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 30, 2016

“ADAMS, greater far than he, Took rigid honour for his guide”

A few days back I shared Susanna Rowson’s paean to George Washington in honor of his birthday in February 1798—an early indication that America would keep celebrating that day even though the man was no longer President.

In October 1799, Rowson got around to writing a similar ode to President John Adams. She was a Massachusetts Federalist, after all. And to make up for missing earlier birthdays, it seems, she made her “On the Birth Day of John Adams, Esquire, President of the United States of America, 1799” extra long.

The poem starts in heroic blank verse:
WHEN great ALCIDES, JOVE’s immortal son,
Attain’d the dawn of manhood, life’s spring tide,
Rushing impetuous through his agile frame,
Light bade his spirits dance, whilst health and joy
Crimson’d his cheek and revel’d in his eye;
And yet restraint the youth had never known.
And it goes on like that for four pages, all about Alcides (a variation on another name for Heracles) rejecting Vice and choosing Virtue. That story finishes, leaving you to wonder what any of it had to do with John Adams, Esquire, and then the poet herself enters the scene.
“Blest was the choice he made,” I eager cried,
As rapt I lay; the volume by my side,
And mus’d on what I had read. It was the hour
“When church yards yawn,” and fancy has the power,
To raise incongruous phantoms to our view,
And almost make us think her airy visions true.
“But where in these degenerate ages,
Can we a mortal find,
Like this recorded by the sages;
Who, when vice tempts and passion rages,
With an unshaken mind,
Will boldly quit without a sigh,
Pleasure’s enamel’d meads;
To mount the path, rugged and high,
Where virtue points, and honour leads?[”]

“Peace,” cried a voice, “ungrateful mortal, peace.”
I rais’d my eyes, a vision stood beside me;
Fair as the tints of opening day,
Her eye was chaste as DIAN’s ray,
Her smile so soft, I knew no evil could betide me.
A cæstus bound her lovely waist,
On which was INDEPENDENCE graven;
Bare were her arms, or only brac’d
By circlets, where these words I trac’d:
In her right hand she held a spear,
And from her left an iron chain depended.
By which, more bound by guilt and servile fear,
Hung lawless ANARCHY and SHAME,
AMBITION, who usurp’d a patriot’s name,
And ENVY slyly seeking to defame
The WARRIOR, by whose arm, her children were defended.

“And who art thou, bright vision?” I enquired;
“My name,” she smiling cried, “is LIBERTY;”
“Oh nymph, by all beloved, by all desired,
And art thou come,” I cried, “to dwell with me?”
“No,” said the goddess, “I am come to chide.”
“Why dost thou wonder at ALCIDES’ worth?
Columbia boasts, and she may boast with pride,
An equal hero’s birth.
The morn which dapples in the east,
And makes all nature gay,
Speaks what should be by all exprest;
Let every face in smiles be drest,
For ’tis his natal day.

“ALICIDES mighty feats has done,
Wonders perform’d and conquests won;
But ADAMS, greater far than he,
Took rigid honour for his guide;
Stern truth and virtue on his side;
And soaring on superior worth,
Trod base detraction to the earth;
Firm to her cause,
Enforc’d the laws,
That made his country free.

“Then rise, and tune the vocal lay,
Invoke the Muse’s aid;
Small is the tribute thou canst pay,
Yet be that tribute paid,
And thousands in that tribute will bear part,
For all conspire to raise the festive lay,
And as they joyful hail his natal day,
Pour forth the offerings of a grateful heart.”
So Rowson’s message was that President Adams was greater than Heracles because he was no fun at all.

And thus Boston 1775 wishes John Adams a happy birthday.

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