Saturday, July 15, 2006

Pounding the Founding into Pabulum: John Adams' last words to his country

The founding of the US has been largely turned into a ceremonial civic religion. The Founding Fathers are the pantheon. Nothing that disturbs the honorific proceedings is welcome. Votinglinks presents John Adams’ last words to his country as a case study. Here is the usual story of John Adams' words for the Fourth of July 1826, the day on which he died:

" Adams attempted to write nothing so ambitious [as Jefferson had], and probably, given his condition, it would have proved impossible... 'The old man fails fast.' the Reverend George Whitney recorded after another visit...
...Whitney and a small delegation of town leaders made a formal call on Adams, ... They had come, they told the old patriot, to ask for a toast that they might read aloud at Quncy’s celebration on the Fourth.
'I will give you.' Adams said 'Independence Forever!' Asked if he would like to add something more, he replied, 'Not a word.' "
from John Adams, David McCullough, Simon and Schuster 2002, p 645.

A similar story is told in all the other print biographies and internet histories that Votinglinks has seen, for example:

But the inspiring slogan "Independence forever!" is not Adams' last statement in full. Here is the more complete story, as reported in Passionate Sage by Joseph Ellis, a very interesting book on John Adams’ mature political thought. Adams had in fact sent a reply to the Quincy delegation before its visit:

" [Adams] acknowledged that the revolutionary era had been 'a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race.' but the jury was still out on its significance. He warned that America was 'destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall in time to come be shaped by the human mind.' Posterity, in short, would not only judge, it would play an active role in shaping the outcome. This was a disconcerting message for patriotic celebrants gathered to dispense praise rather than accept challenge, but it was also vintage Adams irreverence. When a delegation from Quincy called on him a few days later to request a clarifying statement that might be presented as a toast in his behalf at the celebration, Adams uncharacteristically offered only an enigma ‘I will give you INDEPENDENCE FOREVER,' he replied. When prodded to enumerate, he refused. 'Not a word.' he insisted. "
from Passionate Sage, Joseph J. Ellis, New York, Norton 1993, pp 205-206.
[bold emphasis added]

Strangely, McCullough’s biography of Adams presents an extensive excerpt from Jefferson’s famous passage that was also written for that same Fourth of July, the day on which Jefferson also died, but not one word of Adams' statement:

" May it be to the world, ... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them. "
Jefferson to Roger Weightman, Jne 24, 1826

Jefferson’s words are very inspiring, and they make us all feel very good. Adams’ are more thought provoking. Adams’ statement emphasizes that the meaning of the American Revolution will unfold continuously over the future, for either good or ill, and that it is a function of what we believe, think, decide and do now, today, right here and now, in the face of current events, problems and opportunities... and by how what we think and do today will shape the future from now on. That puts the responsibility for the meaning of the American Revolution on us, right now. And the slogan ‘Independence Forever’ takes on a very different meaning in that light. It seems now to be a warning, an advice, and piece of reality therapy, as much a celebratory toast. Not so comforting, not so feel-good. Is it not odd that McCullough would quote Thomas Jefferson’s last statement extensively but not give one single clue about that of John Adams in a biography of Adams? Votinglinks agrees with Ellis, who adds that Adams word are "much truer and representative of the traditional values that he and Jefferson had come to symbolize."

The Adams statement doesn’t appear in any Adams quotes pages, that Voterlinks has seen. For example:

Adams’ last words are useful and instructive. Why don’t we see them today? What’s wrong with them? Do they not fit into our official civic religion? And if not, why not? Has the whole business become an enterainment, an after-school special, soothing propaganda, in a word, subversive pabulum?