Nonfiction: Two Early Presidents Who Questioned the Wisdom of ‘the People’

The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality
By Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein

Many Americans might be surprised to learn that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution includes the word “democracy.” The gentlemen-authors of those documents conformed to an 18th-century understanding of the term and regarded the prospect of rule by the people as tantamount to anarchy. It took decades of political, economic and social change to redefine democracy away from an inherently unstable form of government and make it the bedrock of American politics. Or so goes the usual historical narrative. According to Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, however, the notion that “the United States is a democracy today” is as much a myth as the assumption that the founding generation ever wanted it to be one.

Isenberg and Burstein, who have both separately and together written several notable books about America’s founders, present their provocative argument in “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality.” This detailed “interdependent portrait” of John and John Quincy Adams tracks the careers of the equally ambitious father and son, who both rose to the nation’s highest office and were ousted after a single term. Criticized by contemporaries and posterity alike for their difficult personalities, the two Adamses certainly nurtured a powerful sense of grievance as they assessed the political developments of their day. Yet their curmudgeonly characters likely predisposed them to discern genuine problems in government that their adversaries preferred to exploit for their own advantage rather than correct for the good of the nation.

Born 31 years apart in Braintree, Mass., the two Adamses stayed connected to their New England roots, no matter how far from home they journeyed. And journey they did, beginning with John Adams’s decision to bring his 10-year-old son along on a diplomatic mission to Paris in 1778. Both of them subsequently lived for extended periods in the Netherlands and England, and John Quincy went on to represent American interests in Berlin and St. Petersburg for more than a decade.

The remarkable parallels between their careers extended beyond lengthy European travels and one-term presidencies. Both men negotiated peace between the United States and Britain — John in 1783, with the Treaty of Paris ending the War of Independence, and John Quincy in 1814, with the Treaty of Ghent concluding the War of 1812. Each served as America’s minister to the Court of St. James’s. Drawing on a shared love of classical learning, especially Cicero’s exhortations to put nation above self, the two Adamses also regularly took up their pens to expose ominous developments that in their view imperiled the young Republic.


Neither man questioned the necessity of popular consent, but both thought democracy ought to be just one part of a properly balanced government. Around the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, John argued that a new national legislature must have a senate with “illustrious” and well-educated members serving as a counterweight to representatives elected to a lower house by “credulous” voters. Nearly 40 years later, in his 1825 Inaugural Address, John Quincy seemingly diverged from his father’s discomfort with a fickle populace by commending “a confederated representative democracy” that had proved itself “competent to the wise and orderly management of the common concerns of a mighty nation.” Yet he delivered this speech in the wake of the highly contentious election of 1824, decided not by the voters but by the House of Representatives, when no candidate won a majority in the Electoral College. None of John Quincy’s opponents — least of all his archrival Andrew Jackson — would have agreed that the voice of the people had actually been heard.

Jackson, however, epitomized the dangers of an unchecked democracy. The belligerent Tennessean, who defeated Adams in a landslide in 1828, joined a parade of charismatic figures who over the years brazenly courted popular opinion to distract voters from recognizing the Adamses’ superior claims to leadership — at least from their own jaundiced perspective. First in line was a lazy and flirtatious Benjamin Franklin, whom John Adams accused of hogging the limelight when the pair sought a wartime alliance with France. Father and son later agreed — with barely disguised envy — that the renown enjoyed by John Hancock and Thomas Paine was undeserved. “It is melancholy to observe,” the younger Adams groused, “how much even in this free country the course of public events depends on the private interests and passions of individuals.”

What transformed a vexing cultivation of celebrity into genuine peril for the Republic was the rise of political parties, which deliberately appealed to the “passions” of voters rather than their good judgment. Members of the founding generation abhorred the very idea of party, a term that conjured up shady cabals placing self-interest ahead of the public good. But parties emerged nonetheless, beginning with the Federalists and Republicans in the 1790s. A flood of partisan newspapers widened the political divide, stirring up the populace to worship some men as heroes and denounce their opponents as villains. John Adams’s effort to rise above the fray while in office only served to make him a target for both factions’ leaders, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Matters had worsened by the second Adams’s presidency. The Jeffersonian Republicans renamed themselves Democrats to advertise their anti-elitist devotion to the people and immediately started a campaign to elect their champion, Andrew Jackson. A relentlessly partisan press manipulated readers’ loyalty with appeals to emotion, exaggerations and outright lies. According to one senator appalled by Jackson’s authoritarian bent once he achieved office, “The more arbitrary the measures become the less the laws, the Constitution and the principles of civil liberty are regarded.”

Sound familiar? Although the current occupant of the White House is nowhere mentioned by name in this book, his prodigious shadow looms large. The trends that so distressed the Adamses in the nation’s early years have intensified to a degree they could scarcely have imagined, thanks to virulent social media, the injection of vast sums of money into American campaigns, a politicized judiciary and rising economic inequality. We can only be grateful that father and son were spared this vision of their worst fears coming true.

Washington, Jefferson and other prominent early Americans (with the likely exception of Jackson) would no doubt be equally horrified by modern developments. But would a 21st-century version of either Adams — or of Washington — be able to redirect the nation away from destructive partisanship toward a disinterested pursuit of a common good? Despite the contemporary inspiration for their positive reassessment of the Adamses, Isenberg and Burstein wisely avoid making such a claim. If there is any lesson to be derived from this book, they assert, it is that the Adamses “were onto something when they observed that the errors of the people threatened ‘government by the people.’” This leaves open the possibility that the people might have the capacity to recognize their mistakes and correct them — a democratic solution to the problem of democracy. Even the famously dour Adamses might be tempted to hope for such an outcome, however unlikely it seems at present.

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