". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: Shirker and Coward

Shirker and coward, ruminates John Quincy, more severe in his old age on Thomas Jefferson than was his father, John Adams, on the man who consciously betrayed and frequently harmed him. It comes up frequently in JQA's Memoirs, how much he resents TJ's behaviors, not only on behalf of the wrongs TJ did to President Adams, but how much harm he did to the nation, by both omission and commission. It is invigorating to read the entries about the latter, but it is touching to read his resentments of TJ on behalf of President Adams.

How close this father and son were, so close that the bonds of tenderness hold decades after John Adams had gone to his reward. The same can be said of J. Q. Adams and his son, Charles Francis Adams, who edited and published John Quincy Adams's Memoirs. From the papers of Charles Francis Adams's own sons, those tender generational bonds between Adams fathers and their sons continued. 

What  the PBS John and Abigail Adams and the HBO John Adams series emphasize, as do popular audience books such as My Dearest Friend and First Family, is John Adams's iracible, impatient personality, in combination with many long absences, as part of his parental failures. Which were true, at least as regarding his oldest son, George Washington Adams, who committed suicide at 28 years of age. Yet, then how to reconcile this tenderness of attitude and memory, as well as admiration of John Adams by John Quincy, other than to understand that this wasn't the entire story? 

John Adams demanded as much from everyone as he did from himself -- as did John Quincy Adams. Not everyone in their circles of family and friends could live up to these demands, and it seems that George Washington Adams was so intimidated he not only didn't try, he went in the other direction. One gets the sense that John Quincy Adams understood both his brother and his father, because, in his Memoirs, we see him striving still to live up to his father's expectations, even as death came more near every day. Which makes even more understandable President John Quincy Adams's disdain for Thomas Jefferson, who never strove to do anything but at the expense of others.

As a nation we don't emphasize loving, positive and productive father-son relationships in our political history, yet there were many. Politics have always been a dynastic profession. This remained as true for the U.S. as in, say, Britain, even though the Revolution abolished primogeniture and entail (along with an established religion and church).

Founding Father, President John Adams
From Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. 8:294-96

[January] 25th [1831]. 
Read a few stanzas of Childe Harold, and further in the correspondence of Jefferson, till the letter of 28th May, 1781, to General Washington, announcing his long-declared resolution of retiring from the oppression of his office as Governor of Virginia to private life. He says he shall relinquish it to abler hands ; and from that time there is a gap in the correspondence of nearly three years, the next letter being again to General Washington, and dated at Annapolis, 16th April, 1784. A note of the editor says that during the interval he preserved only memoranda of the contents of the letters written by him.
It is very evident that this period of his life brought to him no pleasing recollections. He withdrew from his office at the very agonizing moment of his country's struggle. He thought a military Governor would be at that time more useful to the State. Why was he not himself a military Governor? He was ex-officio commander-in-chief of the armies of the State. What was Joseph Warren? What was Nathanael Greene? What was Benjamin Lincoln? What was Henry Knox ? It is the necessary nature of civil wars to make military men out of lawyers and farmers, physicians and booksellers, ay, and out of ministers of the Word of God. The condition of Virginia at the moment when he abandoned the helm of state was such as should have created soldiers under the ribs of death.
His correspondence for a year before is languid and desponding. He complains of the discovery of extensive disaffection, speaks with terror of the enemy's successes, and broadly intimates that the minds of the people may be led to acquiescence under those events which they see no human power prepared to ward off. And this is the moment which Mr. Jefferson selects to retire from the responsible office of Governor of the State. And within four months from that day Cornwallis surrenders his arms and his army at Yorktown. Not a line of congratulation upon this great and sudden turn of the tide of success is found in his correspondence ; not a word about it in the memoir of his life. This silence is expressive.
Where was he from June, 178 1, to the close of the war ? No mortal can tell from the memoir or the correspondence. In that very June, 1 781, at the moment when he resigned his office as Governor of Virginia, he was appointed one of the Ministers for negotiating peace with Great Britain, then, he says, expected to be effected through the mediation of the Empress of Russia.
He declined this appointment, he says, for the same reasons for which he had declined in 1776 And what were they ? Take his words : "Such was the state of my family that I could not leave it, nor could I expose it to the dangers of the sea, and of capture by the British ships, then covering the ocean. I saw, too, that the laboring oar was really at home, where much was to be done of the most permanent interest, in new-modelling our Governments, and much to defend our fanes and firesides from the desolations of an invading enemy, pressing on our country on every point." 
The first of these reasons are mere private considerations. He could not leave his family, and would not expose his family to capture by British ships. John Adams three times exposed himself and two boys to capture by British ships during the war. He left his wife, daughter, and one infant son to the protection of his country. John Jay's wife and children went with him. Dr. Franklin went safe in 1776, as Jefferson would have gone if he had been with him. Henry Laurens was taken and sent to the Tower, and harshly treated; but his son was not even imprisoned, and was allowed to visit him ; and so might it have been with Mr. Jefferson if he had gone, with or without his family, and been taken.
There are dangers which a high-souled man engaged in a sacred cause must encounter and not flinch from. To assign them as reasons for declining the post of honor savors more of the Sybarite than of the Spartan. They remind one of the certain lord, neat, trimly dressed, who but for those vile guns would himself have been a soldier.
As to the other reason, of staying at home to defend our fanes and firesides, it certainly did not apply to Mr. Jefferson either in 1776, when there was neither actual nor threatened invasion of Virginia, or in June, 1781, when Mr. Jefferson had slunk from that very defence into the inactive safety of a private citizen.
Perhaps Mr. Jefferson was sufficiently punished for his dereliction of the cause by the humiliating necessity under which he has been of drawing a veil over this portion of his life . . . how much more illustrious would his name have been if his portrait could have appeared in Trumbull's picture of the Surrender of Cornwallis as conspicuous as in that of the Declaration of Independence! 

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