Wit was highly esteemed in the eighteenth century, and the nascent United States of America was providentially blessed with a group of Founders who were well-endowed with it. One unfairly neglected Founding Father who brimmed over with wit was John Adams—politician, political philosopher, Vice President (twice!), the 2nd President of the United States, and shy and retiring family man. (His distaste for rough and tumble political intrigue may explain why he’s not as well known as most of his contemporaries and why he wasn’t as effective in high office.)
Commonly in the eighteenth century communications took place either face-to-face or through the medium of letter writing; we are fortunate that so many epistles from that period have survived to this day—and “epistle” is the best term to describe what most literate people often generated in those days: long, thoughtful, and frequently elegant specimens of English prose intended not only to inform but also to persuade. John Adams was as good at it as the best of his generation.
In The Quotable John Adams, Randy Howe has collated most of Adams’ best remarks in speeches, in letters to his wife Abigail, to newspapers, to foreign personages, and to American compatriots like Thomas Jefferson, a one-time political adversary with whom, later in life, he achieved a reconciliation.
Here’s a sampling:
It is true, that the people of this country in general, and of this province in special, have a hereditary apprehension of and aversion to lordships, temporal and spiritual. Their ancestors fled to this wilderness to avoid them; they suffered sufficiently under them in England. And there are few of the present generation who have not been warned of the danger of them by their fathers or grandfathers, and enjoined to oppose them. — 1775
I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain. — 1780, to Abigail
Had I been chosen President again, I am certain I could not have lived another year. — 1810
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 should pass the resolution unanimously in the affirmative. — 1774, to Abigail, about the First Continental Congress
The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thenceforward these two conducted all the policies, negotiations, legislatures, and war. — 1790, to Benjamin Rush
My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived. — To Abigail, about being Vice President
And my favorite:
In my many years I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.