[In honor of our Founding Fathers, an archive edition of American History Now]
So there they are, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, one a youthful 70 and the other a fussy 41, sharing a bed at an inn in New Jersey. They’re on their way from Philadelphia to Staten Island, part of a delegation sent by the Continental Congress to negotiate with Admiral Lord Richard Howe of the Royal Navy, in the hopes of avoiding a full-blown war between England and her American colonies. Two weeks earlier, George Washington’s fledgling army escaped seemingly certain destruction in Brooklyn and is for now, at least, alive to fight another day. Lord Howe hopes he can talk his American friends out of making a huge mistake. Adams considers Howe a phony, his overtures nothing more than “Machiavellian maneuvers.” That’s why he was chosen to be one of the negotiators. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, a man who had been reluctant to support independence (he has, and will, worry about the preservation of slavery) is another. And old Ben Franklin, who knew Howe back in England, will be the third.
It is the evening of September 9, 1776. The negotiators pause in their journey to spend the night in Brunswick, New Jersey. Unfortunately, there’s not much lodging to be had in the local taverns. Franklin and Adams agree to share a tiny room, no fireplace, with a single bed and a single open window. It is chilly, and Adams, a self described invalid, is “afraid of the air in the night” and shuts it. “Oh!” says Franklin. “Don’t shut the window. We shall be suffocated.” When Adams relates his fears of coming down with an illness from the bad night air, Franklin, ever the scientist, replies by saying that the air in the room is far more likely to be a problem than that outside. “Come!” he tells Adams. Open the window and come to bed and I will convince you. I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds.”
Adams complies and joins Franklin in bed. He is curious, even at “the risqué of a cold,” to hear Franklin’s reasoning. Lying there in the dark, side by side, Franklin begins his explanation, which, while apparently of some interest to Adams, literally puts him to sleep (“I left him and his Philosophy together,” he will later write, hearing Franklin trail off just as he does.) They will argue the point again, and in his account of their exchanges Adams will muse on Franklin’s reasoning but remain unconvinced.
At this point in his life, Adams admires Franklin. He likes to say that had Franklin done nothing more than invent the lightning rod, the world would justly honor this “great and good man.” But the next time they team up again, this time in Paris to negotiate an alliance with the French government – a phase of the two men's careers brilliantly captured in the 2008 HBO series, John Adams, from which the above photo was taken – Adams begins to have his doubts. Mr. “Early to Bed and Early to Rise” sleeps late all the time. (He slept through a lot of the Continental Congress, and though Adams will not be there to catch him, Franklin will sleep through a lot of the Constitutional Convention as well.) He drinks too much; he spends too much. And his behavior with French women is downright embarrassing. Adams feels self-conscious about his French, but as he learns it himself he begins to realize that Franklin understands a lot less than he lets on. And when Adams – once again playing bad cop, albeit a bit over his head – annoys the French foreign minister, Franklin writes a letter to Congress telling them that Adams is foolishly tampering with Franklin’s own delicate diplomacy. Adams will never forget or forgive Franklin for that.
Franklin is probably right to dump Adams. Adams probably knows Franklin is right, too. He is over his head. Adams is an intelligent and decent man. But he’s too stubborn, moralistic and vain to be a successful diplomat. He’s honest to a fault – he can’t play the game the way Franklin, who laughs right along when the King puts his image on the bottom his courtesan’s chamber pot, does. He tries not to lie, even to himself.
Part of the reason why someone like Franklin is such a trial to Adams is that he understands that the man really does exhibit traits Adams himself would be lucky to have. Franklin’s cool cheerfulness is a rebuke to Adams’s repressed stolidity. But a hunger for recognition, a hunger that’s never really sated, will not give Adams rest. His wonderfully acidic expression of resentment in 1790 encapsulates his frustration: “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thenceforth these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war.” (It was Adams who had proposed Washington take command of the Continental Army – and excellent idea, and one he can’t help but at least partially regret.)
Adams had about as successful a career as any person could ever rationally hope. From modest beginnings as a shoemaker’s son, he became a self-educated lawyer, political activist, and diplomat. He collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence, and his work on the Massachusetts constitution was a major influence on the federal one. He managed to spend eight years generally keeping his mouth shut as vice president (no small achievement, particularly for him), and went on to become president himself. And he had the good sense and good fortune to marry Abigail, who brought wisdom, humor, and joy into his life. He lived to see his son John Quincy, become president. We should all be so lucky.
But somehow, you rarely get the impression that John Adams was happy. To be sure, he had legitimate sorrows, among them a son who drank himself to death and a daughter who died of cancer. He had powerful enemies, notably Alexander Hamilton and his erstwhile friend Thomas Jefferson, who, despite hating each other, worked to deny Adams a second term as president. (It’s to their credit that Adams and Jefferson were later able to patch things up – though perhaps it’s no accident that they did so while remaining 500 miles apart.) Still, you get the sense that the hardest single thing about John Adams’s life is that he had to live with John Adams. Feeling that way is hard enough. But it’s even harder when you’ve got people like Franklin, so seemingly self-assured, by your side.
Adams recorded the scene of his night with Franklin in the autobiography he began writing after his forced retirement from politics following his failed bid for re-election in 1800. Though he had a diary to draw on, the editor of the Adams Papers, L.H. Butterfield, reported in 1961 that he wrote this scene “from unaided memory.” I see him at his estate, Peacefield, in Quincy, Massachusetts, an old man remembering himself as a younger one, with Franklin, who had been dead for years, alive and likeable. Adams had been upset earlier that September day when he saw what he regarded as the indiscipline and “dissipation” of the American soldiers he had seen on the road (my guess is that he was being prudishly unrealistic). But he was “determined that it should not dishearten me.” I can’t be sure, but it seems like he’s succeeding, and that the memory of that night brings him pleasure and maybe even comfort in the long twilight of his life. Writing it down gives him something to do.
And us something to celebrate. Thank you, Mr. Adams (and Mr. Franklin).