Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tommy's Farewell

Ever think about how extraordinary it was that Tommy and JA both managed to die on the 50th Anniversary of July 4? Americans at the time viewed the wacky coincidence as a sign from Providence and while they initially could not decide if the twin deaths were a sign that God loved them or hated them--was it glorious or an omen??--the Americans of 1826 decided that they wanted to believe that it was definitely a sign that the G-O-D loves America.

For, as newspapers like the July 8, 1826 New York American observed there was

“nothing in the annals of man so striking, so beautiful, as the death of these two time honored patriots on the jubilee of that freedom, which they devoted themselves and all that was dear to them, to proclaim and establish.”

Really? Really New York American there was nothing more striking or beautiful in the history of the world than the deaths of JA and Tommy? Huh, that seems a little, well, hyperbolic to us, but if that is the way that you feel, I suppose that you are entitled to that opinion. Funny though.

We admit that we sometimes wonder at the sheer will power that it took for both of them to conspire to die on that day. Tommy had been near-death for days and days. He would wake up from a laudanum-induced coma every now and then and ask if it was yet the Fourth of July. When he finally heard that it was he barked some orders at a slave and then died several hours later. JA was in slightly better health and had even received visitors and given them a toast for the local Fourth of July celebration ("Independence forever and not a syllable more," he reportedly said), but yet he still managed to die that day.

There is something very drama and a little spooky about that, for sure.

But, you know what interests us about it even more than the mere fact that it happened? We think that it is fascinating just how much Americans lost their minds about it and how they decided that because of it America was truly exceptional. The belief in American exceptionalism allowed them to do some not so nice things: Trail of Tears anyone? Slavery as a positive good for the nation? Westward expansion? All v. bad, all justified by our belief that we were a chosen people on a chosen land. Of course, we had believed that for a long time, but the deaths of JA and Tommy proved it. Like the New York American said, there was nothing more beautiful in the history of the world and that belief justified everything else.

The logic is something like:

JA and Tommy died in the craziest way possible; clearly, God has spoken; the deaths prove that God loves America; America can do nothing wrong because God loves us.

Americans then and now were not meant to question this logic. For example, would God really love a broke slaveholder? How about a grumpy and vain curmudgeon? Was God a republican? See, if you ask questions about the logic, then none of it makes any sense. But, for Americans at the time the whole thing didn't make any sense, so this gave them a story, a frame for understanding.

Tommy's last words to the people had asked them to view the then-upcoming Fourth of July celebration as:

"The signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. The form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason, and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the lights of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others--for ourselves let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

Tommy had 'borrowed' the "booted and spurred" line from the 1685 gallows speech of Richard Rumbold, but Americans didn't know that at the time, nor would it have mattered much if they did. While we certainly like Tommy's letter and agree with its sentiment, we wonder at the contradictions between what Tommy wrote here and how Americans reacted to the deaths. I mean, can we really say that Americans did not act with "monkish ignorance" or "superstition" when they resoundingly pronounced the deaths as "glorious" and the most "striking" and "beautiful" event in the history of the world? Were they really using the "lights of science" when they interpreted the whole thing as a sign from God?

We're not sayin', we're just sayin...

You can read the full text of Tommy's Last Letter here at the Library of Congress (we heart the LOC!)


GayProf said...

For example, would God really love . . . a grumpy and vain curmudgeon?

I can only hope so.

Personally, it always seemed like their deaths on July 4 were just one last pissing contest. Each wanted to be the one who was remembered for giving up their life on that day.

Mercy O. Warren said...

tell me gayprof, at what point did you recognize yourself in JA? i don't find you grumpy, vain, or curmudgeonly. if that is the look that you are going for, then you might want to work on it a little.

i think that you're right about them trying to out-hero each other by dieing on that day. especially since niether was particularly heroic during the War.

historians often read the "Jefferson Lives!" as a lament that JA would no longer live with him, but it could also be read as "ha! i beat you!" (if, in fact, it was ever said. it is SO hard to tell with all the hyperbole)

still, it was a pretty amazing act of willpower for them to arrange to die on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, no?

Sarah said...

Dear Mercy O. Warren,

The following is an exhibition taking place from September 27 to October 31 at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, one that will be of interest to you and your readers. As early as the 18th, the complex diplomatic relationship between America and Russia began, the city of Boston as a primary starting point for much of the activities. Primary documents highlighting these efforts will be available to the public. Feel free to email if you have any questions.

Sarah Jacobson
Harron and Associates, representing the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Massachusetts Historical Society Presents Free and Open to the Public Exhibition About Russian-American Relations

Who: The Massachusetts Historical Society

What: "'Moments of Destiny: Two Centuries of Russian-American Diplomatic Relations from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society"

This exhibition concentrates on eyewitness accounts in letters and diaries of men and women from Massachusetts present at momentous events in modern Russian history, and their role in Russian-American diplomatic relations. The exhibition will feature John Quincy Adams’ diary as a teenage diplomat in Russia during the American Revolution; his wife, Louisa Catherine Adams' account of her epic passage across war-torn Russia thirty years later at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, while her husband served as the first American minister at the court of the Czars; the celebrated visit of the Russian fleet to Boston in 1864 in support of the Union cause during the American Civil War; vivid descriptions of the Russian imperial court in the tumultuous years leading up to the Russian Revolution in the personal papers of Ambassadors George Meyer and Curtis Guild; Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.'s behind-the-scenes role in the Khrushchev visit to the United States in 1959 (Khrushchev insisted on visiting Disneyland); and Senator Leverett Saltonstall as witness to the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in Moscow in 1963.

Why: The exhibition commemorates the bicentennial of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia.

When: September 27, 2007-October 31, 2007, every day, from 1:00 PM-4:00 PM

Where: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, MA
The closest T stop is Hynes Convention Center on the green line

Admission: Entrance to the Society as well as the exhibition is FREE.

For more information contact:
Anne Bentley, Curator of Art
Tel: 617-646-0508

About Massachusetts Historical Society:

The Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), founded in 1791, is an independent research library that collects manuscripts of the personal papers (unpublished letters and diaries) of individuals and families from Massachusetts over the entire course of American history. The MHS holds millions of unique documents central to the study of American history, as well as book, photographs, works of art and artifacts that support research in its manuscript collections. Among the Historical Society's irreplaceable national treasures are: John Winthrop's journal of the founding of Massachusetts Bay in 1630; the extraordinary correspondence between John and Abigail Adams, including her eloquent appeal for him to "Remember the Ladies" in drafting the Declaration of Independence, as well as his account of the writing of the Declaration; Thomas Jefferson's personal papers (his descendents lived here in Massachusetts) including his architectural drawings for Monticello; letters exchanged by Abraham Lincoln and Edward Everett of Massachusetts after they delivered their respective speeches at Gettysburg; the records of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry, the first Afro-American regiment raised in the North during the Civil War; as well as thousands of collections of personal papers of men and women from all walks of life.

As part of its continued community involvement, each year the Society hosts more than forty public programs including almost a dozen public lectures and seminar series on early American, urban and immigration, and environmental history, as well as other special events.

For More Information go to