Saturday, February 19, 2005

Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis

This was a great read, much more like his American Sphinx than that populist tripe Founding Brothers. What I like best, I think, is that it is about what goes on in people’s heads, not about what happened on such and such a date. I wonder if his new one about George Washington is like that? If what goes on between these covers is really what went on between Adams’ ears, then I think in a lot of ways Adams was my kind of guy. He was a consummate arguer, always ready to take the opposite point of view just for the sake of a good argument. He even argued with the books he read, scribbling contrarian notes in the margins till his words almost outnumbered the author’s. In one such example, after listening to an argument on behalf of the divinity of Jesus Christ that concluded with the unknowability of it all, Adams jotted down his own conclusion: “Thus Mystery is made a convenient Cover for absurdity.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting theses of the book is the idea that Adams faded so much from our public consciousness, especially when compared to the near deification of Thomas Jefferson, because his political ideology, so central to an understanding of the forces which built and shaped our nation, in time came to be seen as aristocratic and, frankly, un-American. The American dialogue originally symbolized by Adams and Jefferson was a debate over what kind of nation America would be and what kind of promise it would hold for its citizens. Jefferson’s vision won that argument, and ever since then the American dialogue has no longer been a discussion over what kind of country we will have, it has been an argument over how we will be able to bring that country about. In that debate, it is no longer Adams countering Jefferson and Jefferson countering Adams. In a very real sense, the debate is now between Jefferson and himself.

Today both sides of the political aisle invoke Jefferson’s words to justify and embolden their ideology, a trick they can accomplish both because of Jefferson’s insufferable fuzziness when it comes to political doctrine and because all political parties today are in essence unified by an American catechism dominated by references to “freedom,” “equality,” “democracy,” and “individualism,” words and concepts that come directly from the Jeffersonian tradition. Adams’ catechism is filled with references to “control,” “balance,” “aristocracy,” and “public responsibility,” words and concepts that are not today embraced as truly American ideas. Adams’ whole way of thinking about politics and society resisted the assumption that the individual was the sovereign unit in the social equation. He did not conceive of personal or private happiness as the ultimate goal for government. His ideological orientation was inherently social and collectivistic, driven by the assumption that individual strivings—what Jefferson had immortalized in the phrase “the pursuit of happiness”—must naturally and necessarily be subordinated to public imperatives if the human potential unleashed by the American Revolution were to achieve its fullest realization.

It makes me wonder if there is an explanation in there for my own disillusionment with the political parties of today. I've said before that if I ever joined a political party it would have to be one of my own creation. But after reading Ellis’ opinion that Adams would be troubled by today’s malls, outlet stores, and visible trappings of consumer culture, along with the widespread presumption of unbridled individual freedom, unencumbered by any internalized sense of social responsibility and even justified as a fulfillment of the Revolution he had fought and wrought, I wonder if I’m not in fact an Adamsonian Federalist, a member of a political party and ideology that no longer exists.

Adams believed that untethered individual freedom would inevitably lead to excess, decay and demise, and that the purpose of government was to regulate those forces so that they could flourish without falling in on themselves. America, like all great republics, would eventually fall, a victim of its own excess. There was nothing anyone could do that stop that. Good government, however, could slow the implosion down and delay it for as long as possible. If true, it sure makes it troubling that Adams lost that political argument to Jefferson so many years ago. Because now, instead of arguing over whether we should be one way or the other, we’re arguing about how much one way we should be. If we’re racing towards a cliff, today’s political parties want to either speed up or slow down. No one wants to turn around and go the other way.

Two miscellaneous quotes Ellis attributes to Adams:

During the Reformation the Catholics had the Pope, as well as Kings and emperors, on their side, and those poor Devils the Protestants, they had nothing on their side but God Almighty.

The Man who lives wholly to himself is of less worth than the Cattle in his Barn.

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