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A Mysterious Gift


After an unusually long and a thoroughly tedious day at the office, I arrived home just now to discover that a mysterious box had arrived from The contents? The Library of America’s two-volume edition of Henry Adams’s masterpiece, History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison. But from whom? And then I remembered: A couple of months ago, I’d been paying bills while listening to a radio interview with Garry Wills about his new book on Adams. The telephone rang. It was Clark Judge, one of my closest friends ever since our days together in the Reagan speechwriting shop. When I told Clark about the radio program, he replied that working his way through the Adams volumes had represented one of the most rewarding reading experiences of his life. I riffled around in the box, and, sure enough, there was a note from Clark.

If a single paragraph can redeem a trying day, it is the paragraph with which Adams opens. Just listen:

According to the census of 1800, the United States of America contained 5,308,483 persons. In the same year the British Islands conatined upwards of fifteen millions; the French Republic, more than twenty-seven millions. Nearly one fifth of the American people were negro slaves; the true political population consisted of four and a half million free whites, or less than one million able-bodied males, on whose shoulders fell the burden of a continent. Even after two centuries of struggle the land was still untamed; forest covered every portion, except here and there a stip of cultivated soil; the minerals lay undisturbed in their rocky beds, and more than two thirds of the people clung to the seaboard within fifty miles of the water, where alone the wants of civilized life could be supplied. The centre of population rested within eighteen miles of Baltimore, north and east of Washington. Except in political arrangement, the interior was little more civilized than in 1750, and was not much easier to penetrate than when La Salle and Hennepin found their way to the Mississippi more than a century before.
Magnificent prose. The kindness of an old friend. Life is good.


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