Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 1, 2009

Department of Not Giving John Adams Too Much Credit

Filed under: Journalism history,Newspapers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:18 am

I followed a link from TPM to a Vanity Fair article on Sarah Palin that did not turn out to be quite as awesome as promised. To me, everything one needs to know about the reasons that woman should be kept out of high office is conveyed by any given 10-minute film clip of her, including the convention speech that set off her initial media stardom. The particulars may be more Alaskan and trashier than your typical right-wing suburban beauty queen, but Sarah Barracuda’s basic approach seems pretty familiar if you come from the sort of background that breeds lots of Republicans. I do! But more Palin-tology was not my reason for writing tonight.

In a passing remark at the end of the piece, VF reporter Todd Purdum tosses off a bit of faux-erudition in the course of trashing the mental powers of Palin’s GOP fanbase. I bolded the key sentence:

Palin has disappointed many of those who once had the highest hopes for her. She has stumbled over innumerable details. But as she said to Andrew Halcro years ago, “Does any of this really matter?” Palin has shown herself to have remarkable gut instincts about raw politics, and she has seen openings where others did not. And she has the good fortune to have traction within a political party that is bereft of strong leadership, and whose rank and file often demands qualities other than knowledge, experience, and an understanding that facts are, as John Adams said, stubborn things. It is, at the moment, a party in which the loudest and most singular voices, not burdened by responsibility, wield disproportionate power.

John Adams did use that proverb, apparently, and perhaps David McCullough or the HBO series put it in his mouth, but he did not originate it. [See Ben's explanation in the comments.] The fact is, “facts are stubborn things” was one of the most common catch-phrases in the newspapers of the Early Republic. Readex/Newsbank’s “America’s Historical Newspapers” database reports 1,403 occurrences, and that is probably low. I feel as though I have seen about 1,000 instances of it personally in the course of my research. The phrase was often used as a headline or recurring motif in essays exposing official malfeasance or contradicting another writer’s position based on everyday experience and the “common understanding of mankind.” The quoted line comes from, you guessed it, “Facts are Stubborn Things,” Number VII of Boston politician and merchant Benjamin Austin, Jr.’s 1786 essay series condemning the legal profession, written over the pen name “Honestus” in the Boston Independent Chronicle and published in book form as Observations on the Pernicious Practice of the Law.  Austin’s book probably popularized the phrase among early American printers, quite a few of whom harbored the feeling that the facts were probably against the existence of lawyers.

For me, “facts are stubborn things” encapsulates a certain Enlightenment attitude that was especially common on the political left of that time (and possibly all times), assuming that incontrovertible empirical data could be found on any question and that such facts would irresistibly lead public opinion in an enlightened direction by dispelling the mystifications and superstitions of earlier, barbarous ages. What’s interesting to me is that the phrase seemed to resonate just as much on the right of the Early Republic, where it would be directed against the allegedly dangerous speculations and innovations of Jacobin-Jeffersonian “philosophy.”  Hence around 1803 you could find itinerant Democratic-Republican editor John B. Colvin singing the Jefferson administration’s praises with the stubborn facts and Connecticut Federalist satirist David Daggett campaigning against Jefferson’s local supporters under the same title.

According to Bartlett’s Quotations and other sources on Google Books, supplemented by my actually looking up the originals (or trying), the proverb’s earliest publications occurred in the late 1740s, separately and in rather opposite meanings. The “liberal” usage of the phrase as an appeal to reason and information began with Connecticut clergyman and agricultural reformer Jared Eliot‘s 1749 Continuation of the essay upon field-husbandry, as it is or may be ordered in New England. “Facts are stubborn Things, which will not bow nor break,” the Rev. Mr. Eliot writes, appropriately enough in a footnote:

Right around the same time, English poet and translator Tobias Smollett satirized the phrase by giving it as dialogue to a character called Dr. Sangrado, a benighted Spanish physician who decries new-fangled medical theories such as the idea that blood was necessary for life. (Possibly he was one of those global warming skeptics we hear about, as well.) In Smollett’s formulation, the stubborn “facts” were the ones that the ignorant and inflexible refused to give up despite counterevidence. Here comes a Google Books science experiment, presenting the actual passage that Bartlett and the others seem to be referencing:

Ah, the “dangerous allurements of chemistry”! So we come back to to the modern conservative political mind after all, which may be breaking a little bit but certainly won’t bow. And the very stones also may have a few things to cry aloud about Sarah if her political career goes any further.
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  1. The context in which John Adams uttered the phrase was his closing statement in defense of the accused British soldiers during the Boston Massacre trials of 1770. The HBO documentary then used it as the title of its first episode in the John Adams series.

    Comment by Benjamin Carp — July 1, 2009 @ 10:07 am

  2. I guess I was too sleepy to notice that in the HBO series. Was the text of Adams’s speech in the case widely reported at the time? As far as I can tell, the Early Republic users were not consciously quoting Adams. Admittedly I did not look up all 1400 instances.

    Comment by Jeff Pasley — July 1, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  3. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt it appeared widely before Charles F. Adams published the Works of John Adams. I’m convinced by your argument that “facts are stubborn things” was a common expression–therefore the people of the early republic would have known that the quote wasn’t originally Adams’s. Not sure where you did your search, but you could always redo it by searching for John Adams along with the expression, and see where you get the earliest hit.

    Also–since John Adams often felt somewhat ambivalent about his defense of the British soldiers (and how his countrymen reacted to it), I doubt he himself would have played up this speech during his lifetime.

    Comment by Benjamin Carp — July 1, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

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    Comment by Weezeroz — October 1, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

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