Happy Birthday, John Adams!

John Adams by John Trumbull, 1793, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Like many who watched the excellent 2008 miniseries John Adams with Paul Giamatti in the title role and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, my interest in the United States’ second president increased quite a bit after watching it. And when I subsequently read John Ellis’ Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, I found myself thoroughly engrossed. I read of a man who was brilliant, insecure, honest, vain, visionary, retrograde, loving, selfish… all character traits which I believe are often found in the most interesting and accomplished people. The same traits that drive people to do wonderful and unusual things are often the same as, or found in conjunction with, those which make people thoroughly insufferable. For example, the insecure egoist’s need to be loved and admired provides the drive for accomplishment, and those who are intelligent enough to surpass most others in this regard are also intelligent enough to recognize it, which can result in an overinflated ego. Perhaps because I don’t have to put up with him personally, I can freely admire and even feel affection for Adams as the sensitive, flawed human being  revealed in his massive correspondence; an egoist who nevertheless was obsessed with justice and did his best to see it done in the world, who sacrificed his own posterity and a second term in office to preserve his new country from the existential threat of an ill-conceived war; whose dignity was far too easily wounded but at times proved himself a loyal friend even to those that betrayed him – Thomas Jefferson being a prime example.

Americans may have more easily forgiven all of this if he hadn’t championed the Alien and Sedition Acts and signed them into law, parts of which are seen today as contrary to essential American principles. In his fear that the bond between the states in his newly united country would break apart under the strain of war and the spiraling controversies of party politics, Adams overreached. But his legacy shouldn’t be overshadowed by this one, though admittedly significant, mistake. As Ellis writes for Encyclopædia Britannica,

Although Adams was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the most significant statesmen of the revolutionary era, his reputation faded in the 19th century, only to ascend again during the last half of the 20th century. The modern edition of his correspondence prompted a rediscovery of his bracing honesty and pungent way with words, his importance as a political thinker, his realistic perspective on American foreign policy, and his patriarchal role as founder of one of the most prominent families in American history.

Learn more about the oh-so-human, brilliant president John Adams at:

John Adams ~ Miniseries by HBO, 2008

John Adams As He Lived: Unpublished Letters to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Professor of Physic at Harvard College ~ published in The Atlantic, May 1927

John Adams: The Case of the Missing John Adams Monument ~ Lillian Cunningham for the Presidential podcast series presented by The Washington Post

John Adams: President of the United States ~ Joseph J. Ellis for Encyclopædia Britannica

Plain Speaking: In David McCullough’s Telling, the Second President is Reminiscent of the 33rd (Harry Truman) ~ by Pauline Maier for The New York Times: Books, May 27, 2001

Sorry, HBO. John Adams Wasn’t That Much of a Hero ~ Jack Rakove for The Washington Post, April 20, 2008

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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New Podcast Episode: The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 3

Approaching the Lower Wakefield Tower, Tower of London, England

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Saturday, May 4th, 2018, continued

After parting with Simon, Laurence and I step out of the Tower grounds for a quick lunch, though when we return, our first stop features sights and stories that could turn anyone’s stomach. As you may have guessed, it’s the torture room of the Lower Wakefield Tower. As the signage indicates, the chamber now dedicated to the history and artifacts of the Tower’s legacy of torture was likely not used for that purpose at the time. However, it’s well chosen for its current purpose. The underground stone chamber is entered via a series of short stairways and small narrow doorways, evoking an increasing sense of entrapment among stones as cold and impassive as were the torturer’s sympathies.

There is no direct link between this chamber and Thomas More or Elizabeth I, but both of them had strong associations with the use of torture… Read the written version here

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

New Podcast Episode: The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 1

Bell Tower, Tower of London, England

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Saturday, May 4th, 2018

I first visited the Tower of London in January of this year with my friend Steven, a fellow student of history; I at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, he at King’s College, London. We had great fun, two history nerds running around London for a couple of days! While we were at the Tower, I looked for the cell where Sir Thomas More was imprisoned for over a year before he was executed for treason on July 6th, 1535. Like many brought up in Catholic families after the film was made, I grew up watching the adaptation of Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons starring Paul Scofield, seeing it so many times I believe I could have parroted the dialogue from entire scenes from memory with little effort. Going back and watching clips, I still remember just about everything that every character will say and do ahead of time. The tragic story of and Scofield’s compelling characterization of the clever lawyer and saint captured my imagination. Since then, I’ve read more about him over the years and broadened my understanding of this man, who was much more complex than the stellar but somewhat two-dimensional martyr of integrity and righteousness portrayed in the film… Read the written version here

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

New Podcast Episode: Hannibal and Florida, Missouri, in Search of Mark Twain

Mark Twain Memorial Bridge on the Missouri River, view from the riverside at the foot of Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Journal: Hannibal, Missouri, evening of July 31st, 2017

I’m sitting here on the waterfront between the Mississippi River and the train tracks, facing northwest. My back is leaning against a stone wall. The train whistle was deafening, but now the engine has passed and the freight cars are rumbling slowly by. The low, warm, dark peach last light of sunset is glowing gently through the steel truss bridge. I have a bottle of wine at my side and my laptop computer on my lap. The night is warm and humid. I’ve found a dark alcove beneath the park’s perimeter footpath so I can better see the last light of the sunset, and to avoid the clouds of mayflies swarming in the light around every post lamp.

Old town Hannibal is very old-timey America. Lots of brick, and false fronts, and clapboard siding. Look to the west end of the street and you’ll see a steep tree-covered hill with a perfect little white lighthouse perched on its side. The main street’s storefronts are mostly full, with antique and novelty shops, souvenir shops, cafes, ice cream and candy parlors, and bars and restaurants… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: New Salem, in Search of Abraham Lincoln

Statue of Abraham Lincoln as surveyor at New Salem, Illinois

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

New Salem, Sunday, July 31st, 2017

From the Michael J. Howlett building in downtown Springfield (part of which stands on the site of the Ninian Edwards house where Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were married and where Mary died), I head northwest on highway 97 to New Salem Historic Park. This is the site of New Salem, the small frontier commercial village which played no small role in Lincoln’s life as a young man striking out on his own. It’s a pleasant drive through farmland with homes and farm buildings and gas stations and tiny general stores scattered here and there. In a little under half an hour, I reach a wooded area, and soon after that, take the turnout to my left to New Salem. I stop for a snack at the little cafe offering a modest selection of hot dogs, nachos, sandwiches, and other things that take the edge off but don’t suffice as a meal. The park’s visitor center buildings are all closed because the air conditioning system isn’t working. I don’t blame them at all for not opening up: it feels very much like a summer day in the Midwest, hot and humid, and I imagine a full day indoors would get stuffy and miserable. But the park itself is open to roam, so I do… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Springfield, Illinois, in Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 5

Downstairs hallway in the Lincoln Home with the Lincolns’ original hatstand – but no, not Abe’s original hat

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 30th, 2017

I sleep in then linger over a continental breakfast-of-sorts in my rented room as I catch up on some rest, writing, and research. When I finally bestir myself in earnest, I head over to D’arcy’s Pint to enjoy a local delicacy for lunch. My brother John lived in Springfield for a time some years ago and told me I must eat a horseshoe while I’m in town. The internet tells me that this gastropub is the best place to enjoy this decadent regional take on the open-face sandwich, so here I am. I order a full-size one with the works, spicy, and a pint to wash it down with. They bring me a small mountain on a plate composed of Texas toast, french fries, ground meats, chopped tomatoes and other veggies, and cheese sauce, the spiciness added at the discretion of the diner from the little cup of (mildly) hot sauce on the side. It’s tasty enough, I can’t deny, and the cheese sauce is very good and appears to be homemade, not at all like the waxy bright yellow kind that comes from a can or jar. But it’s not the tastiest thing I’ve ever eaten: it’s really starchy. Potatoes and bread in one dish? Hmmm. Still, it’s plenty good enough to pack up the other half to eat later. The physically-demanding, hiking-heavy portion of my journey is far enough behind me now that I just can’t digest a heavy meal of this size all at once… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Springfield, Illinois, in Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 4

Site of Stuart & Lincoln law office at Hoffman’s Row, Springfield, Illinois

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 29th, 2017, continued

I leave the Myers Building at the former site of Joshua Fry Speed’s store and Abraham Lincoln’s last law office on S 5th Street, and head north, crossing E Washington St, and continue halfway up the block. On my left (west), at 109 N 5th St / NW Old State Capitol Plaza, is a historical marker for the Stuart & Lincoln Law Office. John Todd Stuart was Lincoln’s first law partner, the man from whom he borrowed the law books he needed for his legal training, and his future wife Mary Todd’s first cousin. Lincoln received his license to practice law two years after he began his studies, and joined Stuart’s law practice as a junior partner in April of 1837. He was living over Speed’s store, having moved here to Springfield to embark on his legal career, so he walked more or less the same route to get to work as I walk today from the Myers Building… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!