Revolutionaries, Friends, Rivals – then, Silence
American patriot, member of the Continental Congress, author of the Declaration of Independence, minister to France, governor of Virginia, first secretary of state, second vice president, third president of the United States – as vice-president a dedicated opponent of the party in power; a brilliant intellectual, political philosopher, diplomat, statesman, inventor, renaissance man, revolutionary; enemy of tyranny wherever he saw it (with some caveats). A master of language fully appreciative of its power, and a deeply conflicted man whose grand vision finally faltered on the grounds of his self-designed mountaintop home – Shadows gather around his legacy and memory.
Deeply religious Massachusetts puritan, American patriot, member of the Continental Congress, diplomat, statesman, scholar, avid and vociferous agitator for independence from Great Britain, second president of the United States. Irascible, opinionated, argumentative, determined to take the path he thought correct – regardless of opposition. Led the country through perilous times after George Washington’s departure from public life. Under threat at home and abroad by revolutionary France, Adams staked all of his political capital on peace. His greatest achievement would go unrewarded. Retiring to Peace field in Quincy, Massachusetts, he would spend decades defending himself and his political accomplishments. At the conclusion of his single term in office Adams left Washington in the early morning darkness of March 4, 1801 – he never returned.
An Important and Relevant Story
“We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed.”
The origins of the French Revolution were American.
Jefferson deferred to Adams’s “process of reasoning” – but not for long.
“I hope one day your letters will be all published in volumes…”
People of the Revolutions
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord
One of the greatest statesman and diplomats in European history, he was nevertheless a man without scruples. A canny survivor Talleyrand worked for the King, then the Revolution, then Napoleon, then the restored Bourbon monarchy. A brilliant man known as much for his bluster, arrogance, amorality, and greed as he was for his astonishing talents and diplomatic skills. The Bishop of Autun when the revolution started he quickly embraced the revolution and an anti-church position. Desirous of government power and influence over holy vows, he worked his way through informal channels to the top of the French Foreign Ministry. He would be John Adams’s nemesis – by his greed and brinkmanship he would almost bring the United States and France to war.
A fascinating yet troubled and troublesome man, Talleyrand was a key player in the drama that was the ever ratcheting-up conflict during Adams’s presidency between the two revolutionary republics and former allies. Never a moralist Talleyrand was a prince of pragmatism. Caught up in downfall, revolution, wars, and societal upheavals, Talleyrand rode the winds of change as if a bird (or a Napoleonic bee).
He is the anti-Lafayette; a survivor, and deft navigator of conflicting and overlapping worlds. He is a man of influence and cunning, a man to be watched with great care.
John Quincy Adams
Scholar, minister, academic, senator, congressman, sixth president of the United States; a devoted son and extraordinarily serious man, JQA was a strong defender of his father. Not afraid to go his own way politically, he would be the only Federalist representative in Congress to support the controversial Embargo Act during Jefferson’s second term. A fateful meeting between the two men affected the course of Jefferson’s presidency and the country.
A man of service and great insight, he was determined to live up to the extraordinary example of effort, education, service, and morality set by his parents. His Harvard lectures provide a particularly insightful view into one of the revolutions of Adams and Jefferson.
He would serve only one term as president, as his father had done. Known now mainly for his successful defense of the slaves aboard the slave ship Amistad in the early 1840s, John Quincy Adams was a man who truly believed in freedom and the promise of America.
Unlike some of his predecessors his thinking was neither local nor regional, but national and beyond. Ever the man of service, the single term former president returned to Washington as a Congressman from Massachusetts in 1830. Suffering a stroke during a debate in Congress, Adams died two days later, February 21, 1848. His massive personal diary contains 51 volumes.
Dr. Joseph Priestley
A radical Unitarian clergyman, scientist, and English republican revolutionary; among the many things for which he is remembered was his discovery of oxygen. A noted supporter of the revolution in France and an agitator for populist change in his native country, Priestley was driven out of England by an incendiary royalist mob that burned his home, laboratory, and meeting house to the ground.
His reputation preceding him he made his way to America where his influence was quickly established – Adams was an early congregant and Jefferson became a personal friend. One of the first letters that Jefferson wrote after winning the 1800 presidential election (first term) was to Dr. Priestley.
A citizen of Great Britain and an ardent revolutionary, Paine wrote daring and motivating pamphlets whose positive effects on American morale during the revolution were significant. Seen as a true patriot and adoptive American he was viewed by many as a hero for his philosophical and morale-building contributions to the war effort. His revolutionary horizon was not limited to the United States, however.
Later, he made his way to Paris where he had already been named a member of the National Convention in absentia. Feted on his arrival by the revolutionaries of France his impolitic defense of the King soon cast him out to the edges of French republican national politics as Jacobin rule became more ruthless and entrenched. Arrested, and facing the guillotine he was saved by sheer luck with the overthrow of Robespierre.
Bitterly angry and disillusioned by his confinement and feeling abandoned by his adopted country Paine wrote a savage public personal attack against Washington. This was followed by a new pamphlet “Age of Reason” which criticized religion.
Having criticized his adoptive country’s great hero as well as its dominant religion his reputation in America was destroyed. Still supported by Jefferson, Paine returned to the United States. Paine considered France and the revolution there as lost.
Once a national hero in the United States and France, five were in attendance at his funeral in 1809.
Named to a commission of three American diplomats he was sent to Paris in 1797 by President Adams to negotiate normalization of relations with revolutionary France. Ill treatment of the American delegation by the French Foreign Minister Talleyrand and his representatives led to the “XYZ Affair” which brought the two countries close to war.
A distant relative of Jefferson’s but an opponent of Jeffersonian republicanism, and of the course of the French Revolution, Marshall was cynical about a peaceful resolution to the conflict with France. Later Secretary of State under Adams it was in Marshall’s office that Adams’s late hour appointments of Federalist judges caused the controversy of the “Midnight Appointments.”
Appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by Adams, Marshall’s ruling on one of the late appointed judges in the Marbury v. Madison case established judicial oversight by the Supreme Court and gave that body essentially equal authority in the Constitutional “checks and balances” regime. Jefferson entirely opposed this new self-determined authority of the court as undermining the people’s authority over the government through their votes. Marshall’s influence on American jurisprudence and on American politics is immense.
Adams considered his appointment of Marshall to the Court the greatest gift he gave to the American people – Jefferson did never concur. A scholar and author, his multi-volume biography of George Washington would be unexpectedly germane in a controversial matter involving Jefferson.
Gilbert du Mautier, Marquis de Lafayette
One of the wealthiest men in France and a staunch supporter of American independence, Lafayette became a national hero in both countries.
As an early volunteer for the Continentals in the American Revolution he became an aide to, and close friend of, Washington. Rising to Major General and wounded in battle he returned to France a national hero, renowned soldier and revolutionary.
He commanded the National Guard in Paris then was given an Army to lead in the wars of the French Revolution. Alienated from the Revolution by the execution of the king and queen and its decline to absolutism, political intolerance, and violence, Lafayette – hero of two revolutions – left his army in the field and defected to Austria.
He spent over five years in prisons enduring harsh conditions. His triumphant return to the United States in 1824, during which time he visited both Adams and Jefferson, was a national celebration of him and of the revolution itself that was long and fondly remembered by all Americans of the time.
His legacy is a mixed one, but his character was true and his motives upright.
Something of an anti-Talleyrand, Lafayette is an attractive, tragic figure. Unwilling to personally seize power (though he could have done) and mistakenly trusting in a swiftly passing idealized and unworkable compromise approach to political change in France, he was caught up in the whirlwind of the revolution and swept away.
Friend and political ally of Thomas Jefferson, champion of the Constitution, later fourth president of the United States. Madison played an important role in advising Jefferson during times of controversy and political challenges. He would do the country great service during Jefferson’s fight against the Alien and Sedition Acts by editing Jefferson’s sometimes overly strong rhetoric.
A brilliant man, a dedicated republican like his friend, he was a trusted confidant and adviser to Jefferson. Upon leaving the White House Jefferson was comforted in knowing that the country was in good hands as Madison followed him to the presidential chair.
The great commander of the revolution, first president of the United States; the “indispensable man.”
Challenges at home and abroad however undermined national unity and Washington, sensitive and proud, quickly became sick at heart at the political squabbles, and attacks on his policies and character. During Adams’s inaugural he is supposed to have said to the incoming president, “Ay, I am fairly out, and you are fairly in! See which one of us will be the happiest!”
Essential to the American victory in the revolution and a strong unifying leader as president, his “Farewell Address” set a tone of international independence which Adams pledged to follow. The French Revolutionary government for its part neither understood nor appreciated the new American policy of realpolitik. For the French, American independence could not have succeeded without their financial and military aid. The American position was straightforward: French support had come from monarchist France, and since monarchist France no longer existed (due to the revolution) no debt of gratitude was owed by America to the new government that had overthrown the crown and executed the monarch.
The growing conflict between America and its former key ally would be the central challenge of Adams’s presidency. It would all devolve finally to one question: Can war with revolutionary France be averted?
Intelligent, loyal partner to Mr. Adams, and strong mother to their children. Her support and advice sustained him throughout their marriage until her death in 1818.
A friend to Thomas Jefferson, too, she moves from appreciation of him, to adoration, to disappointment, distrust, and finally disillusionment. Her “secret” correspondence with Jefferson after the death of his daughter Maria (Polly) at age 25 brought neither resolution nor satisfaction to either Abigail or Jefferson. There were regrets, and anger which would later all be washed away.
She is the great source of John Adams’s sense of personal rightness-with-the-world. Their letters are insightful and important, and present an intimate view into a successful American marriage of the early Republic era. Their correspondence is also illustrative of their love and support for one another; it is clear that they are a couple that belonged together.
Dr. Benjamin Rush
Talented and brave physician, dedicated revolutionary and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Friend of both Adams and Jefferson, Rush is a Jeffersonian Republican though he loves Adams more than he does Jefferson.
His post-war agonizing over his revolutionary involvement are heart-rending; one of Adam’s most beloved friends and correspondents the retired president sets him on the right path.
Instrumental in bringing Adams and Jefferson back to one another Rush’s affection for both men is the catalyst that rescues their friendship.
His courage in remaining in Philadelphia to treat the afflicted during two horrific yellow fever epidemics (at the risk of his own life) is the stuff of legend and makes for harrowing reading. A trailblazer in medicine and in acknowledging and treating the mentally ill, strong in his views though not always correct, he is a true patriot and superb friend.
Rush’s courage, love and loyalty are inspirational.
Though noted for his stuttering, his stutter-less extemporaneous speech on a table of a Paris café sparked the French Revolution in July, 1789.
Noted as a gifted propagandist and pamphleteer Desmoulins publicly excoriated his political opponents, anti-revolutionaries, and royalists and agitated for violence and extreme measures to secure the victory of the revolution. Later a Jacobin representative in the National Convention, Desmoulins was a strong supporter for the execution of the King. Friend of Danton, Mirabeau, and Robespierre, Desmoulins’s revolutionary career seemed safe until the trial of the Girondins. He had savagely attacked the Girond and its leader, Brissot, time and again in print, but it was only at their trial that he finally realized what his harsh rhetoric had really meant. Horrified at the course of the revolution and his own part in it he called for a drastic reduction of the state policy of terror, and for clemency. He then became a target of his friend (and attendee at his wedding) Robespierre, the Terror’s greatest ideologue and champion.
He realized too late that the revolution had soured and that his own involvement in it had had devastating consequences for so many. He understood too late that he had made a terrible mistake from which there could be no recovery.
Forever remembered for his humanity and his adherence at the end to his love for his wife and child, a true patriot of France, he is a tragic figure. He is emblematic, in a sense, of the disastrous track of the revolution itself.