Peter C. Mancall—
We live in a moment when politics are rough, and not only in the United States. In the United Kingdom, where I am spending the academic year at Oxford, the political debate leading to the parliamentary election on December 12 is as bitterly contested as anything transpiring in Washington. Members from each party accuse others of taking positions merely for reasons of political expediency. Campaigners for all parties are promising new policies that seem to reflect nothing more than election-season opportunism. Everything seems to be fair game for politically motivated change.
Pundits looking at the tumult suggest that the viciousness of our current politics, with its daily barrage of ad hominem and ad feminem attacks on both sides of the Atlantic, is a new development. Every action of one’s enemy, so observers want to claim, is made infinitely worse because of modern technology and the collapse of the gentility that many moderns believe prevailed in the past. Yet, well before the day of Twitter storms and Facebook fallacies, political debate was just as intense and vicious, often dragging down individuals who once garnered widespread respect and affection.
Just ask John Adams.
In 1800, Adams, the second president of the United States, wanted to be re-elected. At the time, the United States Constitution defined no limits on the number of terms a president could hold office. George Washington set a standard when he served for two terms and then famously chose not to run again. When he stepped aside, Adams, the vice president, marched in, winning the election of 1796. Adams had been a leader of the movement for Independence and was one of the shrewdest political observers of the late eighteenth-century. He was a logical choice for president—until he wasn’t.
Adams’s moment of reckoning came in the election of 1800, celebrated in American political history not for any ideals that drove the campaigns but because the election represented the peaceful transfer of national power from one party to its opponents. These days, we assume such transitions are natural. But in the eighteenth century, many observers of the young United States wondered if the republic could endure such a shift in direction.
Thomas Jefferson’s victory hurt Adams deeply, but he accepted the results and went home to Massachusetts. When Jefferson opted not to run in the election of 1808, Adams and his former Virginian foe began a necessary correspondence. As Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1813, “You and I ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other.”
They exchanged letters about politics, religion, history, and growing old. When Adams was not writing to Jefferson, he occupied himself with another project that has attracted far less modern scholarly attention: a history of his hometown of Quincy. He never finished this work begun in 1802, but a rough sketch of what he then called “Scraps of the History of Mount Wollaston, with Notes” survives among his papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society. Adams’s return to private life after the tumult of his presidency and the anguish produced by the election had given way to a period of historical introspection.
Adams did extensive research to write this local history. Among the sources he consulted was a small book called New English Canaan, published in Amsterdam in 1637 by a dissident English colonist named Thomas Morton. The Pilgrims and Puritans who founded colonies in New England during the early decades of the seventeenth century knew Morton all too well, and they knew his book also. Morton had chastised them repeatedly in its pages, so they did all they could to suppress it and erase Morton’s ideal of a different kind of colonization and settlement, one that included trade and cultural exchange with indigenous peoples. A decade before the book’s publication, the Pilgrims of Plymouth exiled Morton from Mount Wollaston for disruptive behavior and consorting with local Algonquian-speakers. Morton resisted political exile and soon returned, this time settling in Massachusetts Bay, a colony that was then separate from Plymouth. Yet the Puritan rulers of the Bay Colony had no love for him either. They too exiled him in 1631. Still, Morton came back twelve years later, only to face a third exile soon after.
Adams learned of these details. Still he valued Morton as a careful observer of the land that was, as it happened, now in the possession of the former president’s family. Adams had got the story from his son, John Quincy Adams, who had purchased a copy of Morton’s book at an auction in Berlin in 1798 while serving as an American ambassador to Prussia. The ex-president read Morton’s work carefully, fully aware that it was likely the most thorough source for Mount Wollaston’s earliest years as an English outpost.
Alas, Adams never finished his local history. Still, he was not the only member of his family to succumb to the powerful sentiments of New English Canaan. Eventually, John Adams’s great-grandson, Charles Francis Adams Jr., a Civil War veteran of Gettysburg and later president of the Union Pacific Railroad as well as the chair of the Massachusetts Parks Commission, got his hands on a copy of the book. It was most likely the same copy that John Quincy Adams had purchased in Berlin. Charles Francis arranged for a new edition of the book to be published, thus bringing back into history the story of this one small part of Massachusetts.
Revolutions can lead to triumph and to tragedy. In the American case, as Adams’s history and the reflections of his family members attest, they can also lead to introspection and, perhaps, unexpected wisdom. Charles Francis Adams, the son of John Quincy (and later father of the editor of Morton’s book), read New English Canaan when he was seventeen years old and heading into his senior year at Harvard College. He believed that it “displays much learning and satirical wit and feelings which may have become part of the soil, at least they agree with mine.”
A sense of satire and ample demonstrations of wit infused much of John Adams’s writings too, before and after Independence. It was fitting that he looked inward while trying to make sense of his own life and what his experience could teach about the Revolution. In writing the history of his town, perhaps he found his own refuge from the savagery of his political moment.
Peter C. Mancall, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities and professor of history and anthropology at the University of Southern California, is the author of six books about early America.