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1785 Two Hundred Years Ago

July 2024
2min read

On February 24 Congress appointed John Adams to be the new nation’s first minister to its late enemy, Britain. Two weeks later, on March 10, Thomas Jefferson was named minister to France.

These appointments came only two years after the signing of the Treaty of Paris and just two years before the opening of the Constitutional Convention. Both men would miss the latter because of their diplomatic duties; Adams had been present at the former and had remained in Europe ever since. For the last year the two friends had, with Benjamin Franklin, been touring the Continent seeking to forge commercial treaties with the various powers.

Adams learned of his new appointment in April, Jefferson in May. Jefferson was succeeding Franklin, who was ready for retirement, and the appointment pleased him immensely. He reacted by throwing a huge party at his hotel in Paris with a luminous guest list including John and Abigail Adams, their son John Quincy Adams, Capt. John Paul Jones, and the Marquis and Marquise de Lafayette. Benjamin Franklin would have attended but for his poor health, which kept him at nearby Passy.

Adams greeted his new job in a less exuberant mood. He had very much wanted the post, but his spirit was dampened when he learned from Elbridge Gerry, a member of Congress from Massachusetts, that Congress had, while considering his appointment, listened to arguments that Adams was too vain for the position. His response was to pen a remarkably forthright, confessional letter to Gerry on the subject of vanity —which he apparently thought better of ever sending.

It began: “The Imputation of a weak Passion has made so much Impression upon me, that it may not be improper to say a little more about it.” Far from denying his vanity, Adams laid it right out, describing it as “although a Weakness and, if you will a Vice, a real Proof of a valuable Character. It is even a Vanity which arises from the Testimony of a good Conscience. When a man is conscious of Services and Exertions, from the purest Principles of Virtue & Benevolence and looks back on a course of Years, Spent in the Service of other Men, without Attention to himself, when he recollects Sacrifices, Sufferings and dangers, which have fallen in his Way, and Sees himself preserved through all and his labours crown’d with transcendant Success there arises a Satisfaction, and sometimes a Transport which he must be very wise indeed, if he can at all times conceal….If I were to say that I have felt this Consciousness, and experienced this Joy, I should be chargeable with Vanity, although you and every Man who knows me, must know it to be true, and that it is impossible it should be otherwise. … I never knew but one Man who pretended to be wholly free from it, or whom any body thought to be so and him I know to be in his heart the vainest Man, and the falsest Character I have ever met with in life. The Pretension to have none of it is affectation and gross Hypocrisy.

“When a Man is hurt he loves to talk of his Wound, and I knew of no other way to account for this very Letter, which you see is intended only for you, and as it is not worth copying cannot be made shorter.”

The vain, false man referred to was Benjamin Franklin.

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