This story is excerpted from "First Principles" the Nebraska Governor's Lecture in the Humanities delivered by David McCullough on September 20, 2001
"We live, my dear soul, in an age of trial. What will be the consequence, I know not.” John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1774.
They didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Nobody ever knew how it was going to turn out. We are taught history in a way in which we are supposed to understand that this followed that, followed this, followed that. You are going to memorize it, get it straight, because it will be on a test on Thursday. And you begin to think after a while that that’s the way it was, that this followed that, and everything was preordained, on a track.
. . .The founding fathers, those protagonists of our founding generation, loom large in the history books. They loom large in the pantheon of our American heroes, their faces chiseled everywhere, their monuments everywhere, their faces on our money, on our postage stamps. And there is a tendency sometimes to think of them only as marble icons, or to think of them as gods. They weren’t gods. If they had been gods, they would deserve no credit, because gods can do whatever they want.
They were human beings: mortal, full of failings, frailties, contradictions, flaws, vulnerabilities. Let’s never forget that the very first lines of our immortal Declaration of Independence begin with “When in the course of human events.” Human events. They were quite imperfect, each and every one.
What is so amazing is that despite their imperfections, despite their jealousies of one another, their dislike of one another, in some cases, conflicting or contrasting ambitions, they somehow made it happen. And they made it happen without having a prior experience to go by. They were, to a large degree in our vernacular, “winging it.” None of them had ever fought a revolution before. No colonial people had ever broken free from a colonial empire in history ever before. It had never been done. It wasn’t just that they hadn’t done it. It had never been done.
Nor had they invented, created a country, a nation. Imagine that. They were not producing a Broadway show. They were making a country, a nation. And they had never done that before, either. And all of the learned world, all the wise old heads, all of the intellectuals, philosophers, the cynics of Europe, knew that even if they were to be so fortunate as to win their war, that their country would not last very long. It would split apart because of the divisive nature of the various states: North versus South, East versus West. Too large to hold together, too many conflicting aspirations, ambitions and needs to serve the self.
It was a miracle in that respect, and we are all the beneficiaries. We can never know enough about them, ever. They were just as real as you and I.
One of the shifts you have to make in understanding that time is a shift in scale. It was all so small. We live in a world today with 20 cities of more than 10 million people. We live in a world, as we have been shown in the most dramatic fashion in the past 10 days or more, of instant communication, instant information, instant solutions or the expectation of instant solutions of everyone. And in a world where, too often, spin doctors and focus groups and market surveys dictate what’s done rather than principle.
In that day there were 2,500,000 Americans. They were scattered along the Eastern Seaboard only to a depth of about 50 miles. Everything was very small. Boston had a population of about 15,000, New York about 18,000. The largest city in the colonies, Philadelphia, had all of 30,000 people, which, when we checked a map today of Nebraska, means that it was a little smaller than Grand Island. And yet, out of that city, out of that population, came some of the most amazing, learned, protean minds of our entire history, and that same group that gathered there, the best minds in the country, the first and second Continental Congresses, were the best minds in the country.
That same group had the nerve, had the gall, had the backbone, some thought the madness, to defy the British Empire. And when the British Empire landed its military force in New York on Staten Island, the same week as the passage of the Declaration of Independence, they landed 32,000 troops. In other words, a force larger than the entire population of the city of Philadelphia, the largest in the country.
Anyone who signed his name to the Declaration of Independence was putting his head in a noose. He was declaring on paper, with his own signature, that he was a traitor. If caught, he would be hanged. He would be fortunate if he were only hanged, because the law said he could be drawn and quartered. When they pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor, that wasn’t just rhetoric. That was the truth, the literal truth.
What were their principles? What did they believe in? I like to talk about Adams’ principles, because I admire his principles enormously, and I admire the fact that he lived by them and stood up for them. He didn’t just have courage, he had the courage of his convictions. Most dramatically of all, and in many ways most admirably of all, he alone of all the founding fathers, never owned a slave, as a matter or principle.
John Adams believed in a balanced government—executive, legislative and judicial. He believed in a bicameral legislature. He wanted balance in everything. Balance, he was certain, was the surest way for survival of the government. And he wanted independence in order to achieve freedom. We say “free and independent.” He would have said “independent and free.”
He was a man who had come from the most obscure origins. He is commonly thought of as a rich Boston blueblood. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t a Bostonian, and he wasn’t a blueblood. He was a Braintree farmer’s son who rose to what he became because of the miracle of education, of books, of learning.
He had a scholarship to Harvard. Now it wasn’t the Harvard that we all know or imagine. It wasn’t present-day Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was in Cambridge, but it had four buildings, a faculty of seven and a student body of about 100. John Adams went off to Harvard, as did most of the students at Harvard, when he was about 15 years old. He was still, by our terms, a high-school boy.
At Harvard, he discovered books and, as he said later, “I read forever; I read forever.” He became the most deeply and widely read American of his very bookish time. He never stopped reading, never stopped learning. When they talk about the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence, they aren’t talking about the kind of happiness that we hear about so often—not material happiness, not pleasure in the sense of ease—but learning, the enlargement of the mind, the enlargement of the human spirit, the increase of virtue, of human behavior, of kindness, of tolerance, of freedom. Freedom to write, to think, to read as we want.
Adams felt very strongly, as he wrote in several letters, that of all of God’s greatest gifts to us, along with the spectacle of the stars at night, along with the miracle of the seasons, along with the best that there is that we see of the world around us, the greatest of the gifts was the human mind, and its capacity to think for itself. In that he believed to his very boots.
I began my work on Adams quite by chance, because in a way I was setting out to do a book about Adams and Jefferson. But very quickly I found that there was something about this short, stout, not very handsome, not very well-known New Englander that had great appeal for me. I loved his authenticity. I loved his crankiness. I loved his unwillingness to court popularity. “Popularity was never my mistress” he said. Truer words were never spoken. I loved his humor, his wonderful humor.
Adams was also a very affectionate man, great-hearted, warm-hearted, devoted to his family, devoted most of all to his wife. We can’t understand John Adams without understanding Abigail Adams, her influence in his life, her spirit and his deep, life-long affection and respect for her.
She was one of the most amazing Americans of her time. She was a profound patriot. We must never think of the patriots of the American Revolution as men only. She was a wonderful writer. She was a great reader, an avid reader. She loved to quote poetry in almost everything she wrote. Every letter had a line or two of poetry in it, and nearly always had something wrong. She never got it quite right. But the mistakes were very minor and they show us quite clearly that she wasn’t looking it up. She knew these lines. One of her favorite lines, which appears quite often in what she wrote, particularly during the darkest of times, was the line from one of her favorite English poets: “Affliction is a good man’s shining time.”
We could also say affliction is a good nation’s shining time. I have drawn more from the very lines I quoted in a book upon which I spent six and one-half years, I have drawn more I think from the lines written by John and Abigail Adams in the last six or seven days than I did in all that time prior to now. It all is still entirely applicable.
I have often wondered what it would be like to go back into that era. I suppose in many ways that’s why I write the books I do, because I want to go back into those other times, and this is my way of doing it. Much about it would probably impress us more even than we can know from the best research, the most careful combing over of quotations and state papers. Much about it would be appalling to us: The smell of some cities. One can hardly imagine the horror of going to an 18th century dentist, for example. But I think we would find in many ways that we understood John Adams, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington. We would understand them immediately because we are their descendants. They speak our language in more ways than one. We are of them and we are their beneficiaries every single day of our lives.
Many of them never had any idea that they were going to be cast as characters in the great historic drama. I love to read aloud a passage from one of John Adams’ diaries, the little diaries he kept when he was a very woebegone schoolteacher in a little one-room schoolhouse out in Worcester, Massachusetts, which was then the edge of the frontier. Some seem to think that Worcester is still the edge of the frontier.
He was missing his friends from Harvard. He was missing his family. He thought that the world was passing him by. But he was resolved, he said, in a little notebook about the size of the palm of your hand, he wrote in a hand that is so tiny that I had to use a magnifying glass to read it, “I am resolved to rise with the sun and to study Scriptures on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, and to study some Latin author the other three mornings. Noons and nights I intend to read English authors. I will rouse up my mind and fix my attention. I will stand collected within myself and think about what I read and what I see.”
How admirable, how wonderful, what a young man! He is only 20 years old. But then you read on, and the next morning he slept until 7, and a one-line entry the following week reads, “A very rainy day; dreamed away the whole time.” When I read that, I knew I had my subject!
Then he goes on. He gets very full of self-pity. “I have no books, I have no time, no friends, I must, therefore, be contented to live and die an ignorant, obscure fellow.”
Twenty years later, he is standing on the floor of Congress in what we call Independence Hall in Philadelphia, making the greatest speech of his career and one of the greatest speeches in American history, to convince the delegates, the Congress, to vote for a Declaration of Independence. The date was July 1st.
If Jefferson was the pen of the Declaration of Independence, Adams was the voice. It was Adams who drove it through the Congress. He had a very great capacity for seeing into the future. It is quite remarkable and happens again and again. He is the one who sees that the Revolutionary War won’t be short. Everyone is saying two or three years. He said, “No, no. It will be 10 years. It will be costly, bloody, and we might not win.” As it was, it lasted eight years, so he was pretty close.
He was the first American to say in print that the French Revolution was going to lead to a bloodbath, a horror beyond anything anyone had ever imagined, and would give rise to a dictatorship, which is exactly what happened. He and Edmund Burke, on the other side of the Atlantic, were saying much the same thing.
On the 2nd day of July 1776, seeing into the future, Adams wrote a wonderful paragraph in one of his hundreds and hundreds of letters to his adored wife. “The 2nd day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epica 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.”
Let me stop right there. It is very important. The very first thing he is saying is that we should be down on our knees thanking God. Now we believe, and we should believe, in the separation of church and state. But there was no separation between church and statesmen. It is impossible to understand what went on in that time, and to understand the individuals caught up in the events of that time, without understanding the part, the role, the importance of religion in their lives.
Then he goes on about this day, this great anniversary festival. “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells and bonfires. Illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
Now here’s a man in a very small room, the windows closed because they didn’t want anybody to be listening at the windows to the actions that went on inside the chamber, the door locked, no minutes being kept because they were so afraid of the Tories and the spies all around in Philadelphia, so we don’t know what he said in his speech.
Afterwards, at night, he goes back to a cramped little room in a boarding house, he is writing this letter in a city of about 30,000 people, in a country of about only 2,500,000 people, with only a depth of about 50 miles inland. And he is imagining not just a celebration which is clearly our 4th of July, but a nation reaching from one end of the continent to the other. He is foreseeing far more than just a 4th of July celebration, and it is very important to understand that.
Now the 4th of July that we celebrate is really just the date on the document. It wasn’t signed on the 4th of July it was signed on August 8th. And not everybody was there to sign it, because many of the delegates were absent. They signed it when they returned. Some of them didn’t return until after the turn of the year in 1777.
So the great portrait that hangs in the rotunda in our Capitol done by John Trumbull of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is a magnificent scene of something that never took place. But it’s exactly right in spirit. All 13 colonies, all these delegates, representatives of the people, signing this brave, eloquent, immortal statement of faith…”When in the course of human events…”
Later, when the fate and the fortunes of the United States, the proclaimed United States, turned worse that fall, when Washington had been defeated again and again and again, and his army was down to a few thousand, retreating across New Jersey, the whole crusade for America was at its absolute nadir, its lowest point ever. The Army was a couple of thousand men, ill-equipped, ill-clothed, many of them sick.
They had known nothing but defeat again and again, with the strongest military force imaginable closing down on them from behind, including the hireling Hessian troops, whom they feared most of all. It was then, as I’m sure many of you know, Thomas Paine, who was with the Army said, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country.”
Service to the country; it comes in all forms. It doesn’t just mean being elected to political office, or being a member of a cabinet, or serving in one of the departments or one of the military forces. We are all, in our way, I hope we all feel, serving our country in what we do. In how we raise our children, in the way we conduct ourselves as citizens. “Posterity who are to reap the blessings will scarcely be able to conceive the hardships and suffering of their ancestors,” Abigail Adams wrote. She is absolutely right. We can scarcely be able to conceive the hardships and sufferings, but they never doubted that it was worth it.
One of my favorite letters of Abigail’s is one that she wrote to her young son, John Quincy, who had had a horrendous voyage across the Atlantic with his father when his father first sailed to become a diplomat in France to help, with Franklin, to raise the necessary funds from the French. They had nearly been killed several times, and the boy, needless to say, who was only 10 years old, was terrified, and after they had returned and Adams was asked to go back to France once again, John Quincy said he wasn’t interested in going. So his mother wrote him a letter. Keep in mind that this is a young woman. She is just a little past 30. And she’s never been to school. She was “home-schooled,” as we would say.
“These are the times in which a genius would wish to live,” she tells him. Remember, he’s a little kid, he’s 12 years old. “It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”
How much more applicable could a line from 200 years ago be? “When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant waken to life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.”
Well you know he had to go on that voyage, and of course he did—to his great benefit. He wound up traveling all the way to St. Petersburg to serve as a translator at the age of 15 for Francis Dana, who spoke no French. He was there, this 15-year-old boy, as the official translator and interpreter at the court of Catherine the Great. He knew all the principal philosophers and intellectuals of Europe, became a friend of Jefferson, a friend of the French philosophers, the Philosophes.
After the war was over, his mother came over to join her husband, his father, and it was time for young John Quincy to come back and get down to business and prepare to enter Harvard. After he had been home in Massachusetts a very short time, his aunt, Abigail’s sister, wrote to Abigail to tell her (alas, she regretted having to tell her) that young John Quincy, for all of his attainments and fine qualities, appeared to be a little overly full of himself, and that he was a bit hard to bear, and that his mother should know about that.
So once again, Abigail took up her quill and wrote the following to her brilliant, young son: “If you are conscious to yourself that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing, reflect that you have had greater opportunities of seeing the world and obtaining a knowledge of mankind than any of your contemporaries, that you have never wanted a book but it has been supplied to you, that your whole time has been spent in the company of men of literature and science. How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead.”
Well, blockheads they definitely weren’t. They were carrying on in a great tradition from which some of the best histories were written.
Of all the scenes in that eventful long life of patriot Adams, I think one of the most moving is when he, the farmer’s son from Braintree, Massachusetts, presents himself before King George III to say that he is there to represent the new, free and independent United States of America.
He came from a culture, a civilization which had been self-governing for quite a long time, with town meetings, with the militia service, with the democracy of the small New England town. He had the best education that the country could offer. He believed fervently, as did Jefferson and so many of them, that we could not be a free country, we could not be a self-governing country if we were ignorant.
We must be educated. Jefferson said it very simply. He said, “Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free, expects what never was and never will be.” Adams put it into the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which he wrote himself at a pine stand-up lawyer’s desk of the day.
Adams wrote in the Constitution of Massachusetts that it shall be the duty, the duty of the government to educate everybody…everybody.
Then he went on to specify what he meant by education. He said it doesn’t just mean science and literature, it means finance and agriculture and manufacturing and trade and the natural history of our country, and it includes virtue and tolerance and humanity and punctuality and generosity, and, he said, good humor. There will be good humor. It’s in the constitution.
This theme of learning is right there at the beginning of our country. It is the backbone, it is the idea that the country can’t survive without a learned population. Education is always going to be the gate to freedom for oncoming generations. The country, the way of life, the good life, the social compact, will all improve generation after generation with increased education available for everybody.
So it seems to be that on this evening where we are celebrating the humanities and the importance of the humanities in life, where we’re still in a state of stunned disbelief about what happened last week and inner grief and worry, but also uplifted by so much that we’ve seen, that this old theme of freedom and education has never, ever been more valid and relevant.
We have the strongest military force imaginable, maybe unimaginable. We have the most productive economy in the world, even with the shaky spin that seems to be going on momentarily. We have greater riches. We have greater resources. We have, at the moment, a unity, a spirit, a patriotism unlike we’ve seen perhaps ever…the oldest among us perhaps have never seen a mood, a resolve in the country such as we have at the moment. And we have seen some of our worries, and our easy snipes at the problems of society, dissolve in front of our eyes.
It has been said for years now that we are a nation without heroes, and that a nation without heroes is a nation in the soup. Look at those heroes, and who were they? Firemen, police, medics, nurses, steel workers. That’s real strength. That’s the real strength of the country. And those aren’t celluloid heroes. That’s the real thing. Did you notice how young so many of them are? Did you see the young woman whose husband and other young men on that flight that went down in Pennsylvania? They’re our heroes, and they’re young. They’re of this generation who is supposedly untested, soft, spoiled, without direction. Don’t believe it. We should take heart from that.
Our greatest resource is our brainpower, which comes out of our freedom and is attached to, is part and parcel of, our freedom. So we must keep our heads, all of us, and we must use our heads. We must marshal our brainpower as we marshal our National Guard or our police or our security officers. That’s our true great American resource. It’s never-ending, inexhaustible. It’s hard to know how to stop talking about the people of the 18th century and the founding time of America. But we can draw on them. We can see our story as a source of strength. We can remember what those people went through, how much worse off they were than we have any notion of, how difficult how inconvenient, how often painful it was for them, even those on the sidelines. The odds against them.
We can remember what we went through in the Civil War, by far the worst violence ever to come to the home soil. We can remember what we did to get through the Depression. We can remember the way we responded to Pearl Harbor. We can remember the way we have responded again and again. We’ve seen the death of a president. We’ve seen young men go off to wars they didn’t want to fight. We’ve seen abuse of people because of the color of their skin, or their religion. We’ve seen intolerance, murder, ugliness. But we prevail, and there’s no country like it in the world. There’s no country that carries the beacon for all mankind, as we do. And let us not forget that, just as the president was saying tonight, we are not in this alone. The world is with us, hundreds of thousands, millions of people.
I’d like to close with something that has nothing to do with the events of a specific time or history in the usual sense. I’d like to close with what I think is one of the most beautiful passages ever written by an American statesman or politician.
It shows that the real journey that John Adams had to make was the inward journey which finally became the total journey in the last years of his life, when he suffered the loss of his wife, one son who died of alcoholism in his early 30s, of his beloved daughter who died from the aftereffects of a mastectomy conducted in a day when there was no anesthetic there in the house in Massachusetts. He saw grandchildren die. He had no power anymore, he had no popularity, he had no influence. His strength began to go. He lived on to nearly 91 years old. He had no hair anymore, and no teeth anymore.
But he had his farm, which he loved, and he had his fruit trees, which he loved most of all, and beautiful big hardwoods around his farm. A terrible ice storm hit, and it destroyed his trees. He woke the next morning and looked out of his window and they were all broken and shattered. He sat down and wrote something. I don’t think any of the great novelists of the day could have written anything quite so powerful.
As an expression of his inner flame still burning, the love of life, it’s so moving to read in his letters and diaries when he says, “I have vowed in the spirit of St. Paul, to rejoice evermore…if I can.” And of course it’s that “if I can” that helps us to identify with him from the heart.
Here’s what he wrote as he looked out at his fruit trees:
“A rain had fallen from some warmer region in the skies when the cold here below was intense to an extreme. Every drop was frozen wherever it fell in the trees, and clung to the limbs and sprigs as if it had been fastened by hooks of steel. The earth was never more universally covered with snow, and the rain had frozen upon a crust on the surface, which shone with the brightness of burnished silver. The icicles on every sprig glowed in al the luster of diamonds. Every tree was a chandelier of cut glass. I have seen the queen of France, with 18 millions of livres of diamonds upon her person, and I declare that all the charms of her face and figure added to all the glitter of her jewels, did not make an impression on me equal to that presented by every shrub. The whole world was glittering with precious stones.”
Last week I think made all of us take stock about what matters in life, what matters in our personal lives. But it also has made us take stock of who we are as a people and where we came from. And we came from people who ought to be our inspiration and our guide every day we serve as Americans.
David McCullough has been called a “master of the art” of narrative history. His books have been praised for their exceptional narrative drive, their scholarship and insight into American life and their literary distinction. His bestseller, “John Adams,” is a biography of the second U.S. president. McCullough is twice winner of the National Book Award and twice winner of the prestigious Francis Parkman Prize. His books include “The Great Bridge,” “The Path Between the Seas,” “Mornings on Horseback,” and “Truman,” for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. He delivered the NEH's Jefferson Lecture in 2003.