October 30, 2013

Birth of John Adams: Herculean President

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735. On his birthday in 1799, Adams was sitting as the second President of the United States in Philadelphia when playwright, actress, and author Susanna Rowson wrote an ode in his honor. Rowson, though born in England, spent most of her life in Massachusetts, Adams's home state.

Rowson's long poem first tells the legend of Alcides (an alternate name for the demigod Hercules), and how both Virtue and Vice sought him in his childhood to fight for his soul. Alcides, however, was not tempted by Vice's deceit, however, and even picks an entire oak tree to use as a spear against her. The reader of the legend is also the narrator or speaker in the poem and, so moved by the legend, she wonders if it would be possible for a mortal to have a soul so pure. Right on cue, a vision appears to her of an angelic figure with the word "Independence" on her belt and "Unity" and "Heaven" on her bracelets.

"And who art thou, bright vision?" I enquired;
    "My name," she smiling cried, "is Liberty;"
"Oh nymph, by all beloved, by all desired,
    "And art thou come," I cried, "to dwell with me?"
"No," said the goddess, "I am come to chide."
    "Why dost thou wonder at Alcides' worth?
"Columbia boasts, and she may boast with pride,
        "An equal hero's birth.
"The morn which dapples in the east,
    "And makes all nature gay,
"Speaks what should be by all exprest;
"Let every face in smiles be drest,
    "For 'tis his natal day."

The spirit of Liberty acknowledges that Alcides accomplished great things, but that Adams (named in the poem) is greater, "soaring on superior worth." She then commands the speaker (now, presumably, Rowson herself) to honor him on his birthday by writing a poem:

"Then rise, and tune the vocal lay,
    "Invoke the Muse's aid;
"Small is the tribute thou canst pay,
    "Yet be that tribute paid,
"And thousands in that tribute will bear part,
    "For all conspire to raise the festive lay,
    "And as they joyful hail his natal day,
"Pour forth the offerings of a grateful heart."

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