Before raising the curtain on the opening chapter of his terrific new book (about which, more at another time), Nathaniel Philbrick orients the reader’s mind with three quotations, including this March 4, 1776 excerpt from John Adams’ diary:
Resentment is a passion, implanted by nature for the preservation of the individual. Injury is the object which excites it. Injustice, wrong, injury excites the feeling of resentment, as naturally and necessarily as frost and ice excite the feeling of cold, as fire excites heat, and as both excite pain. A man may have the faculty of concealing his resentment, or suppressing it, but he must and ought to feel it. Nay he ought to indulge it, to cultivate it. It is a duty. His person, his property, his liberty, his reputation are not safe without it. He ought, for his own security and honor, and for the public good to punish those who injure him…. It is the same with communities. They ought to resent and to punish.
This is, to use a technical term, great stuff.
Now, there are plenty—both in his own lifetime and since—who would argue that the notoriously choleric Adams cultivated the passion of resentment too assiduously within himself. Even Adams himself would, however grudgingly, probably agree with that assessment.
But Adams was too astute an observer of politics, human nature and social change to allow his personal foibles to discredit the power of his insight here, so let’s look at this diary excerpt more closely. (Note: for “resentment“, I’m going to substitute “anger” as a word that, in its early 21st century usage, gets us closer—I think—to what Adams is trying to articulate.)<!–more–>
John Adams was a child of the Enlightenment and of the great explosion of scientific and technological advancement in 17th and 18th century Europe. So his language here is scientific, analytical and packed with meaning. First he defines anger as “a passion“, locating it precisely within the range of human thoughts and emotions. Next he asserts it is “implanted by nature“. Why? “(F)or the preservation of the individual“. Anger is a means of survival for individuals and, “it is the same with communities“.
As a “passion”, anger is for Adams in the same category as the sensations of cold, heat and pain. Just as those sensations have immediate, proximate causes—ice for cold, fire for heat, both ice and fire for pain—so too does anger. Adams defines the immediate, proximate cause for anger as “injustice, wrong, injury“, each of which “excites the feeling of [anger]“.
Controlling one’s anger is, for Adams, a “faculty“, a skill—and not one he disparages. 17th and 18th century New England Puritans were one of the most learning-obsessed subcultures in human history. For them, a “faculty” was a good thing.
Furthermore, as someone who struggled all his life to control a violent temper, Adams knew in his bones–as did his contemporary, George Washington—the importance of developing the ability to control one’s anger, to cool it down. He could not have had the public career he did without learning that lesson (or at least, learning it well enough to counterbalance those times when he exploded in rage).
But Adams’ concern here isn’t the ability to control or conceal one’s anger, it’s the importance for a man (and despite being married to the amazing Abigail, he probably did mean “man”—which doesn’t mean we have to) to “feel it…indulge it, cultivate it“. The ability to feel anger, to recognize one’s anger and to act on it, is “a duty“. (New England Puritans took “duty” as seriously as they took learning.)
Why is cultivating one’s sense of anger a duty? Because if you can’t or won’t get angry, you won’t be able to defend yourself, your possessions, your reputation or anything else you care about. That’s what Adams is saying.
And anger should lead to action. Not just for “his own security and honor“, but also for “the public good“, a man ought to “punish those who injure him“. Implicit in Adams’ reflection is the notion that a man has the power, the ability, to punish “those who injure him“. Again, “it is the same with communities“. A community—a good community, a healthy community, a virtuous community (Puritans were big on virtue too)—has, or ought to have, the power to punish those who injure it.
At the time Adams wrote this diary entry, his beloved town of Boston had been occupied by the British army for nearly two years. Since the battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, roughly 2/3 of the town’s population had fled to safety in the countryside leaving the largest port in New England a virtual ghost town…except for the 9,000 beseiged British regulars trapped there.
Adams himself was 300 miles away in Philadelphia at the Second Continental Congress, attempting to persuade delegates from the other English colonies along the Atlantic seaboard to unite and declare their independence from Great Britain. Why? Well, there are lots of reasons, but this one is at the heart of the matter: he was angry.
England had threatened “his property, his liberty, his reputation…his security and honor” and that of his friends and family in Massachusetts. For “the public good“, John Adams was going to do everything in his power unite those 13 small, disparate colonies “to punish” those who were attempting to take away his rights as an Englishman…even if it meant he had to create a new country in order to do it.