1 March, 2003Issue 2.2HistoryNorth AmericaPolitics & Society

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Present from the Start

Jacqueline Newmyer

The September 11 attacks spurred a debate about what America stands for. America’s response to the terrorists, from the operation in Afghanistan to the mobilization against Iraq, has provoked many critical reactions in the US as well as Europe. Some accuse the US of taking advantage of September 11 to achieve imperialist aims in the Middle East, while President Bush is using the war to divert attention from problems at home.

Disagreements hinge on whether the US is justified in waging its ‘war on terror.’ To determine whether America is worth protecting by such means, an investigation into American ideals is necessary. David McCullough’s John Adams provides an ideal launching point for exploring the values and way of life to be secured by a victory in the multi-front war.

McCullough’s biography is first and foremost a page-turner, short on intellectual history. Still, it details enough of Adams’s philosophy for the reader to appreciate his vision of America at its founding and to observe the construction of the world’s first liberal democracy. The generation that secured independence from Britain and framed the US Constitution succeeded in building a regime that would reflect and accommodate—not strive to change—human nature. The founders disagreed about many issues, but they shared a determination to root the American experiment in the principle of natural freedom and equality. Further, they understood their task to consist in designing a system of self-government that would endure despite the fact that ideals don’t motivate most people most of the time. As Adams wrote in his 1787 Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, ‘Religion, superstition, oaths, education, laws, all give way before passions, interest, and power.’

America’s founders believed that the dictates of self-interest rightly understood should guide politics in a self-governing state; this conviction merits close attention in this period of post-September 11 soul-searching and reexamination. The virtue of McCullough’s account is that it traces the evolution of Adams’s understanding of the connection between human nature and government—a concern that underlies the founders’ innovation in statecraft.

Born to a humble yet sturdy family in Braintree, Massachusetts, Adams first distinguished himself as a defense attorney before entering the world of politics in the 1760s, when outrage over the Stamp Act sparked the first flickers of independence in the colonies. From his days as a student at Harvard through his early years of public service—he was a surveyor of highways and then an elected selectman in Braintree before being chosen as a Massachusetts delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774—Adams was plagued by anxiety about his own character. Conscious of both his capacity and his ambition, he worried that his vanity would stunt his political growth.

His most important decision, he often remarked later in life, was his choice of bride. Abigail Adams, whom he wed after a five-year courtship in 1764 at the age of 28, was nine years younger but very much Adams’s equal in the marriage. Some critics have complained that McCullough pays inordinate attention to the devotion between husband and wife, but his exposition of the cooperative and loving spirit of their union sheds light on the development of Adams’s character. McCullough gained access to their private correspondence, and he in turn passes on this insider’s perspective. One representative letter, written after a brief period away from her, conveys Adams’s sense of dependence on Abigail:

My soul and body have been thrown into disorder by your absence, and a month or two more would make me the most insufferable cynic in the world… People have lost all their good properties or I my justice in discernment. But you, who have always softened and warmed my heart, shall restore my benevolence… You shall polish and refine my sentiments of life and manners, banish all the unsocial and ill-natured particles in my composition.

Abigail proved a soulmate who joined Adams in his fervor as an apostle of independence and supported him through the highs and lows of his career. She deserves her prominent place in McCullough’s biography—their correspondence demonstrates Abigail’s role in her husband’s continuing education in human nature.

By the time he traveled to Pennsylvania to participate in the First Continental Congress, Adams had settled upon certain relevant truths of human nature. McCullough quotes early journal entries in which Adams formulates his core principles: ‘Nature throws us all into the world equal and alike,’ he asserts, laying the foundations for the Constitution’s protection of equal liberty.

But Adams was not unrealistic about the extent of human equality. While maintaining that people are ‘equal and alike’ at birth, he also recognized the impossibility of a uniform distribution of aptitudes and wealth, glory and honors in a great country. ‘Was there, or will there ever be a nation whose individuals were all equals in natural and acquired qualities, in virtues, talents, and riches?’ he wonders, before concluding, ‘the answer in all mankind must be in the negative.’

The government of the United States would have to respect the principle of equality at birth while recognizing the tendency of people to diverge in attributes and accomplishments.

Adams’s study of history, his reading of the classics, and his observation of the men around him afforded him another key insight into human nature. Thus he writes, ‘ambition is one of the more ungovernable passions of the human heart,’ and, ‘the love of power insatiable and uncontrollable.’ McCullough captures how Adams’s recognition of universal aspects of character—natural equality and indomitable passion—guided his statecraft. In making the case for annual elections, for instance, Adams suggests that without the restraint of having to stand for office, ‘every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey’.

The necessity of holding regular elections, distributing authority among different branches of government, restraining the power of the legislative with a strong executive branch, and developing a strong military capability emerge clearly in Adams’s political texts. Among them, Adams’s 1776 Thoughts on Government and his 1779 ‘Constitution or Form of Government for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ decisively shaped the US Constitution, which was finally signed in 1787 while Adams was serving as ambassador in London.

These contributions are slightly overshadowed in the McCullough biography by lavishly detailed descriptions of life in the late eighteenth century. McCullough vividly and expansively narrates harrowing incidents on Adams’s transatlantic voyages, Abigail’s anxieties during frequent outbreaks of influenza and smallpox at home, and standards of living from Boston and Philadelphia to London, Paris, the Hague, and finally the White House. The author’s over-the-top Hollywood touches are hardly surprising in light of the adaptation of his last biography, Truman, into an HBO movie.

A handful of distinguished academics have offered a more substantive critique of McCullough, complaining that he overemphasizes Adams’s moral fiber while neglecting his shortcomings as president. These scholars also object to McCullough’s treatment of Adams’s friend and rival Thomas Jefferson, with whom he is favourably compared throughout the book. In the eyes of these critics, Jefferson’s commitment to egalitarianism and the possibility of self-improvement redeem his vices (which included slave-owning), while Adams, for all his strength of character, was blinded by his conservatism, failing to perceive the consequences of the post-Enlightenment extension of equality. As Sean Wilentz, an American history professor at Princeton, writes in his review in The New Republic, Adams

never really understood (as Madison did) that the Revolution had overthrown [his] way of thinking, replacing it with an ideal of popular sovereignty that permitted no permanent social classes in politics. America, the Revolution had decreed, would have a classless state; and this dispensation would be forever incomprehensible to John Adams.

Wilentz connects this failure to the lowest moment of Adams’s presidency, his endorsement of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, which granted the president the right to expel any foreigner deemed ‘dangerous’ and criminalized all ‘false, scandalous, and malicious’ writing against the government. Rejecting the explanation proffered by Adams and defended by McCullough—that looming war with France rendered the acts necessary—Wilentz accuses Adams of unforgivable overreach in his restriction of civil liberties. Close readings of McCullough and of Adams himself, however, demonstrate the hollowness of Wilentz’s charge.

Although Adams’s commitment to equality was combined with an appreciation for the unequal distribution of virtues and vices in the population, he was nonetheless a firm believer in the wisdom of the people. His instincts were anything but aristocratic. His journal entries and letters, quoted judiciously by McCullough, reveal his curiosity about and respect for public opinion at all levels. Adams solicited the views of yeoman farmers and senior statesmen alike in the course of his public service career.

Adams’s commitment to equality led him to take care in devising a constitution that would honor and preserve it. It was Adams, not Jefferson, who first complained about the absence of a Bill of Rights from the Constitution drafted while they were both serving in Europe. He repeatedly affirmed that the end of government is to protect certain core rights.

For instance, he wrote in his journal, ‘Government is nothing more than the combined force of society, or the united power of the multitude, for the peace, order, safety, good and happiness of the people.’ Adams concludes, ‘There is no king or queen bee distinguished from all others, by size or figure or beauty and variety of colors, in the human hive.’ Government, in his mind, was truly of, by, and for the people.

Adams exemplifies the American founders’ commitment to popular sovereignty, a commitment tempered by knowledge of human tendencies and concern to build a regime that would last. A moral belief in the natural equality of all men, together with a realistic sense of the power of passions and self-interest in the human heart, inspired Adams’s contributions at the dawn of the United States, and the remnants of his spirit endure.

Thanks to the founders, American presidents lead a government conceived in harmony with, not in spite of, human nature.

The liberal democratic achievement of the US constitutional state is that it derives strength from the consent of the governed just as they are, without trying to purify or improve them via a state religion. In the face of the terrorist menace and threats from hostile forces across the globe, McCullough’s book offers an answer to the question of what America stands for—an answer that should both sustain and renew that nation’s resolve to defend itself against its enemies.

Jacqueline A. Newmyer, an MPhil student in New College, Oxford, studies political philosophy and military strategy.