January 27, 2010

Common Beginnings

When JQA's father died, it was marked by a Presidential proclamation, a day of rest for all armed forces, and a national week of mourning. When Andrew Jackson's father died (weeks before he was born), "[his] pallbearers drank so much as they carried his corpse from Twelve Mile Creek to the church for the funeral that they briefly lost the body along the way." Without a father, Jackson grew up in the houses of relatives, for whom his mother acted as a domestic servant/pity case.

Jackson came to feel that he never belonged to any home, and it made him angry. Despite his considerable skinniness (as President, Jackson was 6'1, 140 lbs), boyhood Jackson was an accomplished schoolyard wrestler who constantly harangued his friends with empty death threats. When angry, he would "work himself into fits of rage so paralyzing that contemporaries recalled he would begin slobbering." At 14, Jackson and his brother Robert were rounded up by British troops who took them as prisoners of war during the War of Independence. When a soldier demanded that Jackson polish his boots, Jackson refused, causing the solider to attack the two boys with his sword- an attack that ultimately killed Robert. Jackson's mother nursed him back to health, then died herself---At the age of 14 Jackson had lost both of his parents and all of his siblings.

In the meantime, his contemporary JQA was learning Latin from Benjamin Franklin in a mansion in Paris.

A frustrating part of this project has been the extent to which the first 6 books have overlapped. These guys were all together during America's formative years, which means J.Po and I have read the same little anecdotes about the same events many times. But thematically, this book very much reads as a sequel. Having spent the last half year learning about how some elites created this democracy experiment, we now learn how the experiment was affecting the people who Sarah Palin would call "Real Americans." Thomas Jefferson voted to start a war and retired to his plantation. Andrew Jackson lost both his brothers to the wrath of British troops. His story will be the first story of "of, by, and for the people."

There also seems to be a certain symmetry shaping up between the lives of Jackson and JQA. JQA's story was of a man taking 60 years to learn how to fight. Jackson's story begins with a kid who would become paralyzed with rage. Let's see if he learns to chill out.

kind of a big deal

jqa also knew stephen douglass (of the famed lincoln-douglass debates) when he was in congress. and he knew charles dickens, because on dickens' famed tour of america, the aging ex-president was one of the people he insisted on meeting.

after jqa's uninspiring and unpleasant term as president, he returned to congress as a representative from massachusetts and served under the next 5 presidents, until he literally died on the job almost 20 years later. (he collapsed during a session of congress and was taken to the speaker's chambers, where he died the next day.)

in this time, jqa became an american folk hero. he was far more popular as a congressman than he had ever been as president. because of his experience, he garnered obvious respect in the house, and because he was post-presidential, he had nothing to lose. he had always been a reserved, cantankerous guy forced to play nice in order to survive in politics. no more! this dude let loose.

at the time, regional tensions were ramping up in a major way, full steam ahead to the civil war, so congress was a place where everyone was trying to compromise to keep a tenuous peace. jqa was the guy who didn't give a hoot what would make everyone happy, he fought for what he thought was the best outcome for the nation.

when the gag rule was enacted (in which no petition to congress concerning slavery could be read aloud or debated), jqa introduced a motion to have it revoked at the beginning of every session for over a decade, and found sneaky ways to read those petitions anyway.

when the amistad sailors were imprisoned in america (africans who were being brought to america on a slave ship who overpowered the ship's crew and sailed the boat into new york harbor by themselves), jqa defended them before the supreme court, a case nobody else would touch (much like his father defended the british soldiers of the boston massacre decades earlier). his closing oration before the court is said to be one of the crowning achievements of his life.

he was an outspoken abolitionist and made enemies freely. in so doing, he became wildly popular. he was celebrated wherever he went and fought over as a public speaker. he had become something like america's grouchy old uncle, not always pleasant, but indisputably the most respected member of the family. the papers nicknamed him "old man eloquent."

he was never happier. he was finally getting the adulation he deserved for his lifetime of service, and he could finally do just about whatever he wanted. it makes you think all ex-presidents should serve in congress.

it's just an incredible chapter of american history, and one i had no idea existed. lucky for you, there's a new book - Mr. Adams' Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress by Joseph Wheelan - in case you had no idea either. you should really learn about this guy, you're going to like him.

presidential fact #13

JQA knew Abraham Lincoln during Lincoln's turn in the House of Representatives from 1847 until Adams' death in 1848. He is probably the only person to have counted both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as acquaintances.

It was also JQA who first suggested that, in the event of a civil war, the President could use his war powers to outlaw slavery. Fifteen years after the two met, Lincoln did just that in his Emancipation Proclamation.

January 21, 2010


jqa was a mega prolific diarist, often using it as an outlet to rant about his political enemies, one of whom he described as a "beef-witted blunderhead."

January 19, 2010

presidential fact #12

Only two then-living Presidents have failed to attend their successor's inauguration---John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Bitter.

All the World's a Stage

F. Scott. Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. He was wrong, of course- American lives, and especially American politician's lives, are all about second acts, and especially third acts. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to America as a sexually confused teenaged bodybuilder, became the greatest action star of all time, and wound up the steward of the world's tenth biggest economy. George W. Bush started as a rich fuck-up, owned a professional sports franchise, then became a busy President. Richard Nixon went from a powerless Vice-President, to an embarrassing failure of a gubernatorial candidate, to the Presidency. And so on.

JQA is also a man of three acts. The first we have already talked about- the tortured prodigy, the reluctant family man, the brilliant statesman. The third act is certainly his finest- the curmudgeonly congressman who dedicated his days to promoting abolitionism. He was the original lion in winter (the latest of whom is rolling over in his grave tonight).

Act Two was relatively uneventful and uninspiring, which is surprising as this constituted JQA's presidency. Nagel devotes only ten or twenty or thirty pages to the presidency, because not much really happened during it. History has long since forgotten whatever minor policy decisions JQA made during his four years as commander in chief. From a historical perspective, it is dust in the wind- a stopgap between the last founding father presidency and the first commoner presidency.

But we have been searching for JQA the man in these posts, and Act Two serves its purpose as a useful bridge between Act One's precocious neurosis and Act Three's heroic bluster. I suggest that JQA's presidency is when he finally stopped caring so much about the public opinion of him. When he decided to run for President (which in those days meant you decided not to protest too much when others decided to nominate you for President), JQA quickly realized that his top competitor would be the war hero, Andrew Jackson, from Tennessee. Jackson had captured the public's imagination with his battlefield exploits and aw-shucks charm, and stood in sharp contrast to the stuffy JQA. JQA thus did everything right in attempting to woo his rival and the public. He hosted Jackson with a fancy banquet at his own home, at the end of which Jackson gave a lengthy toast to JQA's wife, Louisa. Even when Jackson eventually entered the race and lost to JQA, Jackson congratulated his victorious rival with a hearty handshake.

However all of JQA's sucking up got him nowhere. From the time he took office, hateful rumors were floated from the Jackson camp accusing JQA of being a sexual deviant, adulterer, and cheat. His rivals in Congress used procedural delays and dishonest rhetoric to thwart his every attempt at governing. JQA retreated into a state of depression that briefly isolated his wife and friends.

After four years and a trouncing by the new President Jackson, JQA was relieved to move out of the White House. But he was not relieved because he now was able to leave politics- rather, he was now free from the restraints imposed on him by the presidency, which required him to compromise his powerful ideas and govern the whole country rather than throw partisan bombs. JQA was ready to fight, finally. Whereas he entered the White House a deliberate man with a deep concern for how he was perceived, he left it an angry man who needed the country to know that they were wrong for disagreeing with him. As Bob Dylan said, "there's no success like failure." For JQA, failure finally rid him of his fear of failure-unchained, he followed it with his greatest years, discussed next time on attimesdull.

presidential fact #11

"At 10 o'clock on an August night in 1819, Adams arrived in New York City on his way to a summer holiday in Quincy. When he learned that the helpful French ambassador was also in town, he set out to locate him, ignoring the late hour. Finding Hyde de Neuville at the French consul's residence, "I roused him from his bed and held a dialogue with him, standing at the door of his home, and he in his night cap with his head out of the chamber window."

It was like a scene from a Moliere play, Adams admitted, as he explained to the sleepy baron that the untimely intrusion was only because he had to catch a steamboat for New England at dawn.

January 12, 2010

what's the opposite of a silver lining?

i don't know why the presidents keep reminding me of tv shows, but so it is.

there is an episode of everybody loves raymond where ray is nominated for a sportswriting award. he calls it a lose-lose situation. he says if he wins, there will be expectations, jealousy, competition. if he loses, he'll be upset. his wife, deborah, tries to convince him just to be excited that he was nominated.

they never show the ceremony, so the next scene is the two of them arriving home. deborah walks in the door, saying, "i promise you, ray, something good is going to come of this," at which point ray walks in, dragging his feet and whining, carrying a huge trophy.

JQA reminds me of this over and over again. throughout his life, people and institutions absolutely throw acclamation at him, and he is quick to rue it every time. when george washington appoints him as minister to russia it's oh why didn't he ask me about it first and when john adams transfers him to prussia it's people will think it's because you're my dad and when his fiancee - not girlfriend, fiancee! - asks him when he wants to get married it's maybe you should just go back to america and i'll be there in a few years and we'll get married then and MAN why do you write me so often?

paradoxically, he is aching to make something of himself, to benefit the world, as he says. he is tormented by the dual demons of wanting to live up to his father's reputation and his mother's standards, and also wanting to be seen as independent of their influence and patronage.

paul nagel has a major beef with abigail, and i therefore have a major beef with paul nagel. he goes to great lengths to portray her as a domineering nag, and has few qualms about the fact that this point of view is singular. he rarely misses an opportunity to quote her pedantic letters to JQA, brushing over the fact that the adams family were devoutly religious, so what seems pedantic to us was probably basic chatter in their house. not to mention the fact that nuclear families in those days all lived together until the kids were in the mid-20s, and sometimes after, so having a son who was across the ocean for years at a time was, oh, traumatic and worrying. when JQA, at the age of 22, basically without money, wants to marry a 15-year-old, abigail thinks it's a bad idea. so does john, JQA'S brothers, the girl's family, and eventually the girl and JQA herself. "so after abigail ruined that marriage" nagel defiantly explains, JQA was heartbroken. sure.

but sure, even so, john and abigail had high expectations, and were an intimidating set of parents to live up to. JQA was always saying that he wanted to be a scholar, and have a literary career. but equally, and more subconsciously, i think, he wanted to please his father, and people in government were always asking for his service, so he kept subverting his dreams to work in politics.

he took the road more traveled, in the adams family, and always wondered what difference it had made. what constantly nagged at him - much much more than abigail - was the impression that he hadn't chosen his life.

January 06, 2010

happy birthday, dave

from all of us!

and janet.

January 05, 2010

presidential fact #10: more spooning

when the marquis de lafayette, a revolutionary war hero, visited america from france in the late 1820s, it was a huge occasion. he was feted in washington, and then went on a trip (with then president quincy adams) to visit jefferson, madison, and monroe. john marshall came along as well. the picture of these guys hanging out together in retirement is just too adorable for words.

on one of the stops on their journey back east, quincy adams and monroe "were quartered in the same bedchamber."

i love it when these guys bunk up!

January 04, 2010

Revolutionary Brat

It is a well-known British convention for monarchs to refer to themselves with the "royal we." The idea is that the King is both himself and the state---his person and his position. Thus when a King dies, people react with my favorite English expression, which is not self-contradictory: "The King is dead. Long live the King."

Of the first five Presidents, there was little space between the man and the potus. George Washington, for example, totally sublimated his personality to make it fit that of what he considered an ideal leader: stoic, brave, disciplined. James Madison was so consumed with political spirit that there was barely room left for a personality- imagining Madison "the man" is like imagining James Carville "the man." They are what they do. Revolutions just take so much energy. To be a revolutionary is necessarily to dedicate your life to the revolution and you don't have much time for such foolishness as a dramatic inner monologue.

Enter John Quincy Adams. As the son of America's worldliest founding father, Adams was instilled with all of the wisdom and experience of a revolutionary- JQA spoke several languages, including Greek and Latin, fluently at age 11. He was secretary to the minister of Russia at 14, the age at which his father plausibly called him the most well-travelled person in America. When JQA took his entrance exam at Harvard, he requested the exam be in French- the language in which he was most conversant. To read about JQA's culturally privileged childhood is to lazily leap from platitude to platitude, like some pond frog on so many lily pads. A schoolteacher in some country says that JQA is the most brilliant mind he has seen; A king in some other says that JQA is the most promising youth; And so on.

So what's the big deal, you say. Just another genius President. But the difference in this genius president is that he was not becoming brilliant for something. His father studied and studied because he was not born of relative privilege and needed every advantage to be a successful lawyer, and later statesman. Madison's learning was all funneled toward how he could best serve the cause. The student JQA had no particular utility for his knowledge besides vague ideals from his parents to become a "sturdy" man and "not to embarrass" them. He was the first spoiled liberal arts student in the United States of America (I was the 19,000,000th).

And what happens to spoiled liberal arts students? They think too much. They get depressed. They break up with the loves of their lives because the women don't meet their mothers' standards. JQA did all of these things. No milestone in JQA's life escaped his considerable angst. An election to Congress was accompanied with soul searching over whether he wanted to enter a life of partisan politics. A foray into the legal world brought about deep ambivalence about whether to exit public service. When a perfect woman practically dragged JQA to the alter, he set up a Rube Goldberg-esque series of hurdles to ensure the wedding was delayed.

None of this is to say that JQA was a whiny ninny- I actually quite like him. He seems thus far the most genius of the genius Presidents, and most of his wrath was of the self-loathing variety. Most who knew JQA, including his long suffering betrothed, found him a good dude. And man, he wrote great erotic poetry. In one poem, in which he looks forward "to my lonely conch return," he ends with these lines:

Louisa! thus remote from thee,/ Still something to each joy is wanting/ While thy affection can to me/ Make the most dreary scene enchanting.

Here's my point:

We sometimes conceive of the modern presidency as an office through which men can exorcise their personal demons on a public stage. Clinton needed to be liked, Nixon needed to be loved, Bush 43 needed to be taken seriously, etc. Going into this project, I was very much looking forward to learning about the men behind the early presidencies, but was stonewalled. The first five guys aren't just on monuments, they are monuments. JQA was the first to bring a personality to the office that hadn't been formed by a long journey to the office. In a limited sense he was America's modern President- its first Royal We.

January 03, 2010

the fellowship of the revolution

Before I totally say goodbye to the founding fathers, which I am obviously sad to do, I thought I'd share something I've used to occupy my mind on the commute lately.

The Founding Fathers as played by The Fellowship of the Ring
or vice versa

Bilbo Baggins : Benjamin Franklin
about half a generation up from the other guys. already a legend on his own merits. given in his old age to silliness and ribaldry, which is tolerated because he's earned the right to sit on his laurels, but soulful and wise when it counts.

Gandalf : one of the Greek philosophers who the fathers are always quoting
dave has a crush on a girl who could tell us which one

Aragorn : George Washington
courageous military commander who is reserved and wise beyond his years in everyday life. a leader whom men line up to follow.

Legolas : Thomas Jefferson
understated, pithy, seems above it all. intimidatingly perceptive and detached.

Boromir : Alexander Hamilton
a soldier, and somewhat likeable, but ultimately treacherous. is killed.

The Hobbits : John Adams
chronically underestimated because of their size, appetite, and capacity for merriment. when relied upon, will go anywhere and stop at nothing to succeed. approachable and well loved.

The Dwarf : i have no idea!
this one's been puzzling me. at first i thought john adams, because of his gruffness and unlikely bond with jefferson, but he's too optimistic and helpful to be the dwarf. maybe john marshall, just because he deserves to be on the docket. i don't know, and dave's never read or seen lord of the rings, so this one may be left up in the air.

happy new year, 1825

2010 brings with it a whole new phase for At Times Dull. james monroe is regularly referred to as the last founding father. he fought under washington in the revolutionary war, but came to fame for his accomplishments in the early senate. as he turned the reins over to JQA in 1825, the era of America being run by veterans of the revolution officially came to a close, and a generation of men who had been raised in an independent nation took over. revolutionary heroes stopped being presidents, senators, justices, and diplomats, and started being icons. or rather, they started being the founding fathers

the latter half of 2009 took dave and i through the bombastic early phases of america. there were the firebrand idealists, who orated our nation to freedom (these people are patrick henry, alexander hamilton, and samuel adams). then there were the nation builders, who slowly and painstakingly, with many mistakes, fashioned a federal government from the ashes of war (these people are adams, jefferson, and monroe). now, with all the freedoms won (and rewon in 1812), and infrastructures structured, the president becomes an executive.

james monroe's presidency saw no wars, insurrections, or stalemates. it saw some treaty negotations, internal improvements, a moderately serious economic downturn, and a doctrine. by this time, monroe had had enough predecessors to learn from their mistakes (don't keep the last guy's cabinet, don't suffer fools in the military, make sure your diplomats have brains), and enough of their wisdom to fall back on. in one case, when monroe wasn't sure whether something was constitutional or not, he actually went and asked madison, a convenience which surely could be envied by many of his successors. i won't embarrass him by pointing out again that he wasn't a genius (oh, oops), but i will say that being a genius started to be a lot less necessary. the job was in place, just listen carefully and be a good leader.

2010 is going to be a real touchstone year for us. leaving the founding fathers in 2009, this year will take us from JQA to at least Grant. of those 13 presidents, exactly four could be called household names (Quincy Adams, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant), leaving us with the forgettable nine of the of the 19th century (Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Filmore, Pierce, and Buchanan).

folks, we are not on money any more.

January 02, 2010

james, we hardly knew you

jefferson and madison both loved monroe. in fact, everyone seemed to love monroe. apparently he inspired confidence and was well liked, ammon says it all the time.

he had been governor of virginia, twice a diplomat, and secretary of war and secretary of state at the same time. as madison's second term came to a close, monroe was the heir apparent. says ammon,

"While Monroe never enjoyed Jefferson's great popularity in the nation, he was, nonetheless, a widely respected figure. If most of his contemporaries did not judge him to have talents comparable to those of the first two Republican Presidents, all acknowledged that his sound judgment, his administrative abilities and his long service to the nation for four decades gave him a just claim to the succession."

it's not the highest praise. as we've said, monroe was the first non-genius president. his success is due to the fact that he is a fundamentally great guy to have around. he was confident and hard-working and his superiors always liked him. and one can't underestimate the impact being tall and good-looking has on one's fortune in the world.

but i really have no idea what james monroe was like. ammon's biography reads like a really, really (really, really) long encyclopedia entry. mccullough was big on personality and detail, and john adams comes across in the flesh. ketcham was big on political theory, as madison was a politics geek, and his book is the basis of most of my understanding of revolutionary politics. ammon's book is neither. it's very informative. maybe ammon is our first non-genius biographer.

this is probably why, on january 2nd, i'm scrambling to finish the last 100 pages or so of monroe that i was meant to finish in december so i can move on to JQA this week. david finished monroe a long time ago, because he lives in fort wayne.