That’s That

December 1, 1825 – April 17, 1826

If I were Thomas Jefferson: Thus endeth this glorious peregrination through the marrow of literary confabulation between these two Argonauts of Liberty.

If I were John Adams: That did take an hour out of my life that I shall never get back.

If I were me: In the words of Philip Seymour Hoffman, “That’s that.”

This final post invites the inevitable question, who would I rather have dinner with, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson? My first impulse would be Adams. He’s more down-to-earth, honest, humorous, and talkative than Jefferson. Plus, he’s a Bostonian with that New England cynicism born of dark winter days and black flies. However, the reality is that whoever I dine with, I’ll be sitting there sipping hard cider and sucking on a pheasant bone in moronic silence as my host expounds on the philosophy and scientific contributions of Joseph Priestly. In this case, I know that Mr. Adams will browbeat me to tears, while Mr. Jefferson (the Southern gentleman) may have the grace and gentility to treat me as a valid citizen of the world. Still, I’m going with Adams. When I get back from the time machine I don’t want to say I made my decision because I was a coward.

I’ve ruined the mood of these last few lines that I’m going to share, but as you might expect from Mr. Adams, “the end” is on his mind in his second-to-last letter:

JA to TJ: “I am far from trifling with the idea of Death which is a great and solemn event. But I contemplate it without terror or dismay, “aut transit, au finit” [“either it is a transformation, or it is the end”], if finit, which I cannot believe, and do not believe, there is then an end of all but I shall never know it, and why should I dread it, which I do not; if transit I shall ever be under the same constitution and administration of Government in the Universe, and I am not afraid to trust and confide in it.”

Here is Jefferson’s final letter to Adams. The lofty rhetoric is about what I would expect, an appropriate choice for his “closing remarks”:

“My grandson Th: Jefferson Randolph, being on a visit to Boston, would think he had seen nothing were he to leave it without having seen you. Altho’ I truly sympathise with you in the trouble these interruptions give, yet I must ask for him permission to pay to you his personal respects. Like other young people he wishes to be able, in the winter nights of old age, to recount to those around him what he has heard and learnt of the Heroic age preceding his birth, and which of the Argonauts particularly he was in time to have seen. It was the lot of our early years to witness nothing but the dull monotony of colonial subservience, and of our riper ones to breast the labors and perils of working out of it. Theirs are the Halcyon calms succeeding the storm which our Argosy had so stoutly weathered. Gratify his ambition then by receiving his best bow, and my solicitude for your health by enabling him to bring me a favorable account of it. Mine is but indifferent, but not so my friendship and respect for you…”

Adams’s final letter wasn’t so profound, but his last couple of lines are also what I’d expect, a bit of piss and vinegar to wrap things up.

JA to TJ: “Our American Chivalry is the worst in the World. It has no Laws, no bounds, no definitions; it seems to be all a Caprice. My love to all your family, and best wishes for your health…”

John Adams, October 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826
Thomas Jefferson, April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826

Yeah, that’s right, same day, same year, July the 4th. I don’t know what that means but it scares the hell out of me.

Now’s where I want to write something about how history enriches our lives and how we can find wisdom and guidance in the writings of great men. I don’t discount that at all, but you don’t want to hear it. It’s been fun and thought-provoking, but let’s not overdo it. When I was younger, I read certain books with the expectation and hope that each one would change my life, offer some breakthrough into a new level of wisdom and happiness. What I’ve learned since then is that a) that doesn’t happen, and b) sometimes it does happen, but you won’t know it until years later.

A while back I had an email exchange with a friend about our shared habit of over-analyzing both major and minor life decisions (particularly those with moral or ethical or spiritual implications) and its ineffectiveness in actually producing meaningful action. Our conclusion was to stop thinking from now on. The one consolation in this disappointing realization was my friend’s suggestion that the many years of philosophical analysis will hopefully inform, at least subconsciously, the rest of our thoughtless decisions starting now.

That may have nothing to do with the Adams-Jefferson Letters unless maybe I consider them part of a cumulative effort to learn from others (Argonauts or not), hopefully transforming me into a more thoughtful, sympathetic, and happy person. Let’s reconvene in a couple of decades and you let me know if it worked.

If you hoped for a more thorough historical analysis of the subject, I apologize. This is what happens when Gen-Xers read this kind of stuff.

I’m off for a while, maybe to pretend to work on some creative writing, maybe to scrounge for another book to entertain you with, maybe to take the red pill. Crap, I forgot if it was the red or the blue, and Wikipedia had the answer. And I was like, “No way, that’s great!”


Red Hot Pokers and All

January 22 1825 – April 19, 1825

I felt it was worth copying this complete letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, January 23, 1825, and also making it a color that hurts your eyes:

My Dear Sir,

We think ourselves possessed or at least we boast that we are so of Liberty of conscience on all subjects and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment, in all cases and yet how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact. There exists throughout the whole Christian world a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or to doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the old and new Testaments from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack or the wheel: in England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red hot poker: in America it is not much better, even in our Massachusetts which I believe upon the whole is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States. A law was made in the latter end of the last century repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the old Testament or new. Now what free inquiry when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigation into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Volney’s Recherches Nouvelles? who would run the risk of translating Dupuis? but I cannot enlarge upon this subject though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws. It is true few persons appear desirous to put such laws in execution and it is also true that some few persons are hardy enough to venture to depart from them; but as long as they continue in force as laws the human mind must make an awkward and clumsy progress in its investigations. I wish they were repealed. The substance and essence of Christianity as I understand it is eternal and unchangeable and will bear examination forever but it has been mixed with extraneous ingredients, which I think will not bear examination and they ought to be separated.

Without having reviewed every (or any) early 19th-century law on religious inquiry, I assume there is a bit of exaggeration here. That’s not to diminish the long and continued history of religious dogmatism and persecution, but just considering the amount of “free inquiry” that both Adams and Jefferson have engaged in throughout their correspondence, it may not have been quite as bad as JA suggests. However, I’m copying the whole letter because obviously I think JA has made some good points.

This is where I shoehorn whatever I want into the Adams-Jefferson correspondence. A couple of weeks ago I listened to an episode of BBC Radio’s “In Our Time” examining the ideas of the existentialist and Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. One of the guests on the program, Jonathan Rée, discussed SK’s phrase, “becoming a Christian,” a way of describing that there is no such thing as “being a Christian,” because the inquiry into truth and the mysteries of faith, love, God, Christ, etc. can never be a completed task. To quote Rée, “The very idea of being a Christian is contradictory because to be a Christian would be to think of Christianity as a doctrine that you could relax into like a comfortable armchair. But the whole point about being a Christian is that you always have to be on your guard against relapsing into taking things for granted.”

I like that, and while it isn’t about JA’s issue with the divine inspiration of scripture, if we use his letter as a launching point for thinking about “free inquiry” and the authenticity of faith, it’s a reasonable place to go. That leads me to two more quotes. One, from SK’s Fear and Trembling, written in 1843: “What every man has not a right to do, is to make others believe that faith is something lowly, or that it is an easy thing, whereas it is the greatest and hardest.”

Lest you think I actually comprehended more than 10% of Fear and Trembling, here’s my second quote, from Philip Yancey, a much more accessible writer than SK to the average Christian skeptic. This is from Reaching for the Invisible God, written in 2002: “Faith is the skeleton in the closet of faith, and I know no better way to treat a skeleton than to bring it into the open and expose it for what it is: not something to hide or fear, but a hard structure on which living tissue may grow. . . Doubt always coexists with faith, for in the presence of certainty who would need faith at all?”

I like that too. If faith is the greatest and hardest thing, then it makes sense for the 89-year old Adams to still be wrestling with the mysteries of the universe. I much prefer “becoming a Christian” to a red-hot-poker-in-the-tongue.

Le Marquis

December 29, 1823 – January 8, 1825

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “You and I have been favored with a visit from our old friend General La Fayette.”

Marquis de Lafayette, 1825, by Charles Cromwell Ingham

This is not a bio of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. You can search-engine that, baby. He’s best known ‘round these parts as the French war-hero of the American Revolution. He was also an honorary son to George Washington, ADORED by the American people, a major figure in France before, during, and after the French Revolution (as a wealthy aristocrat and a lover of democracy and freedom, he walked a tight-rope during that time), a committed abolitionist, a handsome devil, and a really, really fascinating person of history. Here’s a helpful timeline:

Marquis De La Fayette, 1791, by Joseph-Désiré Court

1777: Nineteen-year old filthy rich French whippersnapper joins the American Revolution (he’s got connections and can pay his way to the New World). Fights his first battle five days after his twentieth birthday. Takes a bullet in the leg. A hero is born.

Forty-seven years follow, which you can learn about when you search-engine it.

1824: Sixty-seven-year old French statesman and American Idol returns to the USofA on a year-long celebrity tour of all 24 states. If you’re from Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, or Virginia, check your local monument listings for the statue of LaFayette.

Equestrian statue of Lafayette. Hartford’s got one.

To get an idea of the popularity of this man, picture this: When Lafayette arrived on a ship at Staten Island on August 15, 1824, 80,000 people came out to greet him. That was two-thirds the population of New York City. Possibly there was nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon.

If you’re looking for a good biography, I recommend Lafayette: Hero of Two Worlds by Olivier Bernier. Yeah, yeah, it’s the only book about LaFayette that I’ve read, but as biographies go, it’s very well done, humanizing and inspiring. For a quicker journey, Lafayette: The Lost Hero is a short, excellent PBS documentary. I re-watched parts of it today and two short stories touched me once again.

One, a small illustration of Lafayette’s firm belief in equality and stance against slavery: During a procession in his honor in front of the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Lafayette recognizes a face in the crowd and stops his carriage. He steps into the crowd to greet James Armistead Lafayette, a former slave and Revolutionary spy who volunteered and served under the General during the war. It is an impressive scene, described in the film, when “the two men embrace as the whole city of slaveholders looks on.”

Two, a love story (and someone really should make a movie): Lafayette married Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles in 1774 (he was 16, she was 14). It was one of those arranged marriages where love blossomed. I don’t know any more details except for these final words of Adrienne on her deathbed, in her husband’s arms, in 1807 (this is me transcribing the film’s likely butchering of a primary source): “Gilbert, there was a time after you first came back from America and I felt so attracted to you. How lucky that passion should have been my duty. Will you give me your blessing? You’re not a Christian, you’re a Fayettiste. Me too. I am all yours.”

Romantics unite in tears. Of course, there were some allegations of infidelity during those happy golden years, but, come on, romantic period drama! Maybe I’ll get started on a screenplay.

I can’t seem to end these posts without a tangential comment by John Adams. It isn’t my fault, they just keep coming. But I love it. JA to TJ: “I still breathe, which will not be long, but while I do I shall breathe out wishes for the welfare of mankind, hoping that they will daily become more deserving of it.”

How Much Longer?

April 11, 1823 – November 10, 1823

Thomas Jefferson must have been in a particularly “Enlightenment” mood in April, considering the long letter he writes to John Adams excoriating John Calvin and Calvinism, translating John 1:1 to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and describing the divinity of Jesus as a “fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words,” not to mention “mystical,” and on par with “the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” All this because JA made a joke about his own affinity with Calvin’s arthritis, gout, and sciatica. Talk about hitting a nerve.

John Calvin, 1509-1564
“He was indeed an Atheist” – Thomas Jefferson
Not exactly a measured assessment.

This could be the jumping-off point for a discussion of the founding fathers’ Christian beliefs (or lack thereof), but my mood is more along the lines of this sign-off by JA: “I salute your fire-side with cordial esteem and affection. J.A. In the 89 year of his age still too fat to last much longer.”

You also may be wondering how much longer this correspondence can go on, or, equally important, how much longer my corresponding erudition can sustain itself. (Was that a pun?)

Rest assured, 15 letters remain in the collection, which means just 3 more weeks of disciplined reading and questionably enlightened reflection. (Was that a poem?)

Mr. English, American Muslim

November 1, 1822 – March 10 , 1823

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “Mr. English a Bostonian has published a volume of his expedition with Ishmael Pashaw up the river Nile. He advanced above the third Cataract and opens a prospect of a resurrection from the dead of those vast and ancient Countries of Abyssinia and Etheopia. A free communication with India and the river Niger and the City of Tombuctou. This however is conjecture and speculation rather than certainty, but a free communication by land between Europe and India will e’re long be opened. A few American steam boats, and our Quincy Stone Cutters would soon make the Nile as navigable as our Hudson Patomac or Mississippi. You see as my reason and intellect fails my imagination grows more wild and ungovernable, but my friendship remains the same.”

I don’t follow JA’s connections between the Nile, Tombuctou, and India, but it sounds like he doesn’t either.

Africa, 1828from "HISTORISCH-GENEALOGISCH-GEOGRAPHISCHER ATLAS von Le Sage Graf Las Cases. Karlsruhe. Bei Creuzbauer und Nöldeke 1829"
North Africa, 1828
from “HISTORISCH-GENEALOGISCH-GEOGRAPHISCHER ATLAS von Le Sage Graf Las Cases. Karlsruhe. Bei Creuzbauer und Nöldeke 1829”

Who, I ask, was George Bethune English?

You may not be surprised by this, but I am trying to avoid the siren call of Wikipedia to answer my questions. So, like a good researcher, I randomly scrolled past Google’s first few search results pages until I finally came across a brief Bethune biography courtesy of Yale University Library. I wouldn’t dream of paraphrasing the work of such academic excellence, so here is the full entry:

George Bethune English (March 7, 1787 – September 20, 1828) was an American adventurer, diplomat, soldier, and convert to Islam.

The oldest of four children, English was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was baptized at Trinity Church on April 1, 1787. He later attended Harvard College, where his dissertation won a Bowdoin Prize he received a Masters in theology in 1811. During his studies, however, English encountered doubts about Christian theology, and went on to publish his misgivings in a book entitled ”The Grounds of Christianity Examined”, which earned him excommunication from the Church of Christ in 1814. English addressed some of the criticisms and controversies caused by his first book in a second tract, “A Letter to the Reverend Mr. Cary,” as well as in published responses to Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing’s (1780–1842) “Two Sermons on Infidelity.” Subsequently he edited a country newspaper, during which time he may have learned the Cherokee language.

English was nominated by President James Madison on February 27, 1815 and commissioned on March 1, 1815 as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps during the War of 1812 and assigned to Marine Corps headquarters. He then sailed to the Mediterranean, and was among the first citizens of the United States known to have visited Egypt. Shortly after arriving in Egypt he resigned his commission, converted to Islam and joined Isma’il Pasha in an expedition up the Nile River against Sennar 1820, winning distinction as an officer of artillery. He published his ”Narrative of the Expedition to Dongola and Sennaar” (London 1822) regarding his exploits. A colleague from Harvard, Edward Everett, published a rejoinder to English’s book “The Grounds of Christianity Examined,” to which English responded with his 1824 book “Five Smooth Stones out of the Brook.”

After his work for Isma’il Pasha, English worked in the Diplomatic Corps of the United States in the Levant, where he worked to secure a trade agreement between the United States and the Ottoman Empire, which had trade valued at nearly $800,000 in 1822. In 1827, he returned to the United States and died in Washington the next year. Provided by Wikipedia.

Damn it. I knew something was wrong when I read the third sentence and that random bit about learning Cherokee. You win this round, you nameless, soulless cloud of inconsistent yet extremely helpful knowledge.

On the plus side, Narrative of the Expedition to Dongola and Sennaar is an audiobook, downloadable here. Is this now loaded on my iPod, ready for tomorrow’s morning commute? You know it is.