The Presidents Adams, John and John Quincy, knew that the powerful in government were elitists, no matter what they called themselves.
There were those, like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and many of their fellow southerners, who skillfully employed a rhetoric that concealed their class interests. There were those in the Adamses’ New England who dismissed all social inferiors without apology. The two Adamses may have been snobs in their own way but they hated all forms of deception and intimidation, subtle or direct, regardless of its origin. They hated the fact that American politics thrived on the embellishment of larger-than-life personalities as “men of the people”. To the endless frustration of the father and the son, each spent the greater part of his political career facing the charge of holding a dangerous degree of elitist sympathy. Whether guilty or not, they took a perverse pride in refusing to court public opinion through dishonest means – which made them poor politicians.
Nor were the Presidents Adams ever sanguine about the two-party system, which may be the most distinguishing feature in their common political profile. Others forecast a favorable outcome to party competition, convinced voters could safely decide which of two candidates best represented the majority’s interests. The Adamses balked at this vision. They decried the hypnotic sway of “party distinctions” and “party spirit” as the bane of political life. Political parties did not guarantee democracy to everyone; they merely protected the interests of their most influential members. The Adamses would have preferred a system that pitted the visible merits, known competence, and experienced judgment of one prospective leader against another.
They detested the provocative mania parties allowed for, in rousing an intense enthusiasm for select, heroically framed men without objectively assessing their assets and virtues first. History remembers the Adamses as two failed presidents who fell out of step with progressive notions of democracy. Few understand how much they worried about the emergence of one or another form of aristocracy in America, whether it was a moneyed oligarchy or a slave-owning planter contingent that spoke with a single voice. Any faction that held outlandish power over laws and lawmaking threatened good government. Their cure for malignant control was to be found in institutional solutions aimed at preserving a balance of power across society.
In reassessing the roots of the fractured democracy of today, it pays to study the Adamses’ critique. Our backward gaze leave us in history’s majestic haze, and leaves us with many misperceptions. As a modern culture, we must acknowledge when common assumptions are just plain wrong. The biggest of these is the desire to see democracy’s historical inevitability as a function of ethical progress. An orthodox American faith in “government by the people” masks truths. Our hallowed phrases ultimately explain little. They ignore the real question dogging our history: at any given moment, who makes the wheels of power turn?
The Adamses were students of human psychology. In their wide travels through Europe they observed the abuses brought on by monarchy. But they also saw fundamental flaws in the quasi-religious adoration of the spirit of democracy. In 1800, from Berlin, diplomat John Quincy wrote of these paired problems to his then-president father. He saw on the continent evidence of “the ill consequences of power in hereditary succession”, and he witnessed the concurrent failure of the French revolution to produce good government. A decade after the fall of the Bastille, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte proved to the younger Adams “the tendency of all the absurd and wicked theories of equality and fraternity, and representative democracy, to end in absolute and hereditary sway”.
It is remarkable, then, that John Q Adams was the first to publicly proclaim – in his inaugural address as president, 25 years later – that his country’s system of government was “a confederated representative democracy”. His patriotism was strong. Yet he and his father both questioned whether there would ever be a way to guarantee that moral excellence rose to the top in national politics. While humans remained subject to their passions, positive outcomes were never ensured.
This is dangerous territory – after all, no one wants to be told that the dynamic story of the rise of democracy is an exercise in mass self-delusion. The first father-and-son presidents are regarded as obstructionists, stuffed shirts, surly malcontents who were resistant in turn to Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy. Instead, they should be regarded as serious students of a road not taken, two who insisted that competence and rational judgment should supersede hollow celebrity and contrived popularity in a republic where votes ought always to register the choices of an informed citizenry.
It is their unqualified rejection of the cult of personality that we find most prescient. When John and John Quincy Adams protested, in turn, the power of image over talent, and men over lawful institutions, they saw personality as an illegitimate political force, a psychologically manipulative tool designed to stimulate vulnerable citizens’ desires. All humans craved notice, fame, renown; if they could not attain it themselves, they found an object to worship vicariously. In that sense, democracy was about representation, which required a certain theatricality or, as John Adams put it, “glitter”. He bemoaned the fact that candidates had to promote themselves, and “make the mob stare and gape”.
The phenomenon of political idol worship kept pace with the rise of parties, to the point of redefining the collective personality of Americans in the eyes of prominent European visitors such as the Englishwoman Frances Trollope and the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville. Writing after the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, these two, and others in their wake, made incisive remarks about a boisterous, impulsive, supremely self-confident race of people whose pride in democracy seemed unbounded. As a force for good, democracy is generally equated with freedom of expression. But it has a downside too, troubling fallout from the exuberance of public performances that fuel hatreds.
The 20th century brought the phrase “cult of personality” into the political vocabulary, associating it most particularly with Communist dictators. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a collective obsession with … or uncritical admiration for, a particular public figure or leader”. Returning to the concept to its Adamsian origins exposes the quasi-aristocratic bent that Americans refuse to see but that attaches not only to the historical Washington, Jefferson and Jackson – monumental names – but also to families such as the Kennedys and Roosevelts. We have “Presidents Bush” as well as “Presidents Adams” because of the artificial weight accorded to names. Americans paradoxically prize the principle of equality and ogle admiringly at self-made billionaires and tabloid royalty. Force of personality plays a dominant role in quadrennial campaign hype.
Disdaining the need to establish themselves as leaders of a political party, John and John Quincy Adams promoted themselves as worldly men who would make sound decisions. They were rejected at the polls after their single terms for failing to galvanize the voting public. Still, their losses were narrow. Bright careers as patriots and public servants paved the way to the highest office, while their stern moral values went largely unappreciated. America’s evolving national self-image required a more freewheeling sense of what it meant to enjoy liberty than what they projected.
This does not mean that “real democracy” was enacted. It only means that others are seen to personify American democracy far better than they. Let us not lose this distinction. Our mythic democracy typecasts the Adamses as misfits, as poor representatives of a transformative idea that, even now, some lovers of country think of as divinely inspired. The Adamses are remembered as old-fashioned and curmudgeonly. Democracy is the opposite, a source of positive energy. As a revolutionary, John Adams helped to invent the myth. If he lost his way, his cold fish of a son never quite caught up to the pace of democratization either.
There could only be one national father: George Washington. His image was twisted and ultimately remolded into a supreme spirit, the self-contained One who embodied disinterested republicanism. Heaven-sent and heaven-returned, Washington was dead before the hate-spewing election of 1800 pitted transactional opposites John Adams and Thomas Jefferson against each other. The success of Jefferson’s party, and later Andrew Jackson’s, allowed successful partisans to claim a lineage, which caused the prevailing historical narrative to be one that paid tribute to their party’s embodiment of a desirable political style. If Jeffersonianism somehow registered the popular will (despite the fact that Jeffersonian office holders were of the same class background as their supposedly elitist rivals), the so-called Age of Jackson baked into America’s apple pie history the enchanting notion that democracy was an unstoppable force. Either you “got it” or you were a snob. We all know which category the Adamses were forced into by celebrants of the quintessential American idea.
Good history must challenge popular assumptions when they are backed by uncertain evidence. It is in this way that we are able to learn that capital D “Democracy” did not magically “arise” (as many high school and college texts will assert), or lodge in the receptive hearts of eager voters, fulfilling the wise founders’ collective vision. This mytho-pietistic narrative formula belongs to something called “consensus history”. Adhering to its built-in limitations only guarantees repetition of the best possible America from one history book to the next, misleading generations of readers. Only one sharp thorn, slavery, stands out amid a rosy saga.
Consensus history does not particularly like the Presidents Adams. They did not usher in a celebrated “Age of” anything. No one liked their uncomfortable “truths” very much. They lost popular favor and, with it, a positive role in democracy’s gloried trajectory. What they bequeathed, however, was far-sighted political courage. As keen students of history, they returned to the ancients for clues and embraced what one of their favorite thinkers, the Roman republican Marcus Tullius Cicero, said. Cicero already knew, in 53 BC, that the object of good government was to dispose of anxiety, not intensify it. And that was the danger inherent in a full-blown democracy, which, if it were to succeed over the long-term, had to promote the common good through institutional checks of some kind on unregulated freedom of thought. Human beings could not subsist on emotions alone.