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History Lost and Found 

12-09-2015 17:35

We live, my dear soul, in an age of trial. What will be the outcome, the consequences, I know not.

John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1774.

Carpenters` Hall sits out of the way of the flow of traffic between Third and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, back maybe 200 feet in what`s called Carpenters` Court. To me it`s one of the most eloquent buildings in America. It`s very close to Independence Hall. It`s part of the Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia. But many people walk right by and don`t see it, which is a shame. It was finished in 1773, the year before construction of this church [the First Baptist Church, Providence, R. I.] began. They are contemporaries and express the same sense of balance and light, balance and light being two of the great themes of the Enlightenment.

Carpenters` Hall was built by the Philadelphia Carpenters` Company, which was dedicated to fine workmanship and integrity in building. The Philadelphia Carpenters` Company still owns Carpenters` Hall. It was the place where, upstairs, Benjamin Franklin established his Library Company, which evolved into the first public library in America. And certainly along with freedom of religion, access to books, to learn-in, free to the people, is one of the greatest of our institutions.

Carpenters` Hall, much more importantly, was the gathering place for the First Continental Congress in the summer of 1774. It`s a place of a great, immeasurably important beginning. And what is so eloquent about it, is that it is so very small. It`s only 50 by 50 feet square. You could put it inside this meetinghouse where we are today with room to spare. This church measures 80 by 80. As I say, Carpenters` Hall is a very small building.

And when you stand there, in that very real, authentic place, you feel the presence of that other time, that history in a way that would be impossible did it not exist.

John Adams was one of the 56 delegates who gathered in Carpenters` Hall in 1774, and as he wrote to his wife Abigail back in Massachusetts, he thought he had come to one of the greatest conclaves of the greatest minds of all time. He was amazed by the range and variety of talents on display. "The art and address of ambassadors from a dozen belligerent powers of Europe, nay, of a conclave of cardinals at the election of a Pope… would not exceed the specimens we have seen." Here were eloquence and acuteness equal to any. "Every question is discussed with moderation, and an acuteness and a minuteness equal to that of Queen Elizabeth`s Privy Council," he wrote. (Hyperbole was a great part of the fun of living in the 18th century.)

But after being subjected to a month of such "acuteness and minuteness" over each and every issue at hand, irrespective of importance, Adams was weary to death, as he said. The business of Congress had become tedious beyond expression. "This assembly is like no other that ever existed. Every man in it is a great man -- an orator, a critic, a statesman, and therefore every man upon every question must show his oratory, his criticism, and his political abilities.

"The consequence of this is that business is drawn and spun out to immeasurable length. I believe if it was moved and seconded that we should come to a resolution that three and two make five, we should be entertained with logic and rhetoric, law, history, politics, and mathematics concerning the subject for two whole days, and then we would pass the resolution unanimously in the affirmative."

To hold such a letter in your hands at about the same distance from your eyes as it would have been from Abigail Adams` eyes, or to read what she wrote to him holding her letters in hand, is to make a physical, tactile contact with those distant human beings. There`s nothing quite like it. You feel their mortality. You feel a common bond with them as fellow human beings.

The Adams letters are nearly all in the Massachusetts Historical Society. They`re written on rag paper and so they will last forever, if properly taken care of. And the importance of that experience to students, to scholars, to all of us, any of us, is irreplaceable -- just as is the tactile connection we make in a space like Carpenters` Hall or this church.

These buildings, those people, it might be said, aren`t aspects of the past at all. One might indeed surmise there`s no such thing as the past. Adams, Jefferson, George Washington, they didn`t walk about saying, "Isn`t this fascinating, living in the past? Aren`t we picturesque?" It was the present, their present. Not our present, their present. And we have to understand that.

Nor were they "just like we are," as is often said. Their present was part of a different time, and because of that, they were different from us. We have to take into consideration, for example, all they had to contend with that we don`t even have to think about -- all the inconveniences, discomforts, and fears. And the hard, hard work.

There are more than 1,000 letters just between Abigail and John Adams. Abigail herself has left over 2,000 letters. Think of that. And when you consider all she had to do just to get through a day -- up at 5:00 in the morning, waking the hired girl, starting breakfast, tending the fire, feeding stock, running the farm in her husband`s absence, which in the aggregate came to ten years.

These were two of the most devoted patriots of their time, sacrificing for their country. "I wonder if future generations will ever know what we have suffered in their behalf," Abigail wrote.

Because schools were closed, she had to educate the children at home. She had to cope with constant shortages and runaway inflation, and somehow hold her own, keep her equilibrium, in the face of the frequent horrors of ram-pant epidemics, dysentery, and smallpox.

At one point she took all of her children, plus a number of relatives and neighbors, some17 people, into Boston to be inoculated for smallpox. This was a very dangerous, brave decision, for even if one survived such an ordeal, the misery, the wretched illness that went with it was some-thing nobody would ever wish to experience. And because communication with her husband was so difficult and slow, she had no choice but to make such decisions on her own.

And yet at the close of her long days there on the farm in Braintree, at maybe 10:00 or 11:00 at night, Abigail Adams would sit by the fire at her kitchen table, take up a quill pen and write some of the most thoughtful, telling letters by any American of the time.

The house is still there. It is the house she lived in as a bride and through all the years of the Revolution when John Adams was off serving the country. Their first son, John Quincy Adams, our sixth President, was born there. And when you go there, you will be moved by how small it is. And how sturdy. Next door is the very similar house where John Adams was born. There they stand, two plain, well-built New England saltboxes by the side of the road. The third Adams house, the much larger Old House, as it`s called, is the house John and Abigail moved into after their return from diplomatic service in Europe in 1788.

Then there`s the magnificent house they lived in in Paris. There is the house where Adams lived in Amsterdam and in which he very nearly died of fever while securing vitally needed loans from the Dutch during the Revolution.

The house where he and Abigail lived in London, when Adams was our first ambassador to the Court of St. James`, also still stands, the last 18th-century house on Grosvenor Square. Talk about buildings redolent with history! Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Bulfinch, Benjamin West, John Trumbull all came and went.

We can find Adams and Jefferson in Philadelphia still. We can find Adams, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Paul Revere in Carpenters` Hall, and in Independence Hall, the Powell House, and old Christ Church. And we can find the Adamses in the White House -- they were the first to occupy the White House. All these buildings, these American places, all are tangible, evocative expressions of those distant times and those extraordinary people. And those people are here, with us, in a way they would not be if those structures were not here.

Imagine if there were no such buildings, if there were few or no historic places. Imagine how it would be if there were no Gettysburg battlefield, no Brooklyn Bridge, no Faneuil Hall. The list could be very long. Each and every one could have been swept away, destroyed, heedlessly like so much else.

We Americans say, "What`s new?" Nobody ever greets you saying, "What`s old?" Well, maybe preservationists do.

We think we live in difficult, uncertain times. We think we have worries. We think our leaders face difficult decisions. When John Adams went off to Philadelphia in 1774, he knew, as the other delegates knew, that only the previous year more than 300 people had died in the city of smallpox. As it was, one delegate would die of the disease.

Nor was there any certainty of success in their efforts, or any groundswell of popular support.

Had they taken a poll in Philadelphia in 1776, they would have scrapped the whole idea of independence. A third of the country was for it, a third of the country was against it, while the remaining third, in the old human way, was waiting to see who came out on top.

We live in a world where there are 20 cities with populations over 10 million people. In 1776 the entire population of the American colonies was 2,500,000. Philadelphia, the largest American city, had all of 30,000 people, a small town by our standards.

The same week the Continental Congress voted for independence, the British landed 32,000 troops on Staten Island. In other words, they landed a military force larger than the entire population of our largest city. When the delegates signed their names to that Declaration, pledging "our lives, our for-tunes, our sacred honor," those weren`t just words. Each was signing his own death warrant. They were declaring them-selves traitors.

One of my favorite of all moments occurred when old Stephen Hopkins, a dele-gate from Rhode Island, who suffered from palsy, after fixing his spidery signature to the Declaration, remarked, "My hand trembles, but my heart does not."

They were human beings. They weren`t gods. If they`d been gods, they deserve little credit because gods can do whatever they want. They had failings and flaws. They were guilty of vanity, ambition, all that we`re prone to as human beings.

The first line of the Declaration states the case perfectly. "When, in the course of human events…" Human is the operative word. The miracle was that with all their differences, their failings, their flaws, they rose to the occasion and accomplished what they did.

We`ve just been through an experience none of us will forget. The heartache, the sad-ness, the grief will stay with us as long as we live. I`m sure we all experience that sensation of waking up in the morning, and for about 30 seconds, maybe a minute, it`s not in our minds. And then suddenly it comes back, we remember.

Because of the magnitude of it. The magnitude of the crime, the magnitude of those buildings coming down before our eyes, dust to dust in an instant, on our own home ground in what we had taken to be peace time.

It`s said that everything has changed. But everything has not changed. This is plain truth. We are still the strongest, most productive, wealthiest, the most creative, the most ingenious, the most generous nation in the world, with the greatest freedoms of any nation in the world, of any nation in all time.

We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of them is our brain-power. So far we`ve not only kept our heads, we`re using our heads. And we have much to be proud of since September 11. We have seen a revival of genuine patriotism such as we`ve not seen in our lifetime, or for maybe 50 years.

We`ve seen the veteran mayor of our greatest city and our new untried president both rise to the occasion in the best tradition of the best people who ever served the country and the people. We`ve seen the most divisive Congress in memory become the most united Congress in memory -- at least for the time being. We have all of that to draw upon. And we have a further, all important, inexhaustible source of strength, and that is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, what we have been through, what we have achieved, what we have built.

We know what footsteps we walk in. In late 1941 after Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill crossed the Atlantic. In a marvelous speech he said, "We haven`t journeyed this far because we`re made of sugar candy."

In his remarks at the National Prayer Service following September 11, President Bush said: "The commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time." Amen.

Publication Date: Winter 2002

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Author(s):David McCullough