Learning from the Master

Last Friday was the 280th anniversary of John Adams’ birth. In honor of this esteemed Founding Father, we share an essay from Mike Ellis, NDP Social Studies teacher, whose fascination with Adams (and Lincoln and American history, for that matter!) borders on the fanatic. Ellis had the opportunity this past summer to study with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Adams master Joseph Ellis (no relation to Mike, but would that there were!). Here are his impressions of that life-altering week in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The author, Mike Ellis, and one of his idols

This past summer, I had the opportunity to attend a week-long seminar on the lives of John and Abigail Adams at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, sponsored by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  The lecturer for this particular week was the esteemed Joseph Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Brothers and National Book Award winning author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.  His latest book, The Quartet, discusses the impact that Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay had on the call for and development of a new form of governmental system, which became the Constitution.


Joseph Ellis
Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Joseph Ellis

As a self-professed and proud “history nerd,” this week was pure nirvana.  The week started on Sunday, August 2, with dinner at Joseph Ellis’ house, where we all (thirty teachers selected from around the country) got to know each other and share our excitement at the impending onslaught of historical magic.  Joe, as he demanded we call him, and his wife Ellen were gracious and generous hosts.  To stand in the room where Dr. Ellis wrote his books was an honor akin to standing in Lincoln’s office at the White House as he wrote his Second Inaugural Address.  The week then commenced on Monday with lectures every day on the lives of what Dr. Ellis describes as America’s “First Family.”

John and Abigail AdamsThe love between Abigail and John Adams is available to all of us through their vast correspondence, which numbers over 1,100 letters.  These letters are witty, saucy, and, most importantly, reveal a relationship in which husband and wife were on equal footing and enjoyed mutual respect.  Abigail tells of her loneliness while John is away in England or France as an American ambassador.  She gives him astute political advice, much of which John accepts; however, he sadly laughs off her admonition to “remember the ladies,” whilst debating American independence in Philadelphia.   John reveals to Abigail (and to us) his intense sense of adams lettersbeing constantly slighted, insulted, and underappreciated by anyone and everyone. The man had some ridiculously thin skin.  Through it all, we see two people, deeply and unconditionally in love with each other.  This marital love and relative equality was rare for the times, in an era of political or wealth-based marriages (I’m looking at you, George Washington!) and an entrenched belief in “Republican Motherhood.”

The Adams family home, Peacefield

On Thursday, we took a visit with Dr. Ellis to the Adams houses in Braintree and Quincy, Massachusetts. We toured the John Adams birthplace, the John Quincy Adams birthplace, where John wrote the Massachusetts Constitution, and finally “Peacefield,” John and Abigail’s last home and the future home of later generations of the Adams family.  After spending a week with John, Abigail and the kids, it was goosebump-inducing to walk in the footsteps of this family, who were now familiar acquaintances.  We saw the desk where Abigail wrote to John, the bed where Abigail died, and the couch where John sat for his final portrait.  Overwhelming is not nearly strong enough a word to describe the feeling.

Joe Ellis
Mike Ellis and Joe Ellis share more than a name–they share a mutual admiration for John Adams

I’d like to mention one other facet of this experience that was amazing.  Joseph Ellis has three sons, the youngest of whom is named Michael.  To share the name of this great historian’s son is one thing.  To have said historian exclaim to me “MY SON! MY SON!” whenever he entered the lecture hall every morning was quite another.  You could say I was star-struck.

I would highly suggest to any that they get acquainted with the work and wisdom of Joseph Ellis.  His books are brilliantly written and refreshingly honest.  The Founding Fathers, rather than being “demi-gods,” as Thomas Jefferson so erroneously claimed, were human and flawed, thus making them all the more fascinating.  As Ellis says himself, what would be the fun of learning about them if they were perfect?  Ellis humanizes the Founders better than any other historian in the business.  No fluff and no hero-worship, as that type of writing is pure fiction.  If you want the truth and nothing but, consult Joseph Ellis.  Learning from him was the opportunity of a lifetime and I am imbued with more passion and contagious enthusiasm for my topic than I have ever experienced before.

Look out, students!

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