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john adams

17 february 2008

John Adams was left stranded on a siding of American history for almost two centuries: the first Vice President, the first President to lose a re-election bid, the last President to represent the doomed Federalist party. His rehabilitation probably began with the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson wrote it, but Adams was the insistent political energy behind the document). In 1969 Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards wrote the charming musical 1776 about the development of the Declaration, and William Daniels, playing Adams on stage and screen, reinterpreted him for popular culture as a waspish, needling speaker of truth to power. David McCullough's 2001 biography of Adams completed the reinstallation of Adams at the center of American political history, a place he had not held all that securely even as President. John Diggins's 2003 study in the Times Books American Presidents series is as acerbic as its subject, and argues strongly for a continuing appreciation of Adams as a political visionary.

There are two kinds of political historians, those who admire Adams and those who admire Jefferson, and admiring one usually entails disparaging the other. Diggins's book is as much a depreciation of Jefferson as an appreciation of Adams. The prime differences between Adams and Jefferson are easy to summarize: Adams believed in a strong executive that can preserve basic rights in the face of the tyranny of the majority; Jefferson believed in the power of the people, expressed ideally through an all-powerful, all-responsive legislature. Or at least Jefferson believed that before he became Chief Executive and proceeded to do what virtually every American President has done: look for ways to expand the power of the White House.

In other words, Diggins argues, Jefferson emulated Adams, the first man to reside in the literal, half-finished White House, the man who consolidated the role of the executive sketched out by his predecessor George Washington. An ironic emulation, because Jefferson had spent four years as Vice President undermining Adams in the name of restraining executive power.

Diggins gives us Adams as a postmodernist, a forerunner of Nietzsche, René Girard, Gilles Deleuze. No romanticist when it came to the "people," Adams conceived of polities as collections of brute wills to power, of society as being driven by emulation and triangulated desire, of a politics shaped by the sign, not by the essence, of its actors. In foreign policy, Adams believed in a strong navy and, as one of his diplomats is supposed to have insisted, "not one cent for tribute." In domestic policy, he (or his wife Abigail, according to Diggins) fostered the repellent Alien & Sedition Acts, the forerunners of every piece of paranoid legislation down to the 21st-century Patriot Act.

In theoretical terms, Adams believed in a strong executive because he believed that a republican legislature would naturally arrogate power to itself – and because he believed that a republic would naturally stratify according to some principle of aristocratic distinction, leading to oligarchy, without the counterweight of a disinterested and powerful single executive that represented all of a nation's people. On the latter point, Diggins sides with Tocqueville in dismissing Adams's fears. America was unlikely to breed an aristocracy, says Diggins, because "the American Revolution was the only revolution in history where all classes fought together on the same side" (170).

A strong executive, as we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries and as Adams certainly knew (though perceived as the lesser threat) tends to usurp the power of the legislature. And as to the class consensus that Diggins characterizes as "next to a political miracle" (170), it all depends on who has the opportunity even to join the consensus. Among the five million American colonists at the time of the Revolution were a million black slaves who didn't have any say at all in revolutionary politics. And down through American history, the apparent placidity of the American system has usually been underpinned by a permanently disenfranchised underclass: slaves, sharecroppers, European and Asian immigrant laborers, indocumentados. It's easier for class harmony to prevail when the lowest class is continually reinvented as not "American" at all, but relegated to the status of African, Irish, Chinese, or Salvadoreņo "others."

Diggins, however, argues his case wittily, even querulously, and the result is an engaging essay on the second President. Among the best things that Diggins puts forward in his subject's defense is Adams's conduct during the now-obscure Fries's Rebellion of 1799. John Fries, a militia leader in eastern Pennsylvania, led his men in obstructing the arrest of some local tax evaders by Federal agents. Fries was arrested in turn, tried for treason, and sentenced to hang. You would think that the signer of the Sedition Act would be eager to open up a can of hurt on a genuinely seditious guerrilla, but Adams – correctly, in Diggins's view – interpreted Fries less as a proto-Che-Guevara and more as a civilly disobedient tax resister. Adams pardoned Fries and all of his supporters. For all his slashing theories, John Adams proved himself over and over a pretty prudent politician.

Diggins, John P. John Adams. New York: Times Books, 2003.