Monday, July 22, 2013

Winning the battle -- and the war

In The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England, Marc Morris tells a story whose real drama began after the big big battle was over

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.  

I didn't realize until after I had finished Marc Morris's The Norman Conquest that I had done so shortly after reading another book about a pivotal battle in the history of a nation, Allen Guelzo's new book on Gettysburg, The Last Invasion (see my review here). In that book, as in every account of Gettysburg, there are countless subjects for speculation -- what Robert E. Lee was really thinking; how many effective troops the two armies actually had at their disposal; who really should get the credit for the Union army's retention of Little Round Top (and if that really mattered). But whatever questions may arise about that or any other battle in the American Civil War, the documentary record is immense. We know, for example, what Abraham Lincoln was doing on any given day, often on an hourly basis.

In the case of the Battle of Hastings, an epochal event in the making of England, the amount we don't know is vastly greater than what we do. History in such cases rests on the slimmest of written accounts, which often contradict each other. At one point in his narrative, Morris compares such accounts with the famed Bayeux Tapestry, and then quotes himself on some of the terms he used in preceding sentences: "seems"; "looks very much like"; "appears"; "as if." Though the battle took place was a "mere" 947 years ago, he has less to work with than even some ancient historians.

And yet Morris's professed uncertainty gives us confidence in him. He is as attuned to the historiography of his subject as he is the primary source record, which he deconstructs in some cases and affirms in others, often through a process of triangulation. Though clearly intended for a trade audience, and written by a non-academic (Morris is a magazine writer and broadcaster), The Norman Conquest is a tour de force piece of scholarship.

It took me a while to figure this out. I got a little impatient in the early going, which reviews a good deal of English history before and during the reign of King Edward the Confessor, a period marked by political instability and foreign occupation in a country where power was relatively decentralized.  It was not until about a third of the way through Morris's account that we finally get to hear about one of the more intriguing events that culminated in the Battle of Hastings: Earl Harold Godwineson's unexpected sojourn with William of Normandy -- which apparently happened when the earl's ship blew off course and he found himself a lavishly feted hostage -- that culminated in the Harold's pledge to support William's claim to the throne of England. But upon the death of Edward in January of 1066, Harold later took the crown for himself (he clearly regarded his promise,  made under duress, not binding). Harold fought off another claimant, that of the invading Scandinavian Harold Sigurdson -- the dreaded Harold Hardrada -- at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in September, and then managed to make it to the other end of England in less than a month to meet William at Hastings, a battle he came within a whisker of winning. Morris's account of these dramatic events is authoritative and fast-paced. It's also complete before the book is half over.

One of the things that Morris explains in the remainder of the book -- which you can sort of infer but which he makes vividly clear -- is that however decisive it may have been, the Battle of Hastings was only the beginning of the Norman conquest. It was far from clear that William could actually subjugate the rest of the country, pockets of which resisted him for years. Once he did, he had to contend with outside incursions from Scotland, Wales, and Denmark, all of which he managed to fend off. Once he did that, he had to deal with challenges from within his own family. The sheer unlikelihood that he prevailed becomes increasingly remarkable. Before 1066, successfully invading England wasn't all that difficult. After 1066, it never happened again.

The first half of Morris's subtitle is "the Battle of Hastings," which is the main reason why I (and, I suspect most other casual readers) picked it up. But it's the second half -- "the fall of Anglo-Saxon England" -- that's his real subject here. This is a book about a social revolution: a society whose law, language, religion, architecture and much else were transformed over the course of a generation. It wasn't a pretty process; indeed, William could be downright brutal, as in his notorious "Harrying of the North" in which he suppressed an uprising in Yorkshire by inducing a famine. Aristocrats and middling folk were stripped of their possessions, an expropriation codified in his legendary "Domesday Book," one of the most remarkable inventories ever created. But The Norman Conquest is not an account of unmitigated disaster; as Morris points out, the Normans ended slavery, reformed the churches, and took a less murderous stance toward defeated opponents than their predecessors did. In the long run, as he explains in a graceful final chapter, they laid the foundations for a hybrid state that proved remarkably durable and tensile.

The Norman Conquest is a highly readable and substantial account of one of the most pivotal events in British history. It is a distinguished contribution to the annals of 1066 and deserves to have a long history of its own.

Monday, July 15, 2013

My latest essay

I'm happy to report publication of a piece that reflects my intellectual preoccupations of the last year. It's called "Problems and Possibilities of the Self-Made Man," and it appears in the Summer 2013 edition of The Hedgehog Review, a quarterly journal published by the Institute for Advanced Cultural Studies at the University of Virginia. The piece looks at the fading presence of the self-made man ideology in contemporary academic discourse, even as it persists in many -- and many unexpected -- corners of everyday American life. It was part of a larger project, since abandoned, on the self-made man in U.S. history, which I was having trouble managing effectively. I'm glad I was able to salvage something that I hope will prove useful.

You can link to the essay here. I'd be obliged if you had a look. Thanks.  --JC

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Anne's House, Our House

Why I love the Puritans Dept: Remembering Goodwife Bradstreet, homes lost and homes found, on the 347th anniversary of a personal calamity.

Even now I can see that house burning. The fire, a huge orange sheet, sweeps up toward the New England night, overrunning the wood, glass and thatching, gray smoke against a black sky. Clothing writhes, curls and blackens amid the overpowering heat. I'm stunned by the quietness of the destruction, which is punctuated by occasional crackling and the songs of crickets.
I wasn't there, of course. But Anne Bradstreet was. She would have been about 54 years old. She labeled the poem she later wrote with this heading: “Here followes some verses upon the burning of our house, July 10, 1666. Copeyed out of loose paper." The "loose paper" is evocative; it's as if she literally or figuratively grabbed a fragment of the ruins and tried to inscribe her memory on them, to somehow preserve what was irretrievably lost.
She knew she couldn't bring that house back. And deep down, she knew that she shouldn't be trying. In essence, that’s exactly what her poem was about.

And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine . . . .

The problem is that she does repine. She saying all the right things: that the house was never really hers to begin with, that all glory should go to God, that while his ways may be difficult to understand, they are always right – period. And yet as the poem proceeds, it's clear that she can't quite let the matter rest.

Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best,
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.

It's a heartbreaking scene – and one that bristles with tension. I picture her as she pictures herself, walking among the ashes. No no, she saying, it doesn't bother me a bit that this place I loved has gone up in smoke. I won’t miss the furniture, or my trinkets, or the company of friends and family that gave it life. More importantly, my faith is so secure that I need not grieve for it. Really.

No pleasant talk shall 'ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle 'ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom's voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, All's Vanity.

Bradstreet didn’t want to come to America. Born in Northampton, England in 1612, she had been a child of relative privilege. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was a skilled manager who had transformed the balance sheet for Earl of Lincoln. Shortly after her marriage age 16 to Simon Bradstreet, she joined her new husband and father in founding the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630 (both men later became governor). But while she thus had some real stature in his fledgling community, she nevertheless found it difficult to adjust. As she later explained to her children, "I changed my condition and was married, and came into this country, at which my heart rose [in rebellion]. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the Church of Boston." You get the sense that there’s a lot of personal history compressed between those two sentences, a story she didn’t particularly want to tell at that point, the way parents sometimes don’t.
         To the difficulties involved in moving and the rigors of her faith was added another, which he described in language typical of the Puritans: "it pleased God to keep me a long time without children." She eventually raised eight in the frontier settlements of Ipswich and Andover (which is were the house that burned down was located), making the fact that she wrote any poetry all the more remarkable. Upon learning that she had accumulated a body of work, her brother-in-law brought some of it back to England, which was published in 1650 as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America. These poems, which demonstrate the degree to which Bradstreet absorbed Renaissance history and literature, had a largely public voice; one poem, for example, is a tribute to Queen Elizabeth I.
      But much of her work, especially her later work, has a more personal focus, and at times a startlingly modern edge. “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits,” she complained of those real or imagined figures who complained about her. She could also be a true romantic. "If ever two were one then surely we," she begins a poem "To My Dear and Loving Husband.”
        But the central struggle of Bradstreet's life as expressed in her writing can be described in terms of the Puritan injunction to live in the world but not be of it. “Farewell dear babe, my hearts too much content," she wrote of a grandchild who died in 1665 (she lost four and a daughter-in-law in rapid succession, which broke her heart). This passionate, if somewhat belated, love of the life she had made in America was checked by a higher sense of duty, the very sense of duty that led her and her compatriots to come to a foreign land in the first place.
Indeed, while the house and Bradstreet lived in was an actual structure of stone and wood – its very materiality was a source of its comfort – a "house" is not necessarily synonymous with a "home." If for her, and many of us, the concept of home can notes a series of concentric circles that includes one's family, birthplace, region, and nation, Bradstreet in some respects left home for good at an early age. The Puritans, after all, founded Massachusetts because they believed that King Charles I – a sovereign from the “house” of Stuart – was betraying the legacy of a Protestant Reformation that had transformed the houses, villages and cities of England. While Bradstreet's Massachusetts Puritans called their variety of the Church of England Protestantism “non-separating” (in contrast to the even more disenchanted Pilgrims who founded the colony of Plymouth when they arrived on the Mayflower in 1620) it's clear that they were trying to put as much distance between themselves and the mother country as possible.
Even so, the ties between house, home and nation remained deeply entwined. In the context of the 17th-century world, when English and Dutch renegades challenged the supremacy of Catholic Spain, virtually all sacred and secular striving to place in a world of emerging religion-based nation-states. When future Governor John Winthrop, who arrived in the same boat as Bradstreet did, implored his fellow emigrants to found a fabled "city on a hill" even before they arrived in Boston, he took it for granted that a new Jerusalem could not be born in Spanish Mexico or French Québec. These people went on an errand into the wilderness to found a New England. And they did so – and distinguished themselves from the "savages" they conquered – not by building forts or trading posts, though they certainly did build those, but rather by building houses, far more of them in New England than anywhere else in the “new” world.
So it was by this twisted path that Bradstreet’s house really had become a home as fact and symbol, an emblem of family and nation. And yet a spiritual restlessness would not quite allow her to live there at ease. In her poetry otherworldly commitments always have the last word. "The world no longer let me love," she concludes or elegy to her burned house. "My hope and Treasure lies above."
If, by some magical process, I could be transported into the wilderness of colonial Massachusetts, circa 1666, I would guess that Anne Bradstreet would not be so familiar. The differences between us – of sex, religion, and the sheer weight of history coursing like the Merrimack River near her house – are so great that I wonder if we could really communicate, even if we were both speaking the same language. To say, on the basis of reading a poem about her house burning down, that I understand how she feels, is more likely to trivialize her experience than honor her memory.
And yet I feel drawn to her. Some of this can be expressed in simple geography. I, too, have seen and marveled at “the trees all richly clad, yet void of pride” (as she describes the New England landscape in her celebrated poem "Contemplations"), trees that remain even after the advance of the interstate highway and cellphone tower. But there's more to it than that. Across the centuries, she and her children, literal and figurative, have shared a belief that their destinies would be found on these shores.
This is, of course, a familiar myth, though it isn't quite elastic enough to effortlessly incorporate other Americans, like slaves who didn't choose to immigrate, or Indians who (in this millennium anyway) didn't immigrate here at all and in fact were forced to emigrate further away. Still, for all its obvious shortcomings, the myth of America as adopted home has helped explain – better yet, it has helped unify – a nation that could, and did, find plenty of other reasons to be a house divided.
But I now realize that what may be the most important thing I share with Anne Bradstreet is a sense of shame. Her shame derive from a deep, but not altogether justifiable, love for the house that burned down in 1666. My house – our house – has not burned down. Yet we live in it with a sense of foreboding, because we know it cannot last forever, and we sometimes fear it may be demolished sooner rather than later. But our unease is not simply a sense of anxiety about the future; it also involves a sense of nagging unease about the past. We love the house even as are aware, however vaguely, of the displacements that made it possible, as well as the evasions that allow it to stand even as I sit to write these words. We cannot really expect mercy. But, God help us, we hope for it anyway. Here, for now, for the grace of Anne, we lie in our beds on summer nights.

A notably good recent biography of Anne Bradstreet is Charlotte Gordon's Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet (2005). For a nicely sculpted introduction to Bradstreet's work, I recommend Heidi Nichols's compact paperback Anne Bradsteet: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Poet (2006) Much of Bradstreet's poetry is available online.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Guelzo's Charge

In Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, Allen Guelzo brings a battle back to life in all its messy glory

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.    

I didn't expect to see a book about Gettysburg from Allen Guelzo. His early work focused on religious history; in recent years he has emerged as a Lincoln scholar of first rank on the strength of work like Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Shaped America (2008).  Making a typical move for a senior historian seeking to bolster his credentials, he published Fateful Lightning, a survey of the Civil War and Reconstruction, last year. But Gettysburg: The Last Invasion is a work of straight military history.  I had my doubts that an essentially intellectual historian could really master a distinct subgenre. But the recent sesquicentennial prodded me to pick up this sizable tome, which I read during the anniversary ofthe battle. I'm glad I did.

Guelzo delivers the goods you expect with a book like this: an overview that sets the stage, a blow-by-blow account of the fighting, thumbnail sketches of the principals, counterfactual assessments of the might-have-beens. We get lots of active verbs: regiments and brigades don't simply attack; they "lunge," "bang"or "slap" each other. In his recent review of the book in the New York Times, David Blight criticized Guelzo for this, invoking the great John Keegan's complaint about a “'Zap-Blatt-Banzai-Gott im Himmel-Bayonet in the Guts' style of military history." I take the point. But overall I have to say that Guelzo's approach animates his narrative without really trivializing his subject. Indeed, he uses statistics to suggest the gravity of the three-day battle, noting that in the most conservative estimate, the damage the Army of Northern Virginia was the equivalent of two sinkings of the Titanic, ten repetitions of the Great Blizzard of 1888 and two Pearl Harbors -- and two and a half times the losses taken by Allied armies in Normandy from D-Day through August of 1944. Union losses were comparable.

In sifting through the massive documentary record, Guelzo, who teaches at Gettysburg College and whose command of the landscape is evident, also has an eye for the colorful quote. He describes a slightly wounded soldier screaming "I'm dead, I'm dead," and the reply of his colonel to two stretcher bearers: "Go and take that dead man off -- if you can catch him." He offers a Union prisoner lying on the ground observing General George Pickett bracing for his fateful charge and speculating that "in looking at his cheeks and nose, we divined that their color was not caused by drinking sodawater only." Guelzo is no worshipper of Robert E. Lee -- like a lot of observers, he concludes that Lee badly overplayed his hand at Gettysburg -- and he's particularly critical of what he regards as Lee's passive-aggressive way of blaming subordinates and soldiers by saying he asked too much of them (in other words, they let him down). But he still manages to capture the understated essence of what made the man appealing to so many people. When one of his division commanders, reputedly Jubal Early, says of the the Yankees, "I wish they were all dead," Guelzo notes Lee's reply: "I wish they were all at home, attending to their own business, leaving us to do the same."

Of course, this is all pretty much standard issue stuff when it comes to a military narrative. But Guelzo has a series of interpretive statements to make as well. Among the most important is his rejection of the conventional wisdom that the Civil War was the first modern war. What he emphasizes instead is how backward looking it seems in terms of what came later, not just in the usual ways (like medicine), but in the lethargy, confusion, and technology of the armies -- Gettysburg was more like Waterloo than the Somme. Yes, rifles could fire a lot further. But that didn't make them any more accurate. Artillery shells moved so slowly through the air that soldiers could see them approach. That hardly made them less deadly, of course. But the rhythm of the fighting was different.

Guelzo also emphasizes the political intrigue that laced through the high command of both armies. In the case of the Confederates, it was the perception that Lee favored Virginians over others. In the Union army ideological conflict was sharper; many senior officers remained loyal to the recently sacked George McClellan -- and shared McClellan's anti-abolitionist views. Guelzo feels that in some cases, such perspectives had important military consequences in terms of how vigorously these people were willing to prosecute the war. Though it's clear that temperament and a concern for personal reputation were also important variables in shaping the conduct of soldiers, it's no accident that stalwart Republicans like Oliver Otis Howard were among those who nudged the recently appointed Union commander of the Army of the Potomac, George Meade, to engage the Confederates. Meade, a McClellanite, was motivated primarily by a fear of making a mistake, and was dragged into a confrontation with Lee in Pennsylvania against his instincts.

On the other hand, it was another McClellanite, John Fulton Reynolds, who forced Meade's hand. Thanks to works like Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, Reynolds has long been recognized as one of the heroes of the battle for his far-sighted recognition on the value of the high ground outside of Gettysburg. But Guelzo emphasizes there was a political dimension here, too: a native Pennsylvanian, Reynolds believed it was necessary to protect Pennsylvania from being ravaged by a hungry army (Guelzo emphasizes that northern Virginia had largely been picked clean by this point) and to drive invaders from native soil.

Guelzo engages in subtle revisionism with some other familiar figures as well. Yes, J.E.B. Stuart made a serious mistake by going off on his own to raid the Pennsylvania countryside rather than stay near the main body of the army. But that's not because his absence meant Lee was flying blind, as has often been asserted, but rather he wasn't around to screen the Confederate army as it sought maximum tactical advantage.  Guelzo clearly believes that Captain Joshua Chamberlain, the Bowdoin College professor who led the valiant defense of Little Round Top, has gotten too much attention from Shaara and others. He has no interest in denying that Chamberlain and the 20th Maine regiment's valor, but he thinks that other figures, notably Meade's chief engineer, General Gouverneur Warren, and Pennsylvania Colonel Strong Vincent were more pivotal in recognizing the crisis caused by the actions of General Daniel Sickles (a scoundrel whom Guelzo finds endlessly entertaining) in Sickles's abandonment Little Round Top and taking the necessary action to shore it up. As is evident by the space he assigns to it, Guelzo clearly feels the battle was decided on the Cemetery Ridge.

My chief complaint with the book is something that's not Guelzo's fault: inadequate maps. There are plenty in the book, and they're very good -- at the highly localized level. What we never get, and desperately need as we wade through the minutiae, is an understanding of the bigger geographic picture. There's no map that situates Gettysburg strategically relative to places like Philadelphia, Washington, or New York. Nor do we get an overview map that encompasses the town of Gettsyburg and major sites of fighting like Cemetery Ridge, Culp's Hill, and the like. In a book with a $35 list price, it would have been nice to have some endpapers that a reader could refer to throughout. 

My minor complaint is a certain truculence of tone that Guelzo reveals early on. "The lure of the Civil War remains strong," he notes, "but dealing with its battles has acquired among my academic peers a reputation close to pornography." Guelzo attributes this in part to "a generation of professional historians whose youth was dominated by the Vietnam War." If it was ever fair, such a perception is dated; indeed, military history is by some standards thriving. Of course, Guelzo is hardly going to warm many academic hearts with a book that bears a jacket endorsement from Newt Gingrich.

But all of this is largely beside the point. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion is the work of a consummate professional, and an excellent one-volume treatment for novice, fan, and scholar alike.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Window

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 – an 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.