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Agents in Posterity

January 7, 2013

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).

Lincoln

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.

Lincoln-Stevens

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.

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May 20, 1804 – October 25, 1804

Jefferson’s daughter, Maria Jefferson Eppes, died on April 17, 1804, two months after giving birth to a daughter. This news prompted Abigail Adams to write to him, sixteen years after their last correspondence. The result is seven letters between the two during 1804.

AA to TJ: “It has been some time since that I conceived of any event in this Life, which could call forth, feelings of mutual sympathy. But I know how closely entwined around a parents heart, are those chords which bind the filial to the parental Bosom, and when snaped assunder, how agonizing the pangs of seperation. I have tasted the bitter cup, and bow with reverence, and humility before the great dispenser of it, without whose permission, and over ruling providence, not a sparrow falls to the ground. That you may derive comfort and consolation in this day of your sorrow and affliction, from that only source calculated to heal the wounded heart—a firm belief in the Being: perfections and attributes of God, is the sincere and ardent wish of her, who once took pleasure in suscribing Herself your Friend[,] Abigail Adams.”

I could, and almost want to, end it right there, because what follows feels unseemly. TJ writes back with predictable graciousness, but AA’s past-tense characterization of their friendship begs a response. So he adds a bit about past tensions between him and JA—water under the bridge stuff. Howevah: “I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only, ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure. I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind.” Oh no you didn’t, Mr. J.

What was the pre-can era version of opening a can of worms? Whatever it was he did it, because AA’s about to defend her man. And her son. And the Federalist party. And the Constitution. And the future of the USofA. There are a lot of grievances to air after sixteen years, and I’m not going to list them, but how about this for a taste of what TJ is served:

AA to TJ: “I have never felt any enmity towards you Sir for being elected president of the United States. But the instruments made use of, and the means which were practised to effect a change, have my utter abhorence and detestation, for they were the blackest calumny, and foulest falsehoods.”

Or this:

“…may I be permitted to pause, and ask you whether in your ardent zeal, and desire to rectify the mistakes and abuses as you may consider them, of the former administrations, you are not led into measures still more fatal to the constitution, and more derogatory to your honour, and independence of Character? Pardon me Sir if I say, that I fear you are.”

TJ doesn’t just take it, either.

TJ to AA: “My sole object in this letter being to place before your attention that the acts imputed to me are either such as are falsely imputed, or as might flow from good as well as bad motives, I shall make no other addition than the assurances of my continued wishes for the health and  happiness of yourself and Mr. Adams.”

It’s classic. Two juggernaut personalities trying to reconcile, but not willing to give an inch. It’s marriage counseling 101. Someone’s got to give first, who’s it gonna be? I suppose TJ wins this one, since he finally stops responding and lets AA have the last word.

I’m having a bit of fun with this, which isn’t fair, because they aren’t joking around and the correspondence actually brings up some great topics about constitutional interpretation. For example, what’s the deal with presidential pardons? Here is one of AA’s grievances against TJ:

AA to TJ: “One of the first acts of your administration was to liberate a wretch who was suffering the just punishment of the Law due to his crimes for writing and publishing the basest libel, the lowest and vilest Slander, which malice could invent or callumny exhibit against the Character and reputation of your predecessor…”

A “wretch” gets locked up for writing crap about President Adams (under the Sedition Act of 1798). When TJ becomes president, he pardons said wretch.

TJ to AA: “I discharged ever person under punishment or prosecution under the Sedition law, because I considered and now consider that law to be a nullity as absolute and as palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image…”

AA to TJ: “With regard to the act under which he [the wretch] was punished, different persons entertain different opinions respecting it. It lies not to me to decide upon its validity. That I presume devolved upon the supreem Judges of the Nation: but I have understood that the power which makes a Law, is alone competent to the repeal. If a Chief Magistrate can by his will annul a law, where is the difference between a republican, and a despotic Government?”

Good point. I have never understood why presidents are allowed to pardon criminals.

TJ to AA: “You seem to think it devolved on the judges to decide on the validity of the sedition law. But nothing in the constitution has given them a right to decide for the executive, more than to the Executive to decide for them. Both magistracies are equally independant in the sphere of action asigned to them. The judges, believing the law constitutional, had a right to pass a sentence of fine and imprisonment, because that power was placed in their hands by the constitution. But the Executive, believing the law to be unconstitutional, was bound to remit the execution of it; because that power has been confided to him by the constitution.”

Now, that is taking separation of powers seriously. It goes beyond my elementary school understanding of the three branches of government. The president can do whatever the hell he wants? I don’t know. But let TJ finish:

“That instrument meant that it’s co-ordinate branches should be checks on each other. But the opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional, and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action, but for the legislature and executive also in their spheres, would make the judiciary a despotic branch.”

Ah, “checks and balances,” I know that one! But I’m not sure I follow that logic all the way through. How is the legislative “sphere” any different from the “judicial” sphere when it comes to the law of the land? Still, TJ does raise the uncomfortable issue of an all-powerful Supreme Court. Is the president our last defense if Congress and the Supreme Court take crazy pills and go nuts with the laws? Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution says the President “shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” If things got really bad, how broadly could the president interpret that? What is an “offense” against the United States? I guess this is the eternal, genius tension of the three branches of government and the dynamism of the US Constitution. So they say.

Remember I mentioned that AA had the last word? Actually, that’s not true, because at the end of her last letter, there’s this postscript from Mr. Adams:

“Quincy Nov. 19. 1804. The whole of this Correspondence was begun and conducted without my Knowledge or Suspicion. Last Evening and this Morning at the desire of Mrs. Adams I read the whole. I have no remarks to make upon it at this time and in this place.”

Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall for that breakfast conversation?

“You did what?!”

I’ve said it before, how can you not love this guy?

May 11, 1794 – May 27, 1795

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “I am glad to find you so well pleased with your Retirement. I felt the same delightful Satisfaction after my Return from Europe, and I feel still every Summer upon my little farm all the Ardour, and more than all the Ardour of youth: to such a Degree that I cannot bear the thought of writing or reading, unless it be some trifle to fill up a vacant half hour.”

JA to TJ: “I have spent my Summer so deliciously in farming that I return to the old Story of Politicks with great Reluctance. The Earth is grateful. You find it so, I dare say. I wish We could both say the Same of its Inhabitants.”

TJ to JA: “We have had a hard winter and backward spring. This injured our wheat so much that it cannot be made a good crop by all the showers of heaven which are now falling down on us exactly as we want them. Our first cutting of clover is not yet begun. Strawberries not ripe till within this fortnight, and every thing backward in proportion. What with my farming and my nail manufactory I have my hands full. I am on horseback half the day, and counting and measuring nails the other half. I am trying potatoes on a large scale as a substitute for Indian corn for feeding animals.”

JA to TJ: “If I had Your Plantation and your Labourers* I should be tempted to follow your example and get out of the Fumum et Opes Strepitumque Romae [“the smoke, the wealth, the din of Rome”] which I abominate.”

Joseph J. Ellis in American Creation: “Incantations of virtuous retirement to rural solitude were a familiar and even formulaic refrain, especially within the planter aristocracy of Virginia. The classical models of Cicero and Cincinnatus provided the script, which Jefferson’s principled withdrawal from the hurly-burly of politics to the pastoral serenity of Monticello fit perfectly.”

Noble farmers willing to give it up for absolute power.
"Cincinnatus leaves the plow for the Roman dictatorship" by Juan Antonio Ribera, 1806.

Whose brilliant idea was it to read American Creation as commentary alongside the A-J Letters? You’re welcome. The benefit is the added ability to include some meaningful context to the correspondence. The problem, besides TMI, is what I might call the rabbit hole of historical revelation. This reveals this, which reveals that, which clarifies that, which debunks this, which proves this, which misconstrues that. Where does it end? How many times do I need to acknowledge a caveat of historical ignorance? Maybe every post….

Anyway, where I’m heading is that during TJ’s secretary of state term, his subsequent “retirement,” and the sparse A-J correspondence during the 1790s, Jefferson is doing a lot more than just negotiating Native American sovereignty, as mentioned in the previous post. Essentially he is trying to undermine President Washington’s (and Adams’s) administration and establish the first official opposition party to the Federalists. Ellis lays this story out in his book and Jefferson comes out looking pretty bad. I won’t get into it much deeper than that except for two long but impressive quotes from Ellis.

First, a little more background: Jefferson and James Madison allied to establish the Democratic-Republican party, who feared a too-strong federal government, manifested most clearly in the proposed First Bank of the United States championed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The national bank was established by Congress in 1791; TJ & Co. declared it unconstitutional.** Now here’s Ellis:

“It was not just the bank itself, then, that terrified Madison and his fellow Virginians, though that source of dread was real enough. It was the open-ended definition of federal power on which the bank was authorized, which in effect gave the federal government a roving mandate to extend its authority wherever it wished, to include the thoroughly vulnerable issue of slavery. In the [Democratic-]Republican vision of the current political situation, most especially its distinctive Virginia vision, corrupt “money-men” were making fortunes by shuffling pieces of paper while whispering insulting jokes about the unknowing yeoman farmers they were fleecing. But neither Jefferson nor Madison was really a farmer. (Neither man ever did a full day’s work in the fields.) They and the Virginia constituency they represented were planters, and the labor source on which the plantation economy rested, ever so precariously it turned out, was slavery.”

So, Jefferson was full of it, and as a Virginia plantation owner, he was unavoidably corrupted by the need to protect the South’s slave economy from federal meddling. He undermined the GW administration – while a member of that administration. (He even hired a “translator” in the State Department whose real job was to write crap about GW in the papers.) Here’s what Ellis says about the Federalists’ opinion of Jefferson:

“Hamilton’s exposure of Jefferson’s covert role in the Republican plotting prompted a series of Federalist assaults on his character that drew selectively on his previous career to document his shallowness and lack of integrity: as governor of Virginia he had fled ignominiously before invading British troops; as minister to France he had failed to comprehend the bloody consequences of the French Revolution, insisting that all would turn out well because he clung tenaciously to ‘theoretical principles fit only for Utopia’; as the author of Notes on the State of Virginia he had declared ‘the inherent inferiority of Blacks to Whites, because they are more unsavory and secrete more by the kidneys’; as a mathematician he kept shifting his theorems as he twirled away in his specially designed pivot chair, which became a favorite symbol of Jefferson’s endemic rotations and vacillations. He was, in the Federalist demonology, a misguided, duplicitous, dangerous dreamer whose sublimated ambition would never be satisfied until he became president of the United States.”

Ouch. And Ellis really doesn’t refute most of that, particularly the “duplicitous” characterization.

Is there a lesson here? Skepticism is healthy when it comes to reading primary sources? Every big problem in American history seems to connect to slavery? If you can write the Declaration of Independence, you’ll probably do all right in most history books? Truth is more complicated than myth? Jefferson was a S.O.B.? What do you think?

* I have yet to find the words “slave” or “slavery” in this correspondence. So far only John Adams has mentioned Jefferson’s “labourers.” And only Abigail Adams mentioned Jefferson’s “maid servant,” Sally Hemings. TJ is silent.

**A fun fact to consider the next time you’re in an argument about what the Founding Fathers intended in the Constitution. Even they didn’t agree.

November 10, 1787 – December 12, 1787

“How do you like our new constitution?” – TJ to JA

The U.S. Constitutional Convention convened on May 29 and adjourned on September 17 of 1787. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were not in attendance. That’s like the Red Sox winning the 2004 ALS without Manny and Big Papi. Of course, there were plenty of heavy hitters: George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, Roger Sherman. You could say the American political elite in 1787 had a deep bench. I can’t promise that will be the last sports analogy.

Let’s get down to first impressions.

JA to TJ: “I forwarded a few days ago, from Mr. Gerry, a Copy as I suppose of the Result of Convention.—It seems to be admirably calculated to preserve the Union, to increase Affection, and to bring us all to the same mode of thinking. They have adopted the Idea of the Congress at Albany in 1754 of a President to nominate officers and a Council to Consent: but thank heaven they have adopted a third Branch, which that Congress did not. I think that Senates and Assemblies should have nothing to do with executive Power.”

Jefferson isn’t so enamored. TJ to JA: “I confess there are things in it which stagger all my dispositions to subscribe to what such an assembly has proposed. The house of federal representatives will not be adequate to the management of affairs either foreign or federal. Their president seems a bad edition of a Polish king. He may be reelected from 4. years to 4. years for life. Reason and experience prove to us that a chief magistrate, so continuable, is an officer for life. When one or two generations shall have proved that this is an office for life, it becomes on every succession worthy of intrigue, of bribery, of force, and even of foreign interference. . . I wish that at the end of the 4. years they had made him for ever ineligible a second time.”

Many historians agree that if he wanted to, George Washington could have remained president for the rest of his life, setting the exact precedent Jefferson feared. So, we can thank GW for setting the two-term precedent, and the Congress of 1947 for making it a law (the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951). Or not, if you’re a Libertarian.

JA and TJ wrote these letters on November 10 and 13, respectively, which means they are writing their first impressions of the Constitution without having yet heard the other’s opinion. Now, with JA’s response about a month later, things get interesting.

JA to TJ: “You are afraid of the one—I, of the few. We agree perfectly that the many should have a full fair and perfect Representation.—You are Apprehensive of Monarchy; I, of Aristocracy. I would therefore have given more Power to the President and less to the Senate. The nomination and Appointment to all offices I would have given to the President, assisted only by a Privy Council of his own Creation, but not a Vote or Voice would I have given to the Senate or any Senator, unless he were of the Privy Council. Faction and Distraction are the sure and certain Consequence of giving to a Senate a vote in the distribution of offices.”

Screw Senate hearings.

JA also isn’t too keen on elections. The letter continues: “You are apprehensive the President when once chosen, will be chosen again and again as long as he lives. So much the better as it appears to me. . . [A]s often as Elections happen, the danger of foreign Influence recurs. The less frequently they happen the less danger.—And if the Same Man may be chosen again, it is probable he will be, and the danger of foreign Influence will be less. Foreigners, seeing little Prospect will have less Courage for Enterprise. Elections, my dear sir, Elections to offices which are great objects of Ambition, I look at with terror. Experiments of this kind have been so often tryed, and so universally found productive of Horrors, that there is great Reason to dread them.”

“Foreign influence” was, of course, a big concern during the infancy of the USofA. And instability surrounding elections seems to be a timeless truth, at least globally if not in this country. Here’s an experiment: substitute the phrase “foreign influence” with “corporate interests” and sound that out for today. Adams may have a point. Of course, it’s a slippery path applying 18th-century thinking to 21st-century realities. On the other hand, isn’t that why history matters? Oh, snap.

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