Thursday, August 10, 2006
Look Who I Bumped Into
I've only been to Europe once, but Europe is not obscure to me. In the same way that cultivated persons once used to learn French, and those of a scientific nature German, I was taught about European things while being educated. I knew how to find my way from Brunelleschi's dome to the foot of David without directions. And yes, I know that's a copy standing there now outside the Palazzo Vecchio.
Sometimes it seems like Europe has nothing but history. It occurs to me from time to time that most of Europe is just living in the wreckage of an earlier civilization's works, waiting...
Never mind. I'm an American. We're not waiting for anything. Now, it might appear to many persons in this big country of ours that nothing's very old here. There's no Collosseum in Quincy, where the picture is taken, after all. But just because you live in a suburb where the trees are still staked and no one's house has been repainted yet, doesn't mean the whole enchilada is like that. Sometimes the old sneaks up on you; you bump into it right on the street.
That's Abigail Adams right there. That's a monument to her outside the First Parish Church of Quincy, Massachusetts. She is that rarest of things -- both the wife and the mother of an American President. But America is old enough at least to have produced two such women. That church in the background was established in 1639. Quincy is not new.
It wasn't Quincy then, of course. It was part of Braintree, which is still right down the street if you're interested. The city of Quincy was named for Abigail Adams' grandfather Colonel John Quincy. And so the town is her family home, really, not those prickly men she cared for.
John Adams was not a lovable fellow, though Abigail surely loved him. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, who readers of this page know is my kind of guy, John Adams was: "Honest, intelligent, and sometimes out of his mind." His son John Quincy Adams was about as uncompromising and hard-nosed as his old man, and gathered a few detractors himself when his presidential campaign included saying unkind things about his opponent Andrew Jackson's wife.
Jackson's wife died right after the election, the slur still in her ear, and it hardened Andrew Jackson's heart; and he was already about as ornery a man as you could find in American history. I think this monument is really there to remind us how dour our lives would be without women in them, and to remind us how to behave towards each other.
They made a movie about John Quincy Adams succesfully arguing the Amistad case in front of the Supreme Court. It was a worthwhile endeavor, but it would take Lincoln to free the slaves ultimately; perhaps John Quincy should be remembered for the two most earthshattering changes he brought to the presidency: he wore long pants, and went to the bathroom indoors.
I think it's great to happen upon Abigail right there in the street, when you're hurtling past on the way to some hurried quotidian appointment. She personifies the importance of being well regarded as well as being respected -- or feared -- plus the need to cultivate as well as harvest your notoriety. And old things encountered in a new and bustling setting are terrific for framing a perspective on the trajectory of things; birth, education, toil, joy, death, legacy.
John Hancock was born across the street, two blocks down. I didn't run into him.