I have been reading the amiable David McCullough’s biography of the first US vice-president, second President, and revolutionary New England patriot, John Adams. There is much to recommend it as a window on the times and as an insight into a man who is in the first rank of American founding fathers.
John Adams was appointed ambassador of the fledgling republic to the court of France, whose policy it was to detach the Thirteen Colonies from the British crown.
Abigail Adams was John Adams’ beautiful, devoted and intelligent wife. In the excerpt below she was writing to her niece, Lucy Cranch, dated January 5, 1785, some 230 years ago. The family is in Paris. Abigail Adams wrote as follows:
You must know that the religion of this country requires an abundance of feasting and fasting, and each person has his particular saint, as well as each calling and occupation. Tomorrow is to be celebrated le jour des rois. The day before this feast it is customary to make a large paste pie, into which one bean is put. Each person cuts his slice, and the one who is so lucky as to obtain the bean is dubbed king or queen. Accordingly, today, when I went to dinner, I found one upon our table.
Your cousin Nabby began by taking the first slice; but alas! poor girl, no bean and no queen. In the next place your cousin John seconded her by taking a larger cut, and as cautious as cousin T___ when he inspects merchandise, bisected his paste with mathematical circumspection; but to him it pertained not. By this time I was ready for my part; but first I declared I had no cravings for royalty. I accordingly separated my piece with much firmness, nowise disappointed that it fell not to me.
Your uncle [John Adams], who was all this time picking his chicken bone, saw us divert ourselves without saying anything. But presently he seized the remaining half, and to crumbs went the poor paste, cut here and slash there; when behold, the bean! “And thus,” said he, “are kingdoms obtained!”. But the servant who stood by and saw the havoc, declared solemnly that he could not retain the title, as the laws decreed it to chance, and not to force.
My admiration for the elegance of Abigail Adams’ prose style increased in the copying of the letter, but my point is different.
I want you now to move your minds ahead two hundred years to the 1970s. Seated at the dinner table are my father and mother, myself, and George Homans, the famous Harvard sociologist, (August 11, 1910 – May 29, 1989) and his wife Nancy. George Homans was a direct descendant of the same President John Adams, and had had a distinguished career writing about, among other things, Anglo-Saxon land tenure and its relationship to subsequent English history. He was very frugal with his considerable fortune, and when he died Nancy was shocked at how rich she now was. He lived well, but very far below his ample means. His favourite occupation in his later years was to go out to his woodlot outside Boston and cut trees for firewood. “Too many God-damn trees” was his motto.
Once, when we were discussing the English civil war and the American Revolution on the deck of the club, some worthy leftist interrupted us and opined that “the American Revolution had got rid of the American upper class.” At which point, George Homans rocked backwards on his heels, all five feet two inches of him, and shouted to the sky, in his broad Boston accent “There is so an American upper class and I am a paaaht of it”. The leftist evaporated, so quickly did he disappear.
That was George. He would play tennis in white shorts and black socks, when the dress code was tennis whites only. Nervous, excitable, terrifically bright, and just a kid.
So there we five were at the dinner table at my parents’ place. Desert was brought out, some confection of ice cream in a big bowl. George, with the unconscious glee of a two year old, takes his spoon, and before anyone can say or do anything, took two thirds of it for himself. It such a breach of decorum that everyone shouted “George!” “Mr. Homans!” “What!?” he replied “I like ice cream”. He was made to put back some of it, with ill-concealed annoyance.
I had not thought of George Homans and the Ice Cream Incident for 35 years, until that uncanny story of John Adams and the bean in the paste pie. I have wondered since whether there was some familial disposition passed down for two hundred years to go for the Big One, without remorse or compunction.
Then I thought, they are Americans, and of course they will go for the Big One, however they define it, and why not?, they would ask themselves. Are we not Americans?