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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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Learning about John Adams and Abraham Whipple

On Thursday I attended a seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society discussing a chapter from Richard Ryerson’s intellectual biography of John Adams. A former editor of the Adams Papers, Dick is writing this book for Johns Hopkins University Press. He described how he started out focusing on Adams’s formal essays, tracing how the lawyer developed his notions of republicanism. Gradually he’s adding thoughts on how Adams’s life might have affected his political philosophy—which of course makes for much bigger chapters.

Among the topics we attendees discussed was how to handle Adams's vice presidency and presidency. He wrote no major political essays between 1791 and 1801, but he actually got/had to act on his ideas and ideals. I sensed the book getting longer still.

I still feel dubious about any of John Adams’s pronouncements that he was the only man on one side of a particular issue, and/or was brave to hold that position. Specifically, we discussed this remark in his Thoughts on Government from 1776:

A man must be indifferent to the sneers of modern English men, to mention in their company the names of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, and Hoadly. No small fortitude is necessary to confess that one has read them.
Many of these political writers came from the period of the British Commonwealth, or were invoked to defend that supposedly non-monarchical government. Cromwell’s rule was seen as a mistake in Britain, and no longer openly celebrated even in New England. But to say one needed “No small fortitude” to admit to reading John Locke? Come on, John.

Curiously, on 27 March of that year Adams wrote to William Hooper: “In my early Youth, the Works of Sidney, Harrington, Lock, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, Hoadley, were put into my Hands…” So supposedly those same sneered-at authors—in the same order—were suitable reading for a man in “early Youth.”

The next day I sat in on a talk by Prof. Sheldon S. Cohen on his new biography of Commodore Abraham Whipple of Rhode Island. Like most of the top American naval officers of the Revolutionary War, Whipple had a stormy career. It’s actually pretty remarkable that we remember any naval commanders at all, they went up and down so fast. (It’s even more remarkable that the one we do remember is the tempestuous and unpopular John Paul Jones.)

After the war Whipple tried to retire to a plantation in Rhode Island, but suffered in the 1780s economy. He and his family moved to the new territory of Ohio and helped to settle the city of Marietta. How did a seaman adjust to life in a landlocked state? Cohen explained how Whipple and his fellow settlers built a shipyard on the Ohio River and started to transport goods downstream to New Orleans.

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