Posts Tagged ‘Abigail Adams’

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


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Monday, November 29, 2010

I got my first taste of history in the 1950s. The Great American Narrative was well established. Firmly set. Elementary school texts told the story. Our nemesis, Russia, was a dark place where citizens dutifully reported their comrades for the slightest infraction. Freedoms of speech, religion and the press were non-existent over there on the other side of the world. Dank prison cells were the destiny of those who dared criticize their totalitarian government. Our great American heroes fought for our liberty, and wrote the texts we memorized. “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” George Washington never lied. Thomas Jefferson authored that Declaration. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

It would be later that I would grasp the concept of legend. We embellish our stories. Our heroes become, as a matter of course, larger than life. We don’t think of them as saints, but almost. It is the role of higher education to find history in the myths. Historians base their expositions on hard data. Some would rather that the mythologies remain in place, unchallenged. Scholars frequently deal with the angry charge of idol smashing. When a biographer strays from the generally accepted version of a popular story, some will call it heresy. If the facts contradict the folklore, a scholar risks ridicule or worse, censure. Some of us prefer the bronze image to the flesh and blood human being that occupied real time and space. We would rather have Thomas Jefferson the architect of freedom of religion than Thomas Jefferson the slave-owner. We like our legends to be tidy.

So I learned all about George Washington crossing the Delaware and Thomas Jefferson’s feather pen and John Hamilton’s oversized signature but not much about the second President of the United States. I knew his name; and confused it with the sixth President with the odd middle name of Quincy*. But it took David McCullough’s “John Adams” to transport me back to a period in American history I thought was familiar. McCullough spent years pouring through the letters of Mr. and Mrs. Adams, a Massachusetts couple who would leave their indelible mark on the best of American history.

McCullough’s book is more than a story of a great American hero; it is the story of a great American marriage. John and Abigail Adams were both raised on the classics. They studied language and literature and poetry and philosophy and science. From the beginning, they wrote long letters. Their elevated prose, their cherished original phrasing and their passionate precision filled pages with perceptive recollection and keen observation. The letters are rich. They left behind a treasure of insight, informative and fascinating and entertaining, prized even more now, two hundred years after they were written. But most compelling is their devotion to one another. Their engagement continued throughout their life. John’s considerable contribution to the birth of a nation can not be understood apart from Abigail’s perspective; her conscience, her tenacity, her discernment, her wisdom. Their collaboration moved the Congress and the people toward not just independence, but liberty.

I was not aware of Adams’ rise to national prominence, from Boston to Philadelphia. It was a combination of vision and verbal acuity that informed his oratory, tempered by Abigail’s sagacity. He fully engaged the debate on the floor of that Philadelphia conference. He answered the Federalists. He demanded a declaration. He recruited Jefferson to write. He articulated the essence of that great document. He and Benjamin Franklin edited Jefferson’s draft. He had no care for credit. Only outcomes. He negotiated the necessary alliance with the Louis XVI in Paris by Franklin’s side. (Adams despised the excesses of the French, and Franklin’s feckless accommodation.) Adams, Franklin and Jefferson collaborated together in Paris, engineering the constitution of the newly independent colonies. And when the Americans won their freedom, John Adams would be the first to have audience with the defeated His Majesty King George, after a costly war, mending the relationship of the two nations as first ambassador to Great Britain.

So I listened to the McCullough’s audio book while traveling up and down the state. A good book is spiritual food; a sheer delight. The miles pass with purpose. And then I learned that Tom Hanks made the book into a series, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. The two exceptional actors breathe life into the characters, animating the story; living up to the standard set by McCullough’s prose.

Why don’t we write long letters anymore? It is our loss.

And maybe history’s loss, too.

Copyright 2010 Kenneth E. Kemp

* John Quincy Adams was John and Abigail’s son. Also, thank you Mary Strauss. I made the correction… Washington indeed crossed the Delaware… not the Potomac (well, maybe when he went to visit Arlington).

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