Disconnected and Lacking Context, Part 1

October 28, 1814 – June 19, 1815

The war (of 1812) turned out not to be a topic of interest for the two men. Jefferson writes, “In the first place, Peace, God bless it!” and that’s that. (The Treaty of Ghent was ratified in February 1815.)

Ever feel overwhelmed by the state of public education and the magnitude of raising kids? You are not alone. JA to TJ: “Education, which you brought into View in one of your Letters, is a Subject so vast, and the Systems of Writers are so various and so contradictory: that human Life is too short to examine it; and a Man must die before he can learn to bring up his Children.”

Wishing you had something more to say at your book club? Courtesy of Mr Adams: “You are all Heluones Librorum [Gluttons for Books].”

Feeling like you’ve read one too many Harry Potters and need to step things up a bit? Motivation from Mr. Jefferson: “I cannot live without books: but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.”

Don’t say I never shared words of wisdom.


Dumb Strategies for Peace

June 28, 1812 – May 27, 1813

A somewhat disappointing conclusion from John Adams regarding his discussion with Thomas Jefferson about Native American origins: “Whether Serpents teeth were sown here and sprung up Men; whether Men and Women dropped from the Clouds upon this Atlantic Island; whether the Almighty created them here, or whether they immigrated from Europe, are questions of no moment to the present or future happiness of Man. Neither Agriculture, Commerce, Manufactures, Fisheries, Science, Litterature, Taste, Religion, Morals, nor any other good will be promoted, or any Evil averted, by any discoverie that can be made in answer to those questions.”

Spoken like someone who can’t get answers. At this point I feel comfortable saying this sounds like typical Adams blustering, and I wouldn’t take it too seriously. Of course, maybe he’s right. This does undercut the whole “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” mantra that history-lovers, er, love. Or, wait, do we hate it?

Later, JA recollects the local Indian leaders and families he knew or saw during his childhood (TJ did the same thing in a previous letter), which are now gone. “We scarcely see an Indian in a year. I remember the Time when Indian Murders, Scalpings, Depredations, and conflagrations were as frequent on the Eastern and Northern Frontier of Massachusetts as they are now in Indiana, and spread as much terror. But since the conquest of Canada, all this ceased; and I believe with you that another Conquest of Canada will quiet the Indians forever and be as great a Blessing to them as to Us.”

The “another Conquest of Canada” line is JA’s only mention so far of anything relating to the War of 1812. It’s a response to this earlier comment by TJ (June 11): “The possession of that country secures our women and children for ever from the tomahawk and scalping knife, by removing those who excite them: and for this possession orders I presume are issued by this time; taking it for granted that the doors of Congress will re-open with a Declaration of war.” The USofA declared war on Great Britain on June 18.

So, the Brits are agitating Indian tribes against America. By taking Canada and booting Great Britain, the USofA will assure everlasting harmony with Native Americans. Um (hand up in the back of the class), say what?

I’m surprised not to hear more from JA. The war was hated by New Englanders and Federalists; JA was both. Maybe he just doesn’t want to get into it with TJ quite yet.

You know, these Canada comments ring false to me. It’s Jefferson’s lofty, unrealistic idealism followed by Adams’s “yeah, whatever” acquiescence.

Lame, fellas.

From the Library of Thomas Jefferson

April 20, 1812 – June 11, 1812

Recreated library of Thomas Jefferson, a must-see exhibit at the Library of Congress.

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “In one of your letters you mentioned the confused traditions of Indian Antiquities. Is there any Book that pretends to give any account of these Traditions, or how can one acquire any idea of them? Have they any order of Priesthood among them, like the Druids, Bards or Minstrells of the Celtic nations etc.?”

So JA wants to know about Native American culture. It’s an easy, nonpolitical topic to help push along a newly revived yet tenuous correspondence. From a geographic standpoint, it seems ironic that JA is more familiar with ancient European cultural history than with the Native American cultures in his own country. From a cultural standpoint, of course, Native American and American (English) cultures are two different planets.

TJ, the expert, obliges with a bit of American Indian historiography (from European perspectives). One historian, James Adair, “believed all the Indians of America to be descended from the Jews: the same laws, usages; rites and ceremonies, the same sacrifices, priests, prophets, fasts and festivals, almost the same religion, and that they all spoke Hebrew.” I’m curious about the origins of this theory. Adair’s The History of the American Indians was published in London in 1775 and thus predates Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon (1830) by 55 years.

Here’s TJ’s full critique of Adair: “For although he writes particularly of the Southern Indians only, the Catawbas, Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws and Choctaws, with whom alone he was personally acquainted, yet he generalises whatever he found among them, and brings himself to believe that the hundred languages of America, differing fundamentally every one from every other, as much as Greek from Gothic, have yet all one common prototype. He was a trader, a man of learning, a self-taught Hebraist, a strong religionist, and of as sound a mind as Don Quixot in whatever did not touch his religious chivalry. His book contains a great deal of real instruction on it’s subject, only requiring the reader to be constantly on his guard against the wonderful obliquities of his theory.”

That is essentially a compliment, no? I’m still scratching my head about the Quixote line. Hypothetically, are you a genius for insulting someone without them realizing it? Or are you a thicko for not knowing you’ve been insulted?

Adair gets a similar assessment from Chickasaw tribal historian Richard Green, who calls his book “an indispensable source of information for those wanting to learn about the tribe’s culture in the turbulent 18th century,” despite the generalizing and the Hebraic history. (“James Adair and the Chickasaws, Part II,” Chickasaw Times, 2004)

TJ also mentions a history by Latin of De Bry, another mash-up of “fact and fable.” “This is a work of great curiosity, extremely rare, so as never to be bought in Europe, but on the breaking up, and selling some antient library. On one of these occasions a bookseller procured me a copy, which, unless you have one, is probably the only one in America.” I love this. Do we need any more proof that these are the two most brilliant men of their time? It’s almost like comparing baseball cards. OK, not really, but come on. How many times have you had that conversation?

Yeah, this here is probably the only DiMaggio rookie card in existence. You got one? Yeah? Cool.

I obviously know nothing about baseball.

Remember, when the British burned the Library of Congress to the ground during the War of 1812, Jefferson is the guy who replaced it with his own personal library. How does your bookshelf match up?

Since I brought it up, the war begins in one week.