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it was amazing
Ellis does a great job of showing Adams as the complex man he was–he was a perfect example of the kind of person whose flaws and strengths cannot be separated. He was a realist and that didn’t lead to his popularity–in his own time or later. As Ellis wonderfully writes: “Finally, he was linked historically with Jefferson as the supreme embodiment of the American dialogue: he was the words and Jefferson was the music of the ongoing pageant begun in 1776; he was the ‘is,’ Jefferson was the ‘ough
Some of my other favorite quotes:
“Adams objected to Jeffersonian rhetoric because it tended to rhapsodize about the omniscience of popular majorities in much the same way that medieval defenders of papal and monarchical power had claimed a direct connection to the divine. For Adams, the threat to the American republic could just as easily come from the left as the right; democratic majorities were just as capable of tyranny as popes and kings.” 130
“’The best republics will be virtuous,’ he noted in the Defence, ‘and have been so; but we may hazard a conjecture, that the virtues have been the effect of the well ordered constitution, rather than the cause.’” 149
“Adams kept insisting that he was not celebrating the enduring social divisions within America at all; he was only calling attention to their existence, refusing to believe the lovely lie that the American environment acted as a kind of solvent that dissolved away all social distinctions and class differences.” 158
“one of his deepest political convictions: namely, that comprehensive theories of politics were invariably too neat and rational to capture the maddening messiness of the real world.” 172
The naturally prickly among us have to find our own ways to contribute. Adams did. Ellis explains how Adams, a bitter pessimist, contributed psychological realism to the political DNA of the country. Adams knew and distrusted the animal passions of his fellow “founding brothers” and countrymen. He knew that partisanship and glory-seeking are intrinsic to human nature. Washington himself may be above party politics, but the nation as a whole would not remain so. In part, the political genius of t
G.K. Chesteron once wrote that the Catholic Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age. I don’t know that the Church has a monopoly on timelessness, but some historic personalities have a sense of integrity that bids me think they would remain who they were if they were plucked up bodily and thrown into another age. Robert Ingersoll is one such man; John Adams is another. This sense of integrity isn’t magically imbued; it requires a certain f
Ellis’ treatment of Adams make me suspect that Adams would be his own man in any time because while classical allusions were rife in the founding era, Adams’ very soul was grounded in the classical tradition. Some revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson believed that the Revolution had made all things new again, that institutions like monarchy which prevented people from fulfilling an innately good nature had been escaped from. Adams held to an older view, however, that man was flawed and would constantly struggle with his inner demons — that virtue and vice hold us in a perpetual tug of war. Our greatest flaw, Adams believed, was pride and vanity; these would drive men to compete ferociously with one another even if they were economic equals. For Adams, the great problem of politics was how to build a productive government that took human frailty in mind. He was a grim realist in an age of idealism. This led him to promoting unpopular ideas — for instance, that the presidency should be invested with a certain sense of awe, not to honor the person but for the office and for the law’s sake. If people do not believe in the law, have a certain respect for it, it loses its persuasive power. If awe does not work, people resort to brute force — and things go to pieces. His pragmatism also led him taking a high and lonely road during his administration, when he doggedly pursued a course of non-interference during the Franco-English spats of the time. Federalists looked to trade and defense deals with England, and Republicans looked to France. Adams defied them both, following his studies of philosophy that indicated one must do the right thing even if it was unpopular. Adams hoped that history would vindicate him, and on that matter it has. (Ellis notes that Adams often chose the course of action that would alienate the most people, being suspicious of popularity even as he desired it.)
Although Ellis focuses on Adams’ thinking and writing, even still we get glimpses of Adams the man — reading ferociously, for instance. Adams not only challenged Jefferson in terms of the piles of books they both read, but filled his books with notes arguing and debating the authors. Adams loved a good intellectual bout, though his approach was more a pugnacious boxer’s than an exercise in rapier wit. In his exchange of letters to Thomas Jefferson, for instance, he fired off as twice as many letters as he received. Although often bombastic in his criticisms (especially where the “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar”, Alexander Hamilton, was concerned), Adams’ delight in conversation meant that he’d mend bridges with people like Jefferson or Mary Otis Warren just so he could lock horns with them again. Although by the time he died Adams was regarded as highly as Jefferson, throughout the 19th century his reputation was steadily surpassed by his old friend, who sometimes seemed to be shadowing Washington. Ellis attributes this to the triumph of Jacksonian democracy, which had and less use for Adams’ caution, and still less for his philosophic intransigence.
For my own part, I have found Adams endearing and redoubtable ever since discovering him via 1776 and David McCullough. Although self-conscious about his frailties, particularly his vanity and temper, that never stopped him from charging ahead in a roar, with a mouth firing off fusillades. He had a rare energy that left him only when the grave took him.