A “Passion for Superiority,” The Continental Army Officer Corps, and Middle School “Mean Girls”

John Adams woke on the morning of May 21, 1777, feeling light of heart. A spell of bad weather had finally broken, and the bright spring dawn cheered his spirits. He took a few minutes before beginning his day to pen a letter to his “Dearest Friend,” his wife, Abigail.[1]

“The Charms of the Morning at this Hour, are irresistible,” he told her. “The Streakes of Glory dawning in the East: the freshness and Purity in the Air, the bright blue of the sky, the sweet Warblings of a great Variety of Birds intermingling with the martial Clarions of an hundred Cocks now within my Hearing, all conspire to chear the Spirits.” Adams’s letters are filled with such descriptions, which are one of the many reasons they’re a delight to read. But then he got down to business.

As the Second Continental Congress’s de facto Secretary of War, he had spent the previous evening, May 21, at the War Department meeting with General Benedict Arnold. Arnold had been embroiled in controversy with several lower-level officers, one of whom claimed “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.” (The charge was untrue at the time but proved ironically prophetic.)

Adams told Abigail that he’d heard Arnold “fought like Julius Caesar” and came to believe Arnold’s side of the tale. “He has been basely slandered and libeled,” Adams concluded.

His political perch gave Adams a view of the Continental Army that might surprise us today. In his usual candor, he told Abigail:

“I am wearied to Death with the Wrangles between military officers, high and low. They Quarrell like Cats and Dogs. They worry one another like Mastiffs. Scrambling for Rank and Pay like Apes for Nutts.”

As he continued, he made an observation that touched close to home. Adams was notoriously vain—a vice he recognized and continually struggled with—so he was deeply familiar with the human tendency to compare oneself with one’s peers. Particularly early in his legal career, Adams measured himself against other young lawyers and pined for the chance to distinguish himself. It was, he said to Abigail, a “Passion for Superiority”:

“I believe there is no one Principle, which predominates in human Nature so much in every stage of Life, from the Cradle to the Grave, in Males and females, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, high and low, as this Passion for Superiority …. Every human Being compares itself in its own Imagination, with every other round about it, and will find some Superiority over every other real or imaginary, or it will die of Grief and Vexation[. . . .] I never saw it operate with such Keenness, Ferocity and Fury, as among military Officers. They will go terrible Lengths, in their Emulations, their Envy and Revenge, in Consequence of it.”

Adams had seen that sort of cattiness “among Boys and Girls at school, among Lads at Colledge, among Practicers at the Bar, among the Clergy in their Associations, among Clubbs of Friends, among the People in Town Meetings, among the Members of an House of Reps. [Representatives], among the Grave Councillors, on the more solemn Bench of justice, and in that awfully August Body the Congress, and on many of its Committees — and among Ladies every Where. . . . .” No where was it worse than among the “Mean Girls” of the army’s officer corps.

“So much for Philosophy,” Adams decided, and then inquired about his children and Abigail’s asparagus. Then he concluded with a note that resonates with all of us here at Emerging Revolutionary War:

“I would give Three Guineas for a Barrell of your Cyder — not one drop is to be had here for Gold. And wine is not to be had under Six or Eight Dollars a Gallon and that very bad. I would give a Guinea for a Barrell of your Beer. The small beer here is wretchedly bad. In short I can get nothing that I can drink, and I believe I shall be sick from this Cause alone. Rum at forty shillings a Gallon and bad Water, will never do, in this hot Climate in summer where Acid Liquors are necessary against Putrefaction.”

Cheers!


[1] All quotes from: Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 22 May 1777 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/

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