Secretaries of State march on for two hundred years – but we still count it in feet

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!

3 thoughts on “Secretaries of State march on for two hundred years – but we still count it in feet”

  1. I would have to add that “America 3.0” is a Whiggish book as it assumes that America will recover its greatness instead of collapse in anarchy, as I sometimes fear. There is something to be said for Whiggism but Adams may have been a little too ecstatic about it.

    Lincoln was a Whig at heart which is why he signed The Homestead Act of 1862″ in the middle of a Civil War. My great grandfather homesteaded a farm in Illinois in the 1860s. That farm was in our family until my grandmother died in 1954. My other great grandfather had a farm nearby but I don’t know if it was a homestead as it had been sold long before my time.

  2. The metric system was a tool of the Enlightenment with its universalism, scientific rationality, and authoritarian abstraction.

    The Imperial System ran deeper with its intuitiveness. A foot is the length of your foot, and inch is the distance between your finger and thumb when they’re parallel, a pound was about the size of a good throwing stone, etc.

    Ironically, it may have been that religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening with its emphasis on personal revival and salvation that cemented the more personal and practical Imperial System into the American standard.

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