August 06, 2002

John and Abigail Adams, in their honor

I have been learning so much from my recent Adams immersion: reading Joseph
Ellis' Passionate Sage while listening to David McCullough's biography,
John Adams. Here are some of the salient points, big and

  • John Adams was probably the single most important
    person in getting the Continental Congress to declare independence. It was clearly
    the will of the people by then, but his writings, as well as those of Paine and
    others, had had some effect on that as well. This is the opinion of the men who
    were there, not just that of partial biographers.
  • He was of equal
    importance with Jefferson in shaping the character and direction of the new
    republic. Again, this is the opinion of those who were there in its early days;
    Jefferson's rise in the opinion of history began some years after their nearly
    simultaneous deaths, while Adam's reputation only began to rise again (mostly
    among professional historians) in the 1950s.
  • Massachusetts is a
    Commonwealth, not a State, largely because he decided to write it that way when
    writing the state constitution (which is incidentally, the oldest one still in use
    anywhere, according to McCullough).
  • Many of the unpopular actions
    of Adams' presidency have been vindicated by later historians, especially his
    managing to keep us out of what seemed an inevitable war with France -- though
    really nothing can whitewash the entire wrongness of the Alien and Sedition act,
    no matter how strongly John Ashcroft would like to reinstate it. Whatever else he
    did, Adams did make mistakes.
  • A lot of things about government I
    had never understood make more sense now. Though happy to be a beneficiary of
    governmental support of education and scientific research, and glad that there are
    at least some safety nets in place, I had never understood why they were there. My
    understanding of the proper role of government was limited to the words of the
    Constitution itself, plus the tag (probably wrongly) attributed to Jefferson,
    "That government is best which governs least." Adams' writing, in the
    Massachusetts Constitution, explains and lays the foundation for governmental
    presence in education, science, and charity.

Jefferson's idea of government was strictly a guarantor of individual liberties,
Adams' ideas were more complex. In fact, Ellis theorizes that his relative
obscurity may be mostly due to the fact that, not only do Adams' ideas and persona
not boil down to an easy sound bite, but that Adams himself fought his whole life
against that sort of reduction of history to simple pictures. (Also, he had a
quixotic tendency to fight agains any trend that seemed to be gaining popular
ascendancy. As fiery an American patriot as any man, he defended the British
soldiers who took part in the Boston Massacre when they were brought into court,
simply out of a belief that laws ought to be fairly and impartially applied. And
he won his case.) Adams believed strongly in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness", but he also believed that government was a compact between each person
and the body politic (the amalgamation of all pople concerned, society as a whole)
and that while government's power did indeed derive from the consent of the
governed, a government's duty to its people was balanced by the individual's duty
to his or her society.

Absolutely fascinating stuff. John Adams was
apparently a very warm, human man, much unlike Washington's Olympic superiority or
Jefferson's contradictory reticence. (I probably need to read American Sphinx
next.) Here is an example that struck me as telling: in May of 1776, Adams gave
what observers recalled as the speech of his life, a masterwork of oration
equivalent to those of the ancient Greeks, an immeasurably powerful and passionate
speech that convinced Congress finally to officially declare on that day that
these colonies "are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states". After
he had spoken for an hour, several New Jersey delegates wandered in late, asked
what he had been saying, and requested him please to repeat it all for their
benefit. And he did. (There is no mention of bitch-slapping or even eye-rolling in
the any of the records of the incident, proving Adams was a better man than

Though the immersion has deepened my respect for Adams, and
convinced me that he was an entirely likeable man as well as an admirable one (as
opposed to his son, who sounds only admirable), it's really made me feel with
Abigail. They married purely for love, not material advantage, arrangement, or
anything else, and it was one of the great love affairs by all accounts. And yet,
the country's business and both of their conceptions of honor and duty, kept her
husband away from her for months at a tmie -- they reckoned they were apart for
half of the first fourteen years of their marriage. I know what it's like to be
away from a beloved husband, but I had a phone and email. She had nothing but
letters, and the delivery of those subject to the vagaries of war. At one point,
he had to be away while she was pregnant. The child was stillborn, and the anguish
of their letters is not any different from that in anything I've read from the
latest online diary of a mother who's lost a baby this very year. And se was a
business woman, no idle flower who could retire to a fainting couch with her
smelling salts, or flirt away her days in society; she had a farm to run and a
family to raise, and she did both well, while still asking her husband to indulge
her with more "sentimental effusions" in his letter, as they were all she had whil
he was 400 miles away. Or, worse, traveling an ocean away, in winter, in wartime,
along with her oldest son. And in wartime, she also had to deal with shortages of
everything from pins to shoes to food. But her pain at the separation comes
through, and is one of those things that does not and has not changed across the
gulf of centuries. Neither has the fact that Abigail, the primary counselor of one
of this country's greatest men, was a hell of a great woman.

Posted by dichroic at August 6, 2002 04:56 PM
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