This week in my early America class, we reviewed the presidency of John Adams. As fate would have it, our session happened to land on Adams’ birthday. Part of this class, ended with Adams’ final act as president, his famous and controversial appointment of “midnight judges,” leading to Marbury v. Madison So as a little commemoration, here are some of my favorite quotes from our second president.
1. Arguing in defense of the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre in 1770:
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
2. In a letter to his wife Abigail from Paris 1780:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
3. In another to Abigail, April 1777:
Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.
4. Another letter from Paris to James Warren on Benjamin Franklin:
His whole life has been one continued insult to good manners and to decency.
5. From A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law (1765):
The spirit, however, without knowledge, would be little better than brutal rage. Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.
6. On Alexander Hamilton in an 1806 letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush:
That bastard brat of a Scottish peddler! His ambition, his restlessness and all his grandiose schemes come, I’m convinced, from a superabundance of secretions, which he couldn’t find enough whores to absorb!
7. From a letter to Thomas Jefferson, February 1816:
Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.
8. To his son John Quincy Adams, May 1781:
You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.
9. To his grand daughter, Caroline Amelia Smith De Windt, January 1820:
You are not Singular in your suspicions that you know but little. The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently, I think and the more anxiously I inquire; the less I seem to know.
. . .
Do justly: Love mercy; Walk humbly; This is enough for You to know and to do. The World is a better one than You deserve; strive to make Your Self more worthy of it.
10. From a letter Adams addressed to his “Diana”, his future wife Abigail, April 1763:
Love sweetens Life, and Life sometimes destroys Love. Beauty is desirable and Deformity detestible; Therefore Beauty is not Deformity nor Deformity, Beauty. Hope springs eternal in the human Breast, I hope to be happyer next Fall than I am at present, and this Hope makes me happyer now than I should be without it.
This summer, I read Garson O’Toole’s fun little book of (mis)quotes, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations. It’s a fun read that I’d love to incorporate into a future DH class. O’Toole does more than list wrongly attributed quotes; he thoroughly investigates the origins and evolution of these famous, often-mis-cited lines and stories. He debunks the myth that Ernest Hemingway once bet that he could write a complete short story in six words and reveals that we can’t even trust the most famous Books of Quotations. O’Toole takes pleasure in re-writing famous lines “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” And he clearly takes even more pleasure in noting the the one little problem with lines like these . . . In this case, Lincoln never wrote this!
It’s one thing to spot the errors. The fun from my perspective is to look into the origins and evolution of such lines. How were they used and for what purposes? How do contribute to or deflate the myth of the person it’s attributed to? What does this say about the person or piece referencing the quote or alter old and create new readings?
To add to O’Toole’s work . . . here’s a quote I often see wrongly attributed to Adams:
I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a Congress!
What a fun line to repeat! But again, there’s just one problem: John Adams didn’t say it! Well . . . not John Adams, the president and historical person. It’s actually a line from the 1969 Broadway musical 1776, written by Sherman Edwards and adapted from the Peter Stone book.
In another often cited quote, John Adams refers to George Washington in the following way:
That Washington is not a scholar is certain. That he is too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station is equally beyond dispute.
This one is actually taken out of context: it is a derogatory line towards the “Indispensable Man” meant to surprise and shock the reader. Such a Here, Adams is addressing Washington’s first months in command of the army. However, following this statement, he also notes says that “he had improved considerably,” and that Washington was “indeed a Thoughtful Man.”
Later, Adams goes on to say the following about Washington:
His character as an able General, a wise Statesman, and an honest Man, is justly established, with the present age and Posterity and beyond the reach of those railers and all who resemble them in self conceit and nature
. . . [Washington] will command the esteem of the wisest and best men of all ages.
These are all reminders of our responsibilities as writers, researchers, and readers. We all love quotes, but maybe it’s more important to be a good listener–reader–than a good speaker–writer. To go beyond spouting random quotes or simply shouting, “Fake News!” To understand the context and history of these lines. And to do them justice–or go the opposite way and become so irreverent as to defuse these lines and their speakers until they are void of any meaning at all. Regardless, it serves as a reminder to us all to think before we speak!