Reading History: “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality” (by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein)

Ever since I read David McCullough’s magisterial biography of John Adams many years ago, I’ve always thought it was a shame that the second president and his son have never received the sort of approbation and celebration that their contemporaries have. Adams is almost always overshadowed by his frenemy Jefferson, and Adams is usually swept aside in favor of the towering might of Andrew Jackson (as well as, to a lesser extent, figures such as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, who were also his contemporaries).

In large part, as Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein claim in their dual biography, this is because the two of them largely eschewed the trappings of celebrity, not only because it would have ill-suited their temperaments but also, and just as importantly, because they saw those who did so as caving in to the worst sort of impulses. To them, the rise of men like Jefferson and Jackson–one the frenemy of the senior and the other the victor over the latter–revealed both the dangers of parties but also the unpredictability (and thus the inherent danger) of the tide of popular opinion. For both father and son, democracy was a good thing in moderation, but throughout their lives they both entertained a health skepticism about the passions of the people.

Throughout this dual biography, Isenberg and Burstein situate the two Adams presidents not only in their political milieu, but also amid the intellectual life of the age. Both John and John Quincy were heavily influenced by the ancients, in particularly the Romans, and especially Cicero. To them, the ancient Roman Republican thinkers were the paragon of intellectual and moral achievement, and both saw a little of themselves in the doomed orator, who was one of the sole voices that stood out against the rise of tyranny in the form of Julius Caesar and his successors.

Isenberg and Burstein also note some of the two presidents’ less attractive qualities. Both of the Adams men were prone to bouts of melancholy and to self-pity, and both were often inflexible when it came to matters of conscience. The elder Adams in particular could be very waspish with his tongue, and he could often come across as a little self-pitying when he felt that his own contributions to the founding of the country were overlooked. JQA, for his part, was a stern moralist and became something of the conscience of the House, particularly given his staunch opposition to slavery.

That being said, they also reveal that John Quincy was probably slightly savvier as a politician than his father. When he saw that the Federalists were doomed–thanks in no small part to the machinations and later death of Alexander Hamilton–he joined the enemy and served in the administrations of both James Madison and James Monroe. Some thought him a traitor to the principles that he supposedly espoused, but in reality he knew that he was called to serve, and he wasn’t one to let party affiliation get in the way of his duty.

Throughout the book, we get a strong sense of just how raucous and acrimonious politics could be, both during the Founding era and in the generation that followed. These were men (and they were exclusively men, though women like Abigail Adams were profoundly influential) were men of towering intellect, fiery ambition, and they could often be quite cruel to one another. Indeed, the book points out that it is precisely this volatility that was both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the emerging republic.

All in all, I very much enjoyed The Problem of Democracy. As with many other popular history books produced in the last several years, the authors implicitly draw connections between our own political moment and that of the Founding Fathers. Much as we might like to think that we have moved beyond some of the darker and less pleasant parts of our collective history, Isenberg and Burstein reveal that we must still contend with the shortcomings of the popular will and those who would manipulate it for their own advancement. As the rise of Trump and a particularly violent and dangerous strain of nationalism have made clear, there is still much we must do to keep this republic. Hopefully, we can solve this seemingly intractable problem before it’s too late, and the American experiment goes up in flames.


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