Category Archives: John Adams

Abigail and Thomas

I probably can’t call Thomas Jefferson a metrosexual in my dissertation, but that’s why I have a blog.

Abigail Adams is famous for bringing out the best in her correspondents, but Thomas’s letters to her are particularly striking, perhaps because we have so little to compare them to. He burned his wife’s letters shortly after her death, Maria Cosway was hardly an intellectual equal, and if he wrote to Sally Hemings it is no surprise the documents do not survive.

His letters to Abigail are full of humor, political philosophy, and shopping. Yes, Abigail and Thomas shopped for each other when they lived in Europe, while John Adams was the American Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James and Thomas Jefferson held the equivalent position at Versailles (1785-1788). She ordered shirts and table linens for him in London. He bought her lace and shoes in Paris. But my favorite example is his quest for the perfect statuettes, described in his letter of September 25, 1785:

I could only find three of those you named, matched in size. These were Minerva, Diana, and Apollo. I was obliged to add a fourth, unguided by your choice. They offered me a fine Venus; but I thought it out of taste to have two at table at the same time. Paris and Helen were presented. I conceived it would be cruel to remove them from their particular shrine . . . At length a fine Mars was offered, calm, bold, his faulchion not drawn, but ready to be drawn. This will do, thinks I, for the table of the American Minister in London, where those whom it may concern may look and learn that though Wisdom is our guide, and the Song and Chase our supreme delight, yet we offer adoration to that tutelar god also who rocked the cradle of our birth, who has accepted our infant offerings, and has shewn himself the patron of our rights and avenger of our wrongs. The group was then closed and your party formed.

Unfortunately the little statues were not properly wrapped and broke apart on their journey. But the shoes always made it over intact.

Quote from “Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams. Paris, 25 September 1785.” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, ed. Barbara B. Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008. [accessed 03 Apr 2011]
To see the letter in its original context (complete with scholarly annotations) click on the link. If you do not have access to the Rotunda American Founding Era the letter can also be found in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Main Series, Volume 8.

Aristocrats, Agendas, & Adams

Some days I think the biggest problem facing digital historians is our workflow. We are already expected to juggle archival research and secondary readings with teaching and writing. Add a digital project into the mix and the temptation to pull out one’s hair becomes almost irresistible. The madness increases when you are the primary programmer on your own project.

I feel your pain.

Last weekend I was despairing of the many moving parts that will (in the next eighteen months) constitute my dissertation. I realized that I was spending all my time on the database I am building to house my research and complete my analysis. The database is indispensable (and being spun-out into an open source project to help others), but it is only one part of my project. Then I had a brain wave, courtesy of my favorite Founding Father, John Adams.

According to Adams, the greatest threat to a successful republican government was a society’s aristocrats — people with the time, talents, charisma, and/or money necessary to accomplish their goals. Such people (and he was one) would always want to be in control, but in a republic The People, not the aristocrats, were supposed to govern. Adams’ solution was to shut the aristocrats into the upper house of the legislature (read: Senate) where they would have sufficient scope for their talents but not enough power to hijack the whole system.

Last weekend, I realized that my database is the “aristocrat” of my dissertation. It is powerful, attracts attention, and brings me funding, but it has become a drain on my time and energy out of proportion to its role in the larger project. So, I am going to try a constitutional experiment.

I am giving myself one day each week to work on the database. I’ve chosen Wednesdays to coincide with my office hours at NINES. With any luck, this concentrated time will push me to be more productive, while freeing up the rest of my time to do the research and writing necessary to complete my degree. Of course, everything comes back to the database in the end: my research is loaded into the data structure and analyzed for patterns, which I then explore in the prose of my dissertation.

But hopefully, a system of checks and balances will keep me stable.