CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — The Supreme Court: Political From The Get-Go

We like to think of the Supreme Court as a nonpartisan and completely independent branch of government that makes sure laws passed by Congress and the states conform to the provisions of the United States Constitution.

The Supreme Court aspires to that Olympian detachment and judicial neutrality but seldom achieves it. Like it or not, there is a political substratum in court appointments, and it can produce great political tension at unsettled moments in American life. Like now.

Presidents nominate Supreme Court justices and the Senate has to confirm. There has been occasional trouble since the very beginning.

The first justice to be denied a seat on the court was a man named John Rutledge. It was 1795, just seven years into the new constitutional order. Rutledge had written an op ed piece critical of the Jay Treaty — a 1794 treaty with Britain that tried to resolve certain lingering issues from the War of Independence. That was enough for a Federalist Senate to scotch his candidacy.

Jefferson came into office in 1801 in what he called the Second American Revolution. But poised to prevent that revolution was Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson’s distant cousin. He was put into his life-tenured position in the last months of John Adams’ failed one-term administration. Adams, who distrusted Jefferson’s democratic radicalism, essentially engaged in last-minute court packing — Marshall and dozens of other midnight appointments — to make sure Jefferson did not take things too far to the left.

Marshall went on to serve for 34 years. He was perhaps the greatest of all Supreme Court justices. He was indeed a thorn in Jefferson’s side. Marshall wanted America to be a great centralized nation state, not a confederation of sovereign states. Marshall envisioned a nation that prized the sanctity of contract above any temporary notion of social justice. He despised Jefferson’s vision of a lightly governed, inward-looking, agriculturally based loose association of proud commonwealths like Virginia and Pennsylvania. We now live in Marshall’s America, not Jefferson’s.

Jefferson struck back at the judiciary in 1804 by convincing his partisans in the House of Representatives to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who had become an obnoxious and outspoken anti-democrat from the bench. The question was this: Can you impeach a justice for what you regard as his nasty politics. The U.S. Senate chose not to convict Chase.

Jefferson seems to have sensed that he was playing a dangerous game, one that could erode constitutional stability. In the aftermath, he admitted that such impeachments were a bungling enterprise and he desisted from meddling with the independence of the judiciary thereafter. Jefferson appointed three justices to the Supreme Court. Every one of them wound up disappointing him.

The last attempt to pack the court was in 1937, when Franklin Roosevelt, just re-elected in a landslide, attempt to increase the number of justices from nine to 15 so that his emergency New Deal legislation would not be struck down by judicial conservatives any longer. Congress balked. Even Democrats in Congress, including senators and representatives devoted to the New Deal, refused to give Roosevelt such unprecedented power. He was frustrated, but this is how our system is supposed to work.

What we should want is a justice with a first-rate mind, great analytical powers, an unusually high capacity for legal discernment and nuance, a deep grounding in the history of law, the history of natural rights and the history of constitutions, particularly “our” Constitution. What we want is someone who knows a great deal about original intent but is not a slave to original intent (that was then, this is now, and by the way “that” constitution was written to protect slavery, so how “original” do we really wish to be?) We want someone who prizes a strict protection of human rights over government efficiency or economic prosperity. What you most want on a court is a few crabby civil libertarians who understand that the whole genius of America is to leave as many people alone as possible as often and emphatically as possible.

So why are we already locked into an angry national cage match on Roe V. Wade, the abortion decision issued by the Supreme Court in 1973?

Both parties are behaving in a deplorable manner: The Republicans want the nominee to pledge to overturn Roe V. Wade. The Democrats insist that he or she hint that she will leave current abortion law in place.

Not only is this the wrong basis on which to give someone life tenure, but it trivializes the third branch of our national government into a public policy club consisting of nine unelected and largely unaccountable persons. The great questions of a great nation should not be decided by nine unelected individuals.

They are men and women like other men and women, capable of nobility and capable of pettiness, vengefulness, ignorance, prejudice, bigotry, pride and self-aggrandizement. They have good days and bad. They see some issues with great clarity and others with the kind of muddled gut reactions that characterize all of the rest of us.

The future of this country should be in the hands of an infinitely wider body than the Supreme Court. Our current approach is not much different from letting the starting lineup of the Chicago Cubs determine the future of the United States.

I believe the nomination process should be taken out of the hands of American presidents, who misunderstand and misuse their appointment power for narrow and often temporary purposes, and put it instead into the hands of a severely nonpartisan think tank of constitutional experts who look for raw judicial talent irrespective of the person’s political views. Once the foundation designated someone of outstanding merit, the Senate would confirm or deny with a straight up and down vote.

America is awash in men and women who would be outstanding Supreme Court justices. But the very last questions we should want to ask them is where they stand on Roe V. Wade, or the Affordable Care Act, or affirmative action.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — So Far Ahead Of Her Time

One of Joseph Ellis’ contributions to the historiography of the revolutionary era is that he proves that when Abigail Adams wrote her famous, “remember the ladies” letter to her husband, John, in the spring of 1776, she meant it. She was being playful — it was another episode in the never-ending, good-humored “war” between the sexes — and yet she was perfectly serious, too, as her letters to others, including Mercy Otis Warren, indicate. Here’s what Abigail Adams actually wrote in the famous letter:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

If you didn’t know the context, you would not necessarily see these words as playful. Abigail is playing the language of the revolution right back at her husband. If the Revolution is about freedom and equality, she argues, if you are really saying that human beings have an inherent right to life, liberty, property and self-government, which humans, precisely, do you have in mind? Or rather, which are you willfully choosing to exclude from your glittering and seemingly-universal formula of liberty?

Historians have tended to think Abigail’s famous pronouncement was more playful than pointed because of the mock-outrage of her husband John’s response. He called his wife “saucy.”  He said he and his revolutionary colleagues would fight rather than submit to what he called “the despotism of the petticoat.” and he dismissed her petition: “as for your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.”

Perhaps it was a nervous laugh. Maybe he was just lame. Maybe John Adams just didn’t get it. As Thomas Jefferson was about to learn, once you throw open the doors to revolution, you cannot control everything that gets stirred up. With his usual bludgeoning wit, Great Britain’s Samuel Johnson skewered the hypocrisy of men like Jefferson: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” How do you write that all men are created equal and buy and sell them for farm profit?

Ellis praises Abigail for what he calls “her recognition that the very arguments her husband was hurling at Parliament and the British ministry had latent implications that undermined all coercive or nonvoluntary systems of arbitrary power.” He speaks of “the Pandora’s box that John and his colleagues in the Continental Congress had opened.” Particularly Jefferson, of course, the author of the famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence. The lesson seems to be: beware of employing universalist rhetoric. Some folks will conclude that you actually meant it to have universal application.

Although Abigail Adams could be sharp-tongued (just ask Thomas Jefferson), she was seldom tart with her husband John, whom she loved deeply, passionately, and perpetually, in spite of her awareness that he was a rotund, bald, toothless man with what he called a quiveration in his hands, in spite of the fact that she knew John Adams was vain, boastful, pompous, thin-skinned and beset with insecurities and personal demons. Managing John’s volatilities was a significant part of Abigail’s life work. She knew he was under tremendous pressure in the spring of 1776, and she did not want to be as angry-assertive as the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

Still, she saw that there was no legitimate reason to exclude women from the revolutionary formula being bandied about by her famous husband and his male pals. She knew that the law of logical consistency meant that any attempt to deny women equal rights was arbitrary, the triumph of power over justice, and she reminded John Adams that demanding rights against those who would arbitrarily curtail or cancel them was, wasn’t it, the very principle of the American Revolution?

Did John Adams squirm or wince or sigh heavily when he read his wife’s spirited letter? We want to hope that he rejoiced to have such a wife, someone who would stretch him, challenge him, tease him, push him, lure him and at times even rebuke him. In other words, you want to hope that John Adams understood that public equality couldn’t thrive on a foundation of private inequality. You hope that he understood that human rights begin at home.

Adams’ response to Abigail’s remember the ladies letter was pretty lame, but at least it wasn’t as lame as Jefferson’s would have been. Adams had the good sense to disarm the discourse with humor — trembling over the despotism of the petticoat and all of that. Jefferson would have written one of his earnest dissertations about the God of Nature and natural gender specialization, arguing that the benign creator had designed women for the sacred duties of the nursery. Blah blah blah, Mr. Jefferson.

Still, it was Jefferson and no one else who launched those magnificent revolutionary words. As usual, he tried to pierce through the immediate issue — independence from Britain — to the universal principle, and as usual he nailed it. Nobody has ever understood this genius of Jefferson as well as the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

In a letter written in 1859, Lincoln wrote, “All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

Do you see what Lincoln is saying? Under “concrete pressure” to write a “merely revolutionary document,” Jefferson wrote “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” and what he wrote will forever serve as “a rebuke and a stumbling block” to even the first hint, the “harbingers of reappearing tyranny.”

In other words, under incredible pressure and on the fly in June 1776, Jefferson wrote sentences in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence that represent, better than anything else ever written, the eternal universal standard of human rights. The fact that those very sentences now convict Jefferson of being a relatively bad exemplar of his own perfectly stated principles is perhaps too bad for Jefferson the man, but they illustrate Jefferson the magnificent revolutionary genius, and they have helped to liberate hundreds of millions of people worldwide, perhaps billions, which seems to me infinitely more important than Jefferson’s personal and behavioral limitations.

In other words, Jefferson did, in some sense, remember the ladies.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Have You Looked Around, Mr. Jefferson?

John Adams believed three things that drive an utopian like Jefferson nuts. First, he believed that aristocracy will always be with us in one form or another. In Europe, this works by hereditary emoluments and privileges. The Duke of Northumberland is always the father of the next Duke of Northumberland and the son of the last one, downhill forever through history, together with vast estates, whole sections of London, and thousands of retainers.

In the United States, with its constitutional prohibition on titles of nobility, you perhaps cannot be called the Duke of Something-or-Other, but you can be a Rockefeller, a Mellon, a Carnegie, a Kennedy, a Bush, or for that matter a Kardashian, a Vanderbilt or a Clooney.

Adams understood that this kind of aristocracy — in which certain families somehow accumulated vast amounts of property and power — is simply a fact of life. You can rail against it until you go hoarse in the throat, but the only sensible thing to do is to get used to it and try to turn their enormous power toward philanthropic ends, the Rockefeller Foundation or the Pew Memorial Trust.

You have to keep a tight vigilance on these families, Adams believed. He thought, though we don’t, that the best place for them with the United States Senate.

The second of Adams’ foundational beliefs was that you can never build a republic in which everyone is equal. You can try, you can reshuffle all the property and divvy it up equally among the whole population. But it won’t work. Give it a few years in a free and equalitarian society, and you’ll find that a handful of individuals once again own most of the country and most of the wealth, that a large mass of people in a middling condition will exist, all wanting more, and then there will be a significant class of poor people who either barely keep their heads above water or wind up being wards of the state or the parish or some other entity.

After all of this redistribution in the name of social equality, the new rich may not be precisely the same as the old rich, though probably they will, but the new rich will hold most of the wealth and they will forget their beginnings and lord it over everyone else. They will expect, and they will get, special privileges in the society. They will mark off playgrounds for themselves that regular people cannot afford — because they lack the money, are not admitted to the exclusive clubs, don’t wear the proper clothing, don’t speak with the correct English accent.

The third and perhaps most important of Adams’ fundamental principles is that the central human impulse is not to sympathy or justice or generosity or love of truth. It’s not to gratitude or benevolence or philanthropy. In Adam’s world, the central human impulse, the dynamo right at the center of your personality, is a rage for distinction.

You want to be the captain of the football team, or at least the captain of the chess club. You want to be the greatest warrior in Afghanistan or at least the best in your neighborhood at the video game “Call of Duty.” You want to be the prettiest girl in your graduating class or at least the prettiest at your 30th reunion. You want to be tallest guy on the team, highest scorer on the team, the only one on the team named to the All-Academic All-Stars. You want to be the youngest full partner of the law firm or youngest tenured professor in southeast central Arkansas state college, or the richest man in Broken Bow, Neb., or the guy at the sports bar who knows the most NFL trivia or — even better — the one who met Michael Jordan at a celebrity golf tournament at Tahoe. Class president or class clown. The one who got into Harvard or the one who was expelled for turning loose twenty rattlesnakes at the homecoming dance.

Whatever it takes to have distinction, preferably a unique distinction. I actually knew a guy in high school who, at beer parties, would eventually be talked into going outside and trying to urinate over the top of the garage. I’m not joking. He occasionally could accomplish this tremendous feat of sheer human athleticism and will, and we celebrated him for it, as if he had cracked the DNA code or run the three-minute mile. So far as I know that was all that he could do — his sole distinction in life — and, of course, it was not for all markets, not for church suppers or a one man Broadway show. And, if you think about the nature of the male prostate gland, he’s probably lucky now if he can pee over the lip of his toilet, but at all-class reunions people (by which I mean men who never grew up) gather around him, even now, as if he were the Joe Namath of competitive peeing.

John Adams said this was the central human impulse — this rage for distinction. Think about this in your own life. Where is your distinction from the herd — now numbering 340 million rival human beings in America alone? What do you have or do that marks you as remarkable, or perhaps unique? Is it your pineapple upside-down cake, or the size of your … hot tub? Is it the time share you have at Cabo? Is it the quality of your tube-type stereo system?

John Adams says you may not be willing to admit it (though you probably are all too willing to admit it), but there is something, some talent, some access, some achievement, some birthright or purchase that gives you a sense of competitive advantage, whether you can roll your eyes all the back into your head or flop your ears to play the national anthem in Morse code. Somewhere in your story, says John Adams, you hang your competitive hat on that distinction.

These Adams propositions — that aristocrats will always be with us, that equality is a lovely fairy tale and that the rage for distinction is at the center of all human endeavor — were designed to confound dreamers like Thomas Jefferson. For Jefferson believed that we could at the very least replace the pseudo-Aristocracy (individuals born into wealth and privilege) with what he called Natural Aristocracy, and we would call meritocracy.

Jefferson believed that we could distribute the fruits of life more equitably than in any previous civilization in the history of the world, and we could perpetuate that essential equality by enlightened redistributive laws (equal inheritance to all children, for example), and, of course, by buying a “Louisiana Purchase” now and then. And he believed that the central human impulses were actually those of sympathy, benevolence, generosity and friendship.

To which John Adams would say, “Have you looked around lately, Mr. Jefferson?” Or as he actually did say once, “No doubt you was fast asleep in philosophical tranquility,” Mr. Jefferson, while the American expression of the French Revolution roiled through the streets of Philadelphia in 1793.

Yes, I would like to be the greatest Thomas Jefferson scholar. I would like to be the Muse of the Little Missouri River Valley in the Badlands of North Dakota. I would like to write the best book ever written about Lewis and Clark. I would like to be “the” North Dakota, for what little that may be worth to you who live in better states. And though my days of garage peeing contests are long over, I would like now to be able to get through the night without having to get up to pee. There’s my rage for distinction, indeed.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Abigail Adams: Awesome And A Little Frightening

My daughter and I were wandering about the J.P. Morgan Library in New York City last week, vaguely looking for whatever they had about Edward S. Curtis, the Seattle photographer who took those incredible black-and-white images of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century.

Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1908. "Mandan man wrapped in buffalo robe standing on cliff overlooking the Missouri River." (From Wikimedia Commons.)
Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1908. “Mandan man wrapped in buffalo robe standing on cliff overlooking the Missouri River.” (From Wikimedia Commons.)

We saw a range of amazing things in two hours — one of the Morgan’s three copies of the Gutenberg Bible, a manuscript page from Goethe’s “Faust” in Goethe’s hand, a first edition of one of the most influential books ever written, Rousseau’s “Essay Concerning the Inequality of Mankind,” a life mask of George Washington and the Enlightenment’s greatest sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s greatest sculpture, his bust of Benjamin Franklin.

We oohed and ahhed and gasped and nodded and whispered our sense of wonder that one of the richest men of his time chose not to buy gold faucets and giant inlaid bathtubs, but instead gave a portion of his vast fortune to the acquisition of some of the greatest rare books, art treasures, and manuscripts in the world.

My daughter, Catherine, hissed me over to a little glass case. And there was displayed a letter by Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, dated May 20th, 1804. This was the letter of condolence that Mrs. Adams wrote to her old friend, now enemy, Jefferson, after she learned from the newspapers that his younger daughter, Maria, had died at Monticello a month previously.

Because my daughter did not know the story, I had the joy of explaining the importance of the letter to her. When Maria sailed from Virginia to Europe in 1787 to join her father and her older sister, Martha, the ship stopped first in England, where Abigail and John Adams took the 9-year-old child under their wing before sending her on to Paris.

At the time, Abigail was rather pointedly annoyed that Jefferson did not come himself to Britain to get his daughter, who, after all, had crossed the entire Atlantic more or less alone — and Jefferson apparently was too busy to cross the English Channel to collect her in person.

Maria had been chaperoned on that immense voyage by none other than 14-year-old Sally Hemings, although in his defense, it must be said that Jefferson had asked that the chaperon be an elderly black woman who had survived a bout of smallpox and was therefore immune. When Abigail met Sally Hemings in London, some little red flag popped in her sharp soul, and she recommended that Jefferson send Sally back to Virginia on the return voyage. But no.

Now, 17 years later, Maria Jefferson Eppes was dead, at the age of 25, and Mrs. Adams knew that Jefferson was overcome with grief.

So she broke a self-imposed silence. She no longer trusted Jefferson. She no longer liked Jefferson. She blamed him for some of the newspaper attacks that had been made on her husband in the lead up to the 1800 presidential election. She saw Jefferson as an unprincipled demagogue, an ambitious, unscrupulous, duplicitous politician who loved power more than he loved virtue and certainly more than he loved his old friend, John Adams, whom he had unfairly displaced from the presidency.

Abigail did not unload on Jefferson in this famous letter. She provided a few carefully veiled hints of her dark feelings about Jefferson and admitted that nothing but Maria’s untimely death could have moved her to write a letter to a man she now detested.

At the end of the letter, just to dick with the Deist Jefferson, if I may use that colorful but accurate term, she urged Jefferson to take comfort “from that only source calculated to heal the wounded heart — a firm belief in the Being: perfections and attributes of God.” And to top it all off, she ended the letter by calling herself one “who once took pleasure in subscribing Herself your Friend.” Ouch.

What a letter! Nobody talked to Thomas Jefferson that way! And there it was, the original, in Abigail’s clear penmanship, under glass, at the J.P. Morgan Library.

Now if Jefferson had had an ounce of good sense, he would have written a brief, polite reply thanking Mrs. Adams for her sympathy. But that’s not what he did. In his reply on June 13, 1804, Jefferson stupidly brought up a grudge he still nursed about President Adams’ conduct during the last weeks of his one-term presidency.

“I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only,” he wrote, “ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure. I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind.” He complained to Mrs. Adams that John’s appointment of judicial officers after the election results were known — the so-called “midnight appointments” — gave permanent government offices to men who were sworn enemies to the “second American revolution” Jefferson had in mind.

All you can say to this is “Oh boy.”

When Abigail Adams replied, on July 1, 1804, she ripped him a new one, as we like to say in our vulgar era. First she gave Jefferson a little lesson in U.S. Constitution 101: Until the end of a person’s administration, she explained, he has not only a right but a constitutional duty to fill federal vacancies. Think about this. This is Abigail Adams lecturing the great Jefferson about the clear meaning of the U.S. Constitution.

And she was only getting warmed up. Now that Jefferson had made the mistake of opening old wounds, Abigail vented “her” two grievances. First, when Jefferson canceled as many of the midnight appointments as he legally could, one of those appointments was for Abigail’s son, John Quincy Adams. Jefferson later protested that he was unaware that J.Q. Adams was one of those on the chopping block, and Abigail seems to have believed him. But her larger wrath involved Jefferson’s encouragement, including financial encouragement, of the muckraking hack writer James Callender, who had published all sorts of ugly, unfair and untrue attacks on the life, career and character of John Adams, including calling him a hermaphrodite wholly unfit for high office.

Mrs. Adams made it clear that she knew Jefferson had sponsored Callender and egged him on, had given him relatively large dollops of cash and that he done nothing to curb the ruffian’s verbal excesses.

Barely able to modulate her wrath and bitterness, she wrote, “this Sir I considered as a personal injury — this was the sword that cut asunder the Gordian knot, which could not be untied by all the efforts of party Spirit, by rivalship, by Jealousy or any other malignant fiend.”

And just to make sure Jefferson knew how bitter and angry she was, Abigail decided to remind him that she was well aware that Callender had later turned on him and broken the Sally Hemings story to the world:

“The serpent you cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him, and gave you sufficient specimens of his talents, his gratitude, his justice, and his truth.”

There’s more to the story, but I will leave it there. The correspondence sputtered on for a few more exchanges until Abigail essentially told Jefferson to go jump in a lake. Jefferson attempted to explain and exonerate himself about Callender, but we know that he was lying, and she knew he was lying, and he knew that she knew he was lying.

Jefferson wrote 26,000 letters altogether and received even more in the course of his amazing life. I can say this with categorical confidence. Nobody else ever dared to write to Jefferson in this way, nobody else assailed him so directly and with such laser-like aggression. And nobody who wrote to him in even milder rebuke could expect to remain his friend.

Somehow Abigail Adams and Jefferson got through this moment of volcanic tension, though it was 10 years before either of them dared write to the other again.

There is something breathtaking about Abigail Adams. She is one of the few people who ever made Thomas Jefferson wince. He would not have wanted to be married to such a woman. It’s remarkable that he even wanted to know a woman so outspoken, direct, and unrelenting in her righteousness.

John Adams was unaware of this epistolary exchange at the time, in the spring and summer of 1804. When he read the exchange years later, he did some wincing, too.

To see the letter that touched off that wild correspondence, with my fabulous daughter, at the Morgan Library, was one of those moments I will never forget.

I hope two things. First, that she models herself (to a considerable extent) on Abigail Adams. Second, that I never receive from her a letter of such extraordinary disenchantment.

CLAY JENKINSON: Poor John Adams: Right And Wrong As Always

Basic chronology:

  • June 7, 1776: Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee presents resolution of independence to the Second Continental Congress.
  • June 11: Committee of five appointed to draft a declaration explaining America’s right to secede: Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson.

The others drop out in the following order: Sherman, Livingston, Franklin and Adams. Jefferson signs and undertakes to write the document, “consulting neither book nor pamphlet.” (Showoff!)

  • June 28: Committee presents Jefferson’s draft to the Continental Congress.
  • July 2: Congress passes resolution of independence — the die is cast.
  • July 4: After two days of intense debate, Congress adopts a chastened (TJ said mutilated) version of Jefferson’s declaration of independence.
  • Aug. 2: There was never a formal signing ceremony. The document certainly wasn’t signed on the Fourth of July. Once the engraved copy had been prepared, most delegates signed on or around Aug. 2, 1776.
Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr …
Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr …

The great John Adams, who played a much more significant role in the American Revolution than did Jefferson, developed both a short-term and later a long-term reaction to the events of the first week of July 1776. In the moment, overwhelmed with pride and revolutionary excitement, Adams wrote a letter to his “dearest friend,” Abigail, his wife, on July 3. The great letter contains the following exuberant paragraph:

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Well, sir, you were half-right. At the instant when this was all unfolding, Adams rightly predicted the ways in which the American people would come to celebrate the birth of their republic. But he was off by two days on the celebration date.

for a list of OSHA violations, see …
for a list of OSHA violations, see …

Much later, when Jefferson’s fame and popularity had soared beyond that of many of the other figures of the Revolution, including Adams, Adams attempted to restore the balance in his own favor. He made it clear that he could have written the Declaration of Independence if he had wanted to but that, in an act of selfless nobility, he handed the assignment off to young Jefferson. He suggested in letters that there was nothing original in Jefferson’s document; in fact, Jefferson had merely copied from a range of state and local declarations to produce his synthesis. And when he was truly upset with his former “protege,” the earthy Adams raged, “You have run away with” the Revolution.

Among other things, exquisite penmanship. Genius: “an infinite capacity for taking pains.”
Among other things, exquisite penmanship. Genius: “an infinite capacity for taking pains.”

All that historians can conclude is this. Jefferson had nothing to do with America’s preference for the fourth of July over the second of July — unless you credit what even Adams called Jefferson’s “peculiar felicity for expression” for lifting what might have been a routine state paper into global immortality.

Jefferson did not seek to write the Declaration of Independence. In fact, he tried to talk his way out of the assignment.

The simple fact is that on the Fourth of July 1776, one of the handful of most important documents in the history of the world was adopted by a group of principled intellectuals from Britain’s colonies in North America. If you start to make a list of the most important and influential documents ever written — the Magna Carta, the Emancipation Proclamation, the U.N. Universal Declaration of Rights — there can be no list that does not place Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in the top 10, indeed top five.


Because Jefferson had spent a lifetime to hard reading and composing lucid prose in order to be ready when the moment came. As a young man, he read 12 to 15 hours a day. Doesn’t leave much time for firecrackers. Jefferson had a genius for piercing through the immediate to the universal significance of things. The Revolution wasn’t finally about Britain. “It was about the aspirations of humankind.” Jefferson was a humanist in the profoundest sense of the term.

The irony is that Jefferson would probably have been happy to steer fireworks, parades and bratwurst to the Second of July and devote the Fourth of July to seminars on liberty, a thoughtful toast with a fine glass of Bordeaux, a rigorous checklist survey of how well human liberty is doing against the forces of creeping bureaucracy, regulation, taxation and big government.

He never did figure out how to fire off a Roman candle.

So today, July 2, 2017, I lift my glass to irascible, contentious, prickly, earthy, vain, self-pitying and unbearably honest and virtuous John Adams. Let the parades begin.

It may be worth noting that in 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution, Adams and Jefferson died on the same day — on the FOURTH OF JULY.

Checkmate, Mr. Adams.

CLAY JENKINSON: Concession V. Concussion

When Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in the presidential election of 1800, Adams was bitter for several reasons. First, he was an important American patriot and revolutionary who believed he deserved to be re-elected by the American people. He could not understand why someone of his historical significance would be retired after a single term. He had the notion that he should serve at least as long as George Washington (two full terms) and that he, not the nation, should signal when it was time for him to retire to Braintree, Mass.

Second, he felt that Jefferson was a dangerous and naive man who was too enamored of humankind’s capacity for self-government. Adams believed that humans are selfish and in some important ways corrupt. To his mind, Jefferson was either pretending that humans are equal to the business of governing their own affairs (and therefore a hypocrite) or — worse — he actually believed such nonsense. In either case, he was someone who should not be trusted with the presidency.

Third, he was angry and bitter that Jefferson (or the Jeffersonians) had hired the unscrupulous James Callender to write nasty things about him. Callender had called Adams “a repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor. . .  in private life one of the most egregious fools on the continent.”

Still, Adams understood that a republic is a fragile system of government and that the peaceful transfer of power is absolutely essential to public order and civic virtue.

Bitter though he was, he wrote the following note to his successor:

“This part of the Union is in a state of perfect Tranquility and I See nothing to obscure your prospect of a quiet and prosperous Administration, which I heartily wish you. With great respect I have the honor to be Sir your most obedient and very humble Servant.” (March 24, 1801).

Adams would not personally forgive Jefferson for another dozen years, but he loved his country more than he loved himself.

This is the sort of gentlemanly behavior that a republic requires. Mature human beings understand that our civilization is more important than any single individual, and that graciousness in defeat is the mark of a highly evolved human being, no matter how unhappy s/he may be about the election results.

One of the best chroniclers of the peaceful transfer of power was a woman named Margaret Bayard Smith. After observing Jefferson’s inauguration on March 4, 1801, she wrote, “I have this morning witnessed one of the most interesting scenes, a free people can ever witness. The change of administrations, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder. This day one of the most amiable and worthy men (has) taken that seat to which he was called by the voice of his country.”

No person has ever written with greater insight about the importance of civility and continuity in our system of government.

On Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, asked whether he would accept the results of the November 8 election, Donald Trump refused to commit himself to a graceful concession if he loses the election to Hillary Rodham Clinton. He said he preferred to keep the country in suspense. This, coupled with other remarks he has been making about the “rigged election” of 2016, not only violates one of the truly sacred principles of American Constitutional life but gives license to the more rabid of his followers to deny the legitimacy of Clinton’s election, perhaps at the end of a gun. Some of his diehard supporters have already vowed to engage in armed rebellion if their “populist tribune” loses, and they have pre-determined that if Trump goes down to defeat, the election will have been illegally stolen from him.

This is very dangerous business. Trump’s coy and incendiary statement in the third and final debate — and all that preceded and will follow it — is the gravest affront he can possibly make against the world’s first, most important and most enduring constitutional republic. To question the legitimacy of the 2016 election, as he has for years called into question the legitimacy of America’s first African-American president, is an unprecedented violation of basic norms of American decency and constitutional decorum. Trump is essentially inviting a low-level civil war in the wake of his probable defeat.

John Adams
John Adams

John Adams journeyed home quietly to Braintree in 1801. Richard Nixon complied with the Supreme Court ruling (July 24, 1974) requiring him to turn over audio tapes that proved that he had been engaged in obstruction of justice in the Watergate break-in. Al Gore gave a heroically graceful concession speech (Dec. 13, 2000) when the Supreme Court stepped in to declare George Bush the president of the United States. George Herbert Walker Bush, bitter and depressed, wrote a graceful note (1992) of welcome for his successor William Jefferson Clinton.

We deserve better in “this our happy country.”

Those who wish to study the way in which former or discredited Presidents treat their successors should read “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity” by Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs.