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DAVID HAVEN BLAKE, JR. "Posterity Must Judge": Private and Public Discourse in the Adams-Jefferson Letters I first saw the Constitution of the United States in a foreign country. Irritated by no literary altercation, animated by no public debate, heated by no party animosity, I read it with great satisfaction. ... In its general principles and great outlines, it was conformable to such a system of government as I had ever most esteemed. John Adams, Inaugural Speech, March 1 797 The philosophical correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson descends to us as a public text, one which readers have widely admired for its intellectual depth, epistolary style, and remarkable perspective on friendship. Indeed few readers would object to Ezra Pound's declaration that the letters stand as "a Shrine and a Monument" to the cosmopolitan intellect of the revolutionary age (148). Frequently lost, however, in the compelling image of the two presidents conversing on the summit of a republican Mt. Parnassus is the fact that the letters emerged in a culture which routinely used the correspondents as symbols of partisan conflict and rancor. When Adams wrote Jefferson on January ?, 1812, breaking their eleven-year silence, neither of them could be certain that the friendship would this time survive their political disagreements. The statesmen's public identity and their lingering personal resentments combined to make their reconciliation fragile and tenuous, and their letters repeatedly guard Arizona Quarterly Volume go, Number 4, Winter 1994 Copyright © 1994 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004- 1610 David Haven Blake, ]r. against the polarizing effects of American political culture. The distinctly civic status that Pound grants to the renewed correspondence arises from its aggressively private character, from its authors' adjusting their political voices to Monticello and the Quincy farm Adams jokingly termed "Montezillo." By making the domestic setting of the correspondence a necessary condition for their friendship, Adams and Jefferson come to value the familiar letter for its ability to seal their discourse off from the public world. As a specifically private genre, however, the familiar letter is particularly sensitive to historical change, and it both registers and negotiates cultural anxiety in its construction of personal verbal space.1 In the case of Adams and Jefferson, whose political lives and friendship had sprung from their public writings, the letters' elevation of the intimate was strikingly invested with political concerns. The statesmen's insistence on privacy responds to what Gordon Wood has described as the "democratization of mind" in American society, the expansion of the reading public into a more broadly-based political community than the founders initially expected (126).2 Formed around the distinctions between public and private expression, the correspondence explicitly critiques the role of public texts in shaping American politics. While the statesmen shelter the letters as if their trans-partisan climate rested on privacy, they designate newspapers, histories, and polemics as the verbal components of an intensely factional age. To situate the correspondence in late republican culture is to restore its conversation with other forms of discourse, to recognize the textual and cultural import of its resistance to public texts. Adams and Jefferson root this resistance in a mutual respect for audience , in a heightened awareness of the reader that Bakhtin has described in Speech Genres as a work's addressivity. The term derives from the notion that the way a discourse projects its audience ultimately defines its generic form (95). Addressivity, Bakhtin explains, is a "constitutive feature of the utterance" because the writer's anticipation of the reader's response comes to influence and determine the utterance itself (99). To put the matter somewhat differently, what gives an individual work its coherent, expressive form is its "evaluative attitude" towards other acts of speech (94). Bakhtin's observations are particularly pertinent to a correspondence in which evaluation is both a philosophical imperative and a governing rhetorical activity. A self-defined refuge Adams-Jefferson Letters from partisan politics, the correspondence is shaped as much by the threat of external intrusions as it is by internal dialogue, and what we recognize as its coherence or unity is a product of the opposing pressures exerted by these literary and cultural forces. If revolutionary America, as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-30
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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