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Sat Apr 13, 2019, 11:23 AM

Adams family values

Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein
Sat 13 Apr 2019 01.00 EDT

... There were those, like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and many of their fellow southerners, who skillfully employed a rhetoric that concealed their class interests. There were those in the Adamses’ New England who dismissed all social inferiors without apology. The two Adamses may have been snobs in their own way but they hated all forms of deception and intimidation, subtle or direct, regardless of its origin. They hated the fact that American politics thrived on the embellishment of larger-than-life personalities as “men of the people”. To the endless frustration of the father and the son, each spent the greater part of his political career facing the charge of holding a dangerous degree of elitist sympathy. Whether guilty or not, they took a perverse pride in refusing to court public opinion through dishonest means – which made them poor politicians.

Nor were the Presidents Adams ever sanguine about the two-party system, which may be the most distinguishing feature in their common political profile. Others forecast a favorable outcome to party competition, convinced voters could safely decide which of two candidates best represented the majority’s interests. The Adamses balked at this vision. They decried the hypnotic sway of “party distinctions” and “party spirit” as the bane of political life. Political parties did not guarantee democracy to everyone; they merely protected the interests of their most influential members. The Adamses would have preferred a system that pitted the visible merits, known competence, and experienced judgment of one prospective leader against another.

They detested the provocative mania parties allowed for, in rousing an intense enthusiasm for select, heroically framed men without objectively assessing their assets and virtues first. History remembers the Adamses as two failed presidents who fell out of step with progressive notions of democracy. Few understand how much they worried about the emergence of one or another form of aristocracy in America, whether it was a moneyed oligarchy or a slave-owning planter contingent that spoke with a single voice. Any faction that held outlandish power over laws and lawmaking threatened good government. Their cure for malignant control was to be found in institutional solutions aimed at preserving a balance of power across society ...

... no one wants to be told that the dynamic story of the rise of democracy is an exercise in mass self-delusion. The first father-and-son presidents are regarded as obstructionists, stuffed shirts, surly malcontents who were resistant in turn to Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy. Instead, they should be regarded as serious students of a road not taken, two who insisted that competence and rational judgment should supersede hollow celebrity and contrived popularity in a republic where votes ought always to register the choices of an informed citizenry ...


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