Online debate continues to swirl around popular musician Lizzo’s decision to play President James Madison’s 1813 crystal flute during a Washington, D.C. concert last month. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “The Meaning of Madison’s Flute: Who Owns Music?” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman argued that Lizzo’s reclamation of the flute showcased the “universality of music,” sparking a conversation about the cultural histories of the banjo, the steelpan, and the turntable. They also stressed that Madison never even played his crystal flute. In contrast to Madison’s seeming ambivalence about his now-controversial instrument, President John Quincy Adams played and pondered the flute throughout his political career – a preoccupation that highlights the myriad emotional valences of the woodwind.

A sense of both great enjoyment and deep unrest ran through John Quincy Adams’ flute-playing from the start. On April 5th, 1786, young Adams, in his first of two years at Harvard and fresh off of a European tour with his father, who was serving as the first American Minister to Great Britain, wrote in his diary: “Cranch went to Boston, bought me a flute.” William Cranch, Adams’ first cousin and classmate, had used a rainy day off from classes to procure the gift.

Three weeks after Cranch’s present, Adams wrote a report of his collegiate day-to-day to his older sister, Abigail “Nabby” Adams Smith. “I have employed my time in reading, writing, and taking lessons on the flute, for you must know we are all turning musicians.” 

Nabby, however, was not at all amused about her brother’s decision, arguing in a July 1786 response that a mutual friend, Charles Warren, had gotten sick and ultimately died from indulging in flute-playing. “You may be assur[e]d that it is extremely injuri[o]us to healhts [sic],” she scrawled to Adams. “I must beg of you to lay it aside and to persuade your Brothers should they be so unwise as to use it to do so likewise.” 

Nabby ended her chiding on a particularly ominous note: “It will be too Late when you feel the ill affects of it as you most certainly will, ere long.” 

Adams did not take his sister’s advice. Instead, he joined the Musical Society of Harvard. The group, however, did not fully satisfy Adams’ desire for musical comradeship. He complained about the ensemble’s issues in a diary entry: “It would not be easy to collect a set of worse instruments than we have, among eight or ten violins and as many flutes there are not more than two or three that will accord together, without scraping and blowing an hour or more, so that we can seldom play more than three or four tunes at a meeting.”

In January 1787–a full six months after she initially expressed concern – Adams looped back with Nabby about his continued hobby. “I must relieve you from your anxiety, concerning the effect [the flute] might have upon my health,” he wrote. “It is now nine months since I first began to blow, and I have never experienced the least bad effect from it.” 

Adams revealed that he had even consulted several medically-inclined contacts about Nabby’s concerns, but that they had reassured him that he could continue. “Unless a person be of a very slender constitution, the moderate use of a flute cannot be hurtful. I have neither time, nor inclination to blow so much as to injure my health.”

Adams continued to play after graduating from Harvard. He studied law under famed Massachusetts jurist Theophilus Parsons at Newburyport. Adams kept a diary throughout his time there, where he wrote, on May 12th, 1788, “I took a long, solitary walk this evening, and then came home, and amused myself, for a half an hour, with my flute.” 

The flute seemed to continue as a primarily relaxing diversion for Adams over the next few years, as he worked tirelessly as a young Boston lawyer. On April 10th, 1792, Adams wrote, very similarly to how he had written four years earlier, “Evening at home. Amused myself with my flute.”

By 1795, however, Adams’ flute-based preoccupations had meandered into tense geopolitical realms. Adams was 27, serving as Minister to Holland and living in The Hague while his father served as Vice President. On March 18th, he attended a dinner with several French representatives. Tempers were still hot over the November 1794 Jay Treaty, a declaration of economic friendship with Great Britain. The French, who were engaged in post-Revolutionary hostilities against the English, detested the agreement. 

One of the Frenchmen, Representative Richard, asked over the tune of a dinner band whether America “had much taste for music.” Adams responded in no uncertain terms: “I told him no; that American Genius was very much addicted to Painting, and we had produced in that Art some of the greatest masters of the Age; but that we had neither cultivated nor were attached much to music.” 

Adams also suggested that, even during the most trying times of the Revolutionary War, American fighters had not managed to craft a song like “La Marseillaise.” 

To further prove his point, Adams revealed his own negative opinions of his abilities on the flute, telling Richard, “If I could be permitted to cite myself as an instance, I am extremely fond of music, and by dint of great pains have learnt to blow very badly the flute.”

In his diary, Adams expressed some degree of sheepishness over his open denigration of both his own talents and American musical might: “I know not whether the Representative Richard finally concluded that I was guilty of debasing the Genius of my Country.”  

He turned things around, however, with a rousingly patriotic interpretation of why America did not yearn for first-rate music: “The American Character needs no speaking-trumpet of Vanity to proclaim its praise. For us the voice of truth and of Justice is enough, and on that ground we shall never dread the test of comparison, with any Nation upon Earth.”

When John Adams won the presidency in 1796, he appointed his son Minister to Prussia. While staying in Teplice (now in the Czech Republic) in August 1799, the younger Adams saw Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, or The Magic Flute. Despite the centrality of his instrument of choice in the mystical plot, Adams wrote that the opera was “very long,” “indifferently performed,” “somewhat tedious,” and “probably taken from some fairy tale.” 

The flute fades somewhat from Adams’ diaries following his posting in Prussia. He joined the Senate in 1803, and did make a reference the following year to desiring an “evening in the garden, or with the flute.” 

As he winded toward becoming Secretary of State and President, Adams passed on his interest in the flute to his children. He wrote in 1815 to his mother, also Abigail, about his eldest son with his wife Louisa, the 14-year-old George Adams, “He studies Homer and Horace and Fencing and the German Flute.”

When Adams took on his father’s one-time role as Ambassador to the United Kingdom, however, the flute came raging back into his life. In the span of less than two months in early 1816, Adams wrote of three seemingly moving flute-related incidents.

The first came on February 3rd, at the Sans Pareil Theater on London’s Strand, where he saw three short plays–Love in a Vintage (“a sort of Ballet,” Adams diaried), The Inscription (“a Melodrame in Rhyme”), and The Witch and the Owl (“a Pantomime with a Harlequin”). Adams again called the performances “indifferent,” but he did like one part of the show: “The most remarkable part of it was the performance of several airs upon the flute, by a boy named Stebbing, only four years old.” 

Next, on February 24th, Adams returned home to his manor outside of London in Ealing, which was dubbed Little Boston House, to find his three young sons listening to three of their schoolmates “playing Symphonies upon the flute.”

Lastly, on March 29th, Adams, Louisa, and George went to excerpts from Handel’s Messiah and Acis and Galatea alongside a Mozart aria at London’s Covent Garden. After the first, famed French flutist Louis Drouet, then only 23, played flute music that overwhelmed Adams, who wrote, “Mr. Drouet, first flute player of the king of France’s chapel, performed a Concerto upon the flute, and surpassed every thing that I had ever heard upon that instrument.”

The bevy of flute attentions that peppered John Quincy Adams’ time in London receded after he returned in 1817 to Washington to serve as President Monroe’s Secretary of State. Later, however, after the tumult of Adams’ presidency, his stinging 1828 loss to populist Andrew Jackson, and the likely suicide the following year of his son George, Adams returned to the discussion of his flute in a new context–Christianity. 

In 1830, as Adams geared up for his political comeback–what became a storied 17-year final act in the House of Representatives–he consulted abolitionist, poet, and Unitarian minister John Pierpont about about whether Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who many Christians believed had predicted Jesus’ birth, had actually offered such a specific prediction. Per Adams: “I asked him if he thought the prophet Isaiah himself had any conception of the application which his prophesy was ultimately to receive; or whether the Prophets were like Hamlet’s flute, which he presents to his associates, and tells them if they will give it breath, and govern its vantages, it would discourse most excellent music.”

Adams’ faith-based invocation of the flute offered yet another use of the instrument as a changeable guide in his adventures and philosophies. From combating Nabby’s anxieties, to playing in his garden, to self-denigrating his skills for the sake of diplomacy, Adams never allowed the music and meaning of the flute to stray too far from his mind. Today, as we continue to reckon with the semiotics of Madison’s flute, remembering the myriad applications of Adams’ instrument may offer a sense of strange continuity. 

Spend some time searching John Quincy Adams’ endlessly entertaining diaries at this Massachusetts Historical Society portal. And check out James Traub’s 2017 John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit for a fascinating character study. 

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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