John Adams: What’s in a nickname?

John Adams got called a lot of names during and beyond his lifetime.

Old Oak. The Colossus of Independence. His Rotundity.

Some were flattering. Some were – not.

One of my favorites could be seen as both. And it speaks to why Adams, at a historic and a human level, is so inspiring.

“Old Sink or Swim.”

It might not have even been attributed to him until after his death – but it certainly was applicable in his life.

The “origin story” for this nickname began with fellow lawyer Jonathan Sewall in 1759. That was the year that Adams met Sewall, who was serving as the Crown’s Attorney General of Massachusetts. They became fast friends, despite their difference of opinions. Sewall and Adams even courted the Quincy sisters, Esther and Hannah.  If Sewall and Esther had not burst into the room where Adams and Hannah were deep in conversation, Hannah might have become Missus John Adams, and the two suitors would have become brothers-in-law! (Esther Quincy later became Missus Jonathan Sewall.)

The lawyers’ main difference was over politics. Sewall was a strong loyalist. Adams had strong reservations regarding British rule.  In 1768, Sewall was asked to offer Adams the vacant post of Advocate General of the Court of Admiralty. It was a lucrative post, and Adams’ family was growing.

Adams said no.

Despite the monetary reward, he felt that “it would lay me under restraints and Obligations that I could not submit to and therefore I could not in honor or Conscience Accept it.” (from Adams’ Autobiography.) Jonathan Sewall paused, and urged his friend to think about it before giving a final answer. A few weeks later, his friend’s opinions and answer had not changed.

These two men’s friendship warmed and cooled again and again – until 1774. John Adams had been chosen to represent Massachusetts in a “Continental Congress” in Philadelphia. While they were both attending Superior Court in the District of Maine, Sewall invited his good friend to take a walk with him. Adams recalled:

In the course of our rambles, he very soon began to remonstrate against my going to Congress. He said, that "Great Britain was determined on her system; her power was irresistible, and would certainly be destructive to me, and to all those who should persevere in opposition to her designs." I answered, "that I knew Great Britain was determined on her system, and that very determination determined me on mine; that he knew I had been constant and uniform in opposition to all her measures; that the die was now cast; I had passed the Rubicon; swim or sink, live or die, survive or perish with my country, was my unalterable determination." (from an introduction to a printing of Novanglus by Adams, January 1, 1819.)

Adams had a feeling that this was the end of their friendship; their goodbye was the “sharpest thorn on which I ever set my foot.”

Adams’ determination to ensure his countrymen’s liberties – even at the price of his career, his friendships – gives an even greater underscore to the inspiring efforts of “Old Sink or Swim.”

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About the Author

The "founding father" of Historic Experience. Peyton is an actor-historian with over 15 years experience as a John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt interpreter, impersonator, speaker, or whatever descriptor speaks to you. Peyton Dixon is based in central New Jersey and travels across the country bringing American history to life.