John Adams by David McCullough


John Adams might have had the most interesting personality of the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, in spite of a multidisciplinary life and his flirtations with anarchism, comes off as a somewhat wooden and aloof figure—not a very good drinking buddy. Adams, on the other hand, had a fiery constitution and an earthy simplicity free of the demagogic populism of the likes of William Jennings Bryan. To be sure, he, like all politicians, was a jackass, but he owned up to it, which makes him more likable. His utter humanity stirs the temptation to forgive him for the Alien and Sedition Acts, but we mustn’t get carried away.


David McCullough unpacks John Adams’s colorful character in his classic biography; he commands the reader’s attention for the entirety of this volume, from the protagonist’s early beginnings and entrance exam at Harvard, to lonely walks with Thomas Jefferson as their friendship froze over on Market St. in Philadelphia, to the spellbinding correspondence with Abigail, who in her own right is one of the more remarkable figures of American history. It’s well known that an HBO miniseries has been based upon this author’s work. I actually saw that first, and was utterly transfixed. When I found this book on sale at The Strand at 12th and Broadway, I couldn’t resist.


If there was a single idea that animated Adams’s political philosophy, it was his Hobbesian view of human nature: Man is evil and requires restraint, whether as governor or governed. Counterpoise, in his opinion and in the view of many other Founding Fathers, was the only way to deal with concupiscence. This took form most famously as the checks and balances between the several branches of government, so that one body, and in particular one man, the president, could not run amok. In theory, too, counterpoise extends to the relationship between the government and the electorate, but how much of this really exists these days when the moneyed interests make sure that anyone with an original idea is unelectable? I suspect Adams would have a thing or two to say about our current conundrum.


A more important question is raised: What is the best kind of counterpoise? A bureaucracy decides that black boxes shall be put in all new cars. Car manufacturers are stuck with higher prices, and so are the customers. There is no mutuality in this scenario. Or what kind of counterpoise exists in an election between two parties, one of which argues for a top tax bracket of 37%, and the other, one of 33%? The American ship of State has become large and lethargic, incapable of meaningfully changing course, unable to go back to the beginning to be reinvigorated by her First Principles, at least when it comes to certain subjects.


The best kind of counterpoise, it seems to me, exists between two equal persons engaging in a voluntary transaction. You go to the bakery to buy cookies. Both you and the baker benefit, and if, someday, you decide you’re not satisfied with the cookies, you have the power of the dollar in your pocket to rectify the situation, either by finding a new bakery, asking for your money back, or getting a new order. There is great flexibility in this situation, and creative solutions are often reached because smart businessmen and intelligent customers know that everyone is eager to benefit and be of benefit in such a transaction. It seems to me this should be the model of societal organization as far as possible. What better counterpoise could there be, particularly one that promises rewards rather than threatening punishments?


Many political philosophers liken the relationship of a government and its citizens to a business and its customers. It’s called the Social Contract Theory, which I like to call the Social Hijack Theory. It goes something like this: When you’re born, you, or maybe your parents, consent to be ruled by the government that claims jurisdiction over the territory on which happen to you live. This reminds me a lot of infant Baptism or circumcision, and it’s a desperate attempt to pretend that government is anything but what it really is: a monopoly on coercion putatively in order to secure the peace of society. A particularly rich contemporary example of this was the recent statement by Senator Harry Reid that paying income tax is “voluntary.” Now if Social Contract Theory is true, then the Senator is right. If it is false, then taxation, particularly direct taxation, is theft. The Founders believed in Social Contract at least in substance if not in name, but maybe we need to go easy on them, since, for their time, they dared to attempt experiments in freedom that were as yet unaccomplished. But never forget that the Revolution was sparked over a tiny tea tax.


For me, Social Contract Theory is the stumbling block to Statism. It sits on the fulcrum of what it means to be truly free. I don’t want to take a too-sanguine view of human nature, which, if it is not wretched as such, turns to wretchedness often enough to warrant extreme caution. Nevertheless, Social Contract is a contradiction, a sacred myth to make us feel better about the more extreme measures we take to keep things under control. If any politician were ever to have the courage to publicly announce that human beings are like cattle that need to be poked, prodded, lassoed and fenced in, I would actually have some respect for him or her. At least there would be honesty involved. John Adams believed in Social Contract. He also believed that humanity was more or less depraved and that sometimes the government needed to step in to crack the whip. Liberty, for him, was defined more or less in a very strict paradigm.


Beyond the idea of counterpoise there isn’t much that points toward a self-contained political philosophy on Adams’s part. He was no Paine (who, Adams argued, was better at tearing down than building up) or Jefferson, however much Jefferson damaged the credibility of his own beliefs with his actions. There are a few Christian ideas that generate the classical liberal movement, but above these elementary principles, Adams carves out a path that is largely pragmatic. Perhaps it’s because he understood what Fred Reed has elucidated, that the trouble with self-contained worldviews is the failure to take into account the buoyancy of human excrement. Lest anyone think Adams unprincipled, however, one ought to take note of an important difference between pragmatism and convenience. Pragmatism is the art of sorting out what works; convenience is a system of excuses to get what one wants. In the case of a politician, this is usually tyranny. Adams had only one failure in this respect that I know of: the Alien and Sedition Acts, which for all the injustice they created—These laws prefigured American xenophobia about Mexicans and Arabs by 200 years—were not quite so severe as Abigail would have had them be. One gets the impression that if she had her way, accused “libelers” would have been taken to dungeons in Fishtown to be hung upside down to die of starvation. All the same, it’s hard to picture John Adams, who risked his life numerous times for the cause of freedom, having much patience for the pre-flight booby groping of the TSA. Moreover, the few evils Adams committed are arguably outweighed by the smack down he put on Alexander Hamilton, whose bellicose ambitions did not go unnoticed by the President, thanks in part to his First Lady. Standing armies had no part to play in the America of John Adams, even though he was almost alone in his insistence on building a formidable navy whose strength contributed to the avoidance of war with France.


As difficult as they are, the problems of human nature and the maintenance of a free society are always dealt with more profitably when the people of a given country are well educated. In contemporary Dumberica, we consider “education” to be glorified, over-priced vocational training. Beyond a given craft many people are afflicted with an appalling lack of curiosity, unless the subject has something to do with what a given celebrity is doing with his or her private parts.


John Adams, on the other hand, favored the traditional liberal arts education, familiarity with ancient languages, the classics, and even of music. He understood that the whole person needed to be formed. He held forth on this matter when he drafted the Constitution of Massachusetts and included a paragraph on education that happily went unmolested by the committee that reviewed it. Alas, if this approach ever took root across the land, Andrew Carnegie and other industrialists ruined it all when they re-tooled the schools to create, in the words of George Carlin, “obedient workers.” It wasn’t long afterwards that we had Prohibition and trashy novels while we progressed from savagery to barbarism without ever having experienced civilization, to quote George Bernard Shaw.


John Adams, for all the posts he held, never once campaigned for political office. He admitted to being beset by ambition; all the same, a part of him longed most to be with his family on his farm at Peacefield. Sadly, late in life he regretted being absent so much from his younger sons Charles and Thomas, both of whom foundered in their cups in adulthood; Charles even drank himself to death. Adams’s sense of guilt in this is palpable. While modern presidents daydream about what their legacy will be, Adams focused on all that he had given up in order to be a central figure in early America. He who loses his life finds it.


The electoral system of the late 18th century allowed the possibility that someone would be dragged into the presidency against his own wishes. Maybe we should return to those days when state legislatures selected their members of the Electoral College and the people, as a result, had only a very indirect influence on the election—and what’s the problem with that, since Social Contract Theory is a mere fairy tale? Think of the peace and quiet! No more political commercials, and instead of victorious candidates giving smug victory speeches on election night, they’ll instead be where they belong: in the bathroom next to the commode, contemplating their difficult future. We should paraphrase a saying of the Catholic Church: He who goes into an election a president comes out a governor, a talk show host, or even a congressman from Wisconsin. Maybe then we’ll end up with leaders who are plausibly sane.


Oh, what’s the use? I remain unconvinced by all this poli-sci jibber-jabber. I propose a society of seven billion secessions, a starburst of human freedom and creativity, a world of mutuality and free will, where the counterpoise exists at the micro level, where it can actually be effective. Maybe we’ll never get there, but if we do, some paradoxical thanks will be owed to the likes of John Adams, who dared to take a step out into the deep, into the unknown territory of a freer society than had been known in most places to that point. We would benefit from similar courage, and in this David McCullough’s book on John Adams offers us an excellent profile.