Oh, Right, Slavery DOES Exist

December 10, 2012

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Some connection points: Missouri Compromise repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854, allowing states to choose slavery or no slavery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

December 3, 2012

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

November 19, 2012

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.”

May 29, 1818 – December 30, 1818

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “Now Sir, my Griefs! The dear Partner of my Life for fifty four years as a Wife and for many Years more as a Lover, now lyes in extremis, forbidden to speak or be spoken to.”

This was written on October 20. Abigail Adams died on October 28 of typhoid fever. She was 73 years old and was married to John Adams for 54 years. JA’s comment about being lovers for more than 54 years is intriguing, probably only because it resists our stereotypes of prudish 18th century Puritans. I won’t pretend to know anything more than that, other than it sounds like true love to me. Much has already been written about the impressive Mrs. Adams. I hesitate to dwell on morbidity, but one particular scene in her life sticks with me, which is the image of three generations standing together in one room: Mrs. Adams beside the bedside of her dying daughter, Abigail Adams Smith, along with Mrs. Smith’s daughter, Caroline Amelia Smith. Not long after her daughter’s death, AA wrote to Mr. Jefferson:

A lively only daughter of her Mother lives to console me.

“who in her youth, has all that Age required”
“And with her prudence, all that youth admired”

Since I first read that, I’ve been wondering about Caroline Amelia. How old was she when her mother died? What happened to her? The romantic side of me imagined her as a little girl literally consoling AA—and vice versa—by staying with her grandparents and growing up there as a second daughter to Mr. and Mrs. Adams. In reality, she was 18 years old and she married a year later. Not much as been written about her. Despite being the granddaughter and niece of two U.S. presidents, she has—like most of us will—slowly dissipated into the foggy history of ordinary, unknown people.

Caroline was, however, a writer. In 1841 she edited and published her mother’s journal and correspondence, which also included a number of letters written to herself by her grandparents, John and Abigail Adams. Below is an excerpted letter written to her by AA, about one month after Caroline married John Peter De Windt.


Quincy, Oct. 23d, 1814.


If you find as many joyful faces to receive you, as you have left sorrowful hearts behind you, you will have no reason to complain. When upon former occasions you have been separated from me, it was always with the expectation of having you again with me ; since I have considered you as mine, you have been to me one of the chief props and supports of my declining years. By your watchful attention, and cheerful readiness to prevent even my wants, you have rendered yourself so necessary to me, as to be the solace of my days. It is natural to feel a privation in proportion to our enjoyments; what then, think you, is the void left in my breast? . . .

Yesterday completed half a century since I entered the married state, then just your age. I have great cause of thankfulness that I have lived so long, and enjoyed so large a portion of happiness as has been my lot. The greatest source of unhappiness I have known in that period, has arisen from the long and cruel separations which I was called in a time of war, and with a young family around me, to submit to. My pen runs on, “but,” as the gallant Adam said to Eve, “with thee conversing I forget all time.”

That you and the rest of my posterity may enjoy as large a share of felicity as has fallen to me, is the sincere wish and prayer of your affectionate grandmother, A. A.

Caroline dedicated the published collection to her uncle, John Quincy Adams. After he received a copy, he wrote this letter to Caroline (excerpted):

TO MRS. C. A. D. W.

Quincy, 30th October, 1841

My Dear Niece:

I HAVE delayed acknowledging the receipt of your volume of journal and correspondence of my dear sister, your revered mother, until I should have read it entirely through, a practice which I always observe in reading a collection of letters. . .

The writers are all of them among the dearest, tenderest and most affectionate relatives whom I have enjoyed upon earth—a father, a mother, an only sister whom I ever knew, and her beloved husband. . .

I thank you for the dedication of your book, and for the separate copy of each of the two engraved prints.

The portrait of my sister is a memorial upon which I can never look but with pleasure, which it is but just should be reflected upon her daughter.

I am, my dear niece, your

Affectionate uncle,


Abigail Adams Smith, engraved from the original painting by John Singleton Copley. Printed in “The Journal and Correspondence of Miss Adams,” edited by Caroline Amelia Smith De Windt, 1841.

Later, Caroline included that letter in a book of poetry she published in 1842 entitled, Melzinga: A Souvenir. One of her poems, “Years in the Wilderness,” describes her childhood in New York and the death of her mother. Below is an excerpt:

She to the wilderness, where oft her parents
To beguile of sorrow, and reverse of fortune,
Would climb the rock, for fruit or flowers,
Tempt the stream to catch the speckled trout.
In woods she’d boil the maple sap, or with
The Indian in the forest, braid the
Straw and weave the basket.

Or in tuneful numbers turn her wheel.

Then mounted on palfrey gray, descend the
Bank, and with an aged matron, ail
Intent her solitude to sweeten, would
Ramble through the wood, gather flowers
Richly spread by nature’s hand, or ford the
Dashing stream, when with raised feet to keep
Them from the river’s brink, the aged steed
Would nearly swim across the stream.

The loved one of her sire—the child whose
Every wish he’d watched, anticipated
All her youthful fancies, and had in her
With parental fondness realized his
Cherished expectations ; whene’er they met,
His arms expanded to receive her, she
Rushed to their fond embrace, and on his
Bosom hushed her childish fears, she
Filled his heart, and was his only daughter.

Her mother sickened, and oft in the
Silent midnight watch, while cup or potion
Warmed for her relief, would the prayer
On bended knee ascend, and with
Devotion from the heart implore the
Agency divine, to cheer and bless ; it
Came—the sainted mother sank to rest in
Her aged parents’ fond embrace,
And left her child their warmest love to claim.
The old man wept—but sorrowed not as
Those bereft of hope. The Christian’s brightest
Joys were his—for she whose loss he mourned,
Had led the way to immortality.
Her life had been of peace and love,
And preparation for the blessed above.

A year elapsed! to the altar the
Maid was led, and then to former scenes
Returned, where her early childhood had
Been passed . . .

The biographical sketch you’ll most likely read about Caroline’s father, Colonel William Stephens Smith, is that he was more or less an irresponsible husband who squandered his opportunities. That’s probably all true—and explains the poem’s “reverse of fortune.” But, of course, that has nothing to do with the people in his life, the sorrows he suffered, or the joys he cherished, like the love of a wife and a daughter. That’s the stuff that dissipates, a little bit preserved here and there by a poem or a letter like the ones above. Not that the dissipation is a bad thing. That’s life. But it’s worth remembering that behind the face or name of every stranger—in the past or in the present—is a deep well of experiences, friends, struggles, joys, and uncertainties. I’d probably be a nicer person if I did a better job at that.

I’ll give JA the last word. On December 30, 1818, about two months after the death of his wife, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson. I imagine him standing at a window that night, wrapped in a blanket and looking out over a moonlit field, unable to sleep, as the lonely house groans and cracks under a winter chill. Having lived beyond his wife and daughter, perhaps he clutches in his hand a letter from his 23-year old granddaughter. “All is now still and tranquil. There is nothing to try Mens Souls nor to excite Men’s Souls but Agriculture. And I say, God speed the Plough, and prosper the stone Wall.”

Spot the Real Letter!

October 30, 2012

May 26, 1817 – May 17, 1818

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, May 17, 1818:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the event of the revolution of S. America. They will succeed against Spain. But the dangerous enemy is within their own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain their minds and bodies under religious and military despotism. I do believe it would be better for them to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify them to take charge of themselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep them at peace with one another. Surely it is our duty to wish them independence and self-government, because they wish it themselves, and they have the right, and we none, to chuse for themselves: and I wish moreover that our ideas may be erroneous, and theirs prove well founded.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, May 17, 2012:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the event of the revolution of Syria. They will succeed against Bashar al-Assad. But the dangerous enemy is within their own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain their minds and bodies under religious and military despotism. I do believe it would be better for them to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify them to take charge of themselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep them at peace with one another. Surely it is our duty to wish them independence and self-government, because they wish it themselves, and they have the right, and we none, to chuse for themselves: and I wish moreover that our ideas may be erroneous, and theirs prove well founded.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, May 17, 1860:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the notion of emancipation. The slaves will succeed against their masters. But the dangerous enemy is within their own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain their minds and bodies with stagnation and vengeance. I do believe it would be better for them to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify them to take charge of themselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep them at peace with us. Surely it is our duty to wish them independence, because they wish it themselves, and they have the right, and we none, to chuse for themselves: and I wish moreover that our ideas may be erroneous, and theirs prove well founded.”

Thomas Jefferson to French dude, May 17, 1776:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the event of the revolution of the American colonies. We will succeed against Britain. But the dangerous enemy is within our own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain our minds and bodies under religious and military despotism. I do believe it would be better for us to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify us to take charge of ourselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep us at peace with one another. Surely it is your duty to wish us independence and self-government, because we wish it ourselves, and we have the right, and you none, to chuse for ourselves: and I wish moreover that your ideas may be erroneous, and ours prove well founded.”

Is this at all helpful? Jefferson’s real words made me think how this refrain seems to echo throughout the history of revolutions and freedom fights. I think our current president made a similar point in a recent debate—not the same point, but similar. Something about how his administration’s pace of movement in supporting the rebellion in Syria depends on whether a legitimate replacement of President Assad can be identified (rather than replacing him with another terrorist regime). The argument was there for Egypt’s overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, too.

It may or may not make sense for Syria and Egypt; it’s an open question. In the case of American slavery and the American Revolution, it sounds like hogwash, right? Freedom now! Except that it was as open a question during their time as it is today.

So we’re back to the old “hindsight is 20/20” conundrum. Again, is it helpful? Should we be learning anything from this? Should we be yelling “Freedom!” and dropping a SEAL team on Assad’s house about now? Or is our moral clarity over American colonial rebellion and immediate emancipation for slaves just part of the myth-making that occurs over time? During the American Revolution, plenty of fence-sitters were all for freedom but weren’t interested in paying the price of war. Leading up to the American Civil War, plenty of anti-slavery people feared that immediate emancipation would leave slaves—without education, legal protection, job skills—at the mercy of former masters who would simply employ them in equally dismal serf-like conditions.

Maybe “morality” isn’t the issue. Abraham Lincoln was morally against slavery, but he signed the Emancipation Proclamation to win the war, not to end slavery (and the Proclamation didn’t free all slaves, just those in the “rebellious states”).

On the other hand, when you compare the North American colonies with the South American colonies, Jefferson (Mr. Declaration of Independence) sounds like an ass. We get our freedom, but they’re too ignorant to handle it? Was Jefferson being a hypocrite or is my moral clarity getting in the way?

How’s that for a mash-up of current Middle Eastern events, global colonial history, and the American Civil War?

April 19, 1817 – May 18, 1817

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “I congratulate you, on the late Election in Connecticutt.”

Come again?

I admit that I’m always on the lookout for mention of Connecticut. Ever notice how we love to elevate the histories of our own state? If you’re from Massachusetts, you’re the seed bed of the American Revolution. If you’re from Rhode Island, you’re the beacon of religious freedom. If you’re from Connecticut, you pretty much bankrolled the Revolution AND the Civil War. If you’re from Maine, you’re, well, you’re from Maine. If you’re from New York, the world begins here and New England is a joke with delusions of grandeur. And, yes, I’m goading my Mainer friends: let’s hear a shout-out.

Back to Connecticut. JA brings up the Constitution State now and then, usually as a whipping boy in some snarky comment about aristocratic government and religious barbarism. I seem to remember a dig about the Blue Laws a few letters back. (Just search “blue laws,” and “Connecticut” in recent online news and you’ll figure it out. As of May 20, 2012, we can buy booze on Sunday.)

History lesson in 50 words or less: In their younger days, it was John Adams (Federalist) vs. Thomas Jefferson (Republican). In this letter, JA is referring to the election of Oliver Wolcott as governor of Connecticut. Wolcott is a (Jeffersonian) Republican and his victory is the first defeat of a Federalist governor in Connecticut history. One of the biggest issues in this election is religious freedom. Governor Wolcott will soon call a state constitutional convention in order to, among other things, disestablish the Congregational Church. Until 1818, the Congregational Church was the official state church, supported by state taxes.

Sorry, 92 words.

In their older years, JA and TJ are now enjoying life outside of politics. Besides, they’re both on the same side of religious freedom, or at least on the same side of bashing religious dominance.

TJ to JA: “I had believed that [i.e. Connecticut and Massachusetts]*, the last retreat of Monkish darkness, bigotry, and abhorrence of those advances of the mind which had carried the other states a century ahead of them. They seemed still to be exactly where their forefathers were when they schismatised from the Covenant of works, and to consider, as dangerous heresies, all innovations good or bad. I join you therefore in sincere congratulations that this den of the priesthood is at length broken up, and that a protestant popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character.”

I think TJ is referring to both Connecticut and Massachusetts with an implied hope that JA’s home state will soon join the ranks of the enlightened. Massachusetts kept its state-established Congregational Church until 1833.

Here’s JA’s response, and tell me this isn’t someone feeling embarassed by his native land, and overcompensating a wee bit:

JA to TJ: “Oh! Lord! Do you think that a Protestant Popedom is annihilated in America? . . . Do you know that The General of the Jesuits and consequently all his Host have their Eyes on this Country? Do you know that the Church of England is employing more means and more Art, to propagate their demipopery among Us, than ever? Quakers, Anabaptists Moravians Swedenborgians, Methodists, Unitarians, Nothingarians in all Europe are employing understrand [underhand?]** means to propagate their sectarian Systems in these States.”

I get it by now that JA is a bit of an ironical blowhard, and this is a personal letter, not a campaign speech. But this, and TJ’s letter, is obnoxious.

This anti-Catholic language—and the reminder of long-established Puritan institutions in New England—are revealing when you put things into a larger context, and I’m thinking of the waves of Irish-Catholic immigrants that will crash against a wall of suspicion and hatred in Boston, New York, and other American cities in the next 70 years or so after these letters.

I know JA is having some fun (“Nothingarians?”), but some substantive discussion of the merits (and demerits) of religious thought, diversity, dissension, community, etc. would be appreciated from time to time, rather than the incessant “throw-the-bums-out,” especially if we’re calling this the “intellectual capstone to the achievements of the revolutionary generation and the most impressive correspondence between prominent statesmen in all of American history.”

*my note
*editor’s note

Guess Who Reads Sci-Fi?

October 15, 2012

December 15, 1816 – February 2, 1817

At the age of 81, Adams is churning through the books. This week he says, “To help me on in my career of improvement I have now read four Volumes of La Harps Correspondence with Paul and a Russian Minister.”

Jefferson’s response reveals a difference not only in how the two men fill their time, but also, to be crude, in their degree of public popularity. TJ to JA: “Dear Sir, how I envy you! . . . From sun-rise to one or two aclock, and often from dinner to dark, I am drudging at the writing table. And all this to answer letters into which neither interest nor inclination on my part enters; and often for persons whose names I have never before heard. Yet, writing civilly, it is hard to refuse them civil answers. This is the burthen of my life, a very grievous one indeed, and one which I must get rid of. Delaplaine lately requested me to give him a line on the subject of his book; meaning, as I well knew, to publish it. This I constantly refuse; but in this instance yielded, that, in saying a word for him I might say two for myself. I expressed in it freely my sufferings from this source; hoping it would have the effect of an indirect appeal to the discretion of those, strangers and others, who in the most friendly dispositions, oppress me with their concerns, their pursuits, their projects, inventions and speculations, political, moral, religious mechanical mathematical, historical etc. etc. etc.”

Everyone wants a piece of TJ.

I don’t want to overstate this. It’s not as if Adams is a recluse, shut in his hobbit hole in Braintree smoking his pipe, a leather-bound tome on his lap beside a whispery fire. But it points to Jefferson’s legendary status that will surpass Adams’s. More than once, Mr. and Mrs. Adams have good-naturedly referred to Jefferson as the “phylosopher of Monticello” or something similar. And last time I visited, there was no Adams Memorial on the National Mall (not yet anyway).

Of course, Jefferson is reading plenty, too—some good sci-fi, perhaps? I had to stop and investigate when I read this line from TJ to Abigail Adams: “Mercier has given us a vision of the year 2440, but prophecy is one thing, history is another.”

Now, I’m not exactly looking for more science fiction to read, because, trust me, I already have a to-read list long enough to satisfy my own career of improvement, and I’m not a fast reader. I’ve managed a significant chunk of Frank Herbert—proud of myself, there—but I’m just wading into the likes of Orson Scott Card, Dan Simmons, Ray Bradbury, etc. etc. etc. Wait, did I get it wrong, is this career derailment?

But how can one resist an 18th-century futuristic novel? Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred, by Louis-Sébastien Mercier. Or, to be exact, L‘an deux mille quatre cent quarante: Rêve s’il en fût jamais, literally: “The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One,” which must have been deemed too complicated for English readers, because the translator rounded things up to the year 2500. Sci-fi idiots.

According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, it was “probably the first utopia to be published in the USA, in 1795, a reprint of the 1772 translation.” I’m sure it’s awful, but it’s going on my list.

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