Monday, March 7, 2011
Now that I’ve been through McCullough’s amazing book start to finish, it made sense to watch HBO’s wonderfully produced miniseries. Paul Giamatti is John Adams; Laura Linney, his beloved Abigail. Washington (David Morse), Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) and Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) are also resurrected and brought to life. If you stay with either the book or the miniseries, you will encounter an ending that will challenge your materialistic, Western, scientific worldview. A mysterious coincidence emerges that transcends simple accident. It happened on July 4, 1826.
Warning: if you have not read the book nor viewed the HBO series and you despise the spoiler, do not read any further. Stop here. Do not allow your eyes to drift down the page. Close the browser.
(Whew… it’s like recording the Super Bowl while you are away from the television and then hearing the score on the radio on your way home to watch it.)
Alright. Now where was I? Ah yes, coincidence. At this stage of my life, in spite of all the theology and spirituality that pervades any given day, I have come to understand how thoroughly Western is my default thinking. Perhaps the year I spent immersing myself in the ways of India has only served to underscore the point. When my college professor pointed to the clarion difference between astronomy and astrology, I understood. My preference, since those early days, would clearly be on the astronomy side of that spectrum. Likewise, chemistry over alchemy. History over mythology. Rationalism over mysticism. Even my schooling in theology reflected a similar bias – we called it “systematic theology” as though all the data of revealed religion could be reduced to an internally consistent set of non-contradictory propositions just like my science texts. It is a challenge to weave the transcendent into this eminently Western perspective on the world. But Jefferson and Adams left us with one.
I believe it was the fascinating interplay between these two fathers of American history that motivated McCullough to spend all those years piecing together the story of John Adams from all those handwritten letters. The basic principles that formed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were largely born out of the conversations between these two intellectual giants – Adams and Jefferson. Franklin pitched in. But if McCullough is right, Franklin was as much a referee as a contributing editor. Adams, the staunch and stoic New Englander, steeped in the classics, deeply committed to his wife and family brought a regimented sort of moral high mindedness to the conversation. Jefferson, in contrast, was a near libertine. England and France were bitter rivals on the world stage – England obsessed with the rebellion across the Atlantic and France boiling over in a revolution within. While all three, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, spent considerable time in Paris courting the French for support in the revolution against the British, Adams despised the indulgent excesses he witnessed there. Jefferson and Franklin, in contrast, reveled in them.
So Jefferson and Adams had been close friends. But the tensions of post-revolution politics would drive a wedge between them. Adams would barely win the election as second President of the United States, succeeding George Washington. In his bid for a second term, Adams would be defeated in a bitter contest by his old friend and collaborator, Thomas Jefferson.
In the retirement, the two men would mend the fence and re-establish their friendship. Adams wrote Jefferson from Peacefield, Massachusetts. Jefferson answered from Monticello. As time passed, the relationship deepened. The rich correspondence leaves us with an enduring history. Each year, the new nation celebrated its hard-won independence on the Fourth of July. In many of those early years, Adams and Jefferson appeared together, making speeches to great throngs of admirers.
And here is the stunning coincidence that transcends accident, challenges even the most hardened empiricist among us. On the fiftieth anniversary of Independence Day, Thomas Jefferson, age eighty-three on a bed in his home in Monticello, surrounded by his family, expired. John Adams, on a bed in his home in Peacefield, surrounded by his family (including the fourth President of the United States, his son, John Quincy Adams), died. July 4, 1826. Two of the greatest in American history, came to the end of their lives hundreds of miles apart, on the very same day.
Coincidence? Wow. This Western thinker is still working on that one.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011