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, July 21, 2019

“The unsubstantial fabric of visionary politicians”

Given that John Quincy Adams’s first comment on the idea of a hollow Earth was decidedly skeptical and negative, how did modern writers come to believe he supported the theory as President?

I think one key may lie in how Adams referred to the theory as “so visionary” when he wrote about supporting an Antarctic expedition advocated by a man who had once believed in that theory. The full paragraph reveals that Adams favored the expedition only because the hollow-Earth theory was no longer involved.

For us today, the word “visionary” has positive connotations. Merriam-Webster’s primary definition is “having or marked by foresight and imagination.”

But Adams used the word differently. For example, in an essay in the 20 July 1791 Columbian Centinel he wrote:
But if the principles of Mr. [Thomas] Paine, or those of the French National Assembly, would lead us by a vain and delusive pretence of an impracticable union, between the right of declaring, and the expense of supporting a war, to the sacrifice of principles founded in immutable truth, if they could persuade us, by establishing in the legislative body all negotiations with foreign nations relative to war and peace, to open a thousand avenues for base intrigue, for furious faction, for foreign bribery, and domestic treason, let us remain immoveably fixed at the banners of our constitutional freedom, and not desert the impregnable fortress of our liberties, for the unsubstantial fabric of visionary politicians.
On 30 Nov 1837, after his Presidency, Adams wrote in his diary:
Mr. G. W. Cherry was here again this morning, and I had a long conversation with him upon his project of colonization. He is one of the most benevolent visionaries of that fraudulent charitable institution, the Colonization Society. His plan is, to raise a fund for purchasing a number of slaves and locating them in small villages, where they may in a given time purchase their freedom by their own labor. I freely gave my opinion to Mr. Cherry: that the whole colonization project was an abortion; that as a system of eventual emancipation of the slaves of this country it was not only impracticable, but demonstrated to be so; that as a scheme for relieving the slave States of free negroes its moral aspect was not comely, and it was equally impracticable.
Especially in his later years, J. Q. Adams was not afraid to let you know how he felt.

Thus, Adams was using “visionary” in accord with Merriam-Webster’s other definitions: “incapable of being realized or achieved,” “existing only in imagination,” “disposed to reverie or imagining.” Back in 1757, Dr. Samuel Johnson defined a visionary as “One whose imagination is disturbed.” In sum, the word had negative connotations.

Without knowing about that shift in meaning, we might well assume that Adams’s description of the hollow-Earth theory as “so visionary” meant he thought it was a good thing. He didn’t.

And likewise, I don’t think he’d like the title of Fred Kaplan’s 2014 biography, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary.

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