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In a Snarky Letter, John Adams Assesses George Washington’s “Talents”

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In this 1807 letter to friend and Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, John Adams made a harsh and sometimes hilarious estimation of George Washington’s “talents.”

Adams was an intelligent and proud man who was famously ill-suited to the second-banana role of vice president that he held under Washington. Adams and Washington enjoyed what the Senate Historical Office characterizes as a “cordial but distant” relationship during the first presidency. When he was president himself, Adams appointed Washington to lead the Army during the Quasi-War with France, only to have Washington tap Adams’ enemy Alexander Hamilton as his second-in-command. Washington was old and ill enough that Hamilton became de facto commander—a situation that Adams deplored.

Washington was well-loved, in life and after death, and Adams found that infuriating. The first president’s God-given strengths were exactly the ones that the irascible, rotund New Englander lacked. “An handsome Face,” a “tall Stature,” “an elegant Form,” and “graceful Attitudes and Movement” headed Adams’ list of Washington’s “talents,” with “a large imposing Fortune” fifth. Coming from Virginia, Adams wrote, didn’t hurt, as in the eyes of the public, “Virginian Geese are all Swans.”

By the end of the list, Adams grudgingly gave Washington credit for two virtues acquired by effort, rather than birth: “the Gift of Silence” and “great Self-Command.”

The passage on Washington is wrapped in a longer letter that begins with speculations on the state of scientific inquiry in the new United States and Britain and ends with Adams ruminating on a counterfactual: What would have happened if Washington had lived past 1799? Adams was convinced that the man would have been re-elected president. (You can read the full text of the letter on the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s website.)

A transcript follows the image.

John Adams to Benjamin Rush, November 11, 1807 (page 2 of 4)

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

John Adams to Benjamin Rush, November 11, 1807 (page 3 of 4)

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Self taught or Book learned in the Arts, our Hero was much indebted to his Talents for ”his immense elevation above his Fellows.” Talents? you will say, what Talents? I answer. 1. An handsome Face. That this is a Talent, I can prove by the authority of a thousand Instances in all ages: and among the rest Madame Du Barry who said Le veretable Royaute est la Beaute. 2. A tall Stature, like the Hebrew Sovereign chosen because he was taller by the Head than the other Jews. 3 An elegant Form. 4. graceful Attitudes and Movement: 5. a large imposing Fortune consisting of a great landed Estate left him by his Father and Brother, besides a large Jointure with his Lady, and the Guardianship of the Heirs of the great Custis Estate, and in addition to all this, immense Tracts of Land of his own acquisition. There is nothing, except bloody Battles and Splendid Victories, to which Mankind bow down with more reverence than to great fortune. They think it impossible that rich Men especially immensely rich Men, should Submit to the trouble of Serving them but from the most benevolent and disinterested Motives. Mankind in general are so far from the opinion of the Lawyer, that there are no disinterested Actions, that they give their Esteem to none but those which they believe to be Such. They are oftener deceived and abused in their Judgments of disinterested Men and actions than in any other, it is true. But such is their Love of the Marvellous, [struck: that they will believe] and such their admiration of uncommon Generosity that they will believe extraordinary pretensions to it and the Pope says, Si bonus Populus vult decipi, decipiatur. Washington however did not deceive them. I know not that they gave him more credit for disinterestedness than he deserved, [inserted: though they have not given many others so much.] 6. Washington was a Virginian. This is equivalent to five Talents. Virginian Geese are all Swans. Not a Bearne in Scotland is more national, not a Lad upon the High Lands is more clannish, than every Virginian I have ever known. They trumpet one another with the most pompous and mendacious Panegyricks. The Phyladelphians and New Yorkers who are local and partial enough to themselves are meek and modest in Comparison with Virginian Old Dominionisms Washington of course was extolled without bounds. , [3] 7. Washington was preceeded by favourable Anecdotes. The English had used him ill, in the Expedition of Braddock. They had not done Justice to his Bravery and good Council They had exaggerated and misrepresented his defeat and Capitulation: which interested the Pride as well as the compassion of Americans in his favour. President Davis had drawn his Horroscope by calling him ”that Heroic youth, Col. Washington. Mr. Lynch of South Carolina told me before We met in Congress in 1774 that ”Colonel Washington had made the most eloquent Speech that ever had been Spoken upon the Controversy with England, viz. That if the English Should attack the People of Boston, he would raise a thousand Men at his own expence and march at their head to New England to their Aid.” Several other favourable Stories preceded his appearance in Congress and in the army. 8 He possessed the Gift of Silence. This I esteem as one of the most precious Talents. 9. He had great Self Command. It cost him a great Exertion Sometimes, and a constant Constraint, but to preserve So much Equanimity as he did, required a great Capacity. 10. Whenever he lost his temper as he did Sometimes, either Love or fear in those about him induced them to conceal his Weakness from the World. Here you See I have made out ten Talents without saying a Word about Reading Thinking or writing, upon all which Subjects you have Said all that need be Said. - You See I use the word Talents in a larger Sense than usual, comprehending every advantage. Genius Experience, Learning, Fortune Birth, [inserted: Health] are all Talents, though I know not how, the Word has been lately confined to the faculties of the Mind.