Comparing Infirmities

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.


2 thoughts on “Comparing Infirmities

  1. Very witty: “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.”

    1. Ha ha. Not to be outdone (of course), JA replied that there was no need to “dread the approach of dotage, let it come if it must. . .The worst of the Evil is that our friends will suffer more by our imbecility than we ourselves.”

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