In one incredible 1806 letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, John Adams manages to both level his greatest insult at Alexander Hamilton and share a bizarre medical theory about why men like Hamilton go mad with power.
Adams’s theory stems from Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of A Tub and explains the roots of some men’s violent urge to conquer. Swift’s work was satire, but it sounds like both Adams and Rush may have taken some of it seriously.
Comparing men to nature, Adams says “nature never produces rain but when it is overcast and disturbed; so human understanding, seated in the brain, must be troubled and overspread by vapors ascending from the lower faculties to water the invention and render it fruitful.” So brains are great for thinking, but real action apparently requires being overwhelmed by the smell of your own genitals.
If you’re wondering how this works, Adams explains some of the transformative journey involved: “The collected part of the semen, raised and inflamed became a dust, converted to choler, turned head upon the spinal duct, and ascended to the brain.” (It’s only going to get grosser from here, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
These vapors can go one of two ways – they can go to the brain and cause men to do vicious things, or they can take an awful shortcut: “The same spirits which in their superior progress, would conquer a kingdom, descending upon the anus conclude in a fistula.”
After looking up what an anal fistula actually is (the things I do for you guys), it seems to be the literal embodiment of being torn a new asshole. Described as “a small channel that connects the rectum to the outer skin of the buttocks,” fistulas can produce discharges, but not of bad semen like Adams suggested. Actual discharges from anal fistulas are (I’m sorry) pus, blood, or even fecal matter.
The fistula theory may be based on Louis XIV, who had an anal fistula operated on by his doctor in 1686. Swift suggested the release of fluids through that fistula caused the warmongering king to leave “the rest of the world for that time in peace.”
This logic has more holes than Louis’ derriere. Any “peace” the king left the world in seems like the result of it taking him over two months to recover from the surgery – a surgery that apparently required the doctor to invent a special curved scalpel. If a doctor so much as looked at me with a curved bespoke scalpel, I too would leave the world at peace for a while.
It’s not long before Adams ruthlessly applies this theory to Alexander Hamilton:
What a pity it is that our Congress had not known this discovery, and that Alexander Hamilton’s project of raising an army of fifty thousand men, ten thousand of them to be Cavalry and his projects of Sedition Laws and Alien Laws and of new taxes to support his army, all arose from a superabundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off? And that the same vapors produced his lies and slanders by which he totally destroyed his party forever and finally lost his life in the field of honor.
A superabundance of secretions! It sounds like a fantastic band name, or a Calvin Klein cologne you get at Costco.
|Among Hamilton insults, this one is seminal.|
Sure, Hamilton torpedoed Adams’s reelection by publishing a pamphlet about how terrible he was at being president – even though they were supposedly in the same party – but Adams’s insults still seem cold. Just two years after Hamilton died, Adams lays all the blame for the Alien and Sedition Acts and Hamilton’s death on his sex drive. There’s a reason Adams isn’t really in the Hamilton musical. At the end where Eliza is trying to preserve her husband’s legacy, you can’t have John Adams chiming in that Hamilton got what was coming to him on account of his smelly engorged balls.
As bizarre and backwards as Adams’s theory is, he is ahead of his time in some ways, indirectly linking testosterone to social dominance and recognizing the violent aggression men are capable of toward women. Unfortunately, he also kind of blames women for men’s bad behavior. Based on his comments on Hamilton’s secretions, the natural role of women is to draw off the semen before it can turn into debilitating dust and bile.
Then in his reference to Henry IV of France, Adams suggests that women are actually responsible for the whole buildup of vapors in the first place. He said the king’s “whole project of universal empire, as well as that of subduing the Turk and recovering Palestine, arose from an absent female, whose eyes had raised a protuberancy, and before emission she was sent into an enemy’s country.”
So to be clear, a woman aroused the king and left before he had a chance to unload the semen he earmarked for her, so he set out to conquer the world. This kind of thinking makes me wonder if John Adams was constantly one Abigail away from setting the world on fire.
Adams also ties the instincts behind men’s terribly abusive behavior to the same instincts responsible for their greatness: “The very same principle that influences a bully to break the windows of a whore that has jilted him naturally stirs up a great Prince to raise mighty armies, and dream of nothing but sieges, battles and victories.” What principle is that – unchecked aggression? Entitlement? It’s depressing to think the violence associated with men’s inability to handle rejection has been well-known for so long.
Now that the bad behavior of men is finally starting to no longer be tolerated, I can’t help but identify with Adams’s wishful thinking that there could be a quick solution to this festering problem.
Although he was talking about Napoleon and not society in general, I love his hopeful wish that there may be “a fistula large enough to carry off all his vapors and set the world at peace.”
“From John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 11 November 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives.
A Tale of A Tub, Section IX by Jonathan Swift
It never ceases to amuse just how salty John Adams stayed pretty much all the time. Two years after a person's death is still solidly in the "don't speak ill of the dead" period, and Adams is over in a corner going, "psh, whatever, dude was mad with power because he didn't get laid enough." Which, considering the Hamiltons had approximately 754 children, was demonstrably untrue.
Yes! The man was made of salt. Washington and Lincoln have reputations for being so honest, but if the spell from "Liar Liar" was put on John Adams, no one could tell a difference.
I have never read an article where I laughed so hard I cried. This is EPIC. I’ve heard this quote from Adams many times, but I never knew that it pertained to a scientific theory of his….just brilliant.
Thanks, Jenny! I might explore this letter more in a podcast launching next month – stay tuned!