It is not exactly a secret that John Adams was a fan of cider. The Massachusetts-born second President’s love of the drink has been mentioned before. He famously had a drink of it just about every morning. But just how did he express this fondness? Obviously, there is no way to quantify how much one person loves or enjoys something like a type of drink. But a look at some of his letters can give a really interesting perspective in understanding his enjoyment of it.
Now, if a man is drinking the same drink every morning, one can probably understand that he has some level of attachment to it. And then when he writes, as young man, that it is one of just five things that he needs in life to be happy, then we really start to see that attachment being manifested. Writing to his cousin and friend Zabdiel Adams in July 1763, a year before his marriage to Abigail and just as the strife of the coming Revolution was beginning to bubble, Adams gave his attitude about politics: “Give me Bacon, and Cyder, and Books and Girl and Friend, and I will frisk it.” Now, this might come off as rather dramatic, not unusual when it comes to Adams, but it is nonetheless an interesting and rather humorous example of the lengths he was willing to go to describe his feelings toward the drink.
Also, these were not merely the melodramatic quips of a young man with a love for a certain drink. Fast forward four decades, after Adams had experienced all of the trials and tribulations of his career and was now retired at home in Massachusetts, and he was still professing his deep affection for this specific drink. This time he also proclaimed its health benefits. In a letter written on February 13, 1805 to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, physician and professor at Harvard, Adams wrote of his disappointment in hearing from Waterhouse that cider was no longer being drunk at the same rate at the school as when he went there. He went so far as to proclaim that “I fear the decay of Health at the University is owing to the Use of Wine and Spirits instead of Cyder, at least as much as the consumption of Cigars.” He then offered that “Rhenish or Rozelle Wine would be better for Us, than Sherry or Madeira: but Cider is better than either.” He then said that aged cider was the only liquor he could drink at this point in his life due to his health.
Evidently Waterhouse’s lecture, which was primarily concerned with the health effects of tobacco, was of interest enough to Adams that he felt the need to write Waterhouse about it again just six days later on February 19, 1805, proclaiming that “When I wrote you a line of Acknowledgment for your Lecture upon Tobacco, I kept no Copy of it, not expecting to ever hear anything more of it, and I really remember very little that was in it.” This letter went into much more detail in discussing his opinions, including his description of Tobacco as “a very dangerous Vegetable.” These opinions included a more expanded discussion of cider, especially concerning his college days at Harvard. He wrote, “During the four years that I passed at Colledge there was not a Single death among the Scollars: and I have always believed that the almost universal healh [sic] among the Students, was to be ascribed next to early rising and beef and mutton Pies at Commons, to the free Use of Cider and the very moderate use of Wine and ardent Spirits.” So, not only did he think the lack of cider drinking at the contemporary Harvard contributed to the school’s poor health, but he also believed that the use of it when he went contributed to its previous overall good health.
The letter did not end there. He wrote of a “Cyder Clubb” that apparently existed at the school, though he declined to join, and that he heard its members were remarkably healthy both while attending the school and also in their later lives. He mentioned that “When our Barrells and Bottles in the Cellar were empty, We used to Size it at the Buttery, and I never shall forget, how refreshing and salubrious We found it hard as it often was.” When mentioning that “Many of the longest Livers and healthiest Men that I have known” were cider drinkers, he used the long life of “the Reverend Mr Niles of Monatiquot” as an example. Apparently, this reverend refused to drink any other spirits beside cider and lived to a ripe old age, as did his son.
Adams also made clear to Waterhouse that this was not an opinion confined to New England. He said that a Virginia doctor he had met “about Six Years ago” told him “that in thirty years practice in that State he had invariably found, that those who drank Cyder, for their ordinary Beveredge were the most healthy and the longest Livers, that those who drank Wine or ardent Spirits tempered with Water though temperate Men were not so healthy and ended their days sooner.” In the mind of Adams, this was just further confirmation of what he already thought: not only was cider his ideal drink in regard to taste and enjoyment, but that it was absolutely better for his health when compared to other available drinks. And Adams, after all, was a well-traveled man who had tasted some of the finest spirits the world had to offer. But, as he said as he continued this letter, “I have, habitually drank the Wines of Spain France Germany and holland in all their varieties diluted with Water and I have drank the mill Ports and Table Beer of London in all their perfection, but I never found any of them agres so well with my health as the Cyder of New England.” Just as he wrote as a young man that it was among the only things in life that he needed, an older and well-traveled Adams still preferred cider to all the finest drinks in the world.
Adams concluded this letter with one more proclamation to Waterhouse. He wrote, “It Seems to me, Sir that Nature has planted the Antidote near to the Poison, and that a kind Providence has ordered the productions of the Earth to grow in a manner adapted to the Circumstances of the Clymate. And the Cranberries, Barberries, Currents and Cyder of New England are better adapted to the health of the Inhabitants than any other fruits.” So, while he may have used the Virginian doctor’s advice as evidence, he still made his loyalties to New England clear in his defense of cider. Adams also knew how dramatic he must have sounded, writing that Waterhouse was free to laugh with his friends over the letter. But his point had been made and that was what mattered. For John Adams, cider was a drink that not only was made to be enjoyed, but it had healing qualities that brought good health.
As he aged, his cider-drinking habit continued. In an 1819 letter to the physician Vine Utley, he wrote that the only beverages he drank were cider, water, and lemonade. He also lamented in the letter that while overseas in France and Holland he had to refrain from cider and beer as it was not available to him. During that period he wrote to Abigail such things as “I would give Three Guineas for a Barrell of your Cyder—not one drop is to be had here for Gold,” “What would I give for some of your Cyder?,” and “Oh for a Bowl of your Punch, a Bottle of your Cyder, or something or other that is acid.”
This availability issue continued in his later years. He often received cider as a gift, such as in 1819 from the De Windt family or in 1821 from his relative Ward Nicholas Boylston. Boylston seems to have been a regular supplier of cider to Adams; in 1822 he wrote somewhat humorously to Boylston, lamenting that a shipment of cider from him had not yet arrived. The cider correspondence between the two continued in Adams’s final years, as he thanked Boylston in an 1825 letter for a recent shipment that did arrive. Just a few months before his death, Adams wrote Boylston in a letter dated April 13, 1826, thanking him for more cider that he had sent and claiming that it “will last three of my lives.” Unfortunately, though, for Adams, the end was near. He was less than two months away from his death when he wrote a letter to Boylston on May 24, 1826 saying that “Your wine and cider are too rich cordials for a Man ninety years of age. but I am not the less grateful to you for them.” It would appear that the only thing that could keep John Adams from his beloved cider was age.
All of this is to say that there was more John Adams than the portraits, papers, and artifacts that he left behind. It can be easy to forget the humanity of these historical figures so long after they died. But they were incredibly human, with likes and dislikes, and tastes all their own. In the case of John Adams, that was a taste that was quite fond of a drink of cider.
Pamela Murrow, “How They Loved Their Spirits,” Journal of the American Revolution, February 27, 2013, allthingsliberty.com/2013/02/how-they-loved-their-spirits/.
John Adams to Zabdiel Adams, July 23, 1763, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-01-02-0047.
Adams to Benjamin Waterhouse, February 13, 1805, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5069.
Adams to Waterhouse, February 19, 1805, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5072.
Adams to Vine Utley, September 10, 1819, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-7234.
Adams to Abigail Adams, May 22, 1777,founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-02-02-0191; Adams to Abigail Adams, August 11, 1777, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-02-02-0245; Adams to Abigail Adams, August 15, 1777, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-02-02-0254.
Adams to Caroline Amelia Smith De Windt, May 19, 1819, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-3673; Adams to Ward Nicholas Boylston, January 22, 1821, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-3869.
Adams to Boylston, April 23, 1822, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4034.
Adams to Boylston, September 22, 1825, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4570.
Adams to Boylston, April 13, 1826, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4632.
Adams to Boylston, May 24, 1826, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4642.
iN ADDITION, Adams wrote home to Abigail while he was at Philadelphia for the Continental Congress complaining that he could not get good Cider in that city. To substitute he mixed vinegar with water to approximate the taste he missed. not as good, he confessed, but the best he could do
Thank you for this article. I wonder if a glass of cider every morning improved, or fermented, his crusty disposition throughout the day?
Writing as an enthusiast living in the center (San Francisco) of our local best-tasting industry (wine), I will concede that the next time we visit our wine clubs to the north and east we will add cider to our shopping list that includes local apple vinegar. (We added that one on the recommendation of a book published by a New England country doctor a century ago.)
The Russian River is a large producer of apples and its derivatives. Gold Country discovered its hills are pleasant for apple trees, too.
Will my wife and I survive ’til 90? 17 years to go and won’t hurt to add cyder to our morning ritual. If I’m not all grumped up a year from now I’ll report back. I know for sure that wine, lotsa wine, makes us both happy tipplers.
Am I right in thinking this would be what Americans would nowadays view as ‘hard’ cider, as it’s my understanding that using the word to describe basically apple juice only came about during prohibition…
Yes, Adams was referring to what is now often referred to as “hard” cider.
This article would be greatly improved if it got into some detail about the actual benefits of Apple Cider (Vinegar) and some of the science and pseudo-science of the day and/or our day that underlay Adam’s opinions.
Thank you for writing this article! Currently reading McCullough’s biography of Adams as part of my research on the history of cider in America.
One thing that gets missed when talking about the word “hard” in relation to cider: In the 18th and early 19th centuries, “hard” didn’t just mean ‘alcoholic’, but more specifically, ‘dry’. In other words, it was the kind of cider that was completely fermented, and thus less sweet and higher-ABV. Typically, American cidermakers tried to slow fermentation and stop it early so there would be some residual sugar, and so that the alcohol content would be more like 4% than 7-8%.
For instance, Adams is quoted in McCullough’s biography as saying that the cider at Harvard was “refreshing and salubrious…hard as it often was.”