Saturday, October 27, 2012

On John Adams; An Appreciation

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, and as his birthday is near, it is an opportune time to reflect on his life. At times – and by his own account – he was a failure as a human being. At times, he was spectacular, electrifying the Sons of Liberty with the passion and the intellectual courage to not only challenge the British Empire but to ratify a bold and visionary national Constitution.  He was a modern day Jeremiah, who could foresee the future, but his words often fell on deaf ears.

The Cantankerous John Adams
While still deciding whether to enter the profession of law, John Adams “admitted to feeling a ‘strong desire of distinction’ and dreaded being an ‘unknown.’”  On one hand he berated himself for having the vainglorious desire for professional recognition and on the other hand he berated himself for his failures to achieve recognition. In social settings, being a rustic who kept refined company, he could not behave naturally, and strained to cultivate a “habit of affecting wit and humour (Ferling, 192; 27).” As the biographer Ferling notes, 20 years later Adams’ physician observed that he, “alternated between long periods of shunning human contact and moments of emerging from his self-imposed isolation to rant and rage in the most frightening manner against his [political] enemies.”  The doctor added, he has "not only grown suspicious of almost everyone about him but had even begun to believe that he was the likely target of assassins (p. 237).” 

He played the martyr. He never wavered in the knowledge that he had dedicated every fiber of his being to advancing the cause of American independence. He trusted no one’s opinion as highly as his own. He knew that he was the butt of jokes. And his accomplishments – even when he earned Vice Presidency and later the Presidency – never seemed to win him the recognition he’d always craved. His own cabinet often opposed him (source). 

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a long friendship – interrupted by the rancor of the Election of 1800, but restored in time. Jefferson was aware of his faults. Adams was vain, lacked taste, and was prickly and irritable. And Jefferson clearly agreed with Benjamin Franklin’s assessment of Adams as, “always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes absolutely mad (letter to James Madison, July 1789).”

Even though Jefferson betrayed a patronizing attitude toward his eccentric friend, he did not slight John Adams’ important role in persuading Congress to approve the Declaration of Independence.  Adams, Jefferson wrote, “was the Colossus on the floor; not graceful, not always fluent in his public addresses, yet he came out with a power both of thought and expression that moved us from our seats. John Adams was the pillar of support to the Declaration of Independence on the floor of Congress; its ablest advocate and defender (letter to William Gardner, March 1813).”

Adams, afflicted by an excessive pride in his own intellect, disparaged Jefferson for writing a Declaration that cribbed from older political pamphlets by James Otis. But he believed passionately in the ideas expressed in those pamphlets and in the Declaration. Later, when John Adams drafted the Constitution of the state of Massachusetts, he alludes to the principles expressed in the Declaration

The end of the institution, maintenance and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body-politic; to protect it; and to furnish the individuals who compose it, with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquillity, their natural rights, and the blessings of life: And whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.
To reiterate then, the principles are thus: if the government comes to stand in the way of general prosperity, if it allows people across the land to be fearful and troubled rather than at peace in their lives, if it is distracted by foreign involvements that have little to do with the welfare of the body-politic, then it has failed to achieve its mandate. It is incumbent on the people to change their government. 

Over the span of many years, Adams and Jefferson debated the differences in their views of government. Jefferson believed that Adams feared the common people more than he feared the gradual re-emergence of monarchy. As "monarch" suggests royalty, perhaps the better choice of words is tyrant: the word applies to a single chief executive who is in a position to override or misdirect the wishes of the electorate and other members of government.Adams had a different view; as he wrote to Jefferson, “You are apprehensive of monarchy, I, of aristocracy (to Thomas Jefferson, December, 1787).” 

Now, Jefferson himself was an aristocrat, and owing to this, he may have seen little to fear from the educated upper classes. When he drew a contrast between “the common people” and a tyrant, he likely viewed the "common people" as property-owners like himself, who held the franchise to vote. But Adams, who never belonged among the aristocrats and could view them as an outsider, recognized their sense of privilege. 

In light of this reading of the differences between Jefferson and Adams, consider this passage from the Constitution of the state of Massachusetts: 

No man, nor corporation, or association of men, have any other title to obtain advantages, or particular and exclusive privileges, distinct from those of the community, than what arises from the consideration of services rendered to the public; and this title being in nature neither hereditary, nor transmissible to children, or descendants, or relations by blood, the idea of a man born a magistrate, lawgiver, or judge, is absurd and unnatural.
The passage unmistakably alludes to the danger that men of wealth and social standing may gain undue influence over government. Adams was fearful of the effects on democracy of the inheritance of vast wealth and titles. The only reason a man ought to be granted high office within the government, he believed, was on the basis of that man’s record of service to the public. In the following passage, this point is made even more clearly:
Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men; Therefore the people alone have an incontestible, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter, or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity and happiness require it.
History remembers Jefferson as a champion of states’ rights, who wanted to ensure that government power remains decentralized in order to prevent the emergence of a tyrant. In contrast, it has been largely forgotten that Adams was a champion of a way of government that remains alert to the danger of a class of people gaining power through their wealth, social position, and influence over political leaders. One could say that both Jefferson and Adams had legitimate concerns. But if one were to be asked which of the two is the clearer and more present danger to democracy: the concentration of power into the hands of a single individual, or the concentration of power into a small clique of individuals whose interests are at odds with those of the public, what is the wiser answer?

Adams understood that the advent of a tyrant occurs in stages. First, he enters the aristocracy of wealth and influence, secondly he gains the support of other aristocrats, and finally ascends to a position in which he is no longer accountable to the people. And Adams also know that, even when a tyranny does not arise, oligarchic rule by aristocrats was to be equally feared. 

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