Cynics and Comedians

September 28, 1787 – October 28, 1787

News bulletin on Holland: The Patriots (pro-democracy political faction) gain influence and subsequently insult Princess Wilhelmina, the wife of the current stadtholder (Holland’s hereditary ruler, Prince William V). She happens to be the sister of Frederick William II of Prussia. This pisses off the Prussians, who invade Holland to help out Prince William and his Orangists.

TJ’s reflections on these events and JA’s response offer a classic juxtaposition of the two men’s different personalities. I’m calling it classic based on what I’ve gleaned from various sources, primarily John Adams by David McCullough (book and HBO miniseries) and Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis. Here’s TJ’s stereotypical lofty musing, followed by JA’s cynical dissection.

TJ: “In fact what a crowd of lessons do the present miseries of Holland teach us? Never to have an hereditary officer of any sort: never to let a citizen ally himself with kings: never to call in foreign nations to settle domestic difference: never to suppose that any nation will expose itself to war for us etc.”

JA: “Lessons my dear Sir, are never wanting. Life and History are full. The Loss of Paradise, by eating a forbidden apple, has been many Thousand years a lesson to Mankind; but not much regarded. . . Resolutions never to let a Citizen ally himself with things will be kept untill an Opportunity presents to violate it. If the Duke of Angoleme, or Burgundy, or especially the Dauphin should demand one of your beautiful and most amiable Daughters in Marriage, all America from Georgia to New Hampshire would find their Vanity and Pride, so agreably flattered by it, that all their Sage Maxims would give way; and even our Sober New England Republicans would keep a day of Thanksgiving for it, in their hearts. . . The Resolution not to call in foreign Nations to settle domestic differences will be kept untill a domestic difference of a serious nature shall break out.”

This shouldn’t imply that TJ is above the sarcasm. In hoping that the USofA can keep out of the brewing European conflicts, he gets in a good dig at King George:

“We I hope shall be left free to avail ourselves of the advantages of neutrality: and yet much I fear the English, or rather their stupid king, will force us out of it. For thus I reason. By forcing us into the war against them they will be engaged in an expensive land war as well as a sea war. Common sense dictates therefore that they should let us remain neuter: ergo they will not let us remain neuter. I never yet found any other general rule for foretelling what they will do, but that of examining what they ought not to do.”

Was it commonplace for American diplomats to insult King George? Did it matter? Would this show up in the tabloids? The letters between JA and TJ were being read by French and English authorities, although I don’t know how often (the two men comment on this, and sometimes they write sensitive information in code). I don’t recall coming across too many insults from JA’s pen yet, but Abigail doesn’t mince words – I’ll keep an eye out for more instances.


4 thoughts on “Cynics and Comedians

  1. I love the fact that some of our founding fathers were tactless enough to call a king stupid. That’s what we need more of these days; our politicians telling us how it is and just who is an idiot, liberal, or not even born in this country.

    1. Yes, the comment threw me a bit coming from Jefferson’s pen, what with our sanitized understanding of these historical greats. I’m enjoying the bits of animosity apparent between England and America. Here’s another line of sarcasm, this time regarding the arrival of John Adams to London as the new U.S. ambassador (1785). This is less of a surprise, coming from the British press rather than a government official, but I still like it: “An Ambassador from America! Good heavens what a sound! The Gazette surely never announced any thing so extraordinary before, nor once on a day so little expected. This will be such a phoenomenon in the Corps Diplomatique that tis hard to say which can excite indignation most, the insolence of those who appoint the Character, or the meanness of those who receive it. Such a thing could never have happened in any former Administration, not even that of Lord North.”

  2. I reluctantly concede that a variety of perspectives provide a richer base on which foreign policy decisions are to be made. Though I find myself most naturally in the JA camp …

    It is a failing of older men that we hear ourselves repeating our favorite anecdotes to multiple audiences. Just yesterday, I was pontificating – once again – on the fallacy of ideologies that assume a major transformation of human nature (ie. communism which will produce a “new man.”) when most of us are utterly incapable of losing just 10 pounds.

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