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Transitions, or, How Real Men Congratulate

March 26, 2012

December 5, 1788 – May 10, 1789

TJ to JA: “Tho I have not official information of your election to the Presidency of the Senate; yet I have such information as renders it certain. Accept I pray you my sincere congratulations. No man on earth pays more cordial homage to your worth nor wishes more fervently your happiness. Tho’ I detest the appearance even of flattery, I cannot always suppress the effusions of my heart.”

If you’ve paid any attention to the date ranges in the previous posts, you may notice that time is speeding up and/or our view of history is beginning to widen. The previous 60 letters spanned 1 year. The next 20 will span more than 10. Life transitions are afoot. John and Abigail Adams move back to Massachusetts and Mr. Adams gets himself elected Vice President of the USofA. Jefferson will eventually follow them and join George Washington, Adams, and company as the nation’s first Secretary of State. No need to write letters when you live in the same town. Interesting, by the way, how TJ congratulates JA as “President of the Senate,” and not “Vice President of the United States.” While it is technically correct, I haven’t yet heard anyone refer to “Senate President Joe Biden.” Was this a common reference, or is TJ trying to make his buddy feel good about being second best to GW?

These are TJ’s last letters coming out of Paris, and his two main topics are war and oil. Cue adages:

Some things never change
History repeats itself
Drill, baby, drill

As far as war goes, any European military history buffs out there (not I) can fill us in on the situation TJ is describing: Turks vs. Swedes, Swedes vs. Russians, Russians vs. Turks, plus Prussia, Poland, Denmark, rock, paper, scissors. The only reason England and France aren’t getting in the mix is because King George is insane (you know, lunatic rulers never go to war) and France is working out some internal problems (and is unknowingly about to implode).

And oil. Ha ha, whale oil, my friends. Did I get you? This subject is actually fascinating to me. You may recall that I promised to summarize the first ten years (1777-1787) of the Adams-Jefferson correspondence, since I began this blog midway into my reading. So here it is: It’s all about spermaceti. JA and TJ spent a lot of their time in England and France trying to arrange trading deals with various European nations. Whale oil is the big deal, and “our Nantucket men” are the best in the business. Tellingly, two of TJ’s last three letters to JA from Paris are devoted to the latest sweetheart oil deal between France and the USofA. Details aside, the arrangement is so good for American whalers that TJ’s main concern is preventing British ships from forging American papers in order to fool France into buying their oil too. (The French are out there whaling too, but, as TJ expresses in much more elegant terms, they suck at it.) This whole thing fascinates me because it’s something (a fuel source, no less) that was once really, really, really important and now isn’t at all. The sci-fi lover in me wants to draw the obvious parallel to today’s really, really, really important fuel source and what history will have to say about it.

I’ll conclude with TJ’s last foreign-based words to JA, May 10, 1789: “I hope to see you all this summer, and to return this fall to my prison; for all Europe would be a prison to me, were it ten times as big.”

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One Response to “Transitions, or, How Real Men Congratulate”


  1. OK, it wasn’t my sci-fi (and forgetful) brain behind the oil parallels. Someone reminded me of the excellent book, A Thousand Barrels a Second, by Peter Tertzakian. Mr. Tertzakian provides a brief overview of whale oil history, draws the parallels to today’s oil, and looks at the future of energy consumption. I’m adding his latest, The End of Energy Obesity: Breaking Today’s Energy Addiction for a Prosperous and Secure Tomorrow, to my to-read list.


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