Sunday, October 7, 2018

They took their flight together to the world of spirits

Yesterday, October 6th, saw the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, capping a couple of months of vitriolic character assassination, parliamentary shenanigans and claims from the press laying this at the feet of unprecedented polarization.

And it is all nonsense. We saw an affirmation that innocent till proven guilty, basic evidentiary standards, rule of law, equality before the law, due process all remain important to people. That's good.

And as to things being polarized, it is only something which could be claimed by the most woefully uneducated (if credentialed) journalistic cohort we have ever seen. It is truly astonishing 1) what they don't know, 2) how variant in their norms and behaviors they are from your normal American, and 3) how isolated they are from the reality lived by most their fellow-countrymen.

This was brought to mind last night as I read a selection of correspondence between long-time rivals Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in their retirement. From Literature of the Early Republic by Edwin H. Cady. Their brilliance and knowledge are astonishing. Their two century old correspondence nearly perfectly contemporary. Their respect and affection for one another a model.

I can't think of any two politicians today who might include ancient Greek passages in their normal correspondence between one another.

But we can't read this later correspondence without recalling that the the course of their relationship took many tacks over the years. Starting as friends, they veered into rivalry, then bitter opponents before, in later years, eventually reknitting their friendship.

Their relationship started in friendship in the early days of 1775. However, it was a friendship founded on mutual respect rather than shared philosophy. Adams believed in a strong centralized state whereas Jefferson was committed to a federal system with strong states as a counterbalance to the federal government. Their rivalry began under George Washington whom Adams served as Vice President and Jefferson served as Secretary of State. When Washington declined a third term, Adams and Jefferson contended for the Presidency in 1796.

Adams won with a knife edge electoral college margin of three votes.

They were opponents again in the election of 1800. Adams was claimed by the Jefferson camp to have a "hideous hermaphroditical character" and Adams' camp claimed Jefferson was "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow." There was bad blood all around.

The election went to Jefferson, Adams left town and they did not communicate with one another for twelve years.

Through the intervention of mutual friends, they were induced, indeed tricked, into reopening a correspondence with one another in 1812. They were now elder statesmen and removed from the arena, yet both were still smart, intelligent intellectuals, still seeking to convince, or at least understand one another.

In 1813 Adams wrote Jefferson, "You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other."

While still spirited and sharp, their correspondence took on a reflective tone and mellowed. A new affection and respect grew between them. Jefferson - "Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious. But while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things, in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of everything."

They famously died within hours of one another on July 4th, 1826, fourteen years after their rapprochement. Daniel Webster declaimed:
Adams and Jefferson are no more. On our 50th anniversary, the great day of national jubilee, in the very hour of public rejoicing, in the midst of echoing and re-echoing voices of thanksgiving, while their own names were on all tongues, they took their flight together to the world of spirits.
At the very end, their thoughts apparently were still of one another. Jefferson passed first and then Adams. Adams' last words, unaware of Jefferson's passing, were "Thomas Jefferson still survives."

I'll post a series of their letters over the next few days, illustrating the detailed philosophical debates, the return of comity and respect, the sheer brilliance of these Founding Fathers.

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