J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Getting in Bed with John Adams

Prof. Larry Cebula at Northwest History blog directed me to this parodic mashup of 1776 and Brokeback Mountain, made all the more believable by hunky Ken Howard in the role of Thomas Jefferson.

But in fact, during the Second Continental Congress the fellow delegate whom John Adams slept with was not Jefferson but Benjamin Franklin. So Adams wrote many years later in his autobiography, describing their trip to the New York area to negotiate with Gen. William Howe.

Monday September 9, 1776.
At [New] Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me, in a little Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window. The Window was open, and I, who was an invalid and afraid of the Air in the night, shut it close.

Oh! says Franklin dont shut the Window. We shall be suffocated.

I answered I was afraid of the Evening Air.

Dr. Franklin replied, the Air within this Chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than that without Doors: come! open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds.

Opening the Window and leaping into Bed, I said I had read his Letters to Dr. [Samuel] Cooper in which he had advanced, that Nobody ever got cold by going into a cold Church, or any other cold Air: but the Theory was so little consistent with my experience, that I thought it a Paradox: However I had so much curiosity to hear his reasons, that I would run the risque of a cold.

The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together: but I believe they were equally sound and insensible, within a few minutes after me, for the last Words I heard were pronounced as if he was more than half asleep. . . .
In Passionate Sage, his engaging study of the second President in retirement, Prof. Joseph Ellis pointed out how in this anecdote Adams managed to slough off what many folks have seen as his most costly character flaw. As Adams told the story, he was the amenable bedfellow and Franklin the man who was too insistent and long-winded.


Casey said...

It's stories like this that keep me coming back. You do a great job of humanizing the Founders!

Jason Thomas said...

Was this before or after Franklin's statement about Adams that he is "always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses."? Oh to be a fly on the wall with those two historic men in the same room.

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting question! The bed incident occurred in 1776. Adams and Franklin then knew each other only through the Continental Congress; they had just served on the committee to write the Declaration of Independence.

Franklin wrote his comments about an unnamed fellow diplomat in 1783, in a letter to the Congress, when he and Adams had worked together in Europe for several years on alliances and peace negotiators. It seems to have been leaked to the American press shortly afterwards.

In 1790, Adams wrote a response which he never published. Among other things that letter stated, “he said I was always an honest man. I wish my conscience would allow me to say as much of him. But from the first to the last of my acquaintance with him I can reconcile his conduct in public affairs neither to the character of an honest man, nor to that of a man of sense.” That was around the time Franklin died.

I should note that although Adams clearly felt Franklin was writing about him, some authors have interpreted Franklin’s letter to refer to another American diplomat, Arthur Lee. I don’t know what evidence supports that interpretation.

Larry Cebula said...

You made so much more of this YouTube than I did! I hesitate to send you the Schoolhouse Rock links, of Sesame Street's version of Washington crossing the Delaware.

J. L. Bell said...

Actually, I was waiting for an excuse to tell the story of Franklin and Adams as bedmates.