(from an early engraving.)
History is an uncertain science, at best.
Much of it is outright lies and balderdash. For example, Napoleon looked at history as “a set of lies agreed upon.” Does it matter that he stole most of that line from Voltaire, who suggested, “History is a lie commonly agreed upon?”
George Santayana harbored significant doubts about the entire field. He told friends, “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.”
Too much of history rests on the memories of old men, old men whose minds have grown soft over time. Even the best men have doubts and question themselves as time goes by. They question the history books.
Fifty years after signing the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson, wondering, “Who shall write the history of the American Revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?”
Take, for example, the Declaration of Independence. The proceedings of Congress were held behind closed doors. No records were kept. With the death of each congressman, more of the story was lost. And the recollections that surfaced were suspect.
|John Adams as an old man.|
John Adams suspected the published version of John Dickinson’s speech against the Declaration was entirely unlike the one he heard that day. Thomas Jefferson questioned the claim that Samuel Chase was the first to suggest independence. He asked Adams, “do you remember anything of this? I do not.”
If the two leading members of the committee tasked to oversee the Declaration of Independence questioned how it all came about, how much of its history can we believe?
John Adams was the red-haired stepchild of the Revolution. Many people disliked his bluntness. They called him vain or disagreeable, but he was there at every critical turn.
When it came time to pick a commander for the Continental Army, Adams looked past the sectionalism that ran rampant in congress. While a New England general would have been more to his liking, John Adams understood a Southerner would cement the army together. Especially one of George Washington’s stature. Adams pushed for an American Navy when no one else saw the need for one. Later, he helped shape the peace treaty to end the war.
Without John Adams, there would very likely be no United States. Charles Lee, Artemus Ward, or John Hancock, rather than George Washington, might have commanded the Continental Army. No one can say what would have happened then. Without a strong navy, the United States would never have been able to stand up to Great Britain during the War of 1812.
John Adams could have won a second term as president if he had declared war on France during the so-called Quasi-War. It would have been the popular thing to do. Certainly, no one would have faulted him for jumping into the fray.
But Adams never worried about popularity as much as he did about doing the right thing. He sent a peace commission to France and ended the matter amicably.
Because of that decision, Adams lost the election. No matter, he took the loss in stride. He wrote his son John Quincy, “I feel my shoulders relieved from the burden. The short remaining of my days will be the happiest of my life.” George Washington would have understood. Being President was not all it was cracked up to be.