Friday, September 5, 2014

Abigail Adams bucks the classical philosophers

"Philosophy of Abigail Adams illustrates August’s remembrance"


Jenny Lemma

August 26th, 2014

Opening August’s backpack is fairly difficult because, well, we seem to have misplaced it. We retrace our steps, trying to recall what we were doing before we lost it. Nevertheless, for a panicked moment or two, we cannot remember where we put it. When we do recover it, the relief of finding it is obscured by the realization of its curious contents.

#Inside, there are no modern devices, no archived electronic files, no flash drive, no i-anythings or e-anythings. Just letters. Many old letters written by a timeless philosopher who urges us to remember: to remember as we evolve, to remember as we progress, to remember as we improve. To remember each other.

#The eighth month’s philosophy is poignant, ageless, bittersweet, tender and very, very human. Abigail Adams may not be the most famous of sages, but her wisdom effectively resonates — surprisingly and shockingly at times — with contemporary readership while offering prudent insight to current events. August’s philosophy is rooted in memory, awareness, honesty and real time, with a little bit of sauce served on the side.

#Honored historically for her role as first lady to John Adams’ presidency, and for several well-known and well-placed sentiments, Abigail Adams’ ideas are not often recognized as constituting an independent, legitimate and weighty philosophical theory. However, hers is just that. Abigail’s entire life, and her commentary about it, is a remarkable example of Kierkegaardian authenticity. It is a primal synthesis of paradox.

#Through her immense surviving correspondence, a massive collection of letters to her beloved husband, John, we hear Abigail’s voice as she personalizes and humanizes historical events against the backdrop of familial concerns. Through her letters, we experience, as Joseph J. Ellis writes in his book, “First Family Abigail and John Adams,” how she and John were not “comfortable denying any important dimension of their respective personalities. And the more they interacted, the more they defied rigid gender categories and completed each other.”

#He continues to explain, “(a)s they were working out their new roles as husband, wife, and parents, the American colonies were being asked to work out new roles within a reconfigured British Empire.” This, he argues, “permits us to recover the messier and more layered mentality of history happening, that is as Abigail and John actually experienced it. The great public events of the time that stand front and center in the history books were only part of the story they were living, and the more private side of their story — their family life — became the lens through which they perceived and made sense of those grander events emanating from England.”

#Ellis elucidates, “Logically, Abigail should have felt torn between her two sides as a traditional New England woman and a fiercely independent personality. But she did not. The apparent contradiction felt to her like a seamless continuity. She could mend a hem while engaging you in a discussion of Macbeth’s fatal flaw. If that caused trouble for some people, that was their problem. ... She was simultaneously a dutiful wife and an intellectual equal, a lover and a friend, a heart and a mind.”

#Her ability to recognize she was a part of history in the making, while attentively addressing the emotional, social, physical, economic and spiritual needs of those around her, is inspiring, comforting and humbling. Yes, it is something worth remembering.

#Against a backdrop of historic magnitude, she tackles domestic problems, struggles with economic investments, worries over the education of her children, advocates for women’s rights and counsels her husband in political matters. As Ellis points out, her ideas are creative, farsighted and, well, revolutionary.

#It is well known that she reminded John in March 1776 to “Remember the Ladies” while contemplating the principles of a new nation’s independence. She urges him, “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”

#And, also from the book “My Dearest Friend, Letters of Abigail and John Adams,” edited by Margaret Hogan and C. James Taylor, we hear her visionary thoughts expressed to John in a letter dated August 14, 1776: “If we mean to have Heroes Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women. The world perhaps would laugh at me, and accuse me of vanity, but you I know have a mind too enlarged and liberal to disregard the Sentiment. If much depends as is allowed upon the early Education of youth and the first principals which are instilld take the deepest root, great benefit must arise from literary accomplishments in women.”

#Abigail’s philosophy is not limited to a particular space and time; it is a transcendent reflection, contemplation and theory with great contemporary relevance. For those of us trying to raise children in an uncertain and unfair world, she commiserates with us in our struggles.

#In 1783, she wrote, “I have a thousand fears for my dear boys as they rise into Life.” Moreover, in a letter to John in 1797, she recounts her incensed reaction to a schoolmaster’s limited application of the principles of liberty and equality. Appealing to the sensibilities of the person in question, she asks: Is denying educational instruction to a person based upon the skin color adhering to “the Christian Principle of doing to others, as we would have others do to us?”

#She addresses economic inequality, misplaced adherence to material wealth, struggles with virtues (or vice) within the folly of human behavior. Her philosophy constantly reminds us that this folly is not just theoretical, it is composed of real characters, real people. Our decisions affect real people; our beliefs influence our actions and determine our value system.

#Therefore, Abigail’s August philosophy urges us to remember. To remember the ladies, the less fortunate, the heroes and the sacrifices that are made — not only on the battlefield, but also on the home front when we own our principles and put them into action. She recognizes the gravity of the micro representations of the macrocosm within our communities. Her philosophy demands we remember the children, the marginalized and the less fortunate. To remember, amid the hustle of modern-day living, that fortitude, kindness, strength of character and humor never lose their relevance. To remember we are part of history in the making. August reminds us to remember, so that when others review our place in our own space and time, we, too, will be worth remembering.

[Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College.]

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