You Was Fast Asleep in Philosophical Tranquility

June 27, 1813 – July 3, 1813

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: So and so said this and that about me, which isn’t true and let me clarify.

TJ to JA: Ah, fellow knight of democracy, that is politics and it has been like that since Ancient Greece. Parties criticize each other; we must not take it personally. You and I have indeed been through some crazy times. We may have gone our separate ways about this or that, but at least we never failed to rise above those who would resort to violence to express their differences.

JA to TJ: Violence? Are you kidding? Don’t talk to me about violence. Your little pleasure-boat cruise in the White House was nothing compared to the hell I went through. Let me refresh your memory: “You never felt the Terrorism of Chaises Rebellion in Massachusetts. I believe You never felt the Terrorism of Gallatins Insurrection in Pensilvania: You certainly never reallized the Terrorism of Fries’s, most outragious Riot and Rescue, as I call it, Treason, Rebellion as the World and Great Judges and two Juries pronounced it. 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 compell it to declare War in favour of the French Revolution, and against England. . . I have no doubt You was fast asleep in philosophical Tranquility, when ten thousand People, and perhaps many more, were parading the Streets of Philadelphia, on the Evening of my Fast Day; When even Governor Mifflin himself, thought it his Duty to order a Patrol of Horse and Foot to preserve the peace; when Markett Street was as full as Men could stand by one another, and even before my Door; when some of my Domesticks in Phrenzy, determined to sacrifice their Lives in my defence; when all were ready to make a desperate Salley among the multitude, and others were with difficulty and danger dragged back by the others; when I myself judged it prudent and necessary to order Chests of Arms from the War Office to be brought through bye Lanes and back Doors: determined to defend my House at the Expense of my Life, and the Lives of the few, very few Domesticks and Friends within it. What think you of Terrorism, Mr. Jefferson?”

Remind me not to get into an argument with JA. His pent-up anger is bubbling over in these letters as he and TJ get the past 15-20 years out on the table. TJ sounds more frustrated than angry, always playing the cool-headed philosopher. On a less personal level, I was struck by the mention of these rebellions. A historical survey is not forthcoming, but I imagine these incidents are unknown to most people today (including me), with the exception of Shay’s (“Chaise’s”) 1786-87 rebellion against Congress for heavy taxation, which is a standard history textbook story slotted in there to illustrate the failure of the Articles of Confederation and the resulting Constitutional Convention of 1787. JA’s letter is a great reminder of the kind of mess you’re dealing with when creating a new nation. (Or transitioning from an autocratic to a democratic system of government?) More than 20 years after the American Revolution, President John Adams had his hands full putting down rebellions in his backyard. Not exactly the smooth transition to democracy that we might remember from our history books. If we’re supposed to be learning from history, then smooth transitions for various emerging democracies around the world may not be realistic expectations either.


2 thoughts on “You Was Fast Asleep in Philosophical Tranquility

  1. Oh, now that’s really interesting. I hear that phrase “smooth transition” re: democracy so often with the news commentators…I’ve never REALLY stopped to think about it in comparison to our own history. Of course it’s not going to be smooth, transition rarely is!

  2. “If we’re supposed to be learning from history, then smooth transitions for various emerging democracies around the world may not be realistic expectations either.”

    I remember a similar story about the great Marshall plan after WWII, when the US embarked on shoring up much of Europe and even Germany with massive loans and reconstruction support. We look back with hindsight and say smoothly how magnificent it was, how perspicacious – but the reality at the time was a costly expenditure dogged by indecision and criticism, and that was among its advocates!

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