Tag archives: John Adams

Rush to Reconciliation

by Robert Morrison

January 16, 2013

Listening to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) offer up prayers for President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters in Richmond last week reminded me how sweet reconciliation can be. I have not changed my opinion of President Obama’s policies—especially what I regard as his harmful moves on abortion, marriage, and religious freedom.

Still, speaker after speaker at the Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast noted the fellowship they shared around prayer in the legislature in Richmond. Virginia’s General Assembly lays claim to being the oldest legislature in the New World. The evident genuineness of the friendship between Democrats and Republicans in Richmond may serve as a lesson for politicos here in Washington.

Recently, I met a young man who is descended from Founding Father Benjamin Rush. Dr. Rush was a key figure in the Revolution, a friend to all the leading figures. Always a Patriot, Dr. Rush was a Signer of the Declaration of Independence. He strongly supported Gen. Washington’s “policy of humanity” toward the defeated Hessians at Trenton. This took a lot of courage because those Hessians had given no quarter to our boys whom they overran on Long Island. They ran our young soldiers through with their terrible 17-inch bayonets—even after the Americans had surrendered.

Because I now knew one of his “posterity,” I made a point of looking out for Dr. Rush as I watched the HBO series on “John Adams.” The last episode was especially touching—and revealing.

Even in his ninetieth year, the ex-president remains mentally acute. In fact, he seems actually to discern more. “Take away hope and what remains? I have seen the Queen of France with 18 million livres of diamonds and jewels on her person, yet all the charms of her face and figure did not impress me as much as that little shrub.” He points to a delicate little flower with his walking stick. Adams turns to his youngest son, Thomas, and says, “your mother always said I never delighted enough in the mundane. But now, if I look at the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam.”

He looks up at the sky and at the beauty of the fields around him. They are his fields, tilled by his own hand, and not, as those of his dear friend, Thomas Jefferson, labored in by slaves. His words on the little flower are but a paraphrase of Jesus’s in the Sermon on the Mount: Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not. Neither do they spin. Yet Solomon in all his splendor was not arrayed as one of these.

Then old Honest John Adams turns to his son, ecstatically, and says: “Rejoice evermore. Rejoice evermore!” Thomas seems to think father a bit daft. “It’s from St. Paul, you fool,” and he shouts to the sky: REJOICE EVERMORE.

Sobering, he confesses: “I wish that had always been in my heart and on my tongue.”

He recognizes the lifetime of broken relationships and fierce hostilities. He may be regretting the tragedy of a son who drinks himself to death and the estrangement from a son-in-law who, though a brave and resourceful officer in war, and a dutiful secretary to himself, had nonetheless a penchant for bootless get-rich-quick schemes that ended in penury.

One of the most important scenes is that in 1812 between the great Dr. Benjamin Rush and Adams. Dr. Rush had been on hand for daughter Nabby’s breast cancer operation and subsequent death, and for Abigail’s passing.

Now, he tenderly offers to inform Mr. Jefferson of Abigail’s passing. “If Thomas Jefferson were to send me a letter, Adams says, “I would not fail to answer it.”

Delicately, Rush suggests perhaps Adams might write first. We know that they had not been on speaking terms since Adams took the morning coach out of Washington in 1801.

Adams’s face darkens: “that man honored and salaried every villain who was an enemy to me and who caused grave harm to my reputation.”

Softly, Dr. Rush’s answer would turn away wrath: “that is why you must show magnanimity. I consider you and Mr. Jefferson the North and South Poles of our revolution. Some spoke. Some wrote. Some fought. But you and Mr. Jefferson thought for us all.”

What the camera should then have recorded, but inexplicably did not, was John Adams bursting into tears, saying: “I have always loved Thomas Jefferson!”

They may dispute Adams’s and Jefferson’s faith, but no one has ever said Benjamin Rush was not a Christian. Rush’s great work of reconciliation makes possible the magnificent closing scene of their lives: Adams and Jefferson dying on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Without Rush’s healing intervention, the two giants might have died the same day, still bitter antagonists.

We need that healing balm of friendship and reconciliation now more than ever. One thing I learned from the Values Bus tour last fall. I would make a point of thanking our friends who came out to hear us. Then, I would work the line of protesters who came out to oppose us. I thanked them, too, for coming.

In Eagle River, Wisconsin, some of the protesters looked puzzled when I welcomed them. I pointed to the TV cameras and microphones. “When you come, they come. And then we get our Values Bus on the 6 o’clock news. So, welcome!” Some of them even laughed. We have to be warriors, alas, but we can be happy warriors. Dr. Benjamin Rush taught us how.

Is it the Fourth?

by Robert Morrison

July 4, 2012

I recall finishing David McCulloughs excellent John Adams onJuly 4, 2001. A great thunderstorm broke overAnnapolis that afternoon. The violent wind and rain, thunder and lightning were the perfect accompaniment to the storm that attended the greatAdamss departure, July 4, 1826.

In a powerful coda to his life, he died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. No one did more to bring about American Independence that this blunt-spoken man fromMassachusetts. Lawyer, patriot, Member of Congress, and diplomat, John Adams was born to lead and men naturally turned to him, even when they didnt especially like him. Men generally respect hard work and no one worked harder than John Adams. In the Continental Congress, he served on scores of committees, including the essential committee that dealt with the Army and the Navy. (Today, those who say the repeal of the misnamed Dont ask/Dont tell policy overturned the law Bill Clinton signed in 1993 are wrong. The ban actually dates from John Adamss rules for the Army and Navy, written in 1775. Adamss ban was older than the country.)

John Adams was such a selfless fighter for Independencethat he nominated Col. George Washington to be Commander-in-Chief of the Army, thereby putting off a key Massachusetts ally, John Hancock. As President of Congress, Hancock coveted the command for himself. But Hancock joined the other delegates in electing Washington unanimously. Adams also selected the tall, lanky young Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to draft the Declaration of Independence. His reasoning, as he later recorded it, was typical of bluff, honest John Adams:

  1. That [Jefferson] was a Virginian and I a Massachusettensian. 2. That he was a southern Man and I a northern one. 3. That I had become so obnoxious for my early and constant Zeal in promoting [Independence] that any [draft] of mine would undergo more severe Scrutiny and Criticism in Congress than one of his composition. 4thly and lastly that would be reason enough if there were no other, I had a great Opinion of the Elegance of his pen and none at all of my own….

How can we not love this man? There, he shows us his candid heart. He proves to us that he has no elegance in his pen. Massachusettensian? Good grief! Thank you, John, for tapping Mr. Jefferson for this historic task.

John Adams a diplomat? He was a disaster in Paris. The French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, couldnt stand the man. Adams worked through the nights as Benjamin Franklin partied. The aged sage engaged in witty repartee with Frances leading philosophes (and in naughty badinage with some of Paris leading ladies). It reflects badly on blunt John that he became resentful of the great Dr. Franklin. Franklin, in turn, parried John Adamss complaints to Congress. He deemed his younger New England compatriot a good man, a wise man, in all an honest man. He generously conceded Adamss patriotism. But in some things in some ways, absolutely out of his mind.

Fortunately for us, Adams was driven from France to Holland. There, he negotiated a wonderful treaty with the Dutch that provided what we would today call a bridge loan, a vitally needed one. It was doubtless a great achievement. But when Adams wrote to Congress claiming to be the Washington of diplomacy, the delegates all laughed heartily at his expense.

When David McCullough gave a presentation on his book here at the National Press Club, I pressed him on Adams and the Titles Crisis. As the first Vice President of the United States, John Adams took up a full six weeks of the time of the first Senate meeting in New York with long and wearisome lectures on the importance of giving highfalutin titles to our elected officials. Adams wanted Washington to have the title His High Mightiness, President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties. George Washington wanted no such thing. And for advocating it, Adams made himself look ridiculous. Jefferson was appalled. His old revolutionary colleague must have become deranged during his years as our minister to Great Britain. Behind his back, Adams got a title he didnt want: His Rotundity.

McCullough smoothly and wittily waved me away. Well, you know, Adams was a flinty New Englander. He knew everyone wants to be noticed. And he figured titles were a cheap way of giving politicians distinction. The urbane McCullough brushed off my question and got a good laugh doing so.

But it points out the problem with Honest John. Today, everyone quotes the Founders. And we should. The Federalist Papers are cited daily (most recently in the dissents from John Roberts egregious decision in NFIB v. Sebelius). Nobody cites John Adamss Discourses on Davila. In those long, turgid commentaries, Adams gives vent to his suspicions of the people.

While we hail John Adamss 1780 Massachusetts Constitutionand we shouldwe must note that it has a radical defect: the people of the Bay State cannot amend that splendid document without getting permission from state legislators. And that is the reason weve never had a referendum on true marriage in Massachusetts!

Having said all this, why still honor Adams? Because he was the Colossus of Independence. He worked without ceasing for the freedom of our country. He and his cousin Samuel were shrewd enough to maneuver around the anti-Independence Pennsylvania delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Their Massachusetts machine even reached out to German-speaking Pennsylvania farmers with Der Alarm, a newsletter pushing for election of a pro-Independence slate of delegates. Without their constant labors within Congress and without, its doubtful all of Jeffersons fine words and Washingtons noble sacrifices would have achieved the political result of Independence.

When a delegation approached the 90-year old Adamsfor a blessing and a quote on the eve of that 50th Anniversary Independence Day, the great patriot could only croak: Independence Forever!

Its all he had to say. On that Glorious Fourth, the last day of his life, Adams said: Thomas Jefferson still survives. Four hundred miles away, Thomas Jefferson at 83 also lay dying. He had asked his family Is it the Fourth? When told it was, he gave up the ghost.

When these two great Founders died on the same day, there was of course no Breaking News to flash the word instantly. It took some weeks before the whole nation knew. Modern historians are inclined to say that some Americans at that time saw the hand of Providence in the deaths of the two great Founders on the Nations Fiftieth Birthday. Yes, and some of us still do.

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