Isenberg, Nancy, and Andrew Burstein. The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality. New York, NY: Viking, 2019.
Crusty, aristocratic in manner and unbending and difficult in disposition and out-of-step with the times are personal traits commonly associated with both President Adams – John and son, John Quincy. In their new book, The Problem of Democracy, two Louisiana State University professors demonstrate that these commonly held notions are inappropriately formed myths passed down by generations of historians. Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein offer an alternative thesis that the Adams believed that politicians should compete based upon the power of their ethical ideas and the truthfulness of their morals rather than pandering to popular interests and creating fabled political personas.
Serving twenty-four years apart, the Adams were the only Presidents during the first fifty years of the republic who were not elected to a second term. Each lost to a populist contender who manipulated their patrician backgrounds to appear to serve as a “man of the people.” The authors point out that both Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were huge plantation owners and consumers of luxury goods and whose wealth far outstripped that of the more modestly endowed Adams family. One only has to visit Jefferson’s Monticello and Jackson’s Hermitage to see the vast scale and opulence difference to Peacefield, the Adams’ modestly small farm in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Contributing to the common myths, many historians have mistakenly attributed monarchist and elitist views to the Adams as they prognosticated problems with the concepts of democracy. However, Adams used the term democracy in a way many readers misunderstood. The Adams were concerned with the problem of a popular majority unjustly inhibiting the rights of the minorities. They believed that the government should be founded upon ethical morals and righteous laws. To that end, the Adams looked to the Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero for inspiration and practical advice on setting up a new government based upon moral and ethical principles.
The Adams believed that the emerging party system and many of his political opponents promoted high-minded democracy that “sounded beautiful while promoting some and excluding many.” The Adams sought equal government treatment for all through the application of moral and ethical laws. In this manner, the government would be a check on the excesses of popular sentiments which could be swayed by corrupt politicians to injure the rights of persecuted factions. The Presidents Adams would be right at home with our current issues of the day!
As one of the most influential political founders, John Adams contributed significant intellectual underpinnings to the establishment of the new American political system. He wrote the Massachusetts Constitution and contributed to the Declaration of Independence. He was also much more accomplished as a diplomat that commonly portrayed as he completed a vital Revolutionary Era treaty with the Dutch Republic. Diminishing these accomplishments, John Adams is dismissed by historians as an anti-democrat due to his signing the Alien and Sedition acts which severely limited dissent and political discourse. Despite this blotch on his reputation, Adams skillfully kept the United States out of a war with France during his presidency, allowing the nascent country to better coalesce around its new political organization and processes.
Likewise, the sixth president, John Quincy (JQA) is viewed poorly by many historians. Oft overlooked contributions and remarkably poised beyond his years, an early teenaged JAQ served as a private secretary and translator for a diplomatic mission to Russia during the American War of Independence. Returning to American after the war and having gained valuable diplomatic experiences, JQA graduated from Harvard, built a legal business and followed his father into politics. In 1824, JQA entered a close, highly contested four-way race for the presidency. As no one garnered a majority of votes, the election was decided in the House of Representatives. The House elected Adams based upon a negotiated alliance with another candidate, Henry Clay. Both contemporary opponents and historians viewed JAQ as an illegitimate president due to his candidacy being based upon a “corrupt bargain” when Clay turned his support to Adams and Adams named Clay to be his Secretary of State. Further, the Adams administration has been labeled a “do nothing” administration and he was not elected to a second term. Uncharacteristic of retiring presidents, JQA went on to a productive and influential eighteen-year career in the House of Representatives. He became a thorn in the Jacksonians’ side over Indian policy, Texas and many other policy issues. However, JQA’s most significant accomplishment was becoming an early, outspoken, and courageous opponent of slavery. Adams made a mockery of the pro-slavery “gag rule” which Jacksonians employed to prevent Congressional debate over slavery, and later in life, he successfully defended the Africans who revolted and took control of the slave ship Amistad.
While the authors do an admirable job in describing the Adams’ political philosophy and the accomplishments of their administrations, the most captivating portions of their book are the descriptions of the Adams inter-familial relationships. John Adams and JQA shared deep and enduring father-son, mentor-mentee, political philosophy developing relationships. Also, JQA was extremely close to his mother Abigail, despite many prolonged absences. However, John Adams’ other two sons suffered from alcoholism and never achieved stable and productive lives. Further devastating, John and Abigail’s daughter, Nabby, was saddled with an unpleasant marriage and died painfully of breast cancer at Peacefield with her parents. Likewise, JQA and his wife raised two sons who experienced emotional and development issues and one, Charles Francis who became a highly successful historian, politician, and diplomate. These family problems led a later generation Adams to remarking that all of the personal capabilities were focused on one Adams per generation!
I highly recommend The Problem of Democracy for its provocative and compelling reinterpretation of the contributions of the second and sixth presidents. What sets this book apart from other Adams biographies are the interesting descriptions of the interplay between father and son and the psychological aspects of their relationships. The authors end the book with a quote on JQA’s tomb, which reads, “A son, worthy of his father.” This inscription is a fitting eulogy for a person and his father who where not conservatively stuck in the past, but were prognostic forerunners seeking to establish a more indelible modern democracy based upon strong ethical and moral laws.