Richard Bland Lee of Sully gets the "Adams Treatment"
Richard Bland Lee is the builder of Sully Plantation (now Sully Historic Site) in Fairfax County, VA, a historic park operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority.
He was the younger brother of the famed Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee III, Revolutionary War hero, Virginia Governor and Congressman, and father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He is also the brother of Charles Lee who was Attorney General of the United States under both George Washington and John Adams
Richard himself was the first Congressman elected from northern Virginia. He served three terms and is remembered for his efforts to get the Capital of the United States moved into Virginia. He was one of those Congressmen persuaded to vote for federal assumption of state debts in exchange for relocation of the capital, an event known as the "Compromise of 1790."
In 1819, despite falling on hard financial times, Richard Bland Lee of Sully had much to be proud of.
As a delegate to the Virginia General Assembly he had played a role in the ratification of the United States Constitution. As Northern Virginia's first congressman he played a key role in establishing Washington, D.C. as the nation's capital. As part of a three man commission he oversaw the restoration of those "temples of liberty," the White House and United States Capitol after their torching by British troops sacking Washington in 1814, and he was a founder of the American Colonization society, an early attempt by some to ameliorate the condition of free blacks in the south.
So, no doubt with much satisfaction and pride, Richard Bland Lee agreed to commemorate the nation's independence with an oration to be delivered before the United States House of Representatives on July 5, 1819. And with the enthusiasm most still felt for the "American Experiment", he delivered a rousing call to honor and continue the work the founding fathers had started.
"But, in choosing between liberty and slavery, our virtuous ancestors had no hesitation. The ties of blood, the endearments of kindred, and the bonds of language and of interest were at once broken asunder, and sacrificed on the altar of freedom....To their virtue, their fortitude; to their toils and heart-rending sacrifices; to their blood, freely and copiously shed, do we owe that liberty...Such were our fathers, such be their sons..."
The "Adams Treatment"
His address was printed in the National Intelligencer newspaper, and so proud was he of the effort, that he sent a copy to his friend, and founder, James Madison, modestly noting he had only used his "feeble powers...to confirm the harmony and concord which now prevail."
No record of a reply by Madison exists, but no doubt he appreciated the effort, particularly as he was the only founder mentioned by name in the address.
Another founder however was not so impressed...
John Adams, eighteen years past the end of his presidency and retired to his Peacefield estate in Quincy, MA, nonetheless took an ongoing interest in the goings on in the country, particularly as it pertained to his past role in its establishment. He had after all been the prime mover in achieving American independence, had aided in drafting the Declaration of Independence, helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, served as America's first ambassador to the United Kingdom, and served as Vice-President and President of the United States. So it is not surprising that he felt he had earned the right to comment on anything pertaining to these accomplishments.
John Adams's tactlessness and acerbity is usually exaggerated for effect in modern histories and in dramatic portrayals of him such as the recent HBO miniseries based on his life. However, he did have a reputation for being parsimonious with his praise, and for letting folks know exactly what he thought of them.
Apparently, believing Richard Bland Lee's effort on July 5, 1819 did not live up to the reputation of his own last name, Adams wrote a letter to Lee on August 11, 1819. (See full letter here)
"I thank you for your oration on the red letter day in our national calendar, which I have read with mingled emotions. An invisible spirit seemed to suggest to me, in my left ear, "nil admirari, nil contemnere:" another spirit, at my right elbow, seemed to whisper in my ear, "digito compesce labellum." But I will open my lips, and will say that your modesty and delicacy have restrained you from doing justice to your own name, that band of brothers, intrepid and unchangeable, who, like the Greeks at Thermopylae, stood in the gap, in defence of their country, from the first glimmering of the Revolution in the horizon, through all its rising light, to its perfect day."
"Nil admirari, nil contemnere" loosely translates to "neither admire, nor condemn."
"Digito compesce labellum" literally translates to "check your lip with your finger," or as my mother would put it, if you have nothing nice to say don't say anything at all.
John Adams is lucky my mother wasn't around at the time, as he clearly had decided to ignore that latter advice!
He goes on to compare Richard unfavorably with Thomas Lee, Richard Henry Lee, William Lee, and in particular Arthur Lee.
"Arthur Lee, a man of whom I cannot think without emotion; a man too early in the service of his country to avoid making a multiplicity of enemies; too honest, upright, faithful, and intrepid to be popular...this man never had justice done him by his country in his lifetime, and I fear he never will have by posterity. His reward cannot be in this world."
This last one must have stung in particular because it was Arthur Lee whom Richard narrowly defeated in his 1792 reelection bid.
One can only imagine how Richard felt about what could be most charitably described as a very backhanded compliment from one of the most important men in American history. Unfortunately, there is no record of a reply to this letter, and he does not seem to have written about it to anyone else.
He could take comfort in the notion that the great John Adams had taken the time to read his oration and to respond to it...and that he was certainly not the first person to be on the receiving end of John Adams's sharp pen...what you might call "the Adams Treatment!"