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.


Agents in Posterity

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.

Oh, Right, Slavery DOES Exist

November 7, 1819 – December 21, 1819

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “Congress are about to assemble and the Clouds look Black and thick, Assembling from all points, threatening thunder and Lightning. The Spanish Treaty, the Missouri Slavery, the encouragement of Manufactures Act, the plague of Banks, perhaps even the Monument for Washington, and above all the bustle of Caucuses for the approaching Election for President and Vice President…”

Cue talking head: “This is the most important election of our time…”

I’ve been keeping track and here, in letter #336, is the first appearance of the word “slavery” (or any derivation). “Missouri Slavery” refers to the debate over Missouri’s application for statehood and whether it should be admitted as a slave state. Here’s a brief summary of the Missouri Compromise, courtesy of the Library of Congress:

“The Senate debated the admission of Maine and Missouri from February 8 through February 17, 1820. On February 16, the Senate agreed to unite the Maine and Missouri bills into one bill. The following day the Senate agreed to an amendment that prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line, except for Missouri, and then agreed to the final version of the bill by a vote of 24 to 20. After rejecting the Senate’s version of the bill, the House of Representatives passed a bill on March 1, that admitted Missouri without slavery. On March 2, after a House-Senate conference agreed to the Senate’s version, the House voted 90 to 87 to allow slavery in Missouri and then voted 134 to 42 to prohibit slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line.”

In other words, Missouri was admitted as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and slavery was prohibited in the rest of the Louisiana Territory.

Here’s the Louisiana Territory (purchased by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803):


Here’s the Missouri Compromise, 1820:

Missouri Compromise

Some connection points: Missouri Compromise repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854, allowing states to choose slavery or no slavery>>>>Missouri Compromise declared unconstitutional in the Dred Scott decision, 1857, also denying black citizenship and allowing slavery in all territories>>>>Civil War begins, 1861.

But I digress.

Here’s TJ’s response to JA: “The banks, bankrupt law, manufactures, Spanish treaty are nothing. These are occurences which like waves in a storm will pass under the ship. But the Missouri question is a breaker on which we lose the Missouri country by revolt, and what more, God knows. From the battle of Bunker’s hill to the treaty of Paris we never had so ominous a question. It even damps the joy with which I hear of your high health, and welcomes to me the consequences of my want of it. I thank god that I shall not live to witness it’s issue.”

After this reflection, TJ drops the subject and shifts to an extended philosophizing about the virtue (or lack of virtue) of ancient Roman leaders. What should I make of this?

A) Jefferson is more interested in ancient Roman history than the current American slavery question.
B) Jefferson would rather enjoy his retirement than get into it with John Adams about the American slavery question.
C) Don’t make anything of anything until you read additional sources, not just a collection of personal letters between two friends.

Let’s consult Joseph E. Ellis once again (because American Creation is the only relevant book sitting on my shelf at the moment and I’ve underlined important passages so that I don’t have to rely on Internet searches that will inevitably end three hours later with the answers to why I should become a vegan, how I’m poisoning my children with artificial dye additives, and how many hours William and Kate have been pregnant):

What came to be called the Missouri Question was triggered by an amendment to the bill admitting Missouri into the union that made the prohibition of slavery a condition of statehood. . . Jefferson’s position was that the issue ought to remain in the shadows or, shifting his metaphors, should be allowed to pass “like waves in a storm pass under a ship.” But as the debate in Congress heated up, and it became clear that this particular wave possessed the potential to capsize the entire ship of state, Jefferson unburdened himself. An old colleague from presidential days who visited him at Monticello described Jefferson as obsessed with the Missouri Question, gesturing dramatically as he walked his fields, warning that this was the one issue that could lead to civil war, the end of the republican experiment with self-government, eventually to “a war of extermination toward the African in our land.”

The layers of Jefferson’s thoughts on the Missouri Question are onion-like (or parfait-like). Every president up to Lincoln had to deal with the slavery problem in some way, and the solution was always to put it off, avoid conflict, preserve the union for the time being. Ellis presents the fascinating argument that Jefferson’s 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory “provided the last realistic opportunity for the United States to implement a policy of gradual emancipation,” which would avoid a seemingly inevitable civil war. If Jefferson had made the prohibition of slavery a component of the purchase, the subsequent revenue earned by the federal government from the sale of land to western settlers could have compensated “slave-owners south of the Potomac and east of the Mississippi, who would free their slaves on an agreed-upon schedule.”

This didn’t happen. And it was probably on Jefferson’s mind as the latest slavery dilemma came to a head with Missouri.

I’m trying to keep in mind that these are personal letters between Jefferson and Adams, obviously not a complete or even accurate historical record. But I am surprised that slavery appears to be a taboo issue. I suppose today’s parallel could be abortion. Such a contentious and morally heavy issue isn’t something you’re going to “get into” with just anyone, even a good friend, particularly if you aren’t on the same page (TJ and JA were both publicly opposed to slavery, but TJ owned slaves, Adams didn’t). Like slavery in 19th-century America, abortion today is an intractable issue, raising questions about human equality (or definition) and moral responsibility that divide the country. It’s an issue that is front and center in the courts, Congress, and daily life, yet at the same time is an elephant in the room, an inappropriate conversation topic at the water cooler, around the dinner table, or in a presidential debate (at least an honest conversation). Without drawing inappropriate parallels to the Civil War, I  wonder how or if this issue will ever be resolved.

Maybe the silence between TJ and JA on slavery shouldn’t be surprising after all. After reading 336 of their letters, and considering their up-and-down relationship, I wouldn’t characterize them as close friends. They share common and momentous experiences, bonding as two soldiers might during war time. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to share everything. There are different kinds of friendship. This ain’t one of those.

Mission Accomplished

April 2, 1819 – July 28, 1819

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “Tho I cannot write I still live and enjoy Life. The World is dead. There is nothing to Communicate in Religion, Morals, Philosophy, or Politicks. I hope your Health is perfectly restored. Mine is pritty much like that of Voltaire, Frankline and Samuel Adams, at my Age.”

When you’re 83 years old (and live in the age of bloodletting) you are allowed to talk like this. And refer to your Age as a proper noun.

I wonder who JA found for scribes. Days earlier he mentioned borrowing “the hand of a friend” to write a letter. A few years earlier he had his wife and presumably other younger family members (granddaughters?) to help if necessary. After writing to TJ about Ben Franklin and his, ahem, “appetites,” (November 15, 1813, which I excerpted here) he closes with this gem: “As I have no Amanuenses but females, and there is so much about generation in this letter that I dare not ask any one of them to copy it, and I cannot copy it myself I must beg of you to return it to me…”

Word of the day: Amanuensis—a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.

Euphemism of the day: Generation

I wonder about the scribes, but that’s all.

Back to the cynical quips of a sour elder. JA to TJ: “What a poor ignorant, Malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous Mass, is Tom Pains Common Sense…”

Leaving aside JA’s fascinating disdain for Thomas Paine, in “Crapulous Mass” my search for the perfect insult is finally over. It’s been a fun ride, John Adams. I began this journey more than a year ago. It was a simple quest: to search the wisdom and knowledge of the two greatest Founding Fathers, to grow in historical understanding, to glean the truths and lessons and apply these to my own life as I navigate the waters of manhood, servanthood, and humanity. Thank you, Mr. Adams, for ensuring that my most memorable takeaways in this project remain on the same level as when I began, which hasn’t progressed much since 1994 when I could recite almost every line from “Dumb and Dumber.” I’m off to dig out some old Ren and Stimpy VHS tapes.

Loving Libraries

January 19, 1819 – March 21, 1819

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams: “About a week before I received your favor of Dec. 30 the 22d. No. of the North American review had come to hand, without my knowing from what quarter. . . I had never before seen the work; but have read this No. with attention and great satisfaction. It may stand boldly on the shelf by the side of the Edinburg Review; and, as I find that Mr. Channing has agents in George town and Richmond, where I can readily make the necessary payments, I shall write to one of them to enter me as a subscriber. I see with pride that as we are ahead of Europe in Political science, so on other subjects we are getting along side of them.”

Curiosity leads me to the digital archive of the North American Review at Cornell University. I should probably be over this by now, but I’m still shocked by the amount of information available to me just by typing a few words in a search engine. Considering how much time and effort Jefferson and Adams spent trying to procure books to satisfy their quest for knowledge, maybe I shouldn’t get over it. It’s ridiculous how easy it is for us today.

The North American Review was founded in Boston in 1815. Here’s a sampling from the table of contents of Volume 8, Issue: 22, December 1818:

Trumbull’s History of Connecticut
pp. 72-118
Women, or Pour et Contre
pp. 118-135
Battle of Niagara and Goldau
pp. 142-157
Clinton’s Discourse before the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York
pp. 157
National Poetry
pp. 169-176
Health of Literary Men
pp. 176-181
Literary Institutions, – University, – Library
pp. 191-200

The article on literary institutions was probably of interest to Jefferson, as he was in the middle of getting his new University of Virginia up and running. Who knows, maybe that’s why someone sent him a copy. In a number of his letters he asks JA for his recommendations on courses of study or books for the school.

The article is mostly concerned with affirming that universities need to have a top-notch library, and, in comparing institutions, the author echoes Jefferson’s concern about the USofA catching up with Europe:

“It is also of great importance, that the library of a university should not only be good, but very good, ample, munificent, a deposit of the world’s knowledge. It is a grievous thing to be stopped short in the midst of an inquiry for, perhaps, the very book, that throws most light upon it; and the progress of learning must be but small indeed among us, so long as the student must send across the Atlantic at every turn for the necessary aids to his purruits. It is not with us as it is in Europe, where very many large libraries exist, and where what is not contained in one, may be found in another . . .”

The top two libraries in the country, says the author, are the “Philadelphia library” (presumably the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731) and the “Library of Harvard University at Cambridge,” each with about 30,000 volumes, compared to, for example, “the University Library at Cambridge, England, 90,000 volumes.”

Today the Harvard University Library contains 16.8 million volumes. The Library Company of Philadelphia, which originated under Ben Franklin as a lending library, is now an “independent research library concentrating on American society and culture from the 17th through the 19th centuries,” and it contains “over half a million rare books, manuscripts, pamphlets, broadsides, prints, and photographs relating to early American history.”

Whoever wrote for the North American Review sure loved libraries:

“A man of liberal and enlarged views finds a congenial air in the neighborhood of a large library. He perceives himself within reach of his mind’s sustenance, and to place him where there is a dearth of books, is to make the air which he breathes sharp and thin.”