Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pursuing Happiness

"In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a congress."

John Adams
From the musical 1776

The Fourth of July seems like a good time for reflecting a bit on the life and times of America's second president, John Adams.

This is something I began doing this afternoon as I watched Turner Classic Movies' presentation of the 1972 film "1776," which was based on a successful musical that went into production three years earlier — but was, as I understand it, a little loose with the facts.

I guess you could call it "artistic license."

Adams often seems to be overlooked, particularly by schoolchildren who are more dazzled by tales of the heroic exploits and patriotic achievements of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as they begin their studies of American history.

Well, it certainly seems to me — as I try to remember how it was when American history became one of the subjects I studied in school — that far less attention was paid to Adams' single four–year term as president than to the eight years that every president (with the noteworthy exception of Adams' son) served in the first half–century of the nation's existence.

Mathematically, of course, that makes sense, but, unfortunately for Adams, he is frequently misunderstood even when he is remembered.

Part of that, I'm guessing, is due to bad PR. In "1776," a Tony Award–winning musical about the events that led up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Adams was presented as disagreeable and unpopular, but the truth is that he was highly regarded at the Continental Congress, considered by many the most capable member of the Massachusetts delegation.

His role in the struggle for the independence of the colonies is often minimized by historians — who, it has been suggested, were influenced by Adams himself, who wrote in a letter late in his life that he had been "obnoxious, suspected and unpopular" as a delegate.

But the portrayal of Adams in "1776," like Adams' own assessment of his image among his fellow delegates, was skewed.

Many scholars have concluded that Adams was, in fact, manic–depressive, prone to erratic mood swings. It has been said that he was paranoid, too, often seeing plots by those around him to deny him credit for something and/or seize credit for themselves.

From what I have read, Adams had a somewhat Nixonian personality. Nixon, it has been noted by some presidential historians, did not have a personality that was suited for a politician's life. Politicians typically love to be around people, but Nixon found it difficult to be with people. And so did Adams. "There are few people in this world with whom I can converse," Adams said. "I can treat all with decency and civility and converse with them, when it is necessary, on points of business. But I am never happy in their company."

It is probably a good thing for Adams that technology was so primitive in his day, or he might have been tempted to make many of the mistakes Nixon did.

On the other hand, Adams — who was hardly a physically imposing figure, standing just 5'6" and stocky with a generally fragile constitution — seems to have been intelligent at a level that most other presidents have not been.

And, while it was actually Thomas Jefferson who penned the Declaration of Independence, it may be that we can see Adams' fingerprints all over that document — especially the part that asserts that Americans are free to pursue happiness.

Adams, as I understand it, was something of a stickler for words, which was reflected in his faith. A devout Unitarian, Adams rejected Calvinism and the belief in, among other things, predestination. The concept clashed with his personal belief in a fair and just God.

"Abuse of words," Adams wrote, "has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society."

So it seems to me that it would be appropriate for Adams to insist that the Declaration of Independence say Americans were entitled to pursue happiness — not that they were entitled to be happy.

The wording of the document leaves happiness as an undefined — and unguaranteed — objective. I believe Adams may have privately advocated that subtle distinction in the wording — and his friend Jefferson may have agreed with him.

Happiness always seems to be just over the horizon for most people, just beyond one's fingertips. But the Declaration insists that we Americans have the right to pursue it, whatever it may mean to us, however unlikely our success may be.

And, I suppose, the right to pursue happiness is virtually absolute. Unless one's vision of happiness is adversely at odds with someone else's rights to life and liberty, one is free to pursue it.

By the way, I don't believe Adams ever said the words at the top of this post that were attributed to him in "1776." But he did say this:
"No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it. He will make one man ungrateful, and a hundred men his enemies, for every office he can bestow."

Adams was succeeded by his sometime friend, sometime rival Thomas Jefferson. Adams lost a contentious election to Jefferson in 1800, about a quarter of a century before presidential electors were determined by the popular vote in each state so my guess is that their relationship when Jefferson took office was a bit strained. If Adams had any words of friendly advice he was tempted to share with his successor, he may not have chosen to pass them along.

But they became friends again in later years, as I understand it. And it is one of the great ironies of American history that both Adams and Jefferson, the only future presidents who signed the Declaration of Independence, died on the 50th anniversary of the nation's birth.

For nearly 200 years, Adams held the distinction of being the president who lived the longest — nearly 91 years. But, in the last decade, both Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford exceeded Adams' record for presidential longevity. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush will surpass it as well if they live another five years.

"Thomas Jefferson ..." were the last intelligible words that Adams spoke before dying, although there were those who asserted that he tried to say the word "survives." But Jefferson didn't survive. What Adams did not know was that the 83–year–old Jefferson had died a few hours earlier.

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