July 27, 2008
John Adams’ Pointed Prayer
By Robert G. Morrison
The great popularity of the recent HBO series, John Adams, is well deserved. The movie, unlike the fine David McCullough book, shows how good old honest John got himself in a peck of trouble as the first Vice President. He took up six weeks of the time of the first Senate with long and tedious lectures on titles. David McCullough, when he spoke at the National Press Club in 2000, airily dismissed Adams’ disastrous misstep. “Oh, he was a good, thrifty New Englander. He didn’t want to make the titles hereditary. But he knew everyone loves distinction and he thought titles would be cheap.” The HBO series shows the revulsion of many of the senators at the very idea. Adams wanted the President to be titled: “His high Mightiness, President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties.” Behind Adams’ back, the senators snickered at the portly, balding Vice President, calling him “His Rotundity.”
The series shows Adams in the best of lights, and he deserves much good light. Even when he’s wrong, even when he’s vain and prone to temper tantrums, we see the human toll of his brave labors for Independence. His son Charles dies of alcoholism. His beloved daughter Nabbie dies of breast cancer. Our hearts go out to him and to his beloved Abigail. McCullough told the National Press Club that the correspondence between John and Abigail is on microfiche—and the indelible record of their fidelity and love is five miles long!
When I take the Witherspoon Fellows to Monticello, I always speak of my reverence for Mr. Jefferson, that great defender of religious and civil liberty. But I always disagree with George Will. Will famously wrote that “Thomas Jefferson lived as a free man should live.” No, John Adams lived as a free man should live; he never freed his slaves because he never had any!
My favorite John Adams story dates to the year 2000. Then, Bill Clinton occupied the Oval Office. That December, the Clintons invited their nearest and dearest friends to celebrate the two hundred years that the White House had been the Executive Mansion. They asked David McCullough to come and read from his wonderful biography of John Adams.
As the liberal Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory reported, McCullough ended with John Adams’ famous prayer, the one FDR had had engraved in the mantle in the State Dining Room:
“I pray Heaven to bestow the best blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
Miss McGrory wrote that when the prayer was read, all of Bill Clinton’s best friends looked at their shoes in embarrassment. Honest John Adams had crafted that inspiring petition in 1800. He hurled it like a javelin two centuries into the future and he punctured Bill Clinton’s pretensions with his pointed prayer. God bless John Adams!