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.

The New Mass: Bringing Socialism to the Catholic Church Since 1969

The following insights are indebted almost entirely to Friederich August von Hayek’s book The Counter-Revolution of Science, which I highly recommend and which is certainly a hell of a lot better than The Road to Serfdom.

For those readers who may not be aware of it, the Roman Catholic Church completely redesigned her liturgy in the late 1960’s, very suddenly and in such a way that the Mass and Divine Office of 1955 seemed like a completely different animal than the services of 1965 or 1970. After a little more than a decade of haphazard experimentation, the reforms of the Church were cemented in the form of the Roman Missal of 1969. The history here is actually more complex than I have intimated, but for purposes of this post, the above summary should suffice.

It should be noted that, contrary to popular history, the reformed Mass which is now in vogue in the Catholic Church was not the direct product of the Second Vatican Council. The Council stated, for instance, that the native tongue may be used instead of Latin in varying degrees, not that it must completely replace Latin–or even that it must be introduced at all. It said nothing about the priest facing the people, or using folk songs (“tra-la-la music,” as one of my professors called it) instead of the timeless art music which the Church has cultivated for centuries. On this last point, as a matter of fact, the Church said the opposite (See Article 116 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). The truth is that most of the reforms which most have embraced over the past several decades–and which are considered de rigeur by many–are extra-Conciliar: They were not voted on by the Council, and minutes of the Council suggest that dumbing-down the liturgy was the last thing most of the bishops had in mind. Rather, the worst of these atrocities were foisted on the Church by a small committee which was formed to carry out the dictates of the Council (commissio ad exsequendam), headed by Father (later Archbishop) Annibale Bugnini. They took the reforms far beyond the mandate established by the Council.

Back to Hayek. While working my way through the last few pages of Part I of The Counter-Revolution of Science last evening, something struck me like a bolt of lightning: The Mass of 1970 (the Novus Ordo Missae, as it is called) is a direct descendant of socialism. Consider the following:

1. While the free market operates with many individuals freely interacting with each other as needs dictate, the socialist Weltanschauung desires that economies, and even entire societies, be subject to Central Planning, self-conscious control. Hayek points out that this requires a mastermind, a single individual, to direct. (The irony here is delicious that egalitarian socialists must ultimately submit to a single authority.) In the development of the New Mass that mastermind was none other than Annibale Bugnini, who directed the entire process of post-Conciliar liturgical reform.

In contrast, the Traditional Mass, which was in widespread use until 1965, was the result of un-self-conscious development over many centuries. It was influenced by many people and many circumstances and spontaneously adapted to needs as they arose. This far more closely resembles the free market.

2. Hayek points out that, for socialists such as H.G. Wells and Max Weber, efficiency was the god of all the gods. The goal was to make every man a mere part of the perfectly well-oiled machine of society, so that the economy could become the perfect piece of equipment, which you might say could effectively translate all its resources into a needed product–with the needs being determined by the mastermind, of course.

This maniacal estimation of efficiency is reminiscent of the determination of the liturgical reformers to remove all “useless repetitions” from the liturgy. It should be noted that this particular measure was indeed included in the diktats of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The idea that one would repeat himself in prayer is very offensive to utilitarians (I have a friend with a thick Philadelphia accent who accidentally says “utalitarians,” but truly it is fitting and I just might try to get it in the dictionary some day), but what they seem to be unaware of is the fact that in ancient times such repetition was a method of emphasis. “With weeping I have wept” is one of my favorite examples of this.

It was not only words that were struck down with the “useless repetitions” doctrine, but also many gestures. The ceremonial of the Roman Rite was castrated on the altar of efficiency.

3. Hayek recounts the utter impatience of social planners with any factor that they could not understand. He uses the example of engineers resenting the price system. This also recalls the attitude of the liturgical reformers, who demanded that the meaning of everything in the liturgy be immediately comprehensible to every observer. This involves not only the simplifying of symbolic gestures, but also the actual order of the liturgy itself. If the order of a particular service didn’t “make sense” to the figures in charge of the liturgical revolt, they changed it so that it “made sense.”

The arrogance here is astounding. Instead of asking, “Why has the liturgy been ordered this way for centuries?” the reformers instead employed their historicist hubris (thank you, Whig theory) and changed by fiat what had been enshrined by tradition.

4. The New Mass is anthropocentric. Although it wasn’t made mandatory in the rubrics of the Missal of 1969, the de facto law was that the high altars should be replaced by tables so that the priest could face the people, and create, as Joseph Ratzinger has observed, a community that is closed in on itself. Often the line between the nave and the sanctuary was blurred as well, with the table being brought out into the midst of the people. These egalitarian frenzies were the proletariat’s dream come true. (For more on the anthropocentrism of the Mass, see J. Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy as well as Jonathan Robinson’s The Mass and Modernity.

The Church mandated that the New Mass be implemented on the first Sunday of Advent in December of 1969. Pope Paul VI, in his last two general audiences before this deadline, gave two strikingly different speeches. In the first audience, he explained why the Mass needed to change. In the second, he claimed, in astounding contradiction to the first allocution, why the Mass really isn’t changing. George Orwell himself couldn’t have come up with this. It seems as though Paul was falling for a kind of empiricist emancipation of tangible symbol from invisible reality and relying on the intellect alone to appreciate the true nature of the liturgy.

“I am afraid I have to admit it,” said Martin Mosebach in his tour-de-force, The Heresy of Formlessness, “I am a Stone Age Man.” Why? Mosebach says that he expects outward symbols to reflect the inner reality of what they represent. A Stone Age Man has no concern over the future. But a socialist is imprisoned by dreams of the future and empiricist claptrap. Is there more, though? Have not the Central Planners of the liturgy actually created a religious service which very much is an outward symbol of the inner workings of the parricidal socialist mind?