17 July 2009

John Quincy Adams' Highest and Most Important Role

One of the problems with being self-educated (and I use that term very loosely) is that I have great gaping chasms of ignorance surrounding various isolated peaks of knowledge. I've read quite a bit in James Madison's writings, public and private, for example, and in Thomas Jefferson's, but in John Quincy Adams'—not so much. I have nothing against the guy, but Jefferson and Madison were architects of the nation I live in, and Adams was merely its sixth president.

Quick—name three things he did. (No cheating now.) If your first thought was the Alien and Sedition Acts, you're wrong—that was his dad. (Adams was the first and only son of a former president to be seated as President until George W. Bush came along.) Think Tariff of Abominations and you'll be closer. But really, it wasn't an administration given to the stuff of legend.

So, anyway, when I read in "History Forgotten" (or whatever name you want to give it) that Adams was the chairman of the American Bible Society and regarded it as his highest and most important role I wasn't inclined to challenge it. Of course he wasn't actually chairman (strictly speaking the ABS doesn't have such a position, though there are chairmen of various committees); it turns out he was a vice-president. One of twenty-five vice-presidents.

Okay, but still—maybe he threw himself into the work with enthusiasm and gusto? Something of the sort?

Well, it kinda doesn't look that way. I had a hell of a time finding anything about Adams and the ABS, but in a book by Samuel Hanson Cox called Interviews: Memorable and Useful; from diary and memory reproduced (New York, 1853) I found on pp. 270-73 an address Adams delivered to that organization in 1844. In his opening comments he said:

Thirty-five years have passed away since, in the State House at Boston, the capital of my native commonwealth, I became a member of the Bible Society; and although I have followed, with a deep interest, their continual exertions and the various fortunes of their success in distributing this Book, I think I have never been able to attend another meeting of the society from that time to this. Since that time one generation of mankind has passed away—another has arisen.

Two meetings in thirty-five years? (Actually that thirty-five years can't be right; it would place the date of his membership before the organization was formed.) It doesn't really sound like he was that involved with the group. He justified himself by observing that

in the maturity of manhood I associated with my brethren of that age, for spreading the light of that gospel over the face of the earth, by the simple and silent process of placing in the hands of every human being who needed, and could not otherwise procure it, that Book, which contains the duties, the admonitions, the promises, and the rewards of the Christian gospel.

He expressed his view

that this book has been furnished him [mankind], by the special providence of his Maker, to enable him, by faith in his Redeemer, and by works conformable to that faith, to secure his salvation in a future world, and to promote his well-being in the present. If this be true, the improvement of successive generations of men in their condition upon earth, and their preparation for eternity, depends in no small degree in the diffusion and circulation of this volume among all the tribes of man throughout the habitable globe. This is the great and exclusive object for which, in the last generation, this society was instituted. The whole Book had then existed upward of eighteen hundred years ; and wherever it had penetrated and heen received, it had purified and exalted the character of man.

And he looked forward to the point of the society's labors,

that consummation of human felicity promised in this book, when—The wolf, also, shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf, and the young lion, and the failing together; and a little child shall lend them.

Now all this is all very well and good, but there is nothing in any of it that shows any special activity on his part in the society. Adams admired the Bible. He respected the work the ABS was doing to spread it to the four corners of the earth. He did his part by supplying Bibles to people who needed them, and who, for whatever reason, were not otherwise able to obtain them. But it's really hard to square this with the claim that he regarded his position in the ABS as his highest and most important role. On the available evidence he invested more energy in his position as Massachusetts' representative in Congress (this after his presidency, by the way) than he did in his vice-presidency of the ABS.

Oh—and by the way, one thing I did know about Adams: he was a Unitarian. (Score one for Unitarian sunday-school after all these years.) And it's said that he refused to take his Presidential oath of office on the Bible, using instead a book of laws. Not exactly congenial company for the average "History Forgotten" buff. He was no atheist either, though—by all accounts a deeply religious man. Some day—should I live so long—I'll have to look into the guy a bit more. But for the moment, this was an interesting glimpse of an early American president—and the last of the bunch before Ol' Hick'ry Jackson launched the infamous spoils system and started shipping native Americans off west to clear the way for honest god-fearing rednecks to—what was that Firesign Theatre line?—oh, yeah, to carve a new life out of the American Indian. By contrast Adams had his points. But if he really regarded his tiny part in the ABS as his highest and most important role, he had a skewed sense of priorities. There's no getting around it.

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