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tv   Book TV  CSPAN  November 26, 2010 5:15pm-6:00pm EST

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better way and that is exactly what an inventor says. he went on to inventor refrigeration system that would not leak. he tried to market it. but the timing was not right. refrigerator companies came up with free on which is not poisonous. so they just replaced refrigerant. as we know decades later we discover that freon doesn't poison people but it poisons the atmosphere. that is another one of those examples of unforeseen consequences of. >> we are talking with henry >> next, pulitzer prize-winning historian joseph ellis recounts the 1200 letters that john and abigail adams exchanged throughout their over 50 year marriage. the letters provide an understanding of the adams' personal relationship as well as an extended discourse on the politics of their time. joseph ellis discusses his book at politics and prose bookstore
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in washington, d.c.. the program is just over 45 minutes. >> i'm not going to read to you -- i'm going to read a few passages, but i'll talk like 25 minutes and have questions. everybody is busy, got complicated lives, and then we will do a signing and get out of here. this was the most enjoyable book i have ever written to write. i had fun is not the right word, but fulfillment in trying to write this book in a way that hadn't been true for the other eight before it, that sounds like a lot, and i think it's partly because i've never written a love story before. and it is a love story. and it's a love story written
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across a rather consequential american historical landscape, but here's the way i put it, more cogently perhaps. all of us who have fallen in love, tried to raise children, suffered extended bouts of doubt about the integrity of our ambitions, watched our once youthful bodies betray us, harbored illusions about our impregnable principles, and done all this with a partner traveling the same trail know what unconditional commitment means, and why, especially today, it is the exception rather than the rule. abigail and john traveled down that trail about 200 years before us. they remained lovers and friends and together, had a hand, a
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significant hand, in laying the foundation of what is now the oldest enduring in republican world history, no small matter. of all the twitches, traumas, throbbings and tribulations along the way. no one else has ever done that. and as suggested, one of the reasons for writing this book was to -- hey, gail, how you doing? -- was to figure out how they did it. and i really mean that. how many of you have ever seen -- this is a talk that probably strikes a certain age group in a different way than another. that's entertainment. do you remember a movie called that's entertainment? it came out in the late '60s. it's a collection of the great
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musical moments in mgm musicals. my favorite is judy garland. but there is a scene in the movie early in which very still his mid '30s, does the sequence, a dance sequence with eleanor powell. eleanor powell makes ginger rogers looks clumsy. and they do this piece, and then frank sinatra comes on and sinatra looks at the audience and says, you know, you can sit around and wait, but you never going to see that again. you can sit around and wait, but you ain't never going to see abigail and john again.
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they are singular. and a story that i feel privileged to be able to tell. i want to dip you in a few moments and then let you ask me questions. let me give you a bit of a -- the letters themselves are so potent. there are about 1200 of them. why are there so many? because they are a part a lot. john is in philadelphia, she's in braintree during the continental congress and the revolution, upcoming, run up to the revolution. there's my son. how are you doing? and then he is in paris and amsterdam while she is back in braintree, quincy, so that you
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would think like maybe the madisons, dolly and james madison, create an equivalent correspondence, but they don't. because they are always together. and maybe washington, martha and george. but george request, martha they will destroy all their correspondence. only three letters survived. so part of this, part of the story is available to us because of the volume of the letters. the volume is important, but the quality is even more important. even if james and dolly wrote, or even if they didn't destroy
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their own letters, the washingtons, they wouldn't match this correspondence. it's the literary quality, emotional honesty and candor that they sustained for 59 years. and allow us to understand what love means over a lifetime. not just romeo and juliet, romantic love out of adolescence, but as the seasons and changes, and as you suffer together. abigail was asked in her old age again, and she said i cannot imagine suffering the same amount with anyone else. [laughter] >> i mean, they lost three kids. they watched him go down in elections. in some ways, suffering together is the most ultimate expression of love. it's particularly new england
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idea there all of us read, understand instinctively. let me read you a brief passage that gets at this, when they are courting. and it talks about their correspondence. this is before they get married, which is almost now, it's october 25, 1764. abigail was more than half serious when a few months before their wedding she asked john to deliver on his promise and tell me all my faults, both of omission and commission. and all the evil, either or think of me. tell me what you really think. john responded with a mock catalog of your faults, imperfection, deficits or whatever you please to call them. she was, he observed, negligent
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in playing cards, could not sing a note, hung her head like a bull rush, sat with her legs crossed, pigeon toed, and to cap it off she read too much. abigail responded that many of these defects were probably in curable, especially the reading so he would have to learn to live with that. the leg crossing charge struck her as awkward, since, as she put it, a gentleman has no business to concern himself with the legs of a lady. the letters exchanged during their courtship provide the fullest and first fullest window relationship, but would probably be wrong to presume that the correspondent accurately reflected the way they talked
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to each other when they were together. letterwriting in 18th century was a more deliberative and self-consciously artful exercise than those of us in the present with our cell phones, e-mail, and text messaging can't fully fathom. it's a psychologically different world. the letters of course are always have to recover the texture of their overlapping personalities. while they constitute a long string of emotional and intellectual pearls, unmatched in the literature of the era, they were also self-conscious performances, quazi-theatrical presentations, more stylized and orchestrated than real conversations. there are some things in short that we can never know for sure about their deepest thoughts and feelings, though they are among the most fully revealed couple's in american history, given the likely depth of the letters of the present and future. i don't think we'll know as much about any prominent american political leaders in the future as we know about them.
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two essential agreements in their lifetime literary dialogue were clear from the start. abigail, despite the lack of any formal education, she was a homeschooled by her father and her grandmother, could match john with a pen, which was saying quite a lot, since he proved to be one of the master letterwriters in an age not lacking in serious contents like thomas jefferson and benjamin franklin. second, there was a presumed sense of psychological equality between them that abigail presumed, and john found intoxicating. she was marrying a man who loved the fact that she was, as he put it, saucy. and he was marrying a woman who was simultaneously capable of unconditional love and personal independence. they recognized from the
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beginning that they were a rare match. her grandmother tried to talk her out of it. she thought that abigail was marrying down. she said, i have found my man, and i intend to keep him. there were so many topics they could talk about easily, and just as many that they did not have to talk about at all. the wedding occurred on october 25, as i said, 1764, in the same parlor of her father's house. her father was a minister just outside of boston, where initially they had found themselves totally uninterested. in her last letter to john before the wedding, abigail asked him to take all her belongings, which she was forwarding in a cart to their new home in braintree. and then she said, and then, sir, if you please, you may take me.
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[laughter] >> that gives you a bit of a sense of the correspondence. in to moment. two moment. i thought of dipping you in the summer of 77. it's got a melodramatic quality to it. abigail is pregnant. in 13 years, she is pregnant six times. that's normal for new england women. they lose two to three kids, out of 12. and she writes him, he's in philadelphia. it's a very pivotal moment in the war. general howe is sailing out, god knows what is going. they think he might put up the hudson. he might be trying to capture philadelphia that he is trying to go all the south side of the chesapeake to come up from the south that john said he is going
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to california. [laughter] >> it's politically a significant moment. it is a decision, a failed decision because it leaves the army marooned in new york, and they're an eyelid at the battle of saratoga. captured. so the movements of the british army, but they're the movements inside abigail, the uterus of abigail. she's pregnant. they can't write directly about it, the conventions of the 18th century concluded, but he is worried and then she writes him in june and says, i felt something and i don't like it. i think something is wrong.
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and there's a two-week hiatus between when she writes and when he gets the letter, and vice versa. so there's -- this is what makes distance so difficult. he's writing her about the politics, and by the time he gets it, it's already happened. the child has been born. it is still born. it's a girl named elizabeth. probably strangulation with the umbilical cord. but she's writing in between the contractions of the birth. later on when he leaves the presidency for seven months to be with her when she's sick, and this is how can you possibly leave the presidency? this is the reason that he never once -- he thinks she might be dying. he's never going to make the same mistake of being away from her again. but i won't tell you that story.
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i want to tell you the story, the most famous letter, probably in the entire correspondence from abigail, march 31, 1776. it's the, remember the lady. everybody is nodding, everyone has taken a woman's history's course. it's an unhappy life. but abigail isn't like a feminist in anything like a modern sense of the term. she is a singular woman, an independent woman who recognizes the implications of liberal argument. but it's an interesting dilemma. what do you do when you're 200 years ahead of your time? which is what she really was. and the decision -- she was most unhappy when john was away. she was clinically depressed between 1781-85 when he was at war.
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i don't think that's bad but i think that's the way it was. to call her a feminist, i would call her a proto-feminist. you get the point. second dipping moment. john's presidency again, what i find so stunning is the overlapping relation between the private and the public story. john is elected president in 1796, a close election, 72-69. very sectional vote. adams comes to the presidency almost may be worse than obama, in terms of what he inherits. i mean, obama has a good case, he's in a ditch.
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john comes after george washington. how would you like that? the greatest hero of the age and probably the greatest hero in american history. his cabinet is all willed to hamilton. he doesn't think he can reappoint them. it's unprecedented that there's never been a change in administration, so literally the secretary of treasury, war and state are all loyal to hamilton. i mean by loyal, hamilton thinks he is the president, he really does. once washington leaves the stage, hamilton goes nuts. hamilton has been living under the aegis, as he calls it, of washington. some of the things that hamilton does in 1796, 97, 98, are incredible.
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there's a war going on with france, undeclared. and his vice president, thomas jefferson, a guy who ran against him for the president. jefferson, in his capacity, as leader of the opposition, is leaking all information to the french council in philadelphia, and telling the government of france in paris not to pay any attention to anything the president of the united states says. he doesn't speak to the american people. even though duly elected. this is a pretty big thing to deal with here. you have to read the book to get the fullest context, but abigail is extremely influential. before there was eleanor roosevelt, before there was hillary clinton, before there was maybe michele obama, there
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.. says, we have absolutely clear
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and convincing evidence that during the entire war for independence, he was a spy for the british. it's actually a series of forged documents that british release during the war, trying to undermine washington's authority. we, upon his retirement, we seriously question whether you have any honor, whether you've ever had any honor or whether you simply lost it. or this one, we devoutly pray for your imminent death. this is washington, okay? that's the partisan -- that's the world is created here. so adams comes in and they launch on him. john adams intends should make himself king and to appoint his son, john quincy as successor for life. if we elect goodcandidates know
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that he is a boatload of 24in london that he intends to bring to the presidential man mansion. in reliable witness on the cabinet can testify that he is certifiably insane. remember eagle 10? remember that in 72? that's what the political culture of the moment is like. and in that moment, abigail is a lioness, protecting her layer. she cannot believe what is being said about her husband and her son. her sake publisher, of a newspaper called the wasp, great title, accuses adams of having a big ass.
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last night one of the features of the aliens and sedition act come is alien and sedition act is the first time in british american law makes truth a defense. if you say the king of england has a big ass, and he does, that's worse. okay come you go to jail forever, with a cut your head off. in the alien sedition act, if its true come you can't be prosecuted. so abigail says well, we can't go after that guy because i know you do have a big ass. [laughter] how does he know? but the she does persuade them to sign this piece of legislation, which goes out -- it only has a two-year statute of limitations. and it's too bad. when they retire, adams says, i
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feel i have made a great change -- a great exchange. i changed honors former newer. he's got his barn full of seaweed and he can't wait to get back to quincy. the retire in 10 years are themselves interesting. i try to write them. john is always worried about what he calls dying at the top, meaning dementia and alzheimer's, as we would call it. and just the opposite happens to him. his body goes, becomes a kind of week envelope. but his mind keeps reaching away and a vivacious fashion. and the golfer stuart portrait of 1824 sort of captures that. abigail has suffered for some time with rheumatoid arthritis in his incapacitated for long periods of time.
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there are these moments though, when she and john get to write out through the fields in their carriage. they go to boston three times. and it's like they're vetted -- they go to harvard and these are people out of the past, you know, a few people from a distant era. heroes -- it's like it's hard to know how to talk to them. abigail dies in 1818 as typhoid and with a stroke, too. john goes to bed and lays down beside her as she's dying and so they just want to lay down and die with her. he thinks he's going to go soon. heaven for him -- he thinks the beatific vision is boring is
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how. and going to bed to argue a 10 and jefferson. this is having, you know. and he's not sure there is they have been. he's got a great line. he says, if it can never be shown conclusively that there is no hereafter, my advice to every man, woman and child on the planet is take opium. [laughter] but this is how he goes. and that's it. he knew that his powers of thought and speech were permanently diminished, so when a delegation from quincy visited him on june 1826, requesting some statement from the patriarch with a living independent day celebration, he refused to cooperate. i will give you independence forever, he declared. i asked if he might like to elaborate.
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he declined. not a word. he had finally learned the very end, the gift of silence, something he never learned. abigail would've approved. physicians and other visitors came from his bedside, convinced that the end was near. he was 91. on the morning of july 4, john legg and the spread, breaking difficulty, apparently unable to speak. but when apprised of his the fourth in the 50th anniversary of independence, he lifted his head and with obvious effort declared, it is a great day. it is a good day. late in the afternoon, he stirred and response to severe thunderstorms, subsequently described in eulogies as the artillery of heaven and was heard to whisper, thomas jefferson survives by several bedside -- is there some sense
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to whether this happened? it's recorded a massive historical society. but by the coincidence that defied the probability of history and even the parameters of fiction, jefferson had died earlier that same afternoon, both teaching arcs, each possessed of indomitable willpower, seem determined to die on schedule. madison died on the third. madison monroe died on the second. they're all trying to die on the fourth. john drew his last breath shortly after 6:00. witnesses said that a final clap and then a bright sun broke through the clouds. an estimated 4000 people attended the funeral at the first congregational church three days later as his body was laid to rest alongside abigail. if they have remained together a percent. thank you.
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[applause] actually, they moved him across the street to the unitarian church because john quincy but to crips for them and then he and his own wife, louisa catherine were buried next to them. so john might've been a unitarian by the time he was at that stage. unitarian is the featherbed to have been. and you don't have to really believe anything to be unitarian. [laughter] have a prompted any questions? or comments? there is a migrate there, so you have to go to the mic because c-span is covering this event. people have to speak. yes, sir. >> this is just a fellow time till somebody thinks of a better question. i further quipped that the children and grandchildren
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raised by abigail grow to have deplorable life. at the children that were raised by john on dems or by other family members grow to have great lives. john quincy was raised abroad. i wonder if you could comment on that what you have to say to that. >> some of the book tries to talk about the childbearing issues. as a parent, actually one of my children is right here. who knows. you do your best and then who knows how it turns out. what you said is partially true and partially misleading. abigail herself worries about the fact that all the children, up until a certain stage are being raised without their father around a lot. she talks about that. they develop an impression of their father as a result that wouldn't exist if he was there,
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namely as some extraordinarily heroic, almost beyond human figure. whereas if he was really their community is a bubbly idiot about certain things. it is true he takes john quincy with them to paris and again the second time to paris and amsterdam. it takes charles the second time, too. of the four adam's children, it's really disorienting when you're writing about them because as you are reading about abigail and john's concern about their children as infants, you know it's going to happen to them. and it is not a happy story. john quincy does succeed. john quincy from the time you exit the womb is programmed to become a major public figure in american history. and john quincy is probably the most intellectually prepared
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person ever to be elected as the presidency of the united states. when he was said to be ambassador st. petersburg, there was a debate in the senate and they said is this the unqualified? he says than anyone else read and speak latin, greek, french, dutch, russian and german? if there's anyone else who does, would like to please entertain them. he's not a happy man, however. he doesn't have a happy life. and he is a one term president as john sort of knew he would. but nevertheless, he's a significant figure. he's a great secretary of state, too. and then a great opponent of slavery as he's a member of the house of representatives, as many of you know. in fact, there's a great book -- you've got me on this. there's a great book to be written about this and is called missing link. john quincy is the missing link between founders of lincoln. john quincy guys in the well of
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the senate in 1848. i think about this right. at present to watch them fall is lincoln. in the missing link -- somebody can take this idea and ran with it. abbey marries the sky was a former officer in the continental army who winds up losing everything in a variety of poor investments. charles becomes an alcoholic in nature ergodic, who dies 30 in new york come even as a child he's the most beguiling. all three of the boys, by the way, graduate from harvard. abigail when they're in europe keeps whirring, we're spending all this money on elaborate dinners. we're not going to be a look to afford college tuition for her children. tommy, the youngest and he's the most invisible, fails as a
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lawyer in philadelphia and eventually comes back to live with his parents in quincy and marries a local girl and has like eight kids. but eason alcoholic. so the pattern in the adams dynasty is one child succeeds enormously and all the rest of them are horrible failures is this the fault of abigail and john? there are some letters of abigail raised to john quincy that will scare the hell out of you. i mean, more than john -- abigail is tougher as a parent than john. abigail says, you know, the ship that they failed on almost sunk. the ship that john and -- and she says that she's glad it didn't, but if you turn out to be an immoral man, i would rather you die right now.
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whereas, this is john's diligence is different. he's with john -- john quincy are together in the netherlands. john quincy says i'd like to buy a pair of ice skates. very indulgent. so john versus no, we can't have any ice skates. of the things that i don't have his grace. and maybe if i buy you a skates -- you writes this to them, okay? you'll learn to dance and therefore this is an investment in neo. [laughter] and your overall maturity. i buy them in a size large so we don't have to buy any new ones, okay? that was john's way of being a more indulgent current and his mother, then john quincy's
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mother. there's stuff that written. there's a book called -- well, it's a book about the adams dynasty that sort of abaco as a mother. adults think that's fair. i think it's imposing a set of, you know, 20th and 21st century standards. when her children come to live with her in quincy, abigail childbearing are different from yours. they're more austere and severe, but i have to recognize that that's a different kind of thing. and most of the grandchildren and of equally horrible. i mean, george, to bring john from john quincy commits suicide. the other kid days useful. it's not a romance. it's got all kinds of horrible
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things and it. i know people want to get out of here and maybe buy a book. and so -- >> if you want to answer these questions, make your answers shorter. [laughter] >> absolutely right. you get me going. i mean, will take one more question and then will handle questions -- yes, sir. >> i've just been reading band of brothers and i'm struck by the fact that it seems to me to not like thomas jefferson and regard his reputation is undeserved that largely based on his right in one document in 1776. and i wonder whether you see any -- >> is too strong. >> i know, but i had to get you going. >> to use any parallels in the current president who has been sometimes regarded as giving one speech or two and become president?
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>> no. [laughter] no, i understand what you're saying. let me put it to you this way. when i was talking about the election of 1800 on the jefferson adams thing, the traditional interpretation of the election of 1800 visits a jeffersonian interpretation that the federalists have captured the american revolution and carried it in this despotic monarchical direction. and jefferson is a lack to and recovered the original spirit of the revolution. it's the second american revolution. what it really is is the states rights and slavery. that's what it really is. and that's what the adams think of this. it's not democracy versus aristocracy. it states rights versus a national vision.
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and jefferson is committed to -- jefferson would've been with the confederacy in 1861, clearly. and that's the reason, along with the hypocrisy on the racial issue. because one of his core argument from the racial issue -- just as jefferson can afford to free the slaves because then they will intermarry with weights and correct the anglo-saxon race. well, meanwhile, he is fathering four to six children by sally hemings. it's pretty bad. and this from a guy who was a virginian, who went to the same school as jefferson. while he remains the same color as jefferson. so i'm not totally alienating, but i do think that jefferson is the most resonant and contradictory figure in american history. he wrote the magic words of
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american history, which are extraordinary. we hold these truths and he is simultaneously the symbol of the central dilemma of american history, slavery and race. he is. he stands astride both of those issues. sir, maybe we'll -- i'll try to be really brief now. you got me going. >> by now, i'm sure you're an expert in reading letters written in those days in the course of writing this book. >> if not i'm in big trouble. >> that's right. [laughter] i'm intrigued on how one wrote a letter in those days. you are conscious of what you were writing. but did you do other in your head and then write them? >> yeah, they didn't do drugs. abigail wrote in the evening after the kids were in bed at a kitchen table and a four room house. if you go to visiting quincy come you can't see how small it
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is. john wrote in the morning before he went off to do a morning ride. the original letters reflect -- they've got crosscuts and their hard -- john especially is hard to read his hands come even as a young man is not good. abigail is easier to read. but one of the reasons that i remain antediluvian in terms of the writing of hoaxes i actually write all my books by hand. on the back of xerox paper. and i believe there's a connection between the movement of my fingers and wrist and the muscles and movement in my head. now, i don't recommend that for anybody, certainly the next generation has gone in a totally different direction, but it works for me. and there is a deliberative
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quality of writing in 1860 that we need to understand. there is nothing interactive about communication. and so, you are having to more thoughtful. and the way you're expressing yourself is it's not just like it's a conversation. you're reporting on your thought process at that moment. there is more in it. abigail has a wonderful line early in her life. she said, my pen is freer than my talent. i can write to you things they speak to you, which is i think good. she also said about john, when he was wounded, i believe. one more than we've got to go. we've got two people. we're going to try to be brief.
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>> to the extent that it's even possible to answer this question, what do you think adams would think of the living document. the constitution, that is the idea that the meaning of the words of the tax change over time? >> adams is a clear advocate of a living being, that the notion that the original intent is frozen in time in 1787, 1788 is absurd. and he is aware of the fact that the original and tenders themselves don't agree. and therefore, he would be more like -- he would be a liberal jurisprudence%, rather than a scalia or thomas. jefferson thought the constitution not to be reread every generation, so that the original intent school, which actually has come into existence only recently underneath in the
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80s is bizarre from their point of view. and for most historians point of view bizarre. because we all know has historians, that there a lot of different original intentions. and the one thing we know the intent is to have the document change. >> a last question. >> you alluded earlier to other first ladies. i wonder in this case the role that abigail played in john's tenure during his white house residence. i mean, you alluded before to the sedition act and so forth. but is there a singular moment that you think that really stands out during that period in which her influence was critical in terms of -- >> that's the most critical moment. abigail and john are the most seasoned diplomats in the united states. they have served in european courts in both paris and o


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