In a Snarky Letter, John Adams Assesses George Washington's "Talents"

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Oct. 29 2013 12:30 PM

In a Snarky Letter, John Adams Assesses George Washington's "Talents"

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

In this 1807 letter to friend and Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, John Adams made a harsh and sometimes hilarious estimation of George Washington’s “talents.”

Adams was an intelligent and proud man who was famously ill-suited to the second-banana role of vice president that he held under Washington. Adams and Washington enjoyed what the Senate Historical Office characterizes as a “cordial but distant” relationship during the first presidency. When he was president himself, Adams appointed Washington to lead the Army during the Quasi-War with France, only to have Washington tap Adams’ enemy Alexander Hamilton as his second-in-command. Washington was old and ill enough that Hamilton became de facto commander—a situation that Adams deplored.

Advertisement

Washington was well-loved, in life and after death, and Adams found that infuriating. The first president's God-given strengths were exactly the ones that the irascible, rotund New Englander lacked. “An handsome Face,” a “tall Stature,” “an elegant Form,” and “graceful Attitudes and Movement” headed Adams’ list of Washington’s “talents,” with “a large imposing Fortune” fifth. Coming from Virginia, Adams wrote, didn’t hurt, as in the eyes of the public, “Virginian Geese are all Swans.”

By the end of the list, Adams grudgingly gave Washington credit for two virtues acquired by effort, rather than birth: “the Gift of Silence” and “great Self-Command.”

The passage on Washington is wrapped in a longer letter that begins with speculations on the state of scientific inquiry in the new United States and Britain and ends with Adams ruminating on a counterfactual: What would have happened if Washington had lived past 1799? Adams was convinced that the man would have been re-elected president. (You can read the full text of the letter on the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s website.)

A transcript follows the image.

AdamsOnWashington1Final
John Adams to Benjamin Rush, November 11, 1807 (page 2 of 4)

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

AdamsOnWashington2Final
John Adams to Benjamin Rush, November 11, 1807 (page 3 of 4)

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Self taught or Book learned in the Arts, our Hero was much indebted to his Talents for ”his immense elevation above his Fellows.” Talents? you will say, what Talents? I answer. 1. An handsome Face. That this is a Talent, I can prove by the authority of a thousand Instances in all ages: and among the rest Madame Du Barry who said Le veretable Royaute est la Beaute. 2. A tall Stature, like the Hebrew Sovereign chosen because he was taller by the Head than the other Jews. 3 An elegant Form. 4. graceful Attitudes and Movement: 5. a large imposing Fortune consisting of a great landed Estate left him by his Father and Brother, besides a large Jointure with his Lady, and the Guardianship of the Heirs of the great Custis Estate, and in addition to all this, immense Tracts of Land of his own acquisition. There is nothing, except bloody Battles and Splendid Victories, to which Mankind bow down with more reverence than to great fortune. They think it impossible that rich Men especially immensely rich Men, should Submit to the trouble of Serving them but from the most benevolent and disinterested Motives. Mankind in general are so far from the opinion of the Lawyer, that there are no disinterested Actions, that they give their Esteem to none but those which they believe to be Such. They are oftener deceived and abused in their Judgments of disinterested Men and actions than in any other, it is true. But such is their Love of the Marvellous, [struck: that they will believe] and such their admiration of uncommon Generosity that they will believe extraordinary pretensions to it and the Pope says, Si bonus Populus vult decipi, decipiatur. Washington however did not deceive them. I know not that they gave him more credit for disinterestedness than he deserved, [inserted: though they have not given many others so much.] 6. Washington was a Virginian. This is equivalent to five Talents. Virginian Geese are all Swans. Not a Bearne in Scotland is more national, not a Lad upon the High Lands is more clannish, than every Virginian I have ever known. They trumpet one another with the most pompous and mendacious Panegyricks. The Phyladelphians and New Yorkers who are local and partial enough to themselves are meek and modest in Comparison with Virginian Old Dominionisms Washington of course was extolled without bounds. , [3] 7. Washington was preceeded by favourable Anecdotes. The English had used him ill, in the Expedition of Braddock. They had not done Justice to his Bravery and good Council They had exaggerated and misrepresented his defeat and Capitulation: which interested the Pride as well as the compassion of Americans in his favour. President Davis had drawn his Horroscope by calling him ”that Heroic youth, Col. Washington. Mr. Lynch of South Carolina told me before We met in Congress in 1774 that ”Colonel Washington had made the most eloquent Speech that ever had been Spoken upon the Controversy with England, viz. That if the English Should attack the People of Boston, he would raise a thousand Men at his own expence and march at their head to New England to their Aid.” Several other favourable Stories preceded his appearance in Congress and in the army. 8 He possessed the Gift of Silence. This I esteem as one of the most precious Talents. 9. He had great Self Command. It cost him a great Exertion Sometimes, and a constant Constraint, but to preserve So much Equanimity as he did, required a great Capacity. 10. Whenever he lost his temper as he did Sometimes, either Love or fear in those about him induced them to conceal his Weakness from the World. Here you See I have made out ten Talents without saying a Word about Reading Thinking or writing, upon all which Subjects you have Said all that need be Said. - You See I use the word Talents in a larger Sense than usual, comprehending every advantage. Genius Experience, Learning, Fortune Birth, [inserted: Health] are all Talents, though I know not how, the Word has been lately confined to the faculties of the Mind.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 7:23 PM MIT Researchers Are Using Smartphones to Interact With Other Screens
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.