[NOTE: As a rule, I do not post at this blog about current American politics (for an exception, go here). I usually limit that sort of thing to my Facebook timeline, when I “say something” about an article that I’m “sharing” from a newspaper like the New York Times or the Washington Post.
Nevertheless, the other morning, while reading a chapter in Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg’s fine book, Madison and Jefferson, I came across a passage that struck me as painfully relevant to our contemporary political climate. I went to the source of that passage, and reading the entire letter made an even stronger impression. What follows is my summary of Abigail Adams’ letter to Thomas Jefferson in mid-August 1804, as well as comments that might, I hope, suggest how ideas in that letter apply to our current depressing presidential campaign.]
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The context of Abigail Adams’ letter is important. Early in 1804, President Thomas Jefferson’s twenty-five year-old daughter, Maria Jefferson Eppes, died following childbirth.
One of the letters of condolence the President received after Maria’s death came from Abigail Adams, who had grown fond of Maria when, on her way in 1787 to join her father in France, Maria had stayed briefly with Abigail and her husband John Adams in London.
Mrs. Adams’ letter was brief, and the correspondence might have ended there, but Jefferson evidently saw her note as a chance to explain the warm feelings he still had for both Abigail and her husband John, whom he had defeated for the presidency in 1800 after an extremely emotional, bitter, ugly, but nevertheless celebrated, campaign, which Jefferson and his partisans subsequently referred to as the “Revolution of 1800.”
The thin-skinned John Adams, stung by the viciousness of the Jeffersonians’ campaign that had led to his defeat (though his own Federalist followers were neither fair nor gentle to Jefferson during that campaign), left the new capital of Washington, D.C. before his successor’s inauguration; correspondence between the two former friends ceased. Jefferson’s decision to respond as he did to Abigail Adams’ note three and a half years later set off an exchange of letters that throws a garish light on the political practices of the time, and also, perhaps, holds some lessons for us in 2016.
The following passages are from Abigail Adams’ letter to President Thomas Jefferson, August 18, 1804 (Cappon, ed., Adams-Jefferson Letters, p.277):
. . . Party spirit is blind malevolent uncandid, ungenerous, unjust and unforgiving. It is equally so under federal as under democratic Banners, yet upon both sides are Characters, who possess honest views, and act from honorable motives, who disdain to be led blindfold, and who tho entertaining different opinions, have for their object the public welfare and happiness. These are the Characters, who abhor calumny and evil speaking, and who will never descend to News paper revileing. . . .
I have seen and known that much of the conduct of a public ruler [i.e., President John Adams], is liable to be misunderstood, and misrepresented. Party hatred by its deadly poison blinds the Eyes and envenoms the heart. It is fatal to the integrity of the moral Character. It sees not that wisdom dwells with moderation, and that firmness of conduct is seldom united with outrageous [violence] of sentiment. Thus blame is too often liberally bestowed upon actions, which if fully understood, and candidly judged would merit praise instead of censure. It is only by the general issue of measures producing banefull or beneficial effects that they ought to be tested.
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- The “federal” and “democratic” “Banners” Abigail Adams mentions represented the political parties, this nation’s first, active in the 1800 campaign: the “Federalists,” the supporters of John Adams; and the “Democratic [or Jeffersonian] Republicans,” the party of Thomas Jefferson. In 2016, we would of course have to substitute the “Republican” and “Democratic” labels.
- According to Mrs. Adams, certain political “Characters. . . tho entertaining different opinions, have for their object the public welfare and happiness.” This brings up the great idea that was lost during the 1800 campaign and certainly has also disappeared from modern political discourse: the notion of the “common [or public] good” [this can be rendered in Latin as res publica: “public thing or matter,” the root of our word “republic”], to achieve which, at least in eighteenth-century political theory, politicians were supposed to subsume their petty rivalries and personal ambitions in the interest of national harmony and betterment.
- Which reminds me of an interdisciplinary course that the History Department at my school sheltered for a few years, because we believed in the concept–it was called “The School for the Common Good.” And, yes, it attempted to do, admittedly on a small scale, exactly what the title of the course suggested: unite students from our school with students from a local public high school in a program that tried to work for the “common good” of a deprived area in Atlanta. It was while tracing the importance of the ideal of the “common good” in a series of lectures for this class that I came fully to appreciate what had been lost since 1800 in American political discourse.
- Mrs. Adams also asserts that “party hatred. . . sees not that wisdom dwells with moderation, and that firmness of conduct is seldom united with outrageous [violence] of sentiment.” And, let’s be honest, although Mrs. Adams was complaining about the brutal tone of the 1800 campaign, the idea of “moderation” is not very attractive to political leaders, or to many political followers, in 2016 (though, I would argue, it should be!). Rather, both parties seem to be insisting on fairly rigid ideological agreement from their members, a sort of “my way or the highway” approach to political issues that is almost guaranteed to continue the gridlock that has gripped Washington, D.C., for nearly a quarter of a century now, no matter which candidate was victorious in November, and, thus, to cripple efforts needed to repair the nation’s collapsing infrastructure, as well as other significant issues that will go continue to go unaddressed, so long as “the base” is happy.
- Finally, the wife of the second President charged that “Party hatred by its deadly poison blinds the Eyes and envenoms the heart. It is fatal to the integrity of the moral Character.” Anyone out there want to counter her charge, in 2016?
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This notion of the need to try to restore “civility” (moderation, the search for the “public good,” the belief in the efficacy of compromise, the insistence on tolerance) in the current presidential campaign brings up a couple of points:
- First, I’m reminded of a discussion technique I borrowed from a colleague, modified for my A.P. U.S. History seniors, and employed for many years. I called it a “Quaker Meeting Discussion.” The idea was that my students, with no help from me would, when “the spirit moved them,” discuss a question from the assigned reading that I had put on the board. I insisted on certain ground rules for these discussions, the most important of which was civility, the willingness to listen to other members of the class, even if what they said did not accord with the listeners’ own views, and to respond to what they heard, not make their remarks personal. And this approach generally worked, at least in my classroom.
- Recently, I read in the journal Teaching Tolerance, an editorial from a retired teacher, Maureen Costello. Ms. Costello wrote that, if she were still in the classroom, she would, to prepare her students for the 2016 presidential election, “begin the year by discussing basic democratic values, sometimes called the ‘American creed,'” which, in her mind, includes: a) Government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed; b) Government exists to promote the common good; c) Individuals are entitled to political equality; d) People must follow the rule of law, with no one above the law; e) Majority rules but cannot take away fundamental rights; f) Truth is essential to the “American way.”
Either of these two ideas, or both together, could be a great way for either a weekend political interview show or, heck, even a presidential debate, to conduct a discussion. And, sure, there are problems with both, but could this approach be any worse than what we’ve been seeing for the last year or so? I don’t think so. . . .
[POSTSCRIPT: Those of you familiar with my Facebook “timeline” know on which side of the party lines my sympathies fall. Regardless, I’m not happy with the ugliness of this campaign, and I believe that, whichever candidate ultimately is elected will a) need to take several very hot showers before swearing the oath of office as President, to have a hope of removing the slimy remains of the campaign; and b) have a lot to answer for, when historians put on their hazmat suits and wade into the primary sources, to try to make sense of the sorry 2016 presidential campaign. I don’t envy them, and I’m glad I won’t be among them. . . .]
Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson (New York, 2010), pp.416-419.
Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (New York, 1971; paperback reprint, two volumes in one), pp.268-282.
Maureen Costello, “Perspectives,” Teaching Tolerance, issue 54 (Fall 2016), 5.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: