• Daniel Ethan Finneran

John Adams - Discourses On Davila - Preface To Podcast

“Thomas Jefferson survives…”


So thought the ailing John Adams, confined to his sickbed in the bucolic town of Braintree—the very same town in which, some nine decades ago, he was born, and in which he’d soon be put to rest. And yet, despite all the accomplishments of his unexampled career—a life of gravity and virtue, austerity and candor, modesty and brilliance, private sacrifice and public service—he feared that the worst of his nightmares would soon come to pass.


Much more than death itself, Adams dreaded the possibility of being forgotten. Such is the daunting prospect about which, as his allotment of days near their preordained number, and the life he so cherished its expiry date, every man of genius is concerned. The question of whether or not his legacy will outlive him, of whether or not his existence will carry on in a higher realm in the minds of his countrymen and friends, agitates his calm, and rattles his peace. About everything else, he bothers himself little. It is a form of vanity—to that, neither Adams, nor anyone else would object—but it’s a forgivable kind. It’s unique to the best of our population, to the distinguished members of an exalted class, for whom immortality is still, in some ways, attainable.


It was this menacing thought, therefore, by which, night after night, Adams’ sleep was interrupted, and, come the rosy blush of morn, his wakeful hours were perturbed. He feared not the damp confines of the grave for which he was destined, nor the pallid corpse into which he’d sooner devolve. To his religious belief in a world higher than this, these earthy concerns mattered little. What he feared, though, was that his spirit, his impact, his contribution, and his greatness would all be buried with him, as if he were a nameless Egyptian interred with his rusted trinkets. That they’d decay in proportion to the rotting of his flesh disquieted him to no end. They would be left behind, or, god forbid, erased from the collective memory of a nation to whose genesis, as though a father, he’d contributed all his vital energy and force.


And so, Adams’ heart sank at the prospect of being neglected by posterity, of being thought of, if thought of at all, with the same sort of casual indifference with which one regards an anonymous tomb. Even with the ample endowment of his nine decades of life, Adams was unable to win the love of his fellow man. He was, as stated, brilliant beyond compare—of this there can be no doubt—but are not fools more easily made into friends? Is not the company of the smiling simpleton preferable to that of the preaching erudite? Destined to be the latter, Adams was never going to be the type of man with whom others (always less intellectually gifted than he) would naturally get along.


He held his opinions with the tenacity of a python. He encircled an idea, and never let it go. When it came to his beliefs, he was eloquently unbending. He could stand athwart an opponent with the rigidity of a Massachusetts oak. And yet, unsurprisingly, this intransigence was not the kind of trait by which his stately colleagues in government were charmed. More often than not, his viewpoints were correct, but his opponents in the Congress were little assuaged by this fact. He was both honest and irascible, explosive and blunt—a dangerous combination in a society of men to whom decorum, flattery, and temperance were still the chief virtues.


Of these many unendearing character traits (upon which his famous wife, Abigail, proved incapable of exerting a mollifying influence) Adams was not unaware. Far was he from being numb to the peevishness and the harshness that grated his softer colleagues, to the sharp prickliness by which his refined associates were perhaps too easily wounded.


He recognized in his erstwhile rival, Thomas Jefferson, all the appealing qualities of which he was so painfully bereft. Though Jefferson doubtless provoked the ire of countless detractors (most vocally, that of James Thomson Callender, the scandalmongering immigrant by whom his affair with Sally Hemings was first exposed), he was much more highly esteemed by the public at large. He was, after all, the inspired author of that sublime document—the Declaration of Independence. Of course, Adams was appointed to the remarkably talented committee for the drafting of the Declaration, at whose dignified head, a young Jefferson sat. In his subordinate role, which he voluntarily sought, Adams advised Jefferson and helped to produce the final version of that timeless piece of work.


Adams knew it to be a palimpsest; beneath the inarguable talent of Jefferson’s mighty pen, the markings and contributions of greater thinkers like Hobbes, Montesquieu, Locke, Mason, and Lee were visibly etched. Yet to Jefferson, the spoils and the glory went. For Adams, this was one of many sources of irritation.


For this, and other reasons, Thomas Jefferson would indeed “survive”—cradled in the bosom of eternity’s girth—while John Adams would dwindle and perish. Of course, in a literal sense, this was untrue. For, only a few hours before Adams’ prophecy passed through his lips, Jefferson had breathed his last. In his palatial estate at Monticello, like a Stoic seated in the lap of Epicurean excess, six hundred miles from humble Braintree, Jefferson died at the age of eighty-three. Adams, later that same evening, followed him to the grave. The father of John Quincy, the sixth and current occupant of the White House, succumbed to anno domini at the age of ninety. Both died on the fourth of July, 1826—fifty long years after their collaboration on the Declaration.


The following is my attempt to ensure that not only Jefferson, but Adams survives. With this goal in mind, I read to you an excerpt from Adams’ remarkable, and too often over-looked contribution to political philosophy, Discourses on Davila. His many other works, including his Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law, his Thoughts on Government, and his assorted epistles and correspondences with such luminous figures as Roger Sherman, John Taylor, and the aforementioned Thomas Jefferson, will not only stimulate your mind, but enflame your love for this brilliant, yet unjustly neglected man.


From the Text:

“Every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected, by the people about him, and within his knowledge”. This is the fundamental, universal impulse by which every single person is animated—a passion for distinction, and a desire to be loved. We all feel it—from our life’s beginning, till its end—and to its satisfaction, we apply ourselves incessantly. It’s the government’s role, then, to check this mighty passion, and to restrain our ambition before it gets out of hand.

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