They were the only two chief executives in the American republic’s first half century to be turned out of office after a single term. There is no giant marble memorial to either of them in Washington, D.C.
Alive or dead, they do not embody the beau ideal of the democratic spirit. Who would claim that John and John Quincy Adams speak credibly, meaningfully, to the modern age? We would.
It is precisely because they are not obvious symbols of democracy that we find the two Adamses compelling subjects as we search for a better way to understand how the United States could have proceeded from its ecstatic opening pledge—the magnanimous “spirit of 1776”—to where it is today as a distressed political system. No historical investigator until now has committed to telling in any depth the story of the first father‑and‑son presidents. In these pages, we retie the broken threads of our nearly 250‑year‑old political inheritance. We see the Adamses’ experiences and their unpopular (but not necessarily wrong) positions as an opportunity to present to the politically engaged of our own time an accurate picture of a political heritage too many Americans are loath to address. It includes, but is not limited to, the unfortunate tribalism of the two‑party system.
With a fixation on influence‑buying, poll‑shifting dollars, we live at a moment in history when confusion reigns as to the dependability of all high‑sounding founding‑era rhetoric. If you were to ask an average citizen what America stands for, he or she would most likely repeat something from grade school about freedom and democracy. The simplistic response is not to be mocked, but it does betray what’s wrong: lack of definition. The framers of the Constitution did not erect a democracy. It was not their intent to do so. We must not assume that the United States is a democracy today ei‑ ther. That is why we have written this book. The presidents Adams are our vehicle in an effort to provide a germane, perhaps even urgent, interpretation of the nature of American politics. Persistent myths can no longer suffice.
How, then, do we extend the discussion from what we think
we know about the two Adamses to what we should
know about them? John Adams, the second president, assumed a lead role in the looming Revolution, vocally defending the Declaration of Independence when it came before the Continental Congress. But that is not what we consider most memorable about him. John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, was the first president not to have been old enough to take part in the Revolution; he stood before the Supreme Court in 1841 and argued valorously in order to win freedom for the kidnapped Africans who had dispatched their captors on board the Amistad
. But that is not what we consider most memorable about him. The best reasons we find for remembering the Adamses are those that concern their stubborn insights into human psychology.
They understood the tricky relationship between human nature and political democracy, and how emotionally induced thought often undermined social and political justice.
To the extent that their critique has been dislodged from America’s proud history, it is because it does not comport with the ecstatic, celebratory, self‑congratulatory script that grew into the political faith we know as “American exceptionalism.” If the emotive writer Thomas Jefferson planted the seeds of exceptionalism (“this whole chapter in the history of man is new,” he pronounced), the presidents Adams cultivated a cautionary, less intoxicating political science favoring a balance of interests to counteract those urges that led a ruling few to undemocratic self‑aggrandizement.
The two shared a critical disposition in perceiving (much as we moderns claim we can perceive) the hollowness of celebrity. They saw how image supplanted truth and how the public mind was captured by a clever concept that hid a political agenda. They took note as popular personalities acquired power over citizens’ minds. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were perfect examples. But they were neither the first nor the last.
The presidents Adams knew that the powerful in government were elitists, no matter what they called themselves. There were those, like Jefferson, Jackson, and many of their fellow southerners, who skillfully employed a rhetoric that concealed their class interests, their impulse to protect those most like themselves; and there were those in the Adamses’ New England who dismissed all social inferiors without apology. The two Adamses might have been snobs in their own way, but they hated all forms of deception and intimidation, subtle or direct, regardless of its origin. To the endless frustration of father and son, each spent the greater part of his po‑ litical career facing the same charge: of holding an especially dangerous degree of elitist sympathy. Guilty or not, they took a perverse pride in refusing to court public opinion through dishonest means. They were, in short, pained politicians.
The presidents Adams were never very sanguine about the two‑party system, and this may be the most distinguishing feature in their political profile. Others forecast a favorable outcome to party competition, convinced that 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.
On the day of his own inauguration as president, betting against his father’s prognosis for one brief shining moment, John Quincy Adams allowed that the two parties that dominated the early years of the Republic had both contributed “splendid talents” and “ardent patriotism” along with the more obvious “human infirmity and error.” For these defects, he adjudged, a “liberal indulgence” was due. Inaugural addresses were, then as now, intended to inspire more than to describe a work agenda, and over the course of a long and ruffled career in deliberative bodies John Quincy would nevermore invoke party business without presenting it as a history of manifest intrigue. Political parties did not guarantee democracy to everyone; they merely protected the interests of their most influential members. It is easy to relate to John Quincy’s inauguration day remarks on the “collisions of sentiments and sympathies” that accompanied party rivalry. Father and son identified flaws built into the two‑party system that would prove fatal to the Union in 1860, and that continue to harass political society even now. As conspicuously, they detested the provocative mania parties allowed for, when they roused an intense enthusiasm for select, heroically framed men without objectively assessing their merit first.
Few understand how much the Adamses 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 law‑making threatened good government. Their cure for malignant control was to be found in institutional solutions aimed at simultaneously mitigating personality‑driven considerations and preserving a balance of power across social classes.
To synthesize, then, as much as this book centers on the Adamses’ still fertile, endlessly rewarding world, it reassesses the roots of the fractured democracy of today. It tackles misperceptions, beginning with our common assumptions about democracy’s historical inevitability as a function of ethical progress. It challenges the orthodox American faith in “government by the people.” That hallowed phrase explains nothing. It ignores the real question: Who makes the wheels of power turn?
Copyright © 2019 by Nancy Isenberg. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.