Words First, Words Last

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   November 7, 2019

My favorite Famous Last Words seem special to me not only because of the speaker (a President of the United States) but also because of the circumstances in which they were uttered.

Here we might pause, and ask ourselves if we can recall the last words of ANY US President, whether or not still President. Of course, most of them didn’t die in office – but, if a hint will help, this particular one DID die in office, although it wasn’t the office of President.

The man in question was JOHN QUINCEY ADAMS, sixth president of the United States (1825-1829), and a son of the second President, John Adams (1797-1801). He had an extremely distinguished career, particularly as a diplomat, but, after his Presidency, he spent the last 17 years of his life as a member of Congress, in whose hallowed halls he actually died.

But before we get to that scene, may one ask, what is so special about final utterances? Perhaps they belong with the legendary “deathbed confessions,” in which the central character, seeing no further reason to hide the guilty secret, whatever it may be, takes this final opportunity to spill the beans (although admittedly the image of beans being spilled on a deathbed is not particularly appealing). Anyway, we may take it that such revelations have a special aura of truth.

But in recent times, the expression “famous last words!” when commenting on someone’s perhaps overly optimistic remark, has taken on the significance of the ultimate put-down. This may perhaps be traced to an allegedly true incident of the Civil War involving the death of the highest-ranking Union officer to have been killed in that entire conflict – a distinguished professional soldier named General John Sedgwick. The story is that at the May, 1864, battle at a place in Virginia called Spotsylvania Court House, Sedgwick was in the process of deploying his men to face the enemy. They were worried about sniper fire, and he offered these words of encouragement: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” (We’re assured that attempts to spice up the story by truncating the last word into “dist-” are fabrications. ) Anyway, at that moment he was hit and killed.

A much more recent incident which has earned its place in the Hall of Famous Last Words was a speech given by then President George W. Bush at what ironically turned out to be an early stage of the Iraq War. On May 1, 2003, beneath a banner declaring “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED,” the President declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. In actual fact, the vast majority of casualties in that conflict, both military and civilian, were yet to occur.

But maybe Last Words are too gloomy a category to spend a whole column on. What about Famous FIRST Words?

According to the Bible, the very first words ever spoken were uttered by God – and they were words which even today resonate with us on many different levels: “LET THERE BE LIGHT.” Light, whether really a wave, or a particle, or a twinkle in your eye, still symbolizes Truth, Knowledge, and Understanding. But, if I may then be permitted to whiz over a few billion millennia, another set of First Words, scarcely any less brief, have achieved their own immortality, perhaps in part for their sheer unexpected banality.

It was in 1869 that the noted Journalist, Henry Morton Stanley was given a two-word assignment by the New York Herald, with no deadline, and a virtually unlimited expense account. The mission was to “Find Livingstone.” David Livingstone was an already celebrated Scottish missionary and explorer, who, however, had been “missing” in “Darkest Africa” for some time. These were the days when such events were of great public interest, and therefore made highly lucrative newspaper fodder.

It took Stanley until November 10, 1871, to fulfill his mission, at a place called Ujiji near Lake Tanganyika. You are probably ahead of me as to his immortal first words: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” (Well, what would YOU have said?)

But we mustn’t forget about John Quincey Adams. What was his very quotable last utterance? I actually have two versions of it: one as History has handed it down to us –the other, my own version, as I think he might have said it today. History’s account is that he said:

“This is the last of Earth. I am content.”

My version is: “I know I’m dying – and it’s OK.”


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