Thursday, February 23, 2006

Founding Brothers

"He was John Adams of Braintree and he loved to talk. He was a known talker. There were some, even among his admirers, who wished he talked less. He himself wished he talked less, and he had a particular regard for those, like General Washington, who somehow managed great reserve under almost any circumstance."

That's from John Adams by David McCullough, and there's so much I love about both men, Adams and Washington, buried in that short passage, starting with each man's awareness of his own shortcomings.

Adams knew himself to be abrasive, hard to get along with, argumentative, full of himself, gabby.

Washington's "great reserve" was the result of tremendous self-discipline and humility. He was naturally hot-tempered, stubborn, judgmental, even a little vain. He was an aristocrat and that meant something to him; he expected deference to his rank and social station from people he regarded as his inferiors. And, when you got right down to it, he was better than most men around him, even those of his own rank, braver, stronger, more honest, harder-working. It must have been hard for him not to presume upon his reputation and use it as club to bully inferiors, and no doubt his self-regard could make him cold and arrogant when suffering fools or having to listen to advice and instructions from lesser men. In short, he had all the makings of a first rate bastard and he knew that and he did not want to be one. He knew his own weaknesses, faults, and limitations, and he set about keeping them in mind and keeping them, and himself, in check.

(He was also sentimental, affectionate, forgiving, and had a good sense of humor.)

Adams, a Puritan who read poetry and Cerventes and the Classics regularly, understood human nature and he never supposed Washington was a saint or even a born hero. He admired Washington because he believed the Virginian to be every bit as weak and foolish and prone to vanity and error as every other human being and yet somehow, through force of will---what Adams would have called virtue---Washington did not give in to his weaknesses and vanities the way everyone else, including John Adams---Adams would have thought especially John Adams---did. All this is to say that both men were hard on themselves.

Both Adams and Washington were relentless self-improvers. Washington was far quieter about it, and ultimately the more successful at it too. At the very end of his life Adams, in his letters, in his diaries, and in conversation---he was still gabby---was still picking on himself as mercilessly as he had when he was 20, angry that he had never managed to curb a single one of his faults.

I like it that such a successful man thought so poorly of himself. I like it that he admired Washington so much and without the least trace of sycophancy---in fact, Adams being Adams, he was probably ruder and more opinionated and harder to get along with when he was in Washington's company. Washington managed to like him, but in small doses, at a distance.

Not much more to say about this. Adams and Washington were keenly aware of their achievements, they were ambitious, they knew their merits, and they wanted fame, which is not the same thing as celebrity. But while they were justly proud of their accomplishments, and in Adams' case incensed when people didn't acknowledge his contributions and effort---"I have been so stragnely used is this country, so belied and so undefended..." Adams wrote that to his wife about his inauguration as President!---each man managed to see himself apart from his successes as a human being, judge himself harshly, and set out to mend his ways.

When I was a kid, we were taught we should try to grow up to be like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin. Mostly this meant we should work hard, study hard, and never tell lies. Maybe it sneaked in there that it also meant we should be aware of our faults and our weaknesses and work to overcome them. I think Adams should be added to the schoolbooks, if only to teach that one. But their examples are as important to grown ups as to children. We should always be striving to mend our ways just as they always were. I'm proud to say I continue to model myself after my heroes.

I'm as short-tempered and arrogant as George Washington, as dreamy and bad with money as Thomas Jefferson, and as self-pitying, full of myself, and gabby as John Adams.

The nuns would be so proud.


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