May the spirit which animated the great founder of this city descend to future generations.
I suppose John Adams may have been, in part, talking to himself here as he wrote this letter to the House of Representatives. In 1800, as the country still mourned George Washington’s recent death, Adams struggled to execute a ‘Quasi War’ with a France now embroiled in its own revolution. He, and the country, were in desperate need of the great founder’s spirit, and good fortune.
The French were not very happy with us in 1800. We were refusing to pay our debts for their support during our Revolutionary War on the grounds that our commitment was to the French Crown and not France’s revolutionary government, and we signed the Jay Treaty with Britain declaring our neutrality in conflict between Britain and France and expanding trade with our former colonial mother. Some way to show appreciation, the French bemused. And so they began seizing our ships by the hundreds.
Adams knew all too well that nostalgia for past greatness would not suffice for the country’s current or future challenges. Quickly, the people would have to move from venerating its founding generation to acting independently, albeit with commensurate “virtue, grace, and talent.” Drawing on the spirit of the past, they would need their own hands to move forward.
In a letter written to the Senate at around the same time, Adams called upon this second generation of American leaders gathered in Washington DC to become living examples of the greatness embodied by those gone before. He writes,
It is my fervent prayer that, in this city, the fountains of wisdom may be always open, and the streams of eloquence forever flow. Here may the youth of this extensive country forever look up without disappointment, not only to the monuments and memorials of the dead, but to the examples of the living, in the members of Congress and officers of government, for finished models of all those virtues, graces, talents, and accomplishments, which constitute the dignity of human nature, and lay the only foundation for the prosperity or duration of empires.
Spirit passes not through stone, but through people. And so it is today.
The youth of this country are tired of being disappointed and are searching desperately for the virtue, grace, and talent which constitutes the dignity of human nature.
We want to look up.