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.)
The strength of “The Problem of Democracy” lies in its masterful intertwining of the narrative of the two Adamses’ lives. This allows us to see how profoundly John Adams shaped his son’s intellectual and moral values and how intensely invested he was in every aspect of John Quincy’s career. For his part, John Quincy found “exquisite pleasure” in his father’s approval and accepted “an undeniable sense of duty” to the senior Adams that he never found oppressive. Following them in tandem, we can see that these two brilliant men shared a burning self-doubt that could not quench an equally burning ambition to be recognized for their talents and virtues.
In death, father and son both received the accolades they so fervently sought. When 91-year-old John Adams died on July 4, 1826, his passing was, the authors note, “recorded as a sensational event without precedent, because of the exquisite timing — because of the unique day on which it occurred.” Five days later, John Quincy Adams would eulogize his father in his diary, writing, “He had served to great and useful purpose his nation, his Age, and his God.” When 81-year-old John Quincy died on Feb. 23, 1848, a Wisconsin newspaper recalled the insults he had received as president. But, as the authors point out, this obituary acknowledged that in his last years, he was listened to with respect and reverence, and the Emancipator described him as “the venerable and venerated sage of Quincy.” These were, the authors note, “the same words . . . used to characterize his father in 1826.” The only discordant note was struck by Walt Whitman, who condemned John Quincy Adams because he was “not a man of the People.”
In their final chapter, “Ad Consummandum,” the authors begin by exploring why the Adamses, unlike Jefferson and Jackson, were never admitted into the pantheon of American heroes. But how could it be otherwise? These two men were “less given to the smooth-talking, consensus-building activity of their party-identified peers”; they “wished, almost innocently, that sincerity would play a demonstrable role in the life of the Republic, to supplant hero worship.” But the American political trajectory, the authors argue, was against them: “Individualism supplanted moral didacticism,” making the Adams world-view increasingly irrelevant. The cult of personality, nurtured by the press and relished by political actors, triumphed.
Were the critics of John and John Quincy Adams correct? Were father and son anti-democractic? Isenberg and Burstein insist not. “Their discomfort,” they write, “was not with representative democracy but with an overindulgent popular democracy. . . . They sought to advantage a system that secured national dignity and national respectability, that rewarded informed self-possession rather than demagoguery . . . that honored expertise and promoted goodwill.”
“The Problem of Democracy” offers a final warning to its readers who live in an era of “alternate truths” and blind devotion to charismatic leaders: Personal charisma should not substitute for “proven judgment, a sense of fairness, breadth of knowledge, and administrative command.”
By Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein
543 pp. $35