Dream-sharing among the Founding Fathers

John Adams and Benjamin Rush: dream-sharing among the Founding Fathers, told in Joseph J. Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

John Adams-Benjamin Rush 1: Dream-Sharing of the Founding Fathers

“Rush set the terms for what became a high-stakes game of honesty by proposing that they dispense with the usual topics and report to each other on their respective dreams.  Adams leapt at the suggestion and declared himself prepared to match his old friend ‘dream for dream.’  Rush began with a ‘singular dream’ set in 1790 and focusing on a crazed derelict who was promising a crowd that he could ‘produce rain and sunshine and cause the wind to blow from any quarter he pleased.’  Rush interpreted this eloquent lunatic as a symbolic figure representing all those political leaders in the infant nation who claimed they could shape public opinion.  Adams subsequently countered: ‘I dreamed that I was mounted on a lofty scaffold in the center of a great plain in Versailles, surrounded by an innumerable congregation of five and twenty millions.’  But the crowd was not comprised of people.  Instead, they were all ‘inhabitants of the royal menagerie,’ including lions, elephants, wildcats, rats, squirrels, whales, sharks….At the end of the dream, he was forced to flee the scene with my ‘clothes torn from my back and my skin lacerated from head to foot.’”

Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 214-215.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to study these letters between John Adams and Benjamin Rush myself, so I’m relying on Ellis’ reading of this remarkable correspondence (which began in 1805 and continued for many years).  Adams was the country’s second President (1979-1801).  He played a central role in the country’s revolutionary birth but found himself  brusquely pushed aside by Thomas Jefferson, his erstwhile  friend and compatriot who defeated him in the 1800 election.  Rush was another “Founding Father,” a Pennsylvania doctor who signed the Declaration of Independence and who made it his personal mission to reconcile Adams and Jefferson.  He acted as an intermediary between them, writing letters to both men and trying to persuade them to restore some sense of political unity with each other, for their own sake and for the welfare of the young American republic, its visionary system of government still fragile and uncertain of long-term survival.

Why Rush made his dream-sharing proposal to Adams, where he got the idea, what made Adams so quickly agree—these are questions to which I don’t know the answer.  But it’s fascinating to discover evidence that the country’s earliest leaders evinced an enthusiastic willingness to share and discuss the insights revealed in their dreams.  Rush’s “singular” dream reflected the distaste he and Adams both felt toward the political demagoguery of their opponents, whose seductive fantasies were threatening to destroy the federal government’s ability to function as originally intended.  Adams responded with an elaborate nightmare (his reporting of the animals goes on for several paragraphs) in which he’s overcome by the tremendous power and riotous diversity of the animal kingdom.  Ellis suggests, plausibly I think, that Adams’ dream symbolized the angry emotions aroused in him by the split with Jefferson.

John Adams-Benjamin Rush 2: The End

“Rush reported his most amazing dream yet.  He dreamed that Adams had written a short letter to Jefferson, congratulating him on his recent retirement from public life.  Jefferson had then responded to this magnanimous gesture with equivalent graciousness….Then  the two philosopher-kings ‘sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country’….Adams responded immediately: ‘A DREAM AGAIN! I have no other objection to your dream but that it is not history.  It may be prophecy.”

Ellis, Founding Brothers, 220.

In 1809, when Rush described his dream, Adams and Jefferson were still estranged.  However, both men had expressed to Rush a willingness to overcome their differences and bury their hurt feelings for the higher cause of national unity.  Ordinarily I would raise the skeptic’s question myself—Rush’s “dream” sounds too smooth, too allegorical, too conveniently supportive of his conscious goals to be believed.  But as a matter of historical fact, the dream came true in a way I doubt anyone could fabricate.  Adams and Jefferson resumed a cordial, respectful friendship in 1812, and for the remaining years of their lives they wrote each other detailed letters analyzing their roles in the country’s founding and articulating their best understanding of the Revolution’s core ideals and purposes.  In uncanny obedience to Rush’s dream, Adams and Jefferson died on same day—July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.


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