John Adams, the 1st Vice President (1789–1797) and the second President (1797–1801) of the United States of America, was that rarest of men, a man of both uncommon learning and forward-looking wisdom.
Adam’s was also possessed of a great deal of humility and piety, both rarities in politicians.
He was also, by all accounts, a loving husband and father. Therein lay the seeds of his soul’s disappointment.
Nowhere in his writings is this more clear than in his letter of May 12, 1780 to his wife Abigail:
The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.
— John Adams
Letter to Abigail Adams (May 12, 1780)
John Adams studied politics and war so that his sons could study such things as could build a nation so that, in turn, their sons could study such things as to build a culture and a culture’s pleasures. And such turned out to be the case, but in a manner more reminiscent of The Monkey’s Paw than any hopes of Mr. Adams.
Across the span of generations the scions of America’s house not only did study those successively less practical arts and science, they reached the point where they denigrated the studies of their forbears – the farther back in the chain, the harsher the scorn.
One need only look at what passes for politicians in these lesser days to see that we no longer study politics beyond those parts necessary to achieve and maintain a job in that field. One need only look at the vilification of our military for being “rough men” and the shift in how and why we fight to see that we no longer study the art of war. One need only listen to the modern youth and look at what they hope to do with their lives in order to see that the builders of past generations are no longer objects of respect.
John Adams set aside some measure of his sensibilities and proclivities and studied foundational arts and sciences so that future generations could study more genteel subjects – and sadly they did.