While I Breathe I Shall Be Your Friend

July 12, 2008 at 7:18 am | Posted in History, Nonfiction | Leave a comment

(January 21, 2008)

This was something John Adams wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson, when both were very old men.  John Adams’ story is inspirational on the personal level, though maybe not so much on the presidential level.  So I’ll share with you what I learned about his life when I read John Adams: Party of One by James Grant.

John Adams was a Latin teacher and then a lawyer.  He met the love of his life, Abigail, when she was only 14.  They married (a few years later!) and had four children, one of whom, John Quincy, grew up to be president as well.  John and Abigail wrote passionate love letters to each other through their whole marriage.  She died three days after their 54th wedding anniversary.

Jefferson was a friend to them both.  It’s refreshing to read about an era when people of the opposite sex could be friends in a truly platonic way, the way that Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams were.  It’s also refreshing to read about a friendship that somehow survived after being practically destroyed by political differences.

In our day, Adams and Jefferson would have fallen into the “conservative” and “liberal” camps, respectively.  Let me tell you, those camps were just as nasty to each other back in the 18th century as they are today, and the media did not mince any words back then, either.  A rather negative letter Jefferson wrote about Adams was published without Jefferson’s knowledge, and when Adams read it there was no real way for them to be friends any more.  They lost touch for years.  But somehow they patched things back up.  They even died on the same day – on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of American Independence.

John Adams wasn’t a terribly popular president, partly because he was a major bookworm and partly because he wanted to work from home – a few hundred miles away from the Capitol.  Telecommuting was an awful lot harder in the days of horses and quill pens!  His greatest contribution to the founding of the country came through his legal scholarship in the drafting of the Constitution.  He also laid the foundation for the US Navy.

Let me tell you what a bookworm our second president was.  His library was valued at 80 percent of the value of his house!  His kids said he had never gotten them any presents that weren’t books.  It’s a bit eerie how he was able to read so much, when he worked on the legal circuit, basically riding his horse back and forth from Boston to Maine all the time to do his work.  No audio books were available.  Considering all the legal briefs he wrote, too, he must have carried a book everywhere he went and read in every spare minute.  He was famous for knowing all sorts of really obscure books inside and out.

A man like John Adams would be very unlikely to be elected as president today.  His people skills were, shall we say, not as highly developed as possible.  He knew everything rather than everyone.  He had been sent as ambassador to France and irritated them so much that they basically threw him out.  He was not charming or good looking.  He had no military record to draw on, like George Washington and so many of our other presidents.  Yet he was the obvious choice at the time when it came to drafting the Constitution and handling other research and writing jobs, and it’s hard to imagine how our country would have been built without his input.  It’s entirely possible that there was nobody else alive at the time who could have done what he did.

Here are some other interesting things I’ve been learning.  First of all, in these days, the electoral system had not been hammered out yet.  Voting took from November to February.  Whoever got the most votes became president, and whoever got the next highest number of votes became vice president.  So it was entirely possible for people who were politically very different to have to run the country together.  In fact, with Jefferson as Adams’ VP this is essentially what happened.  Can you imagine that happening now?  GW Bush with Al Gore as his second-in-command?  Second, the country was still so badly in debt through Adams’ administration that we almost went bankrupt.  I’m getting really curious to see whether we ever managed to become solvent, for even a brief historical period.  Right now it’s starting to look like we just never managed to pay off the interest from loans we got to pay pensions to Continental Army soldiers, and kept digging the hole to where we have our current deficit.  Gee, I hope I’m wrong.

Back to John Adams.  What can we learn from a man who lived to be 90, raised a future president, stayed happily married for 54 years, was one of the best-read people of his age, and maintained a decades-long friendship that transcended deep-set political differences?  We should look around at the candidates we get nowadays and ask where are the John Adamses among them.

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