Quote of the day--spirit of 1776 edition

>> Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Here's John Adams on Thomas Paine's famous 1776 pamphlet "Common Sense": "What a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass." Then comes Paine on Adams: "John was not born for immortality."

Paine and Adams may have been alone among the founders for having literary styles adequate to their mutual disregard. "The spissitude [sic!] of the black liquor which is spread in such quantities by this writer," Adams wrote of Paine, "prevents its daubing." Paine: "Some people talk of impeaching John Adams, but I am for softer measures. I would keep him to make fun of."

-William Hogeland,
"How John Adams and Thomas Paine
clashed over inequality,"

Salon, March 28th, 2011

The lesson for today might be that the problem with contemporary political rhetoric isn't so much its incivility as it is its violence and lack of style. If you'll forgive the geekitude of the metaphor, the invective of our Founders wasn't as clumsy or random as the blatherings of a Bachmann or Beck--their words were elegant weapons, from a more civilized age.

They had their faults, the Founders. They were men, not gods. But one thing they definitely had that hasn't endured as one would hope was that they were literate men; not in the flat sense of merely knowing their letters but in the cultural sense that they read and wrote prolifically, many of them in several languages. So when it came time to really, really sharpen the quill--well, they knew how to draw blood with the nib, didn't they?

As a housekeeping matter: no, I'm not done with SXSW posts, yet. I'll be inflicting more upon you over the next several days, though I don't know if the next review post will pop up tomorrow or later. Your indulgence is appreciated and I thank you.


David Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 6:20:00 PM EDT  

It was the spirit of the age.

My favorite attack on Thomas Jefferson was one I read in the Gazette of the United States from sometime in the 1790s. Jefferson had invented a pivoting chair, which Federalists found absurd. One scribe in particular took issue with "the celebrated whirligig chair, which he invented purely to check the eddying motions of his watery brain, by a counter-turn for every occasion."

You just don't get that kind of rhetoric anymore.

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