October 31, 2009

presidential fact #4

speaking of sally hemings, of the very few contemporary accounts of her that exist, one of the most detailed was written by abigail adams.

the adamses and jeffersons were BFF in the years during and right after the war. abigail even joked about john quincy marrying martha jefferson. when jefferson was the ambassador to france, he sent for his young daughter patsy to join him. when she got to europe, she stayed for a few weeks with the adamses, who were living in london. abigail adams immediately hit it off with the 7-year-old patsy, but was shocked that she was traveling alone with only one of jefferson's slaves taking care of her - a young, immature, moody, irresponsible girl who had no business caring for a child, in abigail's opinion. sally hemings.

October 30, 2009


There's a popular myth out there that upon completing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson went back to Virginia and freed all of his slaves. That didn't happen in real life. Jefferson's relationship with slavery remains for me (and everyone else) the hardest part of his legacy to accept or make sense of. It's easy enough (right or wrong) for us evolved folk to gloss over the people-owning. We are all products of our time. But to do so would be letting TJ off the hook too easily.
First, of the thinkers and potuses of the time, none was so Cavalier about accepting the slavery. Washington was exceedingly kind to his servants and during his presidency operated his plantation as Schindler did his factory: losing money, poor productivity, everyone treated as a person. His excellency freed his slaves upon his death. The Adamses abhorred slavery. They received a slave once as a gift and immediately set her free. Abigail thought that EVERYTHING- from the revolutionary war to a child's sore throat- was God's punishing america for the evil institution. Yeah, he was from Virginia, but so was GW, and besides we expect greatness greater than this from our great men.
Also there is Sally Hemings.The Bernstein book largely ignores that elephant, but as literary convention would have it, the book has an epilogue.It points out that despite 200 years of compelling circumstantial evidence, mainstream historians.usually dismissed the claims of the Hemings-Jefferson offspring, and those who supported them. They were the original birthers. Now with widely accepted DNA testing techniques (which came way too late for generations of jefferson issue and ronald goldman), we know that the rumors are true. And as it is hard to imagine one's property consenting to a sexual relationship (or even having the capacity to do do), well, it's uncomfortable.
It's actually nonsensical. How could this guy, who as a youth proudly considered himself a "freeborn british subject," who started a war over tea taxes, who penned the clearest moral statement in the western world's history of man's responsibility to his fellows (We hold these truths to be Self-Evident...)--- how could he house one of his families in luxury in Monticello and the other in squalor in his backyard?
In her last post Janet notes that Jefferson was famed for his stoicism. Shakespeare (whose house Janet and I will never tire of telling you that Adams and Jefferson visited together) told of another Stoic, who crushed his conscience's stirrings under a belief that his compromises were in the best interest of his country. But Brutus is an honorable man.

October 29, 2009

public displays of patriotism

thomas jefferson was a very, very slow fuse. he was famous for his stoicism, and never publicly responding to criticism (the original 'no comment' president.)

after he was president, he devoted a huge amount of time to the founding of the university of virginia. he designed the campus, handpicked the faculty, and personally designed the curriculum. he said that the official opening of the university was the proudest day of his life.

things went quickly down hill. the first class of students, perhaps as a backlash to jefferson's enormously high expectations, acted out. they vandalised the campus, went streaking at night, and gambled all the time. when things got out of control, jefferson decided to give a speech to the student body in order to extol them to higher principles.

when he walked into the hall where the students were waiting, flanked by madison and monroe, both former presidents and lifelong friends, he wept openly. he couldn't give the speech as planned because he was too overcome with emotion.

jefferson could be kind of a d-bag. the kind of total snob whose expectations nobody will ever meet, and both washington and adams became really exasperated with him as part of their adminstrations. but this moment won me back. jefferson never wanted to live any other life than that of the scholar, but his phenomenal intellectual capacity, given the time he lived in, continually pulled him into public service, where he was - over and over and over again - disappointed by people.

it was his own fault. he expected everybody to be the embodiment of their own ideals, or in most cases of his ideals. but his disappointment in people was utterly real.

he was a perfectionist, he was furious at every word of the Declaration that congress proposed to change. when he had to watch an entire nation - one that he had created in his mind as a utopia of liberty - go off on its own shaky legs and try to sustain itself, he couldn't write enough letters expressing his grief. but when the university of viriginia fell short of his lofty plans, he simply couldn't take another disappointment. he wept in public. i can't remember the last time i saw a family member weep, let alone the president of the united states. that poor guy.

presidential fun fact #3

Thomas Jefferson's first memory in life was as a 2-year-old being carried on a pillow by a slave. His last living moment was spent telling a slave to readjust his pillows so that he could rest more comfortably.


Janet pretty much covered everything in the way of introductions, but there are two things I should add.

1. She and I met when we overlapped for one day working at the greatest bookstore in history in Boston. It was my first day, and her last day, and she was supposed to train me. Within probably eight minutes she had set off the fire alarm.

2. I am stuck in Fort Wayne, Indiana, doing a sort of legal internship for the year. This accounts for my enthusiasm that J. referenced earlier. She thought that my life's ennui would "shine through" my posts, but I think it is better to put it out front.

Onto the books. These first three guys are serving as more of an introduction to the Presidency than as an accounting of it.

Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were very different men with one thing in common. Their greatest moments did not involve their being President. This is almost inconceivable today, where Presidents are lifelong politicians whose careers have been meticulously planned as not to interfere with the goal of attaining the presidency. The office is not a reward--becoming President is the main thing. The culmination, of this trend is our recently electing a 46-year-old junior senator, who recently (very recently) had been serving in the Illinois State Capitol.

But not our first three chief execs. In 1776, John Adams, through persuasion and guile, convinced a majority of the delegates at the Congressional Congress to vote for Independence. He passed the ball to Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence (and Adams fought for every last word of it on the floor of Congress when weak-kneed PC delegates tried to temper the fightin' words). Then Washington went and won the damn war. By 1781 these guys were has-beens, or at least would-be has-beens. GW fancied himself the American Cincinnatus, who would retire to his plantation after winning the war. Adams wanted to finally spend some time with Abigail, the 18th-century Natalie Portman.

By the time they (spoiler alert) became President, they really didn't want to do it. Washington even maintained plausible deniability that his name was on the ballot. Again, inconceivable today.

Excited to start Madison. He mostly grew up in a time where the presidency existed---it was something he wanted.

October 28, 2009

John Adams
David McCullough

I remember seeing David McCullough on Charlie Rose soon after the book was published, and he was asked why he chose to write about John Adams. He said that he had been looking through some of Adams’ journals, and he found an entry that said, “I strive to rise every morning with the sun, read the Scriptures, study Latin and Greek, philosphy, and science, and walk 5-10 miles each day.” The next day’s entry said, “It is raining. I have dreamed away the day.” And that, McCullough said, is a man I can relate to. Among the tall, statuesque founding fathers, John Adams is short and chubby and talked to much and tended to get on people’s nerves. There are no monuments to him in Washington, and he’s not on any money. But he led the fight, in the 1776 continental congress, for independence, and personally persuaded a huge number of the delegates to vote with him.

Then he helped write the Declaration, went to France and Holland to secure wartime loans and political support, and ended up in England as the first citizen of the American nation to stand in front of the King of England. He also shared a bed with Benjamin Franklin on a few diplomatic missions and visited Shakespeare’s home with Thomas Jefferson. He got around.

Abigail Adams, as everybody says, is totally great. When the relationship between Jefferson and Adams turned sour (which broke my heart), Abigail still wrote to Jefferson to sympathize with him at the death of his daughter. When he replied and basically said, “I’m really sorry your husband and I aren’t friends anymore, but these things are out of our control,” she wrote back and said, “These things were completley in your control. You’re just a jerk. And now you’re lying about it.” One supposes that not many women in the 19th century would write to an ex-president in such a manner.

Everyone says Andrew Jackson was the first grassroots president, but I’d have to say John Adams should be in the running for that. Sure he went to Harvard, but everybody did back then, and for the most part he was a middle-class, self-motivated, self-made man. America!

presidential fact #2

when both were diplomats in europe, john adams and thomas jefferson visited shakespeare's home together.

presidential fact #1: founding spooners

during the early years of the revolutionary war, benjamin franklin and john adams were tasked with visiting a british admiral outside new york in the hopes of negotiating peace. on their trip, they shared a bed, and could not decide whether or not to keep the window open while they slept. adams was against it, franklin for it. franklin said he had theories about the health benefits of night air, and asked adams if he'd like to hear him. adams obliged, and fell asleep to the sound of franklin explaining these theories.

43 to go

His Excellency: George Washington
Joseph J. Ellis

A few months ago, I have no idea why, I decided it might be fun to read a biography of each American president, in order. I floated this idea a few times, and usually people laughed at me or said I would never get past the revolution.

But the project appeals to me. First of all, I don’t think I have a particularly admirable awareness of American history or politics, and this is a way to get a thorough schooling inAmerican history in a compelling way. Second of all, there are all these presidents! I probably couldn’t name more than 25-30 off the top of my head. And the role of the American president is so beguiling – so powerful and symbolic and influential, and yet so bogged down and defensive and working uphill – and this man can be George W. Bush one minute and Barack Obama the next. Crazy.

Eventually, I mentioned the idea to my friend Dave, who was immediately and ardently on board. He just graduated from law school and is kind of a political junkie, so he’s supplying all the context and enthusiasm. We waited until the end of the summer – until he had taken the bar and I had finished Infinite Jest – and dove into Washington after Labor Day.

We figure it will take four or five books before the project has any legitimacy. When I tell people I’m reading through all the presidents, they always ask me which one I’m on, and answering “Washington” doesn’t garner me a lot of respect. But we’re going to do it! Our goal is to finish before the 2012 election, which means we need to average a little less than a month for each president. Easy.

I did realize recently that I’m going to have to read through the entire American Revolution like, I don’t know, five times.

But Washington was great. I was surprised as how much vital information I didn’t know about him. Like where he grew up, and the fact that he didn’t have kids. This part, talking about when he was chosen to lead the Continental Army, made me laugh:

“Another short answer, subsequently offered by Adams as a joke, was that Washington was always selected by deliberative bodies to lead, whatever the cause, because he was always the tallest man in the room. Even as a joke, however, Adams was making a serious point that a veritable legion of his contemporaries made, especially upon first meeting Washington; namely, that he was physically majestic.”

John McCain can blame mass media if he wants, but it appears we have always been enraptured with leaders who look the part.

I also liked this part, about his post-presidential retirement at Mount Vernon.

“A day in the life of George Washington in retirement began at five o’clock with the rising of the sun: ‘If my hirelings are not in their places at that time, I send them messages of my sorrow for their indisposition.’”

Wake up calls! From George Washington!