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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Friday, December 23, 2016

“He is an impudent, ill-bred, conceited fellow”

In his diary for December 1758, young John Adams got some things off his chest about Robert Treat Paine, who was four years older and had already been admitted to the bar:
Bob Paine is conceited and pretends to more Knowledge and Genius than he has. I have heard him say that he took more Pleasure in solving a Problem in Algebra than in a frolick. He told me the other day, that he was as curious after a minute and particular Knowledge of Mathematicks and Phylosophy, as I could be about the Laws of Antiquity. By his Boldness in Company, he makes himself a great many Enemies. His Aim in Company is to be admired, not to be beloved.

He asked me what Duch Commentator I meant? I said Vinnius.—Vinnius, says he, (with a flash of real Envy, but pretended Contempt,) you cant understand one Page of Vinnius.—He must know that human Nature is disgusted with such incomplaisant Behaviour. Besides he has no Right to say that I dont understand every Word in Vinnius, or even in [. . .] for he knows nothing of me. For the future let me act the Part of a critical spy upon him, not that of an open unsuspicious friend.—

Last Superiour Court at Worcester he dined in Company with Mr. [Jeremiah] Gridly, Mr. [Edmund] Trowbridge, and several others, at Mr. [James] Putnams [Adams’s legal teacher], and altho a modest attentive Behaviour would have best become him in such a Company, yet he tried to ingross the whole Conversation to himself.

He did the same, in the Evening, when all the Judges of the Superiour Court with Mr. [Samuel] Winthrop [clerk], [Chief Justice Stephen] Sewall, &c. were present, and he did the same last Thanksgiving day, at Coll. [Josiah] Quincies, when Mr. [Anthony] Wibirt [a Braintree minister], Mr. [Richard] Cranch &c. were present. This Impudence may sett the Million a Gape at him but will make all Persons of Sense despize him, or hate him.

That evening at Put[nam]s, he called me, a Numbskull and a Blunder Buss before all the Superiour Judges. I was not present indeed, but such expressions were indecent and tended to give the Judges a low Opinion of me, as if I was despized by my Acquaintance. He is an impudent, ill-bred, conceited fellow. Yet he has Witt, sense, and Learning, and a great deal of Humour, and has Virtue and Piety except his fretful, peevish, Childish Complaints against the Disposition of Things. This Character is drawn with Resentment of his ungenerous Treatment of me, and Allowances must therefore be made, but these are unexaggerated facts.
Adams and Paine had parallel legal careers for many years. Both were the leading lawyers in their rural towns with periodic stints in Boston. Adams gradually eclipsed Paine in politics. They both served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence, but Paine returned to Massachusetts government during the war and afterward while Adams went on to a national career. They managed to work together but never seem to have become friends. As we might guess.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine it being very easy to be friends with Adams. If he were alive today, he'd be the poster child for Prozac.