[an error occurred while processing this directive]

John Adams: A portrait of our second president

Today's politicians look nothing like the Founding Fathers, who were well-versed in classical education and had an instinct to do the right thing for the country.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001

Today's politicians look nothing like the Founding Fathers, who were well-versed in classical education and had an instinct to do the right thing for the country.

The Founding Fathers felt ill-equipped for the task of creating a new government after the American Revolution. "We have not men fit for the times," lamented John Adams. "We are deficient in genius, education, in travel, fortune -- in everything."

Yet, compared to today's politicians, the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution look like intellectual giants. Can you imagine what a disaster would occur if the members of the 107th Congress convened to do what the founders of our country accomplished?

Historian David McCullough, who has written a new biography of Adams, was asked recently why the nation's early leaders seem more capable than those who have been entrusted with running the federal government now.

Education, he said, is a key difference. The Founding Fathers received a classical education; they could read Latin and Greek. "They had the models of the Greek and Latin ideals -- honor, virtue, the good society," he said. "They didn't just read Cicero, Cicero was part of them. They were marinated in it."

In 1787, Adams demonstrated the value of his classical education when he wrote A Defense of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America, which was intended to influence the drafters of the Constitution.

According to McCullough, Adams drew his ideas for the book from some 50 other books that had been part of his education. In addition, his writing examined the structure of numerous forms of government, both past and present. Among his sources: Swift, Franklin, Machiavelli, Plato, Milton, Hume, Aristotle, Thucydides, Hobbes and Rousseau.

Adams concluded that Cicero's opinion favoring three branches of government had been born out by history. He also sought to warn against the dangers of radical French thought, especially the theories of Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, who espoused perfect democracy built on a single legislative body.

Benjamin Rush, one of Adams closest friends, observed that he possessed "more learning probably, both ancient and modern, than any man who subscribed the Declaration of Independence."

It might be asking too much for today's statesmen to steep themselves in the classical works that enabled Adams and Thomas Jefferson to put an imprint on the American form of government. Today, there are many more fields of study open to our fledgling political leaders that did not exist in the 18th century.

As McCullough sees it, however, politicians are a product of their culture. In other words, if today's political leaders are small-minded and unable to negotiate reasonable solutions to the nation's problems, the blame lies on the general deterioration of discourse in our society. Putting it more bluntly, a society that knows more about Puffy Coombs and Timothy McVeigh than Cicero or his modern equivalents is not likely to produce exemplary leaders. "We cannot underestimate the importance, the influence of culture on people, including ourselves," McCullough warns.

McCullough is not suggesting that Adams, Jefferson and their contemporaries were superior humans beings. In fact, his book demonstrates time and again that the Founding Fathers were ordinary people with the same foibles we all have. "They weren't superhuman; they weren't gods," the author insisted.

Although McCullough is kinder to Adams than his previous biographers, there is no mistaking the glaring character flaws of the nation's second president. He could be arrogant, vain and ill-tempered. In this regard, he seems no no different than Richard Milhous Nixon, William Jefferson Clinton and other modern presidents.

As the nation's first vice president under President George Washington, Adams made such a fool of himself while presiding over the Senate that the chamber voted to forever prohibit the vice president from participating in debate. Adams was mocked openly for suggesting that the president ought to be referred to as "His Majesty" or "His Highness." For this, Adams, a short, stocky man, earned the nickname "His Rotundity."

Joseph J. Ellis, another historian who specializes in Adams, believes he had an instinct for doing the right thing, but was hopelessly inept in his dealings with other people. As Ellis writes in The Passionate Sage, which was published in 1993: "This was the established Adams pattern: to sense where history was headed, make decisions that positioned America to be carried forward on those currents, but to do so in a way that assured his own alienation from success."

In this regard, Adams reminds me of some gifted contemporary politicians I have known who never lived up to their potential. The one that comes to mind most readily is Lowell Weicker, former and governor from Connecticut, who has a keen wit, but an even sharper tongue.

Yet Adams was not without humility and humor, and he recognized that the pressures of public life could corrupt even the most virtuous men. "The longer I live and the more I see of public men," he wrote, "the more I wish to be a private one. Modesty is a virtue that can never thrive in public. It is now become a maximum with some, who are even men of merit, that the world esteems a man in proportion as he esteems himself."

Adam's son, John Quincy Adams, who was the nation's sixth president (the only father and son team to hold the office prior to last January), concurred with his father's low opinion of most politicians. While serving in the Senate, John Quincy observed: "This is now in general the great art of legislation at this place: To do a thing by assuming the appearance of preventing it. To prevent a thing by assuming that of doing it."

Sound familiar? John Quincy Adams was referring to the Congress' decision to allow the spread of slavery into the territory of the Louisiana purchase. But his description fits many modern political compromises. For example, President George W. Bush proclaims himself an environmentalist while advocating oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

Jefferson, whose reputation has eclipsed that of Adams for more than 200 years, was no less a flawed human being. Putting aside the controversy about his relationship with Sally Hemmings, the slave woman who is believed to have been his mistress, Jefferson is portrayed by McCullough as secretive and conniving. There is no question he undermined the presidency of his friend, Adams, in a way that protected him from being blamed for it.

John Quincy Adams noted that Jefferson, while serving as the country's third president, developed the bad habit of making up fantastic stories that reflected favorably on himself. During a dinner party at the White House, John Quincy reports in a letter to his father, Jefferson claimed that while he was serving in France, the temperature had dropped to 20-below-zero for six weeks. Members of the Adams family, who were living in Paris at the same time, knew it to be a lie. "He knows better than all this, but loves to excite wonder," John Quincy observed.

So one thing we learn from reading McCullough's new biography of Adams is the Founding Fathers, while suffering all of the same weaknesses as modern politicians, were able to rise to the occasion whenever necessary.

While Adams, Jefferson and their contemporaries had some cultural advantages, McCullough concludes, they also were trying much harder to do the right thing than our current crop of political leaders.

"Most of them knew, felt, never forgot that they were taking part in one of the great events in history," McCullough said. "They knew they would be judged by history and they'd better damn well measure up."

In Washington today, most politicians don't look beyond the next election. There is no sense of contributing to history, even though many of the decisions they are making in this new, post Cold War era are of historical importance.

There is no instant gratification for politicians who rise above partisanship, petty disagreements and self-centered ambition, but it is still what history demands of them.

- Sara Fritz is the Washington bureau chief for the Times.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.