Petty Despotism and Petticoats

Miracles do happen.  As evidence, I offer the statue of John Adams in Quincy, Massachusetts.  Against all odds, it has escaped desecration.  So why would John Adams be in Dutch with the iconoclasts?

John Adams was a member in good standing of the founding fathers and served as the first Vice-President and second President of the United States.  Born on October 30, 1735, Adams’s fingerprints are all over the waning decades of the American colonies and the early decades of the American nation.  The first half of his life covers the pre-Constitutional era; the second half coincides with the early years of the republic after the Constitution was ratified in 1788.  Nevertheless, Adams is not as iconic as many of his peers.

To an extent, this is understandable.  When it comes to Presidents, George Washington is a tough act to follow.  Not only that, Adams was followed by Thomas Jefferson.  So both Adams’s predecessor and successor are depicted on Mount Rushmore, and the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial are major attractions in the nation’s capital.  Adams was no lightweight, but he had the misfortune of being sandwiched between two heavyweights.  I suppose we could call Adams a light heavyweight.  He was the first President to be voted out after just one term, and “One-Term President” is not a stigma to be borne lightly.

I’m not going to go into a detailed recreation of Adams’s life, as this has already been done by numerous historians.  Online articles, encyclopedia entries, and biographies are legion.  It didn’t hurt Adams’s legacy when his son, John Quincy Adams, also became President (No. 6) and later descendants enjoyed prominence in other areas (e.g., historian Henry Adams and philosopher Brooks Adams).  Keeping the family name alive today is the Samuel Adams (revolutionary leader and second cousin of John Adams) brewery in Boston.  Actually, it would have been more appropriate to name the brewery after John’s two sons, Thomas and Charles, who did not become Presidents.  Both were alcoholics.

So it is altogether fitting that John Adams has a statue in his hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts.  Yet, as I mentioned at the outset of this article, it is miraculous that it has not been subject to iconoclasm.  Why do I say that?  Unlike many of the other founding fathers, Adams never owned any slaves and his family had no connection with the slave trade.  I don’t think he ever slighted anyone on the LGBTQ spectrum, not because he was a paragon of tolerance but because the subject never came up.  His attitude towards women, however, was rather condescending – not inaccurate, mind you – and he recognized gynocentrism when he saw it.

In 1776 Adams was in Philadelphia while his wife Abigail, who was born into a prominent Massachusetts family (shhhhh…they were slave-owners), was back in Massachusetts tending to the family farm.  In a famous letter, dated March 31, 1776, she wrote the following (words that appear to be capitalized for no reason or misspelled are in the original text):

I long to hear that you have declared an independency – and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.  Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.  If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.  Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity.  Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex.  Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in imitation of the Supreem Being make use of the that power only for our happiness.

Well, that’s more eloquent than most of the feminist screeds (or should I say screeeeeeeds?) of recent years, but the message is the same.  I am woman, hear my roar…my plea for equity…my narcissism.  Adams, much to his credit, responded with equal eloquence in his reply of April 14, 1776 (again, spelling and capital letters are as in the original text):

As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.  We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where.  That Children and Apprentices were disobedient – that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent – that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters.  But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented – This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy; I won’t blot it out.

Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.  Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory.  We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude.  We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects.  We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight.

Recalling the old maxim that the pen is mightier than the sword, we might add that it is also stronger than any pimp hand.

How is Adams’s reply offensive to female sensibilities?  Let me count the ways:

First of all, he “cannot but laugh.”  Dismissing women’s lived experience?  Screeeeeeech!

The word “saucy” is also problematic, as it often appears in conjunction with the dreaded noun “wench.”  Also it is too close to sassy, an equally problematical word.  Perhaps worst of all, it rhymes with bossy.  Screeeeeech!

And that phrase “Despotism of the Peticoat”…sheer patriarchal bluster and blather!  Screeeeech!  But what can you expect from a founding  father?

On top of all that, Adams has the gall to assert that men are the “subjects” – that their power is in name only!  Why, he even has the gall to assert that men are more oppressed than women!  Screeeeeee (pause to inhale) eeeeeeeeeeeeech!

In short, Adams’s sin was talking back to his wife!  To make it worse, unlike a sitcom husband, he got away with it!  Admittedly, this is easier to do at a distance and in writing rather than in person.  Perhaps absence makes the heart grow bolder as well as fonder.  One wonders how Abigail responded when she received hubby’s letter.  Imagine the uproar that would occur today if Adams’s correspondence were electronic and Abigail went public with it on Twitter.

But getting back to that John Adams statue and the mystery of why it hasn’t been pulled down yet.  Remember, it’s in the Boston metro area and New England is chock full of feministas, college students, academics, and other assorted parasites.  FUN FACT: “Boston marriage” is a slang term for a lesbian relationship.

In fact, it’s a bit surprising that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren isn’t on the warpath about John Adams.  After all, she identifies as a Native American and Adams not only slighted women, he made that remark about Indians and their Guardians (ironically, the Cleveland Indians are now known as the Cleveland Guardians.)  And let’s not forget what Adams said about Negroes talking back to their Masters (also, in his defense of the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre, he was less than reverential in regard to Crispus Attucks, the famous mixed-race victim).  Statues have been toppled for less than that in recent years.

If they do deep-six that statue in Quincy, there are others out there less at risk.  One is in, of all places, Bilbao, Spain.  How did that happen?  It seems Adams passed some time in northern Spain during his diplomatic days and was favorably impressed by some aspects of Basque culture.  I think it’s safe to say this statue is in little danger of desecration, but just to be safe, don’t tell the Basque women about John’s correspondence with Abigail.

There is a third statute of Adams but that is also in little danger even though it is in America.  It is located in Rapid City, South Dakota, where a statute of every former American President through Obama appears downtown.  It’s something of a consolation prize for the all those Presidents who didn’t get their mugs chiseled into nearby Mount Rushmore.  Of course, some of those chief executives were better at chiseling than any sculptor.  How do you think they got elected?

Any attempt to topple statutes in Rapid City would likely be met with resistance, as such an act would be a threat to tourism.  Besides, if you let everyone with an axe to grind strike a blow, those Presidential statues would topple like dominoes.

A statue of John Adams may one day appear in Washington, D.C.  The Adams Memorial Foundation was established in 2001 to build a monument to Adams and his family.  So when will it appear?  Maybe never if word gets out about Adams’s epistolary transgressions.

Abigail, by the way, has two statues in Quincy (for good measure, a state park in nearby Weymouth is named after her).  One statue is of her alone, the other is with a young John Quincy Adams.  Maybe hubby didn’t put her on a pedestal, but a couple of sculptors did!

Since Abigail spoke up for women and spoke out against slavery, her statues will get a pass from the perpetually aggrieved.  Her reputation has grown to a point where her advocates assert that her advice was crucial to John’s success, so much so that we might not have a country if she hadn’t been so outspoken and opinionated.

Of course, there have been more than a few saucy First Ladies, but the phrase “despotism of the peticoats” doesn’t necessarily apply to them.  Hillary Clinton, arguably the worst, never wore petticoats, but a despotism of the pantsuit was a clear and present danger.  MORE FUN FACTS: “Wellesley marriage” has the same meaning as “Boston marriage,” and Hillary Clinton is a proud alumna of Wellesley College!

As is often the case, Abigail thought she got in the last word in her correspondence with her husband.  Indeed, she was somewhat prophetic.  In a letter dated May 7, 1776, she wrote (again, with questionable spelling and capitalization):

I can not say I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken – and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without voilence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet—

“Charm by accepting, by submitting sway
Yet have our Humour most when we obey.”

Well, the velvet glove strategy outlined in that couplet would not work for the charm school dropouts who comprise contemporary American womanhood.  But when Abigail says it was within women’s power to subdue their Masters…well, just look around you.  John Adams wouldn’t recognize the joint.

Perhaps we can take heart in one of John Adams’s quotations, uttered during the Boston Massacre trial:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

Granted, that sort of attitude goes against the wishy-washy, when-you-wish-upon-a-star mentality of today, but Adams was a based dude.  In modern parlance Adams is saying, “It is what it is.”

“Except when it isn’t!” is the postmodern riposte.

Or is the postmodern period over?  I’m usually one era behind the times.

%d bloggers like this: