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More on Adams, the writer

Posted by Jim Concannon  November 10, 2006 05:15 PM

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Bouncing off colleague David Mehegan's item below on the John Adams exhibit (which I'll see, off his recommendation), it occurs to me, not for the first time, that history isn't just what's been recorded in books, but also what hasn't been. For instance, as David shows, Adams was a notorious scribbler and avid writer, and his opinionated outpourings over 90 years, none of which he edited, have much to do with the modern view of him as ill-tempered, small-minded, stubborn, and blunt. In his own writing, he often even directs such criticisms at himself. Adams, however, also was probably the foremost shaper of America's revolutionary ideals and the principal architect of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson, by contrast, has glided through two centuries both respected and beloved as the author of the Declaration (off Adams's notes) and the primary defender of pure democracy in the early republic. However, Jefferson also was underhanded, inconsistent, self-centered, and superficial. (And he was a slaveholder, which I mention here only because Adams raged against that institution his whole life -- and was hated for that too.) But Jefferson was extraordinarily image conscious, and carefully burned any of his papers that reflected badly upon him.

So when historians have researched their hundreds of books, they have written what they found: Adams was a fat, grumpy, flawed founder. (It's there in his own writing.) Jefferson was a patrician, thoughtful, democratic idealist, a figure second only to Washington (who also controlled his own image), and someone close to perfection. (It's there in his own writing.) Historians could only interpret what they found, not what was burned or never recorded by a careful man in the first place.

The result? Jefferson's image is on Mount Rushmore, the nickel, even the $2 bill. As for Adams, who actually believed, as colleague Ben Franklin wrote, that honesty is the best policy: Don't bother looking.

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