john adams looks down on native americans -- 3/21/22

Today's selection -- from After Nature by Jedediah Purdy. John Adams, America’s sixth president and a key leader in the American Revolution, thought Native Americans should not delay the providential development of the continent:
"Three years before his death in 1848, the aged ex-president John Quincy Adams returned to the theme of continental development. Forty-three years earlier, he had given an oration against 'the lordly savage,' insisting that North America must belong to the settlers who made it bloom. This time, as a grand old man in the Whig Party, he set out to explain how mastery over nature built moral and intellectual progress. The argument appeared in the American Review, a Whig journal of the later 1840s devoted to national unity, continent-binding infrastructure, a strong federal government, and the development of an Atlanticist literary culture.

"Adams treated the changing ways humans had wrested a living from the earth as a moral education designed and administered by providence. Humans' social nature, he explained, was rooted in sexual attraction, so each kind of relation to the earth had also been a sexual economy, a form of the bond between women and men. Each way of life also produced a specific religious or philo­sophical mood, a way of seeing and reflecting upon the natural world. A way of living on the earth shaped the social bonds and the intellectual and religious life of humanity.

"Adams thought little of the primitive life of hunters, whom he described as inconstant in every way: the urgency of the chase was followed by long periods of lassitude; hunters' sexual passion, too, was inconstant, opportunistic, lacking social and moral shape. 'The life of the hunter,' he wrote, 'is a life of action, intent upon the pursuit of his game -- or of idleness, in which the mind feels no call for the exercise of its powers. His passions are all violent and fierce. There is nothing in the aspect of nature with which he is conversant, tending to melt his soul into tenderness, or to allure it into contemplation. His very domestic affections are languid and cheerless. He is the tyrant rather than the friend and protector of his wife. Here is an elaboration of Adams's much earlier dis­missal of the 'lordly savage's' claim to North America: an un­worthy human type with a primitive relation to the earth should not delay the providential development of the continent.

"In the historical path that Adams supposed all developing socie­ties took, hunting gave way to the herding (pastoral) and farming stages of history, and these new eras deepened human conscious­ness. With herding, Adams claimed, the erratic character of the hunter passed into depths of devotion and contemplation. Since his survival now depended on his care for particular animals, the herdsman became accustomed to a steadier, more affectionate form of life than the savage hunter. This new scope of affection, in turn, influenced the domestic sphere, where herders learned a deepened love of particular women.

"Adams also portrayed pastoral humanity learning for the first time to contemplate nature. He pictured a shepherd watching his flocks by night and considering the stars, movement across the sky. From this sort of steady, relaxed attention, which was the basic at­titude of a man protecting his herd, came religious contemplation and a sense of wonder.

"Still, there was something basically boundless in the life of the herdsman; an open horizon was implied in the way he followed his flocks across open country, with no tie to particular places. In their starry skies, Adams reported, shepherds imagined many gods, and they likewise expressed their sexual desire in polygamy, wishing to attach both love and appetite to as many women as they could have. The pastoral life deepened human nature to produce the raw material of the modern soul and society, but its culture remained as sprawling and ill-defined as the territory of herders (at least as Adams imagined them).

"A new form of consciousness came with the farming life, an­chored in a new relation to landscape. Adams described what hap­pens when a people labors in a settled place:

The foot of man becomes thus fastened to the earth. He con­structs his dwelling place to outlast his own existence. It passes as a heritage to his children .... The ties of mutual de­pendence between man and his neighbor gain strength. The kindly affections first awakened in the bosom of the shepherd, for the cattle of his flock ... extend their influ­ence even to the inanimate nature that surrounds him. The roof that sheltered his infancy, the fireside at which he has listened in comfort and security to the howling of the win­ter's blast; the lawn at the cottage door, the streamlet that courses through the neighboring vale; the trees planted by his hand, which, as they rise and flourish, and yield their delicious fruits, or spread forth their refreshing shades, seem like children grateful to parental care; the mountain that borders the horizon, immoveable and unchanging in the lapse of years, and insensibly leading the mind from the tran­sient objects of time to the boundless ages of eternity, all silent witnesses of the first emotions of infancy and the dearest joys of youth, grappled to the soul by ever multi­plying recollections, chain the heart of man to his home, and become the primary elements in that strong, beneficent and virtuous impulse, the love of his country.

"Adams asserted that, in such a setting, a farmer would naturally realize the value of monogamy and find one woman to be 'the partner and companion of his life,' a collaborator and an intimate.

"The age of farming, then, brought 'the foundations of civil society and of rational religious worship.' And also the anchor of the modern family tied together by love in a shared home and labor.

"The settlement of North America took the continent from indigenous peoples’ hunting lives directly into the farming stage, and from there to the consummation of human development, Which Adams called civilization. This fourth and final stage was marked by widespread trade and the rise of commercial cities, but it did not leave the earlier stages behind altogether. Civilization rested on the bedrock of virtuous husbandmen, who formed the cultural and moral anchor of commercial society. Adams recognized the 'mechanic arts, and the division of labor,' which 'multiply to an in­definite degree the occupations of men,' but he did not seriously consider that an industrial economy, or a class of property-less laborers, could much complicate his picture of civilization's 'two great classes, husbandmen and merchants.'”



Jedediah Purdy


After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene


Harvard University Press


Copyright 2015 by Jedediah Purdy


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