Friday, January 15, 2010

John Adams pontificates

A few years ago, I think 2002, I spent sometime going letter by letter through the correspondence of Adams and Jefferson, which had long ago been collected. Frankly, I found the first half of the correspondence, from when they were friends in their diplomat days, painfully dull. Reading those letters gave me the feeling that buying wine was an important, if not the predominant, diplomatic achievement. If you ever determine to read their letters, don’t bother with the early days. Skip right to 1812, when they finally become friends at a distance again after about 16 years of political and personal enmity.

As Adams wrote far more frequently than Jefferson, and as I have written a few times about Jefferson here already, I stick with the man from Massachusetts today. Fortunately, he was a jealous and self-pitying man, who loved to be provocative and even to give Jefferson the elbow when he thought he could. It is clear to me, from reading these letters, that Jefferson was by far the superior writer, and, though I have despised his character, he was far more poised and self-controlled too. Adams wrote like a mad blogger, running every which way with his thougths, desperate to show all his knowledge on his favorite topics. Jefferson was more reserved, replying to what he thought he had to or desired, and with much more control.

But, both of them were showing off and well aware that these letters would be preserved and passed down to the generations. Thus, you have to read them with the proverbial grain of salt.

Some of his compatriots and certainly modern historians covering Adams usually point out that he was obnoxious, arrogant, sharp-tongued, jealous, and I could go on. It's really undeniable. He was also highly educated, wonderfully inquisitive, steadfast, relatively honest, fervently patriotic, loyal, a terrific husband, a dedicated parent (times were different as was child raising) and possessing many other good qualities. For all Jefferson's skill in managing appearences, behind the scenes he was underhanded, backstabbing and scheming far beyond the desire or ability of most of his peers. He was far more successful in it too. But with Adams you got pretty much what you thought you were getting, although he was quite capable of being civil to your face and thundering about you behind your back, and, despite his reputation, not always completely honest.

One thing I have tried to forgive Adams for was his acute dislike of Ben Franklin, by far my favorite founder. Franklin is lionized today, but, as famous as he was here and abroad, he had many detractors in public life when he was isolated in Britain and France as an advocate for some of the colonies or a diplomat for America, and he would rarely actively defend himself. Adams was civil, even friendly in Franklin's presence, but poisonous in his reporting about him. Just a quick search finds that he wrote to others that BF was, among other things, "[possessing of a] low cunning, and mean craft, and being "secretly conniving," as well as jealous, envious and vain. That's just for starters, but it's not what this post is about.

But here I look just at his letters to Jefferson for two very good reasons. First, many years ago I copied out all the ones that interested me, so it wasn't real hard to put this together. Second, as contrived, pompous and show-offy as some of these letters were, I enjoyed them immensely, because he was a window on the thinking of his time on a number of subjects which interested him. When he shows off, we reap the historical benefit. As with most topics I write about here, the following quotes are merely what interest me and not necessarily written with any central theme in mind:

Here’s Adams on the issue of law suits against the president. You can almost picture the cantankerous old man up in heaven thundering about the Paula Jones suit against Clinton, which, of course, the Supreme Court would not let Clinton avoid:

Good God! Is a President of U. S. to be subject to a private Action of every Individual? This will soon introduce the Axiom that a President can do no wrong; or another equally curious that a President can do no right.

Like with a lot of stuff he wrote, that was a little hard to follow logically, as the second sentence really doesn't quite follow from the first. You’ve also probably also noticed his annoying clinging to the custom of capitalizing nouns and other substantives, which rule Jefferson did not follow. I keep it here as Adams wrote it. Here he writes on philosophers and the like, that is, those who might disagree with him:

I am weary of Philosophers, Theologians, Politicians, and Historians. They are immense Masses of Absurdities, Vices and Lies. Montesquieu had sense enough to say in Jest, that all our Knowledge might be comprehended in twelve Pages in Duodecimo: and, I believe him, in earnest. I could express my Faith in shorter terms. He who loves the Workman and his Work, and does what he can to preserve and improve it, shall be accepted of him.

His own philosophy at the end sounds pretty much like the same gobbledygoop he complains about to me, but he’s entitled. Besides, he more than once stated a "summary" of his beliefs, which were not always consistent. For example, another time a few years later, he wrote: "The Ten Commandments and The Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion." Another time, he wrote on his religion "It is known to my god and myself alone." Not surprisingly, I'm sure he forgot what he had written years before.

Whatever Adams said, if you waited long enough, he might say the opposite, as with this somewhat contradictory position on philosophy:

Phylosophy is not only the love of Wisdom, but the Science of this Universe and its cause . . . Phylosophy looks with an impartial Eye on all terrestial religions.

Early on in their correspondence the two had to mend some fences with each other and often they were defensive (and lied where necessary - even Adams). One of the acts for which Adams was most discredited as president was the signing of the Alien and Sedition acts, one of the objects of which was to punish those critical of the administration with jail – something for which the party of Jefferson (then the vice president), severely criticized him, while at the same time he was egging on or financing the slanderers. Although nowadays most of us would agree with Jefferson’s party on the unconstitutionality of criminalizing the content of speech, I enjoy Adams taking this out on Jefferson’s hide many years later:

As your name is subscribed to that law, as Vice President, and mine as President, I know not why you are not as responsible for it as I am. Neither of Us were concerned in the formation of it. We were then at War with France: French Spies then swarmed in our Cities and in the Country. Some of them were, intolerably, turbulent, impudent and seditious. To check these was the design of this law. Was there ever a Government, which had not Authority to defend itself against Spies in its own Bosom? Spies of an Ennemy at War? This Law was never executed by me, in any Instance.

Well, that last line was a lie. Ben Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Bache, went to jail for material printed in his newspaper, one of almost a dozen who were convicted under the act. Moreover, even his logic is questionable. Jefferson did sign, which he [Jefferson] claims was a formality, and with some reason, as the VP had no constitutional role in legislation. And no doubt, Jefferson, the backer for some of the most over the top, slanderous material out there, was vehemently opposed to it.

Adams writes here on a topic close to us now – the whole issue of what to do with enemy combatants:

Every Government has by the Law of Nations a right to make prisoners of War, of every Subject of an Enemy. But a War with England differs not from a War with France. The Law of Nations is the same in both.

Of course, the question becomes more complicated now, when the war is not with a nation, but an non-govermental organization. Here’s an Adams' quote which would endear him to the hearts of religious conservatives today and that might pop up today, rightly or wrongly, in an argument about whether a town can put up a Christmas tree or creche:

The general principles upon which the Fathers achieved independence were the principles of Christianity and principles of American liberty.

And then later, this one:

. . . for I hold there can be no Philosophy without Religion . . .

He had his anxieties about Jefferson’s religious beliefs, as many did:

You have written largely about matter and Spirit, and have concluded, there is no human Soul.

But, he didn't take it all that seriously either:

And so far from sentencing you to Perdition, I hope to meet you soon in another Country.

He’d have to wait 13 years more for that, when they died the same day, although I’m not sure Jefferson got to go to the same “country” as Adams, if you know what I mean.

Adams wrote frequently on religion, a subject of which he had become fascinated after retiring. He certainly had his doubts as to the authenticity of what had come down to his generation as true religion. Here, having heard of a book by a German author questioning the authenticity of the ten commandments, he goes off on his own tangent about it:

Among all your researches in Hebrew History and Controversy have you ever met a book, the design of which is to prove, that the ten Commandments, as We have them in our Catechisms and hung up in our Churches, were not the Ten Commandments written by the Finger of God upon tables, delivered to Moses on mount Sinai and broken by him in a passion with Aaron for his golden calf, nor those afterwards engraved by him on Tables of Stone; but a very different Sett of Commandments? . . . When and where originated our Ten Commandments? The Tables and The Ark were lost. Authentic Copies, in few, if any hands; the ten Precepts could not be observed, and were little remembered.

In another later letter he questions whether there were any real witnesses to the gospels, which was pretty gutsy stuff to put in writing in the early 19th century, even to his friend, don’t you think? But don’t believe you can understand Adams religious beliefs from these few passages I quote as his opinions were complex, and, like much of the stuff he wrote, not always all that easy to follow - I'm trying not to say - not always that logical.

I can garner some general beliefs from his letters: He fervently believed in God, but not miracles or much of the mythology of it. He believed Jesus was the greatest philosopher who ever lived, but did not believe the miracles attributed to him in the Bible. He was also voraciously anti-Catholic, anti-Papal and anti-Jesuit, as were many Americans, but keep in mind, Catholics were few in most of America, particularly Massachusetts (although Adams lived in France for a while, he didn’t get along with them so well). France and Spain were Catholic countries and had often been America's enemy, even when they were allies during the war, as far as Adams was concerned. But, he could be anti-Catholic and pro-Christian at the same time, and obviously loved the Bible:

Phylosophy looks with an impartial Eye on all streightened means and my busy Life would allow me; and the result is, that the Bible is the best book in the World. It contains more of my little Phylosophy than all the Libraries I have seen: and such Parts of it as I cannot reconcile to my little Phylosophy I postpone for future Investigation.

Yet, unlike so many others, even now, he did not believe in the devil:

That there is such a Person as the Devil is no part of my Faith, nor that of many other Christians; nor am I sure that it was the belief of any of the christian Writers. Nor do I believe the doctrine of demoniacal possessions, whether it was believed by the sacred Writers or not; and yet my unbelief in these Articles does not affect my belief the great facts of which the Evangelists were eye and ear Witnesses. They might not be competent Judges, in the one case, tho perfectly so, with respect to the other.

There are many other quotes I could give you about religion as he wrote so often about it, but I will stick with that which he ended a long ramble on the subject in one letter:

It has been long, very long a settled opinion in my Mind that there is [not?] now, never will be, and never was but one being who can Understand the Universe. And that it is not only vain but wicked for insects to pretend to comprehend it.

Jumping to politics, Adams here describes an early situation while Washington was president and he was vice, which makes the political problems of modern politicians seem positively pleasant, and also subtly taunts Jefferson for his easier political life. Reading this, you realize how unlearned in their own history (or just nefarious) are politicians who like to say that it is worse now than ever:

You certainly never felt the Terrorism, excited by Genet, in 1793, when ten thousand People in the Streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his House, and effect a Revolution in the Government, or compel it to declare War in favour of the French Revolution, and against England.

Later in the same letter, Adams puts his finger on the pulse of partisanship that is the bane of political life to this day and maybe forever:

The real terrors of both Parties have all ways been, and now are, the fear that they shall loose the Elections and consequently the Loaves and Fishes; and that their Antagonists will obtain them.

Although Adams understood the nature of partisanship and its destructiveness, he would himself bring a knife (or no weapon at all) to a gunfight (The Untouchables) and perhaps thought himself above the rough and tumble of it, which I believe led to much suffering on his part through 8 years as veep and then 4 more as president. He was correct, in my humble view, when a little more than a week after the last comment, he wrote as follows:

While all other Sciences have advanced, that of Government is at a stand; little better understood; little better practiced now then 3 or 4 thousand Years ago. What is the Reason? I say Parties and Factions will not suffer, or permit Improvements to be made. As soon as one Man hints at an Improvement his rival opposes it. No sooner has one Party discovered or invented an Amerlioration of the Condition of Man or the order of Society, than the opposite Party, belies it, misconstrues it, misrepresents it, ridicules it, insults it, and persecutes it. Records are destroyed. Histories are annihilated or interpolated, or prohibited sometimes by Popes, sometimes by Emperors, sometimes by aristocarical and sometimes by democratical Assemblies and sometimes by Mobs.

And I join him in this one:

The fund[a]mental Article of my political Creed is, that Despotism, or unlimited Sovereignty, or absolute Power is the same in the Majority of a popular Assembly, an Aristocratical Counsel, an Oligarchical Junto and a single Emperor. Equally arbitrary cruelly bloody and in every respect diabolical.

And this:

And I may be deceived as much as any of them, when I say, that Power must never be trusted without a check.

But, on the subject, I like this best:

Power always sincerely conscientiously . . . believes itself Right. Power always thinks it has a great Soul, and vast Views, beyond the Comprehension of the Weak; and that it is doing God Service, when it is violating all his Laws.

I may have to have his ghost as a guest blogger one day as, for it’s just possible that anti-partisan rhetoric from an immortal might carry more weight than my rants.

It seems to me that sulky Adams would have favored a history of the United States which began with his life in Massachusetts and ended with his single-handedly winning the war, as he seemed to be unable to stand the thought that others like Franklin, Washington and even Tom Paine, got more credit than he did. He was passionately critical of almost everyone, and handed out compliments to few (see my post on his son, John Quincy Adams, who continued the family tradition). Here, John Adams addresses his fellow congressmen who we know as founders:

In the Congress of 1774 there was not one member, except Patrick Henry, who appeared to me sensible of the Precipice or rather the Pinnacle on which he stood, and had candour and courage enough to acknowledge it. America is in total Ignorance, or under infinite deception concerning that assembly. To draw the characters of them all would require a volume and would now be considered as a caracatura print. One third Tories, another Whigs and the rest mongrels.

Whoa! Not what we were taught in grammar school or related by our ignorant and self-serving politicians.

Recently, I was whistfully discussing (not for the first time) that our youth seem not to know how to write and are not interested in books. Alas, Adams worried about this too, and, given how long ago that was, it gives me some hope that the problem is overstated now, as it was then:

Our post-revolutionary youth are born under happier stars than you and I were. They acquire all learning in their mother’s wombs, and bring it into the world ready-made. The information of books is no longer necessary; and all knolege which is not innate, is in contempt, or neglect at least.

Of all of Adams’ letters to Jefferson the following contains my favorite material, because it is just so founding father era nerdy:

I cannot be serious! I am about to write you the most frivolous letter, you ever read.

Would you back to your cradle and live over again your 70 years?

Jefferson, actually 73, who often didn’t respond to Adams’ provocations, did so with a positive answer. Perhaps Adams didn’t want to be upstaged in positive outlook because his response to Jefferson’s reply was one of his most ecstatic and pseudo-eloquent:

For what is human life? I can speak only for one. I have had more comfort than distress, more pleasure than paine, ten to one, nay if you please an hundred to one. A pretty large Dose however of Distress and Paine. But after all, what is human life? A Vapour, a Fog, a Dew, a Cloud, a Blossom a flower, a Rose a blade of Grass, a glass Bubble, A tale told by an Idiot, a Boule de Savon, Vanity of Vanities, an eternal succession of which would terrify me, almost as much as Annihilation.

If you care, a boule de savon is a soap bubble. As he got older, especially after his wife died, he became more morose in his letters, but sometimes more humble too. Yet, even in his humility, he was always Adams, as he was in this, another one of my favorite of his quotes, for what I think it reveals about him:

Oh delightful Ignorance! When I arrive at a certainty that I am ignorant, and that I always must be ignorant, while I live I am happy, for I know I can no longer be responsible.

Got to love it. For few had felt the weight of duty more heavily than John Adams during his active life, and maybe, at the end, he was just learning to let go.


  1. Your fun take on Adams is marred by your invictives hurled against the God that is Jefferson.

  2. I thought I was nice to him this time.

  3. I've always wondered if Adams ever had an epiphany like Brutus in "Julius Caesar" and understood his place in history. I feel he was smart enough to realize his contemporaries like Jefferson were much more "pop culture friendly."

    Scrolling down the page to read this I saw a mention of 10 time AWA Champion Verne Gagne. Politics, history and professional wrestling, it's like I've died and gone to blog heaven.

  4. Are the other commentors reading this? Now this is the way to comment. No nasty remarks, profane insults or blistering comments on how frigging long winded I am. Aaaaah.

    I'm sad to say, Mike, that this is probably the only mention of Verne Gagne in the three year history of this blog. But, I did do a bit on J. Q. Adams too about a year ago, if you like the Adams boys. But, you might like the Jefferson posts better, as they are a little more controversial, and there are a few of those.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .