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John Adams: Washington’s Ten Talents

“The History of our Revolution will be one continued lye [sic] from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. Then Franklin electrified him… and thence forward those two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislations, and War.” 

John Adams, letter to Benjamin Rush, 1790

John Adams was a very great man, but he could be somewhat petty at times.  This pettiness came to the fore when he considered that other men, particularly George Washington, would loom larger than him in the history of the American Revolution and its aftermath.  In a letter to Benjamin Rush on November 11, 1807, he remarked upon what he considered to be Washington’s ten great talents:

Self taught or Book learned in the Arts, our Hero was much indebted to his Talents for “his immense elevation above his Fellows.” Talents? you will say, what Talents? I answer.

1. An handsome Face. That this is a Talent, I can prove by the authority of a thousand Instances in all ages: and among the rest Madame Du Barry who said Le veritable Royaute est la Beaute.

2. A tall Stature, like the Hebrew Sovereign chosen because he was taller by the Head than the other Jews.

3 An elegant Form.

4. graceful Attitudes and Movement:

5. a large imposing Fortune consisting of a great landed Estate left him by his Father and Brother, besides a large Jointure with his Lady, and the Guardianship of the Heirs of the great Custis Estate, and in addition to all this, immense Tracts of Land of his own acquisition. There is nothing, except bloody Battles and Splendid Victories, to which Mankind bow down with more reverence than to great fortune. They think it impossible that rich Men especially immensely rich Men, Should Submit to the trouble of Serving them but from the most benevolent and disinterested Motives. . . . Such is their Love of the Marvellous, and Such their Admiration of uncommon Generosity that they will believe extraordinary pretensions to it and the Pope Says, Si bonus Populus vult decipi, decipiatur. Washington however did not deceive them. I know not that they gave him more credit for disinterestedness, than he deserved, though they have not given many others so much.

6. Washington was a Virginian. This is equivalent to five Talents. Virginian Geese are all Swans. Not a Bearne in Scotland is more national, not a Lad upon the High Lands is more clannish, than every Virginian I have ever known. They trumpet one another with the most pompous and mendacious Panegyricks. The Phyladelphians and New Yorkers who are local and partial enough to themselves are meek and modest in Comparison with Virginian Old Dominionisms Washington of course was extolled without bounds.

7. Washington was preceeded by favourable Anecdotes. The English had used him ill, in the Expedition of Braddock. They had not done Justice to his Bravery and good Council They had exaggerated and misrepresented his defeat and Capitulation: which interested the Pride as well as compassion of Americans in his favour. . . .

8 He possessed the Gift of Silence. This I esteem as one of the most precious Talents. 

9. He had great Self Command. It cost him a great Exertion Sometimes, and a constant Constraint, but to preserve So much Equanimity as he did, required a great Capacity.

10. Whenever he lost his temper as he did Sometimes, either Love or fear in those about him induced them to conceal his Weakness from the World.

Here you See I have made out ten Talents without saying a Word about Reading Thinking or writing, upon all which Subjects you have Said all that need be Said. – You See I Use the word Talents in a larger Sense than usual, comprehending every Advantage. Genius Experience, Learning, Fortune Birth, Health are all Talents, though I know not how, the Word has been lately confined to the faculties of the Mind.

The phrase damning with faint praise comes to mind.  However, the list is not without interest, since it brings to mind aspects of Washington that may have struck his contemporaries that we, living more than two centuries after the death of Washington, ignore or skip over.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

9 Comments

  1. Don

    Ignoring the untactful nature of the list, there is a point hidden in there.

    It is the common estimate that one third of the population supported the revolution, a third England and a third were neutral. In most places the Patriots had control of the local government and thus were in charge

    At any point if the Continental Army had dissolved, which was a real threat through early 1778, the British could have deployed there army in to small detachments and put the local Loyalists in charge and backed them up.

    With the Continental Army in the field, the British could not break up into small detachments because the Continentals would destroy them piece meal.

    Washington’s greatest accomplishment was, by charisma shear force of will, and fantastic personal leadership he kept the Army together despite hunger, scarce and poor equipment, long marches, and poor quarters, and multiple defeats.

    The revolution had a number of persons with the more conventional set of “talents” but did not have the charisma to keep the Army together.

  2. Seems to me most of the list are assets (nature) rather than talents. In that vein, I want to add: Faith and that he was graced with huge amounts of the Divine assistance.

  3. I agree, T. Shaw. Benjamin Franklin wrote of striving for virtues but it seemed mostly because it would make him a more pleasant person— a secular saint wanna-be. But Washington’s diaries reveal that he had pleasing God more in mind. Anyway, Washington stands alone.

  4. Adams did not say it was an all inclusive lisit but i’d have suggested

    Washington had great physical strength and stamina – he could crack a walnut between his thumb and index finger. His letter writing is incredibly voluminous and always gracious and tolerant. He was also quick to give others credit and recognition.

    Last, he funded some of the revolution from his own money which was not unique in the revolution – Martha wrote out his expenses for submission to congress for recompense. we have a copy of them here in upstate new york. he took no salary as Com-n-chief The image of Washington praying along side his war horse tops the list i think. i believe in one of his biographies Washington claimed 67 times Divine Providence intervened on his or the revolutions behalf.

  5. Good Lord, John Adams was a vain and petty little man. His greatest contribution to the American cause was nominating Washington to be Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. That fact, alone, must have caused him no end of indigestion.
    ***
    And I say that as a great admirer of John Adams.

  6. I think Jay the difference between the men comes down to the fact that Adams was always concerned about what the history books would say about him. Washington could not have cared less. If he could have lived his life peacefully as the squire of Mount Vernon he would have been content. It was events outside his control, and his own sense of duty, that thrust him into the historical limelight. In Washington the old Roman tale of Cincinnatus came wonderfully to life.

  7. and a constant exercise in humility i think- Adams was a talented man, maybe not so great a dad

    but every day he had to walk, talk and work among GIANTS, and he was savvy enough to know they were……..

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