George Cooke, 1833. The White House is to the left, depicted larger than scale to balance the Capitol building. The Potomac River is on the far left.

City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard by George Cooke, 1833. The White House is to the left, depicted larger than scale to balance the Capitol building. The Potomac River is on the far left.

The President nearly drowned

On June 13, 1825, John Quincy Adams – who had been sworn in as president in March – had his most dangerous swimming escapade.

I attempted to cross the river with Antoine in a small canoe, with a view to swim across it to come back. He took a boat in which we had crossed it last summer without accident. The boat was at the shore near Van Ness’s poplars; but in crossing the Tiber to the point, my son John, who was with us, thought the boat dangerous, and, instead of going with us, went and undressed at the rock, to swim and meet us in mid-way of the river as we should be returning. I thought the boat safe enough, or rather persisted carelessly in going without paying due attention to its condition; gave my watch to my son; made a bundle of my coat and waistcoat to take in the boat with me; put off my shoes, and was paddled by Antoine, who had stripped himself entirely naked.

Before we had got half across the river, the boat had leaked itself half full, and then we found there was nothing on board to scoop up the water and throw it over. Just at that critical moment a fresh breeze from the northwest blew down the river as from the nose of a bellows. In five minutes’ time it made a little tempest, and set the boat to dancing till the river came in at the sides. I jumped overboard, and Antoine did the same, and lost hold of the boat, which filled with water and drifted away. We were as near as possible to the middle of the river, and swam to the opposite shore. Antoine, who was naked, reached it with little difficulty. I had much more, and while struggling for life and gasping for breath, had ample leisure to reflect upon my own discretion. My principal difficulty was in the loose sleeves of my shirt, which filled with water and hung like two fifty-six pound weights upon my arms. I had also my hat, which I soon gave, however, to Antoine. After reaching the shore, I took off my shirt and pantaloons, wrung them out, and gave them to Antoine to go and look out for our clothes, or for a person to send to the house for others, and for the carriage to come and fetch me. Soon after he had gone, my son John joined me, having swum wholly across the river, expecting to meet us returning with the boat. Antoine crossed the bridge, sent a man to my house for the carriage, made some search for the drifted boat and bundles, and found his own hat with his shirt and braces in it, and one of my shoes. He also brought over the bridge my son’s clothes, with my watch and umbrella, which I had left with him.

While Antoine was gone, John and I were wading and swimming up and down on the other shore, or sitting naked basking on the bank at the margin of the river. John walked over the bridge home. The carriage came, and took me and Antoine home half dressed. I lost an old summer coat, white waistcoat, two napkins, two white handkerchiefs, and one shoe. Antoine lost his watch, jacket, waistcoat, pantaloons, and shoes. The boat was also lost. By the mercy of God our lives were spared, and no injury befell our persons. We reached home about a quarter before nine, having been out nearly five hours. I had been about three hours in the water, but suffered no inconvenience from it. This incident gave me a humiliating lesson and solemn warning not to trifle with danger. The reasons upon which I justify to myself my daily swimming in the river did not apply to this adventure. It is neither necessary for my health, nor even for pleasure, that I should swim across the river, and, having once swum across it, I could not even want it as an experiment of practicability. Among my motives for swimming, that of showing what I can do must be discarded as spurious, and I must strictly confine myself to the purposes of health, exercise, and salutary labor. (12)

As observers spread the news that the President had perished, Louisa wrote to their son George to reassure him.

As it is possible my dear George that you may hear a rumour that your father was drowned I hasten to write you a few lines to assure you that he is safe although he did run some risk this morning in one of his swimming expeditions. … The affair is altogether ridiculous as it turned out but might have been fatal to your Mothers future peace. (13)

The dead body

A little over a month later, on July 22, 1825, John Quincy Adams had another surprise in the river.

I walked as usual to my ordinary bathing-place, and came to the rock where I leave my clothes a few minutes before sunrise. I found several persons there, besides three or four who were bathing; and at the shore under the tree a boat with four men in it, and a drag-net. … I enquired if any one had been drowned, and the man told me it was old Mr. Shoemaker, a clerk in the post-office, a man upwards of sixty years of age, who last evening, between five and six o’clock, went in to bathe with four other persons; that he was drowned in full sight of them, and without a suspicion by them that he was even in danger. They had observed him struggling in the water, but, as he was an excellent swimmer, had supposed he was merely diving, until after coming out they found he was missing. They then commenced an ineffectual search for him, which was continued late into the night. The man said to me that he had never seen a more distressed person than Mrs. Shoemaker last evening. … I stripped and went into the river. I had not been more than ten minutes swimming, when the drag-boat started, and they were not five minutes from the shore when the body floated immediately opposite the rock, less than one hundred yards from the shore, at the very edge of the channel, and where there could not be seven feet deep of water. I returned immediately to the shore and dressed. …

The only part of the body which had the appearance of stiffness was the arms, both of which were raised at the shoulder-joints and crooked towards each other at the elbows, as if they had been fixed by a spasm at the very moment when they were to expand to keep the head above water. There was a dark flush of settled blood over the face, like one excessively heated, and a few drops of thin blood and water issued from one ear. There was nothing terrible or offensive in the sight, but I returned home musing in sympathy with the distressed lady, and enquiring uncertainly whether I ought to renounce altogether my practice of swimming in the river. My conclusion was that I ought not – deeming it in this climate indispensable to my health; so that whatever danger there may be in the exercise – and that there is much danger, this incident offers melancholy and cumulative proof – there would be yet greater danger in abstaining from it, or in substituting any other effective exercise in its place. We are, and always must be, in the hands of God, and to Him are indebted for every breath we draw. (14)

Poor Louisa Adams wrote to George:

The greatest cause of uneasiness which I at present suffer, is your Fathers passion for Swimming; which keeps me in hourly terror of some horrible calamity—The day before yesterday poor old Mr Shoemaker was drowned. He is said to have been one of the best Swimmers in the Country. God preserve us all my Dear Son from this distress prays your most affectionate Mother. (15)

Even John Quincy Adams had second thoughts about continuing to swim. On July 28 he wrote:

I have had for several days a soreness and pain on the right side, the cause of which was dubious; and withal a debility, nervous irritability, and dejection of spirits far beyond anything I had ever experienced, and uncontrollable by reason. I have wished to impute it altogether to the unexampled intensity and continuance of the heat. More than one of my friends ascribe it to my morning baths and swimming. All my experience heretofore has been otherwise; but in the uncertainty of tracing effects to their cause, and the undoubted effect now, my perfect confidence in the salubrity of my practice is somewhat shaken. I swam this morning nearly an hour, but the pain in my side became so severe and so aggravated by the movement of my arms and shoulder that I determined at least to intermit both the swimming and the bath for some days. (16)

For a few days he substituted walking for his morning swim, but ultimately he could not resist the lure of the water.

An irresistible impulse

Daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams in 1843, at age 76. Adams continued swimming even past this age.

Daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams in 1843, at age 76. Adams continued swimming even past this age.

John Quincy Adams continued to swim during the following summers, but for shorter periods. Beyond the fear of drowning, his stamina was not what it had been.

July 27, 1828 – With my son John, my nephew, and Antoine, I crossed the river in our canoe, and swam a quarter of an hour on the other side; but the shore is so deceptive that after diving from the boat, as I supposed, within a ten minutes’ swim of the shore, before reaching half the distance I found myself so fatigued that I called the boat to me, and clung to her till she was rowed to the shore. We had crossed nearly opposite the Tiber point, and were annoyed with leeches and ticks at the landing. The decline of my health is in nothing so closely brought to my conviction as in my inability to swim more than fifteen or twenty minutes without tiring. (17)

In 1837, when Congressman John Quincy Adams visited newly-installed President Martin Van Buren at the White House for the first time, they did not discuss politics or matters of national interest, but rather “the inconvenience of a summer residence in the city, and [Adams’] custom, heretofore, when under that necessity, of bathing and swimming every morning in the Potomac.” (18)

On July 10, 1838 (the day before his 71st birthday), Adams wrote:

About sunrise I rode to the Potomac, to my old bathing-place beneath the bluff, between the mouth of the Tiber and the bridge, where I bathed and swam about a quarter of an hour. It was the first river-bath that I have been able to take this season, and seemed to give me new life. There were, as used formerly to be, a number of other bathers there, and some with horses; all young men except myself. (19)

Although they happened much less frequently, Adams continued to relish his river swims well into his old age.

June 27, 1844 – This day, set in the extreme heat of the summer, the trial of the climate to my constitution. A burning sun; the thermometers in my chamber at ninety, and a light breeze from the southwest – a fan delicious to the face, but parching instead of cooling the skin. I have been a full month longing for a river bath without daring to take it. This morning, at five, I went in the barouche to my old favorite spot, found the tide unusually high; all my station rocks occupied by young men, except one, and that surrounded by the tide, already upon the ebb. I had some difficulty to undress and dress, but got my bath, swam about five minutes, and came out washed and refreshed. It was my exercise for the day. After returning home I did not again pass the sill of the street door. (20)

June 29, 1844 – The summer heat and its enervating spell continue. I walked this morning to my old bathing station upon the strand of the Potomac River, and bathed and swam for about ten minutes, and then walked home. From the practice of personal ablution and the exercise of swimming I cannot totally abstain, for I believe they have promoted my health and prolonged my life many years. And yet the experience of late years has compelled me gradually to disuse them. But my great anxiety now is having much to do, and to be doing nothing. (21)

September 17, 1845 – My habitual practice of summer sea and river bathing and swimming began much later, and I have of late years been obliged to abandon them altogether. The shower-bath was my last resource; and I must now give up that. The jar is too racking, and I cannot recover the composure of the hand through the day. (22)

But John Quincy Adams was not finished with swimming. On July 13, 1846, two days after his 79th birthday, he wrote:

I rose this morning with the dawn and drawn by an irresistible impulse walked over the lower Tiber bridge to my old bathing-spot on the margin of the Potomac and where, under the shelter of the high bluff yet remaining, I bathed and swam from five to ten minutes, came out, dressed myself and walked home. As I went down the hill to the edge of the water, I found three young men, neither of whom I knew, already in the river, and heard one of them say, ‘There is John Quincy Adams.’ They had their clothes at one of my old standard rocks; but, without noticing or disturbing them, I found another rock a few rods higher, towards the Potomac bridge, where I left my clothes. The tide was low and the time not convenient for entering the river but I succeeded in obtaining the bath for which I panted. The time consumed was as in former days about one hour and a half, half an hour going to the river, half an hour to bathe, swim and dress, and half an hour to return. The thermometer was at eighty-four, the water warm, the atmosphere calm, and the sun clear. (23)

John Quincy Adams died of a stroke on February 23, 1848 at the age of 80. To read about his death, see Last Words of Famous People.

The oft-repeated tale that journalist Anne Royall scored an interview with Adams by confiscating his clothes while he was swimming has been successfully debunked by Howard Dorre on Plodding through the Presidents.

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The Inauguration of John Quincy Adams

The John Quincy Adams Portrait by Gilbert Stuart & Thomas Sully

The New Year’s Day reflections of John Quincy Adams

Louisa Adams, social charmer

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A Skeleton City: Washington DC in the 1820s

  1. John Quincy Adams diary 31, 1 January 1819 – 20 March 1821, 10 November 1824 – 6 December 1824, page 136 [electronic edition]. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2004. http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries
  2. Stanley Lane-Poole, The Life of the Right Honourable Stratford Canning, Vol. I (London, 1888), p. 321.
  3. John Quincy Adams diary 32, 21 March 1821 – 30 November 1822 (with gaps), page 357 [electronic edition]. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005. http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries
  4. Ibid., p. 373.
  5. William M. Meigs, The Life of Charles Jared Ingersoll (Philadelphia, 1900), p. 122.
  6. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VI (Philadelphia, 1875), p. 161.
  7. Ibid., p. 162.
  8. Ibid., p. 162.
  9. John Quincy Adams diary 34, 1 January 1823 – 14 June 1824, page 103 [electronic edition]. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005. http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries
  10. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VI, p. 406.
  11. Ibid., p. 412.
  12. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VII (Philadelphia, 1875), pp. 28-29.
  13. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to George Washington Adams, 13 June 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4533.
  14. Ibid., pp. 35-36.
  15. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to George Washington Adams, 23 July 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4552.
  16. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VII, p. 37.
  17. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VIII (Philadelphia, 1876), pp. 64-65.
  18. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. IX (Philadelphia, 1876), p. 356.
  19. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. X (Philadelphia, 1876), p. 31.
  20. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. XII (Philadelphia, 1877), p. 64.
  21. Ibid., pp. 64-65.
  22. Ibid., p. 213.
  23. Ibid., pp. 268-269.

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My principal difficulty was in the loose sleeves of my shirt, which filled with water and hung like two fifty-six pound weights upon my arms.

John Quincy Adams