What the First 5 Presidents Taught Me About Raising My Newborn Daughter

3 presidential lessons that made fatherhood slightly less terrifying
I’m five books into my quest to read a biography of every president in chronological order. I’ve read about Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and I’m finishing up Monroe now. My already slow progress ground to a halt six weeks ago when my wife and I welcomed our first child, Emerson Paige, into the world.

Now instead of learning about the Jay Treaty and the War of 1812, I’m reading What to Expect in the First Year and asking the internet stuff like "newborn eyes roll back in head normal?" (normal).

The reading and blogging part of me must adapt as I acclimate to this new world of sleep deprivation, diapers, feedings, and a surreal sense of disbelief and awe that this beautiful creature is here to stay and my identity and priorities must shift. Forever.

Stealing moments as both daughter and mother sleep to write this, I reflected on the lessons I gleaned from the first five presidents that I’m applying to raising my newborn daughter – the do’s and don’ts of what it means to be a father of 8 pounds of an utterly dependent micro-human waiting to be shaped by my love and neuroses.

These are the 3 main lessons I’ve learned.

1. Be there.

It’s getting easy to be there when she’s making eye contact or showing early attempts to smile, or sleeping in my arms. It’s harder to be there when she’s wailing at the top of her lungs, spitting up like some kind of milk volcano, or writhing in gassy pain when we just want her to sleep. Those are the times I want to tap out and pass her to mommy or any halfway trustworthy-looking stranger nearby.

Reading about the early presidents was more of a lesson in what not to do when it came to being there for my daughter. The first presidents (except Washington and Madison who had no children of their own but both had disappointing stepsons) spent much of their pre-presidential years in Europe as ambassadors and diplomats. That meant missing out on much of the formative years of their young children's lives.

John Adams spent years in Europe away from his family. The son he took with him, John Quincy, went on to become president and lived to 80. The son he spent less time with, Charles, died of alcoholism at 30. I wonder what difference it would have made if John had been there alongside Abigail to steer Charles in the right direction. Those sons seem like extreme ends of the stick, and I’d like to think there’s a happy medium in there somewhere that will allow my daughter to be a successful social drinker.

After serving in France for years, Thomas Jefferson finally brought his 9-year-old daughter Polly over to join him and she didn’t even recognize him. The poor girl was torn from her home against her will, put on a boat for weeks, and finally delivered to a man she didn’t know. As painful as that was for her, I wonder how Jefferson felt when they reunited and he saw no love in her eyes. I understand service to one's country still separates families, but I could never handle being a stranger to my child.

I started thinking being apart from your young children was normal, essential even, if you wanted to be politically successful in the early 1800s. Then I read about James Monroe. Even though he was sent to Europe multiple times, he always brought his wife and daughter with him – where he went, they went, as a family. He gives me hope that work-life balance is achievable for my wife and I who want to be equal parents and providers.

Monroe also died penniless after a lifetime of public service and needed his children's help to support himself at the end. So the real takeaway for us might be Be there...and have a 401(k). 

2. Learn to love poop.

American farmers like George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were among the first to use manure as fertilizer. They knew its value, and fully understood the dung concoction was something to be studied, cultivated, and revered. John Adams even had a recipe for it in his diary. If I still lived in the Midwest with easy access to all the ingredients, I might have tried to recreate it in an attempt to copy the model of the popular Julie & Julia blog.

It involved freezing over the winter and thawing it in the spring – this recipe was serious shit.
I've recently learned the value and variety of newborn poop. The dark horror came upon us immediately, in the hospital. Most babies have one or two “meconium” stools their first day – a black, tarry substance that’s the product of swallowing amniotic fluid in the womb. My daughter had eight. Eight. Her bowels expelled enough tarry goop to trap a family of wooly mammoths for millennia. She must have passed through the vaginal canal like Pacman, gulping the whole way down.

Now I've learned to have a love-hate relationship with her poop. Once the maternity nurses showed me how, changing her diapers was one of the few times I actually knew what to do with her in those first days; my purpose was as clear as her diapers were soiled. It's actually a relief now to open those Pampers and see a big load because it means she's digesting her food and growing and thriving, and her awful gas pain has a real, solvable cause.

When George Washington was looking for a farm manager, he said he wanted “above all, Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold.” My newborn definitely has that Midas touch, but her poop doesn’t look like gold. On the best of days, it looks like basil pesto. On the worst of days, it looks like basil pesto sprayed five feet across the room. She's too young to draw pictures or make macaroni art; poop is all she has to give at this point and she's incredibly generous.

3. Read.

We may get through this biography project sooner than I thought.
The Founding Fathers weren’t born with the innate ability to lead men or found a country. Carving a successful republic out of a monarchy was a new and momentous endeavor, but they weren't flying completely blind. They were extremely well-read on the subjects of Greek, Roman, and English government and Enlightenment philosophy which guided the Constitution. They took advantage of the vast body of knowledge already out there and let it inform their decisions.

Parenting should be approached the same way.

I know (and I’ve heard a million times) that no book can prepare you for what it’s like having a baby. You don't say? I’ve had books that were so good they kept me up at night, but that was on my terms, not at random intervals for weeks straight sucking out my soul.

Obviously real-life experience is different from the advice and warnings you read about, but books have armed me and my wife with knowledge that gives us an inkling of what's normal and helped us form some kind of plan. There is no “what feels right” in the moment when everything is tortuous and you're plagued with deranged insecurity. You can go ahead and wing it, but I’m diving headfirst into Harvey Karp's 5 S's of calming a crying baby and binge-read babycenter.com. Even if our eat-play-sleep plan is literally shit all over by our strong-willed baby, it helps us feel a little less helpless.

All the books in the world won't stop us from making our own mistakes with our poopy little nation-state, but I'd like to avoid some mistakes other people already made. I know my wife and I aren't founding a country, but we’re raising a human being and sometimes it feels like the same thing.

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Thomas Jefferson's Head, Heart, and Wrist

The dangerous liaison that broke Thomas Jefferson's heart 
– and wrist.
Detail of Thomas Jefferson, circa 1786 by Mather Brown
America was a fledgling nation in the autumn of 1786, post-Revolution but pre-Constitution, and plagued by the revolt known as Shays' Rebellion. 3500 miles away, serving as the American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson was getting busy with his own rebellion.

Jefferson's rebellion was not ignited by a band of angry citizens, but by a single woman: Maria Cosway. The battleground was his own head and heart, and the casualties numbered two broken hearts and one broken wrist.

Maria Luisa Caterina Cecilia Hadfield Cosway was such a total package of sexiness and brilliance that she needed six names. With eyes as blue as violets, curly golden hair, a slim figure, and (according to biographer Dumas Malone) "kissable" pouting lips, Maria Cosway was the perfect femme fatale.

She spoke several languages, played and composed music, and was raised in Florence as a real-life Catholic school girl. When she was young, an insane nursemaid murdered four of her siblings but was caught before she could get to Maria. I’m pretty sure God stepped in and said, “Not that one! I want to watch her sexy life play out. Go forth, hot Maria, and drive men crazy.”

Just how hot was Maria Cosway? This is a painting of her:
that she painted herself. On top of her other talents, she was also an accomplished artist. And judging by her pose, she is not amused by the way you're objectifying her.

Thomas Jefferson's wife Martha had died four years earlier, and he grieved inconsolably for months before accepting an appointment to France to remove himself from the pain. He was sightseeing in Paris when his friend John Trumbull (painter of the famous fantasy version of the signing of the Declaration of Independence) changed his life forever by introducing him to Maria Cosway.

There were instant sparks. The 43-year-old widower called the sight of the 26-year-old bombshell "the most superb thing on earth." The electricity was mutual. Plans were canceled on both sides so Jefferson could spend the rest of the day with Maria...and her husband.

Unfortunately, Maria was married, to the famous miniature artist Richard Cosway. But you shouldn't waste any pity on him, because no one else ever did. Contemporaries describe Richard as an absurd, ridiculous little man who cheated on Maria with other women (and men) and looked "very like a monkey in the face."

Richard Cosway probably toned down his monkeyness in this self-portrait, but the resemblance is clear.
After their meeting, Thomas and Maria spent nearly every day together (without Richard) taking in all that France had to offer. And, quite possibly, making sweet Parisian love. Several biographers insist their romance was never consummated, but that old stalwart Dumas Malone wrote, “Illicit love-making was generally condoned in that society…if he as a widower ever engaged in it, this was the time.” Malone seems to yell back though time, “Now’s your chance, TJ!

Their frolicking came to a sudden, painful end around September 8, 1786 when Jefferson somehow broke his right wrist. We know very little about the cause of the injury due to Jefferson's mysterious secrecy, but he was almost certainly with Maria at the time.

When a friend asked him how it happened, Jefferson wrote back with his left hand:
How the right hand became disabled would be a long story for the left to tell. It was by one of those follies from which good cannot come, but ill may. As yet I have no use of that hand, and as the other is an awkward scribe, I must be sententious and not waste words.
What a long-winded way of saying “It’s none of your business.” I wouldn’t accept a non-answer like that. I’d write back saying, “Listen, Tommy. I didn’t ask you to waste words, and I didn’t ask you to wax poetic either. I asked how you broke your damn wrist. Could your left hand maybe string together three or four words into a complete thought? ‘Fell off skateboard’ or ‘Texting, didn’t see manhole.’"

But that's the only explanation we have in Jefferson's words about what happened, and it's worse than no explanation because he's so damn coy about it, practically teasing that it's a really great story he's not telling.

So what’s the truth behind this wrist mystery, or wristery, if you will? (I understand if you won’t.) There are a few possibilities.

William Franklin (Ben’s son) wrote that Jefferson “dislocated his right wrist when attempting to jump over a fence in the Petit Cours.” This led historians to believe Jefferson may have been jumping a fence to greet Maria or impress her. An odd mistranslation in a subsequent letter changed the fence into both a fountain and a “large kettle,” so some sources believe Jefferson broke his wrist trying to jump over a tea pot. Unless Jefferson was tea-bagging the fence when he broke his wrist, I’m not sure how you could confuse a fence with a kettle. Something is awry.

The Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris had another theory. The filmmakers must have thought fences and kettles were too…iron or something, so they imagined Jefferson broke his wrist while trying to impress Maria in another way. By jumping over a pile of logs.

Maybe they forgot to add the special effect of a raging bonfire or something, or maybe I just don't understand what it takes to impress 18th century women. I'd love to imagine Maria and Thomas strolling through the French countryside and her saying, "So you regurgitated John Locke and wrote the Declaration of Independence? That don't impress me much. How 'bout jumpin' them logs?"

Jefferson logging out.
In spite of his failure to complete whatever folly no good could come from, Maria still loved him. When her monkey finished his painting gig and made her go back to England, it was heartbreaking for both her and the injured Jefferson to part. “We shall go I believe this morning,” she wrote him. “Nothing seems ready, but Mr. Cosway seems more dispos’d than I have seen him all this time…It will be with infinite pleasure I shall remember the charming days we have past together, and shall long for next spring.”

Jefferson’s heartbreak inspired him to write an epic love letter to Maria – his famous Dialogue of the Head and the Heart. Writing “slowly & awkwardly” with his left hand, he cranked out 12 pages of a playful, passionate chat between his head and his heart. His head was upset with his heart for letting them get too involved with Maria, but his heart reveled in the memory of the experiences while they lasted. He said in 4000 words what Alfred, Lord Tennyson said in 14 words sixty years later, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

He should have just kept his best quotes and sent her a PowerPoint deck instead.

Jefferson told Maria he was no connoisseur of art, just "a son of nature, loving what I see and feel."
For this reason I believe he would have loved Clip Art. Loved it.
Jefferson asked Maria to read his magnum opus in at least six sittings, each morning “at toilette.” I was excited at first, thinking that’s exactly how I read my mail, but then I realized he was actually referring to her daily hairdressing.

She didn’t take his advice. “I could not resist the desire to read it at once,” she wrote, “even at the cost of committing an act of disobedience. Forgive me, the crime merits it... I honestly think my heart is…full or ready to burst with all the variety of sentiments… Oh, Sir, if my correspondence equaled yours how perfect it would be!”

Other men pale in comparison to Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson’s head is supposed to represent logic and reason, but it comes off as melodramatic and grumpy. His heart swerves from savoring every moment to wanting to throw itself off a bridge. So basically, Thomas Jefferson was human.

This letter gives us a glimpse into a humanity and self-awareness of his own contradictions we don’t see anywhere else. Jefferson is famous and fascinating for his contradictions – fighting for states’ rights vs. expanding federal power, writing about abolishing slavery vs. living off of it, appearing above the political fray while being deeply entrenched in it. His life was a battle between what he thought ideal and what he thought necessary.

Unlike his letters with the late Martha which he burned, Jefferson carefully saved his copy of this letter for posterity. The always-calculating man who cared so much about his image wanted us to see both sides of him – his intelligence and his passion – and the mad literary skills it took to poetically pit these contradictory parts of himself against each other.

Or maybe he just wanted to show off how well he could write with his left hand.

Thomas Jefferson's left-handed writing is clearly superior to my own.
Jefferson set a very high standard with the Dialogue of the Head and the Heart, one even he couldn't live up to. Upset with the comparable shortness of Jefferson’s subsequent letters, Maria scolded him, “Are you to be painted in future ages sitting solitary and sad, on the beautiful Monticello tormented by the shadow of a woman who will present you a deformed rod, twisted and broken…” He may have been tormented by her and his wrist may have been a deformed rod, but he was not "solitary" when he returned to Monticello. In fact, it was just a few months later that Jefferson’s 8-year-old daughter Polly arrived in France with her maid, the 14-year-old slave known as Sally Hemings.

The following year, Jefferson wrote Maria a letter that may have alluded to his scandalous liaison with the young Sally. He described a beautiful painting he saw called "Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham" where a nude slave woman is presented to Abraham to birth his children. He called the painting "delicious" and said he would have gladly taken Abraham's place.

Detail of Adriaen van der Werff's Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham
He wrote this after the start of his relationship with Hemings, the slave woman who would go on to bear several of his children and serve him for the rest of his life. If Jefferson already found the idea of being with a slave "delicious," he may have found Sally even more tempting, as it's likely she resembled Jefferson's late wife, Martha. Because (are you sitting down?) Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings had the same father.

Excuse me a moment, I have to write a letter back in time.
Dear Pulitzer-Prize winning Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone,
When you referred to Maria Cosway and said if Jefferson ever engaged in illicit love-making “this was the time,” I think you were a little off. I know the compelling DNA evidence that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children didn’t come out until 1998, and you yourself passed away in 1986, but I wanted to send this letter back in time to tell you the good news about Thomas Jefferson.

It turns out his only chance at illicit love-making was not just in the fall of 1786 with Maria Cosway! That is, of course, if you consider “illicit love-making” to include intercourse with your 15-year-old slave who also happens to be your dead wife’s half-sister. If you do, then there were actually many, many more times over 40 years. If you don’t consider that to be illicit love-making (and instead consider it, say, rape), then yes, Maria was probably his best opportunity for naughty intercourse.

Your most humble servant,
Nobody ever painted Sally Hemings's portrait. She wasn’t an accomplished artist or a celebrated member of high society, and she may not have known how to read or write. But she was a product of Jefferson’s beloved home and reminded him of his late wife.

The relationship or at least its formation is as inexcusable as the institution of slavery itself, but the choice makes sense for the man who said life was about avoiding pain and he couldn't bear parting with those he loved. Maria could never be his and her departure left him “overwhelmed with grief.” That pain could be avoided with Sally, who was his and his alone.

His relationship with Sally Hemings didn’t stop Jefferson from thinking about Maria. Just before his departure from Europe, he wrote to her, “I am going to America and you are going to Italy. One of us is going the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong that leads us further apart.”

In 1789 Jefferson returned to America to serve as the first Secretary of State under George Washington. Back in Europe, Maria’s marriage to Richard Cosway was annulled. How and why is unclear, but things went downhill for our monkey friend after that. He went insane and spent most of his time in institutions after he lost the use of his right hand. His right hand.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that two men who were intimate with Maria ended up with similar grave injuries, but I don’t want to rule anything out so I’ll add it to the list.

After leaving a trail of limp-wristed men in her wake, Maria went on to found a convent in Italy. She lived there for the rest of her life and served as its director. She and Jefferson continued corresponding sporadically until his death.

Each kept these images of the other in their homes.

The engraving of Maria Cosway (by her husband Richard) still hangs in Monticello today. The miniature of Jefferson now resides in the White House, a gift to the American people from the Italian government.

Jefferson soon regained the use of his right hand for writing, but not much else. French surgeons botched the setting of the bone, and the injury never completely healed. The pain served as a lifelong reminder of Maria Cosway, the breaker of hearts and wrists whom he loved with his head and his heart – a woman who could not be owned.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham, Jefferson and the Rights of Man by Dumas Malone, Jefferson: A Revealing Biography by Page Smith, John Adams by David McCullough, Head and Heart Letter on pbs.org, Monticello.org, Richard Cosway, "The Macaroni Miniature Painter" from The Art Amateur, Vol. 8, No. 2 (January 1883), The Franklin Papers

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Thomas Jefferson's 7 Step Guide to Successful Emails

Applying Jefferson's Letter-Writing Skills To Your Outbox
Thomas Jefferson never actually wrote emails, but he did write 19,000 letters. With inflation, that's almost 260,000 emails today.
In his biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Jon Meacham looked at a particular letter from 1775 where Jefferson used his mastery of language and manipulation to turn an opponent into a strategic asset. 

Blood had already been spilled in the Revolutionary War, and Jefferson's Loyalist cousin John Randolph was packing his bags for the motherland. Using his letter-writing kung-fu, Jefferson wrote his king-loving cousin what seemed like a friendly personal note but was in truth a shrewd political play to change Britain's perception of America.

I dig deeper into that letter to uncover the psychological techniques Jefferson employed two hundred years ago, and I lay them out in a step-by-step manual you can use today in emails, instant messages, and texts. Following Jefferson's lead, it's possible to not only get others to do what you want, but like it.

Step 1: Ask about something they love.

Jefferson started his letter by bringing up Randolph’s fine violin, which he was selling to Jefferson, and recommending material to wrap it. This created an instant feeling of familiarity and connection much more effective than a generic “hope you’re doing well,” and it was a nice disarming move that subtly said we care about the same things, so we must be on the same side.

This tactic isn’t about fooling anyone. People know when you’re writing because you want something, but making that extra effort upfront to connect with them personally will put them in a better mood to give it to you.

When to ask about something they love:
● If it’s been a while since you’ve written and you want to set a friendly tone.
● When you want to hide your sociopathic lack of interest in other humans.

When not to do this:
● When your message is so short it seems insincere: “Hi Steve, how's your indoor soccer league doing? Can I have one of your kidneys?”

Step 2: Pretend you don’t want to get involved.

Like George Washington and Michael Jordan, one of Jefferson's greatest skills was false retirement. He told Randolph his second wish (his first being a restoration of America’s just rights) was:
“a return of the happy period, when, consistently with duty, I may withdraw myself totally from the public stage, and pass the rest of my days in domestic ease and tranquility, banishing every desire of ever hearing what passes in the world.”
That was total bullshit. This was a year before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and 26 years before he became president. He very much wanted to get involved, but to be a successful politician back then you had to pretend you wanted nothing to do with politics and all you really wanted to do was farm.

Thomas Jefferson loved to watch his slaves farm.
You can enjoy the benefits of this attitude too, because nothing lends a greater illusion of importance and objectivity to your message than acting like you didn’t want to have to write it in the first place. Circumstances required you to step in and take action. You're a reluctant hero, like John McClane in Die Hard. Or better yet, Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, who is actually a perfect metaphor for Jefferson's political career. Both groaned "I'm too old for this shit" when they still had at least three sequels ahead of them.

When to pretend you don't want to get involved:
● When it’s bad news or not really your business but you can’t help yourself.

When not to do this:
● Thank you notes and cover letters.

Step 3: Set out to clear up confusion.

The world is a scary and confusing place. Or it was until you came along, Reluctant Hero. By stepping in and declaring, “I just want to clear up any confusion” or “I want to make sure everyone’s on the same page,” you offer everyone a beacon of hope guiding them to the safe haven of your Utopian world of understanding and clarity. Of course what you’re really saying is, “This is all just a misunderstanding that can be cleared up by you doing what I say.”

Jefferson’s entire purpose was to clear up Britain’s confusion and make sure they knew America was totally united and totally badass:
“I think it must be evident to yourself, that the Ministry have been deceived by their officers on this side of the water, who (for what purpose I cannot tell) have constantly represented the American opposition as that of a small faction, in which the body of the people took little part. This, you can inform them, of your own knowledge, is untrue. They have taken it into their heads, too, that we are cowards, and shall surrender at discretion to an armed force. The past and future operations of the war must confirm or undeceive them on that head.”
He wanted Randolph to pass on the message that America was a serious threat, but he did it by presenting himself like a wise family doctor prescribing a gentle laxative: friendly, knowledgeable, and there to help because you’re full of crap.

When to clear up confusion:
● When misperceptions might be hurting you.
● When an email chain becomes so tangled and confusing it needs a reset.
● When the strength of your revolutionary forces are underestimated.

When not to do this:
● When you could achieve the same thing by saying nothing.

Step 4: Stress how they are the chosen one.

After buttering his cousin up with fancy violin talk and making it clear his cause was important enough to stop farming and pick up his pen, Jefferson focused on what he wanted Randolph to do. He told him, “looking with fondness towards a reconciliation with Great Britain, I cannot help hoping you may be able to contribute towards expediting this good work.” Positive words like fondness, reconciliation, and good elevate Jefferson's real message of "Be my willing pawn and do my bidding, quickly."

Singling out your recipient and letting them know exactly what to do is key. This is why I’ve never started a forest fire; Smokey the Bear was very specific about my role in preventing them, and I was so flattered he recognized my special talent for not committing arson that I continue to oblige him to this day.

Jefferson was telling Randolph, “Only you can prevent revolutionary wars.” Spoiler alert: Randolph couldn't pull that off. But he did manage to get Jefferson's letter to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies. Through flattery, manipulation, and the keen ability to predict his audience's response, Jefferson got a personal letter to his cousin all the way up the ranks of the British empire.

When to stress they are the chosen one:
● When you want one person to do something they’re uniquely positioned to do but might not realize it.

When not to do this:
● When it’s already obvious how they can help and restating it makes you look like an idiot for telling them what their job is.

Step 5: Lay out the stakes, and the consequences.

Jefferson expressed his desire for Randolph to spread the word about America's unity and strength. Now, he had to explain why this was necessary. He did that by making it clear what hung in the balance – Britain’s place on top of the world:
“it will, perhaps, be in your power…to render service to the whole empire, at the most critical time, certainly, that it has ever seen. Whether Britain shall continue the head of the greatest empire on earth, or shall return to her original station in the political scale of Europe, depends, perhaps, on the resolutions of the succeeding winter.”
If you’re asking for something important, your audience wants to know why it’s important to you, what's in it for them, and what's at stake. Jefferson made it clear helping him meant helping Britain, too, and that reconciliation (still a possibility at that point) was in everyone’s best interest. But, Jefferson warned, if it wasn’t the kind of hands-off reconciliation he wanted, he “would lend my hand to sink the whole Island in the ocean.”

Also money. Oh, and cannons! Money and cannons, those are very important. And ships, too. But the ships had cannons on them, so do I count both? Actually the ships probably had everything else on them, too. So there we have it: money, cannons, and ships, plus what's in the picture. Those are the weapons that won the American Revolution.
Your stakes and consequences may vary. If it’s a corporate email you can stress the impact on the bottom line. How much money can this initiative save? How much revenue is at risk if this project isn’t completed? How old is Danny Glover, and does that number truly exceed the maximum value for this shit?

When to lay out the stakes and consequences:
● If the stakes aren’t already clear, or you have compelling reasons for asking for something that won’t make you look bad.

When not to do this:
● Don’t threaten people or give them ultimatums in writing. That’s best handled in unrecorded conversations.
● Love letters. People are much more attracted to confidence than a list of bad things that could happen if they won't go out with you.

Step 6: Ask a small favor.

This tip might be the easiest and most effective if done right.

In the post-script of his letter, Jefferson changes the subject completely by asking if Randolph might be willing to sell him some of his books: “P.S. My collection of classics, & of books of parliamentary learning particularly is not so complete as I could wish. As you are going to the land of literature & of books you may be willing to dispose of some of yours here & replace them there in better editions.”

What he is really doing is employing a psychological phenomenon later known as the Ben Franklin effect. As Franklin put it in his autobiography, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” Franklin recounted how he completely won the favor of a political rival by asking him to borrow a “certain very scarce and curious book” from his library.

Two things are clear from these examples – 1) books are powerful things, and 2) our country owes its existence to some brilliant conniving bastards.

People love doing things for others when it’s easy, and especially when it appeals to their intellectual vanity. The thinking goes that if you do something nice for someone, your brain tells you that you must like them. You can try this technique, sparingly, to help people associate doing things for you with warm fuzzies.

When to ask a small favor:
● With people you haven’t dealt with much directly, so you can shape their perception of you.
● If you’re borrowing something you know you’re going to take care of and return promptly.

When not to do this:
● When the favor doesn’t require their unique resources or knowledge.
● If the favor involves driving you to the airport. That's not giving anyone warm fuzzies.

Step 7: Remove salt and add sugar.

In Jefferson’s time, people made two copies of every letter – one to send and one to keep. By the time they wrote the second copy, they had a chance to rethink their words. Jon Meacham found that Jefferson deleted an “interesting threat” from the version he sent off.

If Britain took over the existing colonies, Jefferson said it could “mean the dereliction of our lower Country and establishment beyond the mountains.” The sentence was likely cut because the if-Britain-wins contingency wasn’t relevant to his main purpose, and threatening to run for the hills didn’t sound very badass.

Whenever I’m writing an important email, I always add the recipient’s email address last. That way there’s no way I can possibly screw up and send the email before I’m finished with the final stage: sugarcoating. This is your chance to remove anything that’s not relevant to your main point and soften any harshness or emotion that could overshadow your objective.

Sugarcoating isn’t about watering down your message – it’s about managing your audience’s reactions. You don’t want to sound angry, and you don’t want to make the other person angry. Whether you’re removing the profanity from an office email or proofreading your fiancee’s passive-aggressive texts to her mother during the wedding planning process, your life will be easier when you realize anger doesn’t get things done. You might think, “sure it does, people do what I want when I yell at them!” Maybe they do, but guess what? They hate you, and there are a billion things they’re not doing for you because you’re an asshole.

Jefferson knew the pen was mightier than the sword and must be wielded responsibly.
Thomas Jefferson cared too much about his popularity to alienate others in writing. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to say something truly nasty, you can always do what he did – have James Madison or someone else say it for you.

When to sugarcoat:
● Always.

When not to do this:
● Never. If your message is important, it deserves better than your first draft.

Sources: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
Jefferson the Virginian by Dumas Malone 

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The Earthquake That Drowned Thomas Jefferson's Sister

The mysterious death of Elizabeth Jefferson
The Rivanna River ©Scott Clark
On the afternoon of February 21, 1774, Virginia was rocked by the first earthquake in its recorded history. Somewhere between a 6.5 and 7.5 magnitude, it was strong enough to rip buildings from their foundations. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson wrote that it “shook the houses so sensibly that every body run out of doors.”

We don’t know how much the shaking may have startled Jefferson’s little sister Elizabeth, who disappeared after the quake. What we do know, according to Jefferson’s account book, is that she was found three days later and buried eleven days after that.

After reading about her death in Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, I wanted to know everything I could about this story that had all the makings of a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-style family mystery – a bizarre disaster, a missing sister, even a body of water!

What I found was that only a few scant details survived. What surprised me even more was how that didn’t stop two biographers – one a Pulitzer Prize winner – from sensationalizing the facts with their own scintillating details. These authors also jumped to some egregiously shaky conclusions about Elizabeth Jefferson's life and death.


One tantalizing piece of evidence we have about 30-year-old Elizabeth indicates she was “feeble minded.” Most of what we know about her comes from a single letter written almost a hundred years after her death.

Jefferson’s great-granddaughter Sarah Randolph was writing a book about him based on letters and family memories, and she wrote to family friend Wilson Miles Cary about Elizabeth’s death. He responded, “I have always understood that she was very feeble minded if not an idiot – that she and her maid drowned together while attempting to cross the Rivanna in a skiff.”

Jefferson's Monticello is located just across the Rivanna River from Shadwell, his birthplace and the home of his sister in 1774.
Randolph didn’t speculate on whether an earthquake or a boating accident killed her great-great aunt. Her book’s only mention of Elizabeth was that she was “rather deficient in intellect.” That sounds positively flattering compared to the way later biographers reveled in playing up her mental limitations.

This includes Page Smith, author of Thomas Jefferson: A Revealing Biography. Smith plugged Cary’s “very feeble minded if not an idiot” quote into his tawdry thesaurus and decided the best possible way to describe Elizabeth was by saying she was “perilously close to being mentally retarded.”

Is it just me, or does that sound way worse than plain old retarded? Smith’s book came out in 1976, so perhaps he was too perilously close to missing his Bicentennial deadline to rein in the adverbs.

A more famous Jefferson biographer, Dumas Malone, also danced ineptly around Elizabeth’s intelligence in his Pulitzer Prize winning six-volume “Jefferson and His Time.”
Whether [Jefferson’s mother Jane] exhausted herself in bearing Thomas, or there was some mishap in the delivery, the child she bore just after him was subnormal. The later story of this unfortunate girl can wait, but at least it can be said here that Elizabeth Jefferson afforded little companionship to her well-endowed brother.
Jefferson was so damn brilliant, you see, that his mother was simply exhausted after pushing out his giant well-endowed brain. So exhausted that the “unfortunate girl” who fell from her loins a year later couldn’t possibly provide any companionship to the extraordinary Thomas Jefferson, by far the best thing that ever came out of Jane Jefferson’s tired vagina.

Years later as president, Jefferson had a pet mockingbird named Dick who would follow him around the house, eat from his mouth, and make music with him. Dick was his “constant companion." Just to be clear, Malone couldn't imagine Thomas finding any companionship with his subnormal sister, but Dick the Bird was just the ticket.

The irony of a brainiac future president having a mentally challenged sister was just too great for these writers to resist. The problem is the evidence is so miniscule – a letter written a century after her death, and the fact that Jefferson handled his sister’s finances. His account books show he had to check with the executors of their father’s estate to approve purchases ensuring she “should be well dressed.” This would be an unusual arrangement for a typical adult woman, but it surely doesn’t mean she was bad company.

What these exaggerations from Smith and Malone insinuate but never directly ask is the question that makes this story so compelling. Did Elizabeth Jefferson’s intellectual disability have something to do with her death? Maybe that's what Smith meant by “perilously close” – she didn’t fully qualify for the R word, but she was impaired enough to be a walking time bomb.

But even if Elizabeth’s limitations somehow led to her death, it doesn’t explain how her maid (presumably of typical intelligence) also managed to drown in an earthquake. The maid’s odd presence solely in Cary’s letter makes me wonder if she ever existed at all. Jefferson never mentioned finding and burying anyone but his sister. If Elizabeth was disabled, it might seem neglectful to leave her unattended. If she ran off by herself and ended up dead, rumors of neglect could be avoided by saying her trusty maid was with her the whole time. With the fictional caretaker off the map, no one could refute the story.


Another mystery in this family drama is what exactly Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote in his account book, “My sister Elizabeth was found last Thursday being Feb. 24.” Page Smith was one of the first biographers to connect the earthquake to Elizabeth’s death, and he gleefully filled in his own details about Elizabeth’s state:
On February 21, 1774, Monticello was shaken by a strong earthquake, which drove everyone from the house. In the excitement Jefferson’s afflicted sister, Elizabeth, then in her thirtieth year, disappeared. It was two days before she was found, more dead than alive. She died a few days later and was buried in the family plot near Dabney Carr.
I have to admire Smith's style. He knows history can only be recounted with the action-packed language of Lifetime TV movie titles like Shaken, Disappeared, and Buried or awesome band names like "Afflicted Sister."

But Smith’s most outrageous phrase, and the literary darling he should have killed, is "more dead than alive." Because it’s completely pulled out of his ass. It can only be a guess based on the ambiguity of Jefferson’s notes – was Elizabeth dead or alive when she was “found” on February 24th? Smith didn't know, so he hedged his bets on some quasi-state of being that's more bullshit that fact.

One problem with the killer earthquake story is that we can't even be sure Elizabeth's death happened after the quake. An entry in the family prayer book believed to have been written by Jefferson himself listed the date of her death as January 1, 1773 – 14 months earlier than his account book. If he couldn't nail that down, what hope do we have of piecing together a few disparate notes?

Jon Meacham, also a Pulitzer-winner, had the same source material as Malone and Smith, but wisely chose not to embellish the supposed facts. He wrote:
In the furor, Elizabeth Jefferson, Thomas’s reputedly mentally disabled sister, disappeared from Shadwell. She was found, dead, three days later, after apparently drowning in the Rivanna.
If the cause of death choices were a) earthquake or b) drowning, Meacham chose c) all of the above. But with qualifying words like “reputedly” and “apparently” he's really saying "seriously though, who the hell knows?"

I'd like to imagine a scenario where everything fits together, but I have trouble with an earthquake strong enough to shake someone out of a boat later that day. Throw in the slave maid and it's even more implausible, like an all-female version of Huckleberry Finn with the ending from Thelma and Louise. As titillating as it sounds, the earthquake to drowning sequence is just too hard to swallow as anything but a possible coincidence.


I used to think biographers were bound by facts, but using facts as a springboard to jump to conclusions sounds way more fun. I want in on this game.

Let me take a look at one of the primary sources for this story – Thomas Jefferson’s account book for March 1774. Like my biographer friends above, I'll do my best to take a closer look at the facts and then distort them.
From Dumas Malone's "Jefferson the Virginian."
From these entries we know when Elizabeth was found, when she was buried, and that the Rivanna River was flooding.

But take another look at the top two notes:
I don’t know how much Elizabeth Jefferson weighed, but I’m guessing it was perilously close to 118 pounds.

Clearly, Elizabeth Jefferson – the feeble-minded girl who Dumas Malone felt had less value to her family than a bird – ended life as a grisly (and gristly) gift from Thomas Jefferson to his unsuspecting mother.

So there you have it. I found two pieces of evidence and connected them to come up with a salacious theory. I’m not sure what happens next. Do I have to reach out to the people at Pulitzer, or will they just leave my award in the comments?

Unfortunately, the only undisputed fact here is that we’ll never know exactly what happened to Elizabeth Jefferson. The truth is likely buried along with her in the Monticello cemetery, and that might be how her family wanted it. Maybe it was too painful for them to write about, or maybe they felt some need to cover up whatever tragedy occurred that winter. Every family has secrets, and this was the South, where they have to use armoires because their closets are so full of skeletons.

Questions like this are part of what makes history so thrilling to me. Even though I’m hopelessly addicted to having instant access to answers at my fingertips, I also love a good unsolved mystery. Especially one I can really sink my teeth into.

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Thomas Jefferson's Deleted Scenes from the Declaration of Independence

Some of "the best" bits that didn't make the final cut.
Clippy was a Loyalist.

Thomas Jefferson is famous for writing the Declaration of Independence, but the final version Congress passed was not the version he submitted. Nearly a quarter of his words were cut. Jefferson referred to the edits as "mutilations" and John Adams said “they obliterated some of the best of it.”


To understand what was cut out and why, it’s helpful to think of those passages as deleted scenes and the Declaration itself as a Hollywood film. Thomas Jefferson was the hot young writer, Congress was the bureaucratic studio, John Adams was the passionate director, and Benjamin Franklin was the old producer trying to keep everyone on track and lounging around on the casting couch.

There was a lot riding on this production. The Declaration was meant to encourage weary soldiers, convince fence-sitters of the king’s tyranny, and attract foreign allies to America's aid. It needed to thrill and chill its audience like a summer blockbuster and inspire them like heart-wrenching Oscar-bait.

It had to be a critically-acclaimed populist propaganda film that played well domestically and internationally – Die Hard, Schindler's List, and Field of Dreams all in one. The pressure was on for Jefferson.

One of the parts he hated most was getting notes. It's frustrating process for any writer which can involve months of trying to please various people while maintaining a shred of creative integrity. For Thomas Jefferson, the process was condensed into one grueling night in the Pennsylvania State House where he writhed in silent discomfort as his masterpiece was eviscerated before his eyes.

John Adams vehemently defended Jefferson’s script, “fighting tirelessly for every word,” but Congress had final cut and multiple interests to serve.


Many changes were minor and served only to make the declaration slightly less incendiary. I go through a similar process with my emails, doing one last pass before sending to soften phrases like “screw you” to “best regards.”

Instead of saying they must “expunge” their former system of government, Congress changed it to “alter.” The King’s “unremitting” injuries became “repeated.” Even the very first sentence was toned down. Jefferson’s draft said “When, in the order of human events, it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained…” which was tweaked to “…it becomes necessary for a people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another.”

Jefferson's intro evoked Tim Robbins basking in the rain after his triumphant prison break in The Shawshank Redemption, and they watered it down to Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz saying, "I'll miss you most of all, Scarecrow." It’s kind of amazing the whole Declaration of Independence wasn’t edited down to become The Polite Notification of Bother.


One of the most memorable terms in the document wasn’t even Jefferson’s. His original draft said “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” I was surprised to discover Benjamin Franklin suggested the bolder “self-evident." I felt the same way when I found out one of the best lines in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was actually improvised by Sean Connery.
INDIANA JONES: How did you know she was a Nazi?
PROFESSOR HENRY JONES: She talks in her sleep.   
As it turns out, dirty old men make the best edits.


When we think of the Declaration today, we think of the Preamble – the first two paragraphs. But most of the document was devoted to blaming King George III for all America’s troubles (it’s easier to focus hate on a person than an institution). But it comes off sounding like the rants of a jilted lover from Sex and the City.

“These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection,” Jefferson wrote, “and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren.” Jefferson loved Britain so hard even though she treated him bad; he had to man up and break it off.

He further resolved, “We must endeavor to forget our former love for them...We might have been a free and a great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom it seems is below their dignity.” Moving on is so tough because they could have been so good together. But that uppity broad, Britain, was too good for him now. Plus he needed his space anyway.

Those agonizing feelings of lost love were all scrapped. All that remained was the hopeful sentiment that Americans must hold the British “as we hold the rest of the mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.” Jefferson’s wounded breakup letter became a calmer plea of “Can we still be friends?”


The greatest deleted scene from Jefferson’s Declaration was meant to be its climax. Jefferson fiercely accused King George of committing all manner of violent, tyrannous acts he “plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” This was the thrills and chills section, where the king encouraged “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”

All of those grievances made the cut, but the most heinous of all was too controversial to pass.

Jefferson blamed King George for the horrors of the slave trade, saying: 
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemispere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.
Jefferson used the term "Christian" sarcastically, to point out how un-Christian he found the practice of slavery. He was basically blaming King George III for the slave trade, even though it existed long before he came along.

King George III, our Declaration's great antagonist. And possibly the influence for Disney's monochromatic Cruella De Vil.
One reason this didn’t make the final cut was that more than a third of the Congress owned slaves. Jefferson himself had about 200 while he was denouncing the act on paper. Also, many understood how absurdly hypocritical it was to bring up the plight of slaves whose life and liberty were stolen when those same people were not included in the Preamble’s “all men are created equal” part.

Jefferson went on to say King George “is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them.” This, to me, is an even stranger argument. How dare you take away the freedom of these poor slaves and then encourage them to fight for their freedom against us, their masters? His climactic scene was full of plot holes.

Slavery was a lifelong conundrum for Jefferson. His first memory was of being carried on a pillow by a slave, and as David McCullough puts it, “in countless ways he had been carried ever since by slaves.” Had his attempt to condemn the slave trade made the final cut, it might have expedited the end of slavery in America, or at least encouraged Jefferson to do something about the heinous institution when he was president.

He often spoke in favor of abolition, but he didn’t think the idea was popular enough to succeed in his lifetime. Jefferson died a slaveowner, freeing only five slaves in his will. All five were related to Sally Hemings.


Jefferson’s original version of the Declaration was not distributed to the world, but it didn’t die that night in State House. He felt so strongly about his draft that he sent his director's cut to friends, along with the final theatrical version and a note saying, “I enclose you a copy of the Declaration of Independence as agreed to by the house, and also as originally framed. You will judge whether it is the better or worse for the critics.”

The Declaration was approved by Congress on July 4th, 1776 and despite Jefferson's feelings about its inadequacy, it was a hit – more of a sleeper hit than an instant blockbuster, as it gained prominence over time. For all the studio meddling, it surpassed its goals of rousing the American people and inspiring others worldwide. 

It was also on July 4th, in 1826 – exactly 50 years later – that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. In the last letter he ever wrote, Jefferson said, "let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them." Adams's last words were reportedly "Thomas Jefferson survives," but he was wrong. Jefferson had passed away a few hours earlier.

Both men survive in the American spirit of Independence Day, a holiday synonymous today with fireworks, barbecues, patriotism, and a pretty good weekend at the box office.

8 Things John Adams Loved

As I read these presidential biographies, I try to understand each man by discovering what drove him. Then I try to recreate those things with toys, because that's what drives me

These are 8 things John Adams loved.


He was the “father of the navy” and a leading voice in the war for independence, but deep down, John Adams was a peace-loving hippie. He loved peace so much he referred to his diplomatic notes from Europe as his “peace journal” and he named his farm “Peace Field.”

As much as he loved peace, the country was being sucked into war during his presidency. The final straw was known as the XYZ Affair. France demanded bribes from US ambassadors to restart diplomatic relations after the French Revolution X, Y, and Z were the codenames for the French extortionists. This insult riled up America's hatred for France, and Adams was never more popular than when he was making a strong case for war against the French Republic. 

But he threw it all away when he took a chance to negotiate without bloodshed. Avoiding a devastating war is now seen as one of the best things he ever did, but back then his supposed flip-flop sent him packing after one term, right back to his Peace Field.


What did this dirty hippie grow in his Peacefield? Hemp, of course.
"Hemp is a Plant of great Importance in the Arts..."                                                                    -John Adams
He added, “and Manufactories, as it furnishes a great Variety of Threads, Cloths, and Cordage” but it’s a much better soundbite if you don’t read the whole sentence. Fabric and rope are great and all, but I'd like to imagine the often-prescient John Adams was talkin' 'bout rock and roll.

There is actually zero evidence that Adams smoked marijuana, but he was a huge proponent of hemp and wrote about its uses and intricate cultivation process: “When it has been well beaten, it must be heckled, or passed thro a toothed Instrument…to seperate the shorter Tow, from that which is fit to be spun.” Adams knew that if you wanted good hemp, you had to physically assault and ridicule it.


If not stoned, John Adams may have at least started each day with a nice buzz. He drank a tankard of cider every morning and often wrote about how he missed it when he couldn’t get it. This wasn’t Mott’s Apple Cider, either. We’re talking the hard stuff. Cider was more popular and available than beer at the time and safer to drink than water, which contained harmful bacteria.

Still, this was what he did in the morning. Why would he stop there? After breakfast it was 5 o'clock somewhere so he probably broke into his favorite Madeira wine. I don't know how anyone got anything done back then.

The constant drinking would be comical if it weren't for the fact that John's son Charles died of alcoholism at age 30. Maybe having booze for breakfast every day doesn't set the best example. Then again, his other son John Quincy went on to become the sixth president of the United States and worked as a Congressman until his death at 80. John himself lived to 90.

I guess the moral of the story is that if you're going to drink something every day, you could do worse than cider.


In vino veritas is Latin for “in wine, truth.” It might apply to cider too, since John Adams deeply valued truth and it flowed freely from his mouth and pen.

He considered “honesty, sincerity, and openness” to be “essential marks of a good mind,” and he believed men should “avow their opinions and defend them with boldness.” That belief perfectly captures the best and worst of John Adams, as he was a world-class avower of his opinions, both popular (George Washington should lead the Continental Army!) and unpopular (the president needs a fancy title like His Highness!).

His honesty and boldness made him a good friend and a fantastic political philosopher, but a pretty mediocre politician.


John Adams looked at the margins of his beloved books the same way he probably looked at people taking a breath – as an opportunity to interject his thoughts. The books in his library are filled with his handwritten reactions to the authors, and some have more than a thousand of his own words added.

He treasured his volumes and the joy they brought him. During one of his many separations from his family, he wrote “But above all except the wife and children I want to see my books.”

But you can see the ^except the wife and children part was actually an afterthought. Nice save, John.

He once told his son, John Quincy, “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.” That’s such a beautiful thought it inspires me to want to carry a book of poetry around. But then I remember I have an iPhone. You will also never be alone with a constant supply of cat videos. 


John Adams was a bookworm and an earthworm who didn’t mind getting his hands dirty. He didn’t have slaves to work his land; he worked his New England farm with his own hands and he loved it.

As a young boy, John hated school and told his father he wanted to be a farmer like him. His dad took him out to help cut thatch along the muddy creek. At the end of the hard day he asked John how he liked being a farmer. John answered, “I like it very well.” His father responded, “Aya, but I don’t like it so well, so you will go back to school today.” John said he went “but was not so happy as among the creek thatch.”

As an adult, his farm was his pride and joy. He mended fences, dug stumps, cut ditches, planted crops, and carted dung. Oh yeah, he loved manure it was a relatively new fertilizer at the time and he wanted the best. He even wrote a recipe for it in his diary. Apparently good manure was only about 30% dung. I’ll spare you a picture of that.


John Adams had a love-hate relationship with himself. Mostly, he hated that he loved himself so much. He called vanity his “cardinal vice and cardinal folly.” By vanity he meant pride and conceitedness, not his physical appearance. When he looked in the mirror he only saw weakness: “My Eye, my Forehead, my Brow, my Cheeks, my Lips, all betray this Relaxation.” 

But he always saw a greatness within. In 1760 he predicted, “I never shall shine, till some animating Occasion calls forth all my Powers.” He was right, and in 1779 he wrote what has become my favorite quote of his:
“Some great events...have at Times, thrown this Assemblage of Sloth, Sleep, and littleness into Rage a little like a Lion.”
This quote makes me identify with John Adams on a deeper level than I ever thought possible. I want to start a band called Assemblage of Sloth and play a cover of Katy Perry's Roar dedicated to John Adams. Then I want to start another band (a side project) and call it Rage a Little Like a Lion, and we would play the same song, only... faster. That is how much I love this quote.


More than his manuscripts, his marijuana, his manure, and his own mighty mind, John Adams loved his "Miss Adorable," Abigail.

Abigail Adams served as a lover, supporter, confidant, adviser, and calming influence on her tempestuous husband. “You who have always softened and warmed my Heart,” he told her, “shall restore my Benevolence as well as my Health and Tranquility of mind.” She made him a better man.

He once wrote to her, “You bid me burn your Letters. But I must forget you first.” John did not burn her letters – he preserved more than a thousand of their exchanges, ensuring future generations would know what an intelligent and amazing woman she was.

On a personal note, I'd like to think I know how John felt. My own heart-softening wife, Jess, is my confidant and the calmer of my storms. I love her like John loved Abigail, and I'm thrilled she'll be my partner in raising the little girl we’re expecting later this year. 

Together those two ladies will surely make this assemblage of sloth and sleep roar.  

You may also like:
10 Things George Washington Loved
10 Things Thomas Jefferson Loved 
8 Things James Madison Loved

Sources: John Adams by David McCullough 

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