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, February 24, 2012

John Adams on Benjamin Harrison’s “Pleasantries”?

Yesterday I quoted John Adams’s critical description of Benjamin Harrison, a Virginian delegate to the Continental Congress, in his autobiography. At another point in that manuscript, Adams wrote of Harrison, “This was an indolent, luxurious, heavy Gentleman, of no Use in Congress or Committees, but a great Embarrassment to both.”

So Adams really didn’t like Harrison. But some people, particularly folks writing about Virginia, really want Adams to have said something nice about Harrison. Clifford Dowdey wrote in The Great Plantation (1957):
Although later Adams conceded Harrison’s contributions and “many pleasantries” that steadied rough sessions, the clashing passions involved in united action are illustrated by venomousness of even John Adams to a fellow patriot…
And in America’s Political Dynasties (1966), which lists Dowdey’s book as a source, Stephen Hess wrote:
Even John Adams, who wrote that Harrison was “of no use in Congress,” had later to admit that the Virginian had contributed “many pleasantries” that steadied rough sessions.
On Wikipedia that’s become:
Adams also commented that “Harrison’s contributions and many pleasantries steadied rough sessions.”
Citation needed, of course.

In a similar process, Freeman Cleaves’s Old Tippecanoe (1990) says:
While Randolph filled the President’s chair, Harrison’s tongue and temper and his “many pleasantries,” according to John Adams, helped to steady a groping Congress.
In Mary Jane Child Queen’s William Henry Harrison: General and President (2006), which lists Cleaves’s book as a source, that became:
It was John Adams who stated, “Harrison’s tongue and temper and his many pleasantries helped to steady a groping congress (Continental).”
So a lot of Cleaves cleaved to the two words he actually ascribed to Adams.

And what’s the source of those two words, “many pleasantries”? Darned if I can find it. That phrase doesn’t appear in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s digital editions of the Adams Papers. To be sure, that project doesn’t yet cover the letters Adams wrote late in his retirement. But the phrase also doesn’t pop up in searching the mid-1800s edition of Adams’s collected writings. It doesn’t appear anywhere in connection with Adams and Harrison before 1957.

Adams was favorably impressed with Harrison when they met. On 2 Sept 1774, at the start of the First Continental Congress, Adams recorded first impressions of the Virginians in his diary:
After Coffee We went to the Tavern, where we were introduced to Peyton Randolph Esqr., Speaker of Virginia, Coll. Harrison, Richard Henry Lee Esq., and Coll. [Richard] Bland. Randolph is a large, well looking Man. Lee is a tall, spare Man. Bland is a learned, bookish Man.

These Gentlemen from Virginia appear to be the most spirited and consistent, of any. Harrison said he would have come on foot rather than not come. Bland said he would have gone, upon this Occasion, if it had been to Jericho.
Later Adams came to dislike Harrison intensely. Not only were they on opposite sides of a lot of debates, but Harrison was big, jovial, and very rich—all things that Adams was not.

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