How John and John Quincy Adams predicted the Age of TrumpRoundup
tags: books, politics, presidential history, Trump
Carol Berkin is the author of “A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism.”
In 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the debate over slavery was a “fire bell in the night” tolling the demise of the union. In 2019, the authors of “The Problem of Democracy” sound a different alarm: The cult of personality is destroying our democracy. Of course, many thoughtful Americans have already heard that bell pealing. What will come as a surprise to readers, however, is Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein’s assertion that John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, predicted our modern crisis. The authors argue that father and son witnessed, documented and fought to contain “the excesses they saw in unchecked democratic posturing and democratic pretense.” The Adamses lost these battles; they could not prevent the country from embracing the demagoguery that gave us the Age of Jefferson, the Age of Andrew Jackson and, implicitly, the Age of Trump.
Most accounts, the authors tell us, lay the blame for the Adamses’ failure on the disagreeable personalities of father and son. They were, according to contemporaries and most scholars, the antithesis of charisma: John was grouchy, pedantic, self-righteous and stubborn; John Quincy was characterized by his own son as a “a cold fish.” But Isenberg and Burstein argue that it was not these traits — none of which the authors deny — that account for the two Adams presidencies and their campaigns against demagoguery landing on history’s dust heap. It was instead their determined and righteous resistance to the hardening of parties and the growth of party spirit. It was father and son’s insistence on nonpartisan statesmanship in “an age of one-upmanship” that explained their defeat. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it seems to be that taking the high road is always a political mistake.
After the bold premise and broad promise of the opening chapter, the book that follows is a surprisingly traditional political biography, covering the familiar ground of political campaigns, diplomatic missions and major crises during the two Adams administrations. There is considerable attention paid to the men’s intellectual lives but only passing coverage of their intimate relationships. Throughout the narrative, the authors use every opportunity to advance their argument that a refusal to conform to party orthodoxy or to advance party agendas accounts for the political disasters and setbacks suffered by the Adamses. But other historians make a reasonable case that the men’s own failures of judgment, coupled with their many jealousies of fellow leaders and their undeniable ambitions, are more reasonable explanations. (For example, no one forced or pressured John Adams to appoint three wildly unsuitable envoys to negotiate detente with France’s master of diplomacy, Talleyrand, in 1797. This abysmal diplomatic failure was entirely his own doing.)
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