I’ve been reading Daniel Walker Howe’s The Political Culture of the American Whigs(1979). It slowly gave me a better understanding, since I started in a complete fog. Like his Making the American Self, here Howe chooses representative figures to give narrative, character & understanding. Just because the book is forty doesn’t mean insights don’t remain. Howe enlivens the Whigs and reminds us our parties still have more than a bit of the Whig & the Jacksonian. But, surprisingly, an anecdote used to illuminate John Quincy Adams reminds us of a spring candidacy.
Howe likes Adams – he is the first Whig “representative” figure; What Hath God Wrought begins with a dedication to Adams’ memory. And so a gentle tone despite what seems a pretty extreme argumemt:
Adams believed in a messianic age, as prophesied by the second Isaiah (“the sublimest of prophets”). The advance of civilization, technology, and knowledge were taking us closer to this long awaited day: “Progressive improvements in the condition of man is apparently the purpose of a superintending Providence.” . . . . The contemplation of the divinely ordained glorious end of history prompted Adams to his highest flights of eloquence. When Secretary of State, he had been requested by Congress to prepare a report on weights and measures. The impressive document he drew up presents a thorough justification for the adoption of the metric system in terms of scientific rationality and international cooperation. But this peroration declares the metric system desirable in the last analysis because it implements “the trembling hope of the Christians’ for the unity of mankind, the binding in chains of Satan, and the thousand years of peace on earth”. No more remarkable synthesis of Christianity with the Enlightenment can well be imagined. (59)
Howe’s discussion reminds us of Loren Eiseley’s intense even mystical vision of the “organization” or system within evolution. Like Thoreau’s great “foliage” metaphor in Walden, all blend science and Providential Order. And so, perhaps, I missed the weight of a less mystical press conference as Lincoln Chafee declared his candidacy and cause.
A similar breadth leads us to a certain pleasure with the sadness of the preceding post – and for that I feel grateful to David and BC. Still the optimism of those early 19th century types, naïve and sometimes just weird, seems a nice place to have been. I have my doubts any Adams would have tried to engineer human souls – he saw a greater designer, after all. I suspect he would say metrics are God’s order, not man’s. But, we might argue, our system grew from our history and it has the human – with its traditions and memories and history and wealth of detail – about it. And so it has a human precision – with all those numbers to convey the band in which we live. Still, I marvel at what a context those old guys had!