With July 4 recently behind us, I’ve been thinking a little about the history of Independence Day celebrations in the city (and elsewhere). As my friend Farrell pointed out last week, we came pretty close, as a nation, to celebrating July 2. John Adams would have had it that way, and waxed prophetic in a letter to his wife, Abigail, about what he foresaw as a great national holiday:
The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha,
in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp
and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and
Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this
Time forward forever more.
Maybe it was Farrell’s quoting that letter, or maybe it was the fact that I finally had a chance to see the John Adams HBO miniseries, or perhaps it’s that, in the wake of the film, I’ve been reading an old biography of Abigail I’ve had sitting around forever, but I’ve had the Adamses on the brain in the last week, and it has me thinking about their poor kid Charles, who came to New York in the 1790s to be a lawyer and died a drunk in the gutter in 1800, only 30 years old.
“Let silence reign over his tomb,” his younger brother Thomas wrote. John seemed to concur: “There is nothing more to be said,” he wrote.
Poor Charles, the only New Yorker Adams. Did the city kill him? His story would seem to be the template for a temperance melodrama, the kind that P. T. Barnum made popular half a century later. I first ran into Charles’s story because he had, early on his arrival in the city, become a member of the literary circle I wrote about in Republic of Intellect. He appears to have been a rather lackluster member, though, irregular in attendance, and only really considered part of the club for a year or two. I wish I’d had time to do a little more with his story, but books having deadlines and all I let it drop. This book has a bit more, and there’s a website or two out there with various speculations on the cause of his depression and alcoholism, including the possibility that he was gay. The HBO series makes him a victim of his dad’s devotion to politics; in real life, but not on TV, he made a major journey to Europe as a child with his dad and older brother JQA, then returned in the company of some friends — crossing the Atlantic without parents at age 10 or so — and was diverted and delayed by several months. At one point his poor mother thought him shipwrecked.
If Charles’s friends, once he’d settled in New York in his twenties, knew about his problems with booze, they were pretty circumspect in their diaries and correspondence. One close friend and fellow club member, Elihu Smith, mentions Charles frequently in his voluminous diary and provided medical attention to Charles’s family on occasion. He never mentions Adams’s personal problems and may not have been aware of them. In any case, Smith died two years before Charles did, a victim of the city’s recurring yellow fever epidemics, so he clearly missed the worst of Charles’s decline.
Smith does include in his diary, however, a few descriptions of early July 4 celebrations in New York, and I found myself thinking about these too last week. In 1796 Smith wrote in his diary: “It being the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the day was observed as a festival–& I devoted it to visiting [friends]. Called at [James] Kent’s–[William] Dunlap’s–[William] Woolsey’s–[Isaac] Riley’s–[William] Boyd’s–[Amasa] Dingley’s–: [Richard] Alsop [was] here–He, Wm. [Johnson] & myself drank tea at S[eth] Johnson’s. S[eth], Wm. & I went into the [public] Bath–after which we spent the evening at S[eth] Johnson’s.” The names he mention form a little catalog of literary, legal, and medical professionals his own age, many of them, like himself, Connecticut expats. Several of them would become quite famous in their own time.
The following year Smith was less social in his celebrations and even seemed a little annoyed by the holiday: “The anniversary of American Independence–celebrated with increasing parade & noise,” he noted in his diary.
Smith’s friendship with Adams allowed him one unusual experience related to the history of Independence — in particular the question of how that history would be written and remembered. On 30 November 1796, four years to the night before Charles would die on the eve of John Adams’s failed bid for re-election, Elihu met the President at Charles’s home in New York. His description of the encounter may be interesting to people who’ve cultivated some familiarity with the Adams story:
This, tho’ not the first time of my seeing him, was the first time of my being in his company; & till now I had a very imperfect idea of his countenance. The opportunity was good, & I spent near two hours with him. Some interruptions broke the chain of a conversation, concerning the origin of the American Revolution, which promised to be very interesting. Mr. Adams considers James Otis as “the father of the Revolution.” Mr. Otis’s publications have never been collected. Mr. Adams exprest a fear lest there should never be any good history of the Revolution written. The ground of this apprehension was, that the material facts have never been published; that they were in the memories of individuals, who were dying, one after another; & that no person qualified for the purpose, was employed in collecting the anecdotes which these individuals might afford. He remarked that, could their papers be published, the most authentic history, or the best materials for such a history, would be found in those of the Tories. He particularized Hutchinson, Oliver, & Sewall, who died a short time since, in Nova Scotia. These men, he knew, preserved notes of all the events, & had the originals of the principal papers; but, events having happened so contrary to their wishes, expectations, & endeavour, it was to be feared that their executors & friends would suppress or destroy them, from a regard to the honor, or reputation, of their authors & possessors. In the course of some remarks on Pennsylvania, Mr. Adams said that “William Penn was the greatest land-jobber, that ever existed; & that his successors in the administration of that government, had continued the same policy.” The remainder of the conversation was on the topics of the day; & the state of parties in this State. Mr. Adams’s manners are more agreeable than I supposed them to be. There is no affectation, or pride observable in him; yet he can hardly be called a sociable man. It is not proper to judge from one interview only but such is the impression left by having been once in his company; &, for at least an hour, alone in his company.