That’s That

March 4, 2013

December 1, 1825 – April 17, 1826

If I were Thomas Jefferson: Thus endeth this glorious peregrination through the marrow of literary confabulation between these two Argonauts of Liberty.

If I were John Adams: That did take an hour out of my life that I shall never get back.

If I were me: In the words of Philip Seymour Hoffman, “That’s that.”

This final post invites the inevitable question, who would I rather have dinner with, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson? My first impulse would be Adams. He’s more down-to-earth, honest, humorous, and talkative than Jefferson. Plus, he’s a Bostonian with that New England cynicism born of dark winter days and black flies. However, the reality is that whoever I dine with, I’ll be sitting there sipping hard cider and sucking on a pheasant bone in moronic silence as my host expounds on the philosophy and scientific contributions of Joseph Priestly. In this case, I know that Mr. Adams will browbeat me to tears, while Mr. Jefferson (the Southern gentleman) may have the grace and gentility to treat me as a valid citizen of the world. Still, I’m going with Adams. When I get back from the time machine I don’t want to say I made my decision because I was a coward.

I’ve ruined the mood of these last few lines that I’m going to share, but as you might expect from Mr. Adams, “the end” is on his mind in his second-to-last letter:

JA to TJ: “I am far from trifling with the idea of Death which is a great and solemn event. But I contemplate it without terror or dismay, “aut transit, au finit” [“either it is a transformation, or it is the end”], if finit, which I cannot believe, and do not believe, there is then an end of all but I shall never know it, and why should I dread it, which I do not; if transit I shall ever be under the same constitution and administration of Government in the Universe, and I am not afraid to trust and confide in it.”

Here is Jefferson’s final letter to Adams. The lofty rhetoric is about what I would expect, an appropriate choice for his “closing remarks”:

“My grandson Th: Jefferson Randolph, being on a visit to Boston, would think he had seen nothing were he to leave it without having seen you. Altho’ I truly sympathise with you in the trouble these interruptions give, yet I must ask for him permission to pay to you his personal respects. Like other young people he wishes to be able, in the winter nights of old age, to recount to those around him what he has heard and learnt of the Heroic age preceding his birth, and which of the Argonauts particularly he was in time to have seen. It was the lot of our early years to witness nothing but the dull monotony of colonial subservience, and of our riper ones to breast the labors and perils of working out of it. Theirs are the Halcyon calms succeeding the storm which our Argosy had so stoutly weathered. Gratify his ambition then by receiving his best bow, and my solicitude for your health by enabling him to bring me a favorable account of it. Mine is but indifferent, but not so my friendship and respect for you…”

Adams’s final letter wasn’t so profound, but his last couple of lines are also what I’d expect, a bit of piss and vinegar to wrap things up.

JA to TJ: “Our American Chivalry is the worst in the World. It has no Laws, no bounds, no definitions; it seems to be all a Caprice. My love to all your family, and best wishes for your health…”

John Adams, October 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826
Thomas Jefferson, April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826

Yeah, that’s right, same day, same year, July the 4th. I don’t know what that means but it scares the hell out of me.

Now’s where I want to write something about how history enriches our lives and how we can find wisdom and guidance in the writings of great men. I don’t discount that at all, but you don’t want to hear it. It’s been fun and thought-provoking, but let’s not overdo it. When I was younger, I read certain books with the expectation and hope that each one would change my life, offer some breakthrough into a new level of wisdom and happiness. What I’ve learned since then is that a) that doesn’t happen, and b) sometimes it does happen, but you won’t know it until years later.

A while back I had an email exchange with a friend about our shared habit of over-analyzing both major and minor life decisions (particularly those with moral or ethical or spiritual implications) and its ineffectiveness in actually producing meaningful action. Our conclusion was to stop thinking from now on. The one consolation in this disappointing realization was my friend’s suggestion that the many years of philosophical analysis will hopefully inform, at least subconsciously, the rest of our thoughtless decisions starting now.

That may have nothing to do with the Adams-Jefferson Letters unless maybe I consider them part of a cumulative effort to learn from others (Argonauts or not), hopefully transforming me into a more thoughtful, sympathetic, and happy person. Let’s reconvene in a couple of decades and you let me know if it worked.

If you hoped for a more thorough historical analysis of the subject, I apologize. This is what happens when Gen-Xers read this kind of stuff.

I’m off for a while, maybe to pretend to work on some creative writing, maybe to scrounge for another book to entertain you with, maybe to take the red pill. Crap, I forgot if it was the red or the blue, and Wikipedia had the answer. And I was like, “No way, that’s great!”


Red Hot Pokers and All

February 26, 2013

January 22 1825 – April 19, 1825

I felt it was worth copying this complete letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, January 23, 1825, and also making it a color that hurts your eyes:

My Dear Sir,

We think ourselves possessed or at least we boast that we are so of Liberty of conscience on all subjects and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment, in all cases and yet how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact. There exists throughout the whole Christian world a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or to doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the old and new Testaments from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack or the wheel: in England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red hot poker: in America it is not much better, even in our Massachusetts which I believe upon the whole is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States. A law was made in the latter end of the last century repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the old Testament or new. Now what free inquiry when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigation into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Volney’s Recherches Nouvelles? who would run the risk of translating Dupuis? but I cannot enlarge upon this subject though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws. It is true few persons appear desirous to put such laws in execution and it is also true that some few persons are hardy enough to venture to depart from them; but as long as they continue in force as laws the human mind must make an awkward and clumsy progress in its investigations. I wish they were repealed. The substance and essence of Christianity as I understand it is eternal and unchangeable and will bear examination forever but it has been mixed with extraneous ingredients, which I think will not bear examination and they ought to be separated.

Without having reviewed every (or any) early 19th-century law on religious inquiry, I assume there is a bit of exaggeration here. That’s not to diminish the long and continued history of religious dogmatism and persecution, but just considering the amount of “free inquiry” that both Adams and Jefferson have engaged in throughout their correspondence, it may not have been quite as bad as JA suggests. However, I’m copying the whole letter because obviously I think JA has made some good points.

This is where I shoehorn whatever I want into the Adams-Jefferson correspondence. A couple of weeks ago I listened to an episode of BBC Radio’s “In Our Time” examining the ideas of the existentialist and Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. One of the guests on the program, Jonathan Rée, discussed SK’s phrase, “becoming a Christian,” a way of describing that there is no such thing as “being a Christian,” because the inquiry into truth and the mysteries of faith, love, God, Christ, etc. can never be a completed task. To quote Rée, “The very idea of being a Christian is contradictory because to be a Christian would be to think of Christianity as a doctrine that you could relax into like a comfortable armchair. But the whole point about being a Christian is that you always have to be on your guard against relapsing into taking things for granted.”

I like that, and while it isn’t about JA’s issue with the divine inspiration of scripture, if we use his letter as a launching point for thinking about “free inquiry” and the authenticity of faith, it’s a reasonable place to go. That leads me to two more quotes. One, from SK’s Fear and Trembling, written in 1843: “What every man has not a right to do, is to make others believe that faith is something lowly, or that it is an easy thing, whereas it is the greatest and hardest.”

Lest you think I actually comprehended more than 10% of Fear and Trembling, here’s my second quote, from Philip Yancey, a much more accessible writer than SK to the average Christian skeptic. This is from Reaching for the Invisible God, written in 2002: “Faith is the skeleton in the closet of faith, and I know no better way to treat a skeleton than to bring it into the open and expose it for what it is: not something to hide or fear, but a hard structure on which living tissue may grow. . . Doubt always coexists with faith, for in the presence of certainty who would need faith at all?”

I like that too. If faith is the greatest and hardest thing, then it makes sense for the 89-year old Adams to still be wrestling with the mysteries of the universe. I much prefer “becoming a Christian” to a red-hot-poker-in-the-tongue.

Le Marquis

February 18, 2013

December 29, 1823 – January 8, 1825

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “You and I have been favored with a visit from our old friend General La Fayette.”

Marquis de Lafayette, 1825, by Charles Cromwell Ingham

This is not a bio of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. You can search-engine that, baby. He’s best known ‘round these parts as the French war-hero of the American Revolution. He was also an honorary son to George Washington, ADORED by the American people, a major figure in France before, during, and after the French Revolution (as a wealthy aristocrat and a lover of democracy and freedom, he walked a tight-rope during that time), a committed abolitionist, a handsome devil, and a really, really fascinating person of history. Here’s a helpful timeline:

Marquis De La Fayette, 1791, by Joseph-Désiré Court

1777: Nineteen-year old filthy rich French whippersnapper joins the American Revolution (he’s got connections and can pay his way to the New World). Fights his first battle five days after his twentieth birthday. Takes a bullet in the leg. A hero is born.

Forty-seven years follow, which you can learn about when you search-engine it.

1824: Sixty-seven-year old French statesman and American Idol returns to the USofA on a year-long celebrity tour of all 24 states. If you’re from Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, or Virginia, check your local monument listings for the statue of LaFayette.

Equestrian statue of Lafayette. Hartford’s got one.

To get an idea of the popularity of this man, picture this: When Lafayette arrived on a ship at Staten Island on August 15, 1824, 80,000 people came out to greet him. That was two-thirds the population of New York City. Possibly there was nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon.

If you’re looking for a good biography, I recommend Lafayette: Hero of Two Worlds by Olivier Bernier. Yeah, yeah, it’s the only book about LaFayette that I’ve read, but as biographies go, it’s very well done, humanizing and inspiring. For a quicker journey, Lafayette: The Lost Hero is a short, excellent PBS documentary. I re-watched parts of it today and two short stories touched me once again.

One, a small illustration of Lafayette’s firm belief in equality and stance against slavery: During a procession in his honor in front of the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Lafayette recognizes a face in the crowd and stops his carriage. He steps into the crowd to greet James Armistead Lafayette, a former slave and Revolutionary spy who volunteered and served under the General during the war. It is an impressive scene, described in the film, when “the two men embrace as the whole city of slaveholders looks on.”

Two, a love story (and someone really should make a movie): Lafayette married Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles in 1774 (he was 16, she was 14). It was one of those arranged marriages where love blossomed. I don’t know any more details except for these final words of Adrienne on her deathbed, in her husband’s arms, in 1807 (this is me transcribing the film’s likely butchering of a primary source): “Gilbert, there was a time after you first came back from America and I felt so attracted to you. How lucky that passion should have been my duty. Will you give me your blessing? You’re not a Christian, you’re a Fayettiste. Me too. I am all yours.”

Romantics unite in tears. Of course, there were some allegations of infidelity during those happy golden years, but, come on, romantic period drama! Maybe I’ll get started on a screenplay.

I can’t seem to end these posts without a tangential comment by John Adams. It isn’t my fault, they just keep coming. But I love it. JA to TJ: “I still breathe, which will not be long, but while I do I shall breathe out wishes for the welfare of mankind, hoping that they will daily become more deserving of it.”

How Much Longer?

January 29, 2013

April 11, 1823 – November 10, 1823

Thomas Jefferson must have been in a particularly “Enlightenment” mood in April, considering the long letter he writes to John Adams excoriating John Calvin and Calvinism, translating John 1:1 to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and describing the divinity of Jesus as a “fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words,” not to mention “mystical,” and on par with “the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” All this because JA made a joke about his own affinity with Calvin’s arthritis, gout, and sciatica. Talk about hitting a nerve.

John Calvin, 1509-1564
“He was indeed an Atheist” – Thomas Jefferson
Not exactly a measured assessment.

This could be the jumping-off point for a discussion of the founding fathers’ Christian beliefs (or lack thereof), but my mood is more along the lines of this sign-off by JA: “I salute your fire-side with cordial esteem and affection. J.A. In the 89 year of his age still too fat to last much longer.”

You also may be wondering how much longer this correspondence can go on, or, equally important, how much longer my corresponding erudition can sustain itself. (Was that a pun?)

Rest assured, 15 letters remain in the collection, which means just 3 more weeks of disciplined reading and questionably enlightened reflection. (Was that a poem?)

November 1, 1822 – March 10 , 1823

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “Mr. English a Bostonian has published a volume of his expedition with Ishmael Pashaw up the river Nile. He advanced above the third Cataract and opens a prospect of a resurrection from the dead of those vast and ancient Countries of Abyssinia and Etheopia. A free communication with India and the river Niger and the City of Tombuctou. This however is conjecture and speculation rather than certainty, but a free communication by land between Europe and India will e’re long be opened. A few American steam boats, and our Quincy Stone Cutters would soon make the Nile as navigable as our Hudson Patomac or Mississippi. You see as my reason and intellect fails my imagination grows more wild and ungovernable, but my friendship remains the same.”

I don’t follow JA’s connections between the Nile, Tombuctou, and India, but it sounds like he doesn’t either.

Africa, 1828from "HISTORISCH-GENEALOGISCH-GEOGRAPHISCHER ATLAS von Le Sage Graf Las Cases. Karlsruhe. Bei Creuzbauer und Nöldeke 1829"

North Africa, 1828
from “HISTORISCH-GENEALOGISCH-GEOGRAPHISCHER ATLAS von Le Sage Graf Las Cases. Karlsruhe. Bei Creuzbauer und Nöldeke 1829”

Who, I ask, was George Bethune English?

You may not be surprised by this, but I am trying to avoid the siren call of Wikipedia to answer my questions. So, like a good researcher, I randomly scrolled past Google’s first few search results pages until I finally came across a brief Bethune biography courtesy of Yale University Library. I wouldn’t dream of paraphrasing the work of such academic excellence, so here is the full entry:

George Bethune English (March 7, 1787 – September 20, 1828) was an American adventurer, diplomat, soldier, and convert to Islam.

The oldest of four children, English was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was baptized at Trinity Church on April 1, 1787. He later attended Harvard College, where his dissertation won a Bowdoin Prize he received a Masters in theology in 1811. During his studies, however, English encountered doubts about Christian theology, and went on to publish his misgivings in a book entitled ”The Grounds of Christianity Examined”, which earned him excommunication from the Church of Christ in 1814. English addressed some of the criticisms and controversies caused by his first book in a second tract, “A Letter to the Reverend Mr. Cary,” as well as in published responses to Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing’s (1780–1842) “Two Sermons on Infidelity.” Subsequently he edited a country newspaper, during which time he may have learned the Cherokee language.

English was nominated by President James Madison on February 27, 1815 and commissioned on March 1, 1815 as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps during the War of 1812 and assigned to Marine Corps headquarters. He then sailed to the Mediterranean, and was among the first citizens of the United States known to have visited Egypt. Shortly after arriving in Egypt he resigned his commission, converted to Islam and joined Isma’il Pasha in an expedition up the Nile River against Sennar 1820, winning distinction as an officer of artillery. He published his ”Narrative of the Expedition to Dongola and Sennaar” (London 1822) regarding his exploits. A colleague from Harvard, Edward Everett, published a rejoinder to English’s book “The Grounds of Christianity Examined,” to which English responded with his 1824 book “Five Smooth Stones out of the Brook.”

After his work for Isma’il Pasha, English worked in the Diplomatic Corps of the United States in the Levant, where he worked to secure a trade agreement between the United States and the Ottoman Empire, which had trade valued at nearly $800,000 in 1822. In 1827, he returned to the United States and died in Washington the next year. Provided by Wikipedia.

Damn it. I knew something was wrong when I read the third sentence and that random bit about learning Cherokee. You win this round, you nameless, soulless cloud of inconsistent yet extremely helpful knowledge.

On the plus side, Narrative of the Expedition to Dongola and Sennaar is an audiobook, downloadable here. Is this now loaded on my iPod, ready for tomorrow’s morning commute? You know it is.

Comparing Infirmities

January 15, 2013

September 24, 1821 – October 15, 1822

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams: “It is very long, my dear Sir, since I have written to you. My dislocated wrist is now become so stiff that I write slowly and with pain, and therefore write as little as I can. . . I have ever dreaded a doting old age; and my health has been generally so good, and is now so good, that I dread it still. The rapid decline of my strength during the last winter has made me hope sometimes that I see land. During summer I enjoy it’s temperature, but I shudder at the approach of winter, and I wish I could sleep through it with the Dormouse, and only wake with him in the spring, if ever. They say that Starke could walk about his room. I am told you walk well and firmly. I can only reach my garden, and that with sensible fatigue. I ride however daily. But reading is my delight.”

JA to TJ: “I have not sprained my wrist, but both my Arms and hands are so over strained that I cannot write a line. . . I cannot mount my Horse, but I can walk three miles over a rugged rockey Mountain, and have done it within a Month. Yet I feel when setting in my chair, as if I could not rise out of it, and when risen, as if I could not walk across the room; my sight is very dim; hearing pritty good; memory poor enough. . . Winter is as terrible to me, as to you. I am almost reduced in it, to the life of a Bear or a torpid swallow. I cannot read, but my delight is to hear others read, and I tease all my friends most unmercifuly and tyranically, against their consent.”

Dude can ride. Dude can walk.

JA to TJ: “I never can forgive New York, Connecticut, or Maine for turning out Venerable Men of sixty or seventy from the seats of Judgement, when their judgement is often best. To turn out such men to eat husks with the prodigal or grass with Nebuchadnezzar ought to be tormenting to the humanity of the Nation; it is infinitely worse than sa[y]ing ‘go up thou bald Head.’”

Let’s leave aside the politics here, i.e. the merits and demerits of lifetime appointments for Supreme Court judges (in the federal government) or age-restricted terms (as is the case today for many states, although I don’t know how many; definitely Connecticut). Let’s just enjoy Adams’s successful synthesis of the prodigal son, King Nebuchadnezzar, and the prophet Elisha in a single sentence about getting old.

And pooh on you pundits out there insisting that the Founding Fathers instituted lifetime tenures only because the average lifespan in 1787 was 38 years.

Agents in Posterity

January 7, 2013

January 20, 1820 – September 12, 1821

To pick up a bit of slack, I’m reviewing 10 letters today not 5, and, yes, that covers about 2 years of correspondence.

Having recently watched Lincoln, starring the unmatchable Daniel Day-Lewis, he’s on my mind. (President Lincoln, that is, not Day-Lewis, or wait, vice versa, I’m confused, does it matter?) But let’s back up a moment. There is a reasonable argument that when the Founding Fathers more or less tabled the slavery issue when they crafted the U.S. Constitution, many of them believed that slavery was on its way out and would eventually die a slow, natural death. It made sense, or at least assuaged guilt, for northern delegates to compromise on that issue in the interest of uniting the states under a strong federal government.

On the other hand, from what I’m reading, both Adams and Jefferson pretty much know a civil war over slavery is coming ‘round the mountain. Of course, at this point in time, it’s been over 30 years since the Constitutional Convention, the cotton gin has revolutionized the cotton industry and has been expanding the slave economy since the 1790s, and the Missouri Compromise just welcomed the 13th slave state into the union. If the Founding Fathers did think slavery was on its way out in 1787, the handful still living in 1821 could see that they got it wrong. Here’s Jefferson wringing his hands over slavery:

“The real question, as seen in the states afficted with this unfortunate population, is Are our slaves to be presented with freedom and a dagger? For if Congress has a power to regulate the conditions of the inhabitants of the states, within the states, it will be but another exercise of that power to declare that all shall be free. Are we then to see again Athenian and Lacedemonian confederacies? To wage another Peloponnesian war to settle the ascendancy between them? Or is this the tocsin of merely a servile war? That remains to be seen: but not I hope by you or me. Surely they will parley awhile, and give us time to get out of the way.”

As an aside, I didn’t really understand this passage after several readings, but it is amazing how the physical act of writing it down helps my brain work it out; a quick review of Ancient Greece helps too. It seems that for Jefferson, the eventual abolition of slavery is a foregone conclusion (if Congress can decree who’s a slave state and who isn’t, then it has the power to end slavery), so the question is whether that process will be a peaceful one, or if it will result in a war between the states, or, if not a civil war, a sort of revenge war carried out by freed slaves against former masters.

Jefferson then digresses about various South American colonial conflicts (and offering opinions), and closes his letter to John Adams with this: “We must leave both, I believe, to heaven, and wrap ourselves up in the mantle of resignation.”

Here’s JA’s response: “Slavery in this country I have seen hanging over it like a black cloud for half a Century. If I were as drunk with enthusiasm as Swedenborg or Westley, I might probably say I had seen Armies of Negroes marching and countermarching in the air, shining in Armour. I have been so terrified with this Phenomenon that I constantly said in former times to the Southern Gentlemen, I cannot comprehend this object; I must leave it to you. I will vote for forceing no measure against your judgements. What we are to see, God knows, and I leave it to him, and his agents in posterity.”

Just before that, JA described Swedenborg and Westley as lunatics (what has he got against John Wesley? Geez.), so I know he’s being sarcastic about the marching negroes. Or is he just using sarcasm to soften his shared fears with Southern Gentlemen? Probably. The fear of black uprising/revenge was a big part of denying/resisting/delaying emancipation. But I’m obviously zeroing in on JA’s and TJ’s comments that the slavery problem was coming to a head for “agents in posterity.” That JA and TJ (ages 85 and 77) were ready (and relieved) to leave that battle to future generations is reasonable but also frightening considering the immensity of the task and its demands on a leader who would be born to that time.

The principal agent ended up being Abraham Lincoln, and I think Spielberg’s film drives that point home. Two scenes from Lincoln especially stuck with me. In the first, Lincoln is seated in his office with his cabinet members who have for the most part given up on finding enough House votes to pass the 13th amendment and are openly criticizing Lincoln’s political tactics. Lincoln loses his temper and in so many words tells his cabinet that he’s the President of the United States, “clothed in immense power,” so get those votes and get the hell out of his office (the “Now! Now! Now!” scene featured in some trailers).


In the second scene, Lincoln meets privately (in the White House scullery?) with Thaddeus Stevens, the radical anti-slavery Republican who Lincoln needs to reign in his inflammatory talk of social equality in order to not scare off a few Democrats from voting for the Amendment. It’s a great dialogue, with Stevens lecturing Lincoln about having a moral compass and Lincoln pointing out that you usually don’t get anything done in Congress by sticking to your principles. To me, both scenes showed Lincoln as the agent of abolition, the one who took up the burden that Adams and Jefferson knew someone would have to bear.


I’ll conclude with an appropriate line by John Adams: “But I think a free Government is necessarily a complicated Piece of Machinery, the nice and exact Adjustment of whose Springs and Weights are not yet well comprehended by the Artists of the Age and still less by the People.”

Reminds me of Thaddeus Stevens (played with command in the film by Tommy Lee Jones), who sputters at Lincoln, “Shit on people and what they want and what they’re ready for.” I bet Adams and Stevens would have been friends.

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