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Acclaimed novelist and satirist Neal Pollack will analyze and dissect selected early writings by Founding Father John Adams.
Neal Pollack is the author of three books: the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, Beneath the Axis of Evil, and the rock ’n’ roll novel Never Mind the Pollacks. A regular contributor to Vanity Fair, GQ, and many other magazines, Pollack lives in Austin, Texas.
For those parents among us who think they're educating their children well, I offer the relationship of John Adams and John Quincy Adams as comparison. We should all hide our Montessori blocks, after-school French lessons, and Boy's State scholarship applications in shame. And multiply by ten everything you've read, since many 18th-century universities presented their lectures exclusively in Latin. John Quincy Adams went to college, in a foreign country, at age thirteen.
Imagine John Adams's rage, then, when horror of horrors, he discovered that his son's course of study didn't include Cicero and Demosthenes.He insisted that John Quincy begin an independent course of study at once, while also encouraging him to learn the "fine arts" of ice-skating, riding, fencing, and dancing. "Everything in life should be done with reflection," said the wise father. And he had some more practical New England advice:
Read somewhat in the English poets every day. You will find them elegant, entertaining, and constructive companions through your whole life ... You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket. You will never have an idle hour.
Given the hygiene and general manners of my poetic acquaintances, I find the idea of a poet in my pocket quite unappealing. But Adams's sentiment is eternal and untouchable. What possible equivalent, in today's educationally diminished age of standardized testing, forged term papers, and ideologically charged culture wars, could there possibly be? "Son, the sum total of a man is his performance on the AP Geography exam." "You should major in something useful, like Economics or Business." "The literary canon is the product of centuries of white male patriarchy. Read Maxine Hong Kingston and Alice Walker instead." The gravitas just isn't there.
"You will ever remember," said John Adams in a letter to his young son, "that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen." I hope someone can immediately produce forensic evidence to prove me wrong, but it seems unlikely that letters like that get written anymore.
John Adams (elder) was born the son of a commonplace New England farmer, to a family of values so straightforward and simple that, as an Adams family member wrote, "A hat would descend from father to son, and for fifty years make its regular appearance at a meeting." Yet stinky hat notwithstanding, Adams rose to the heights of history, and he did so in large part because of his education.
Forgive my potted history of the Enlightenment here, but I shall do my best. The second half of the 1700s was a golden time when most intellectuals shared the belief that the power of reason could lead to human perfectibility. Observation and experience became the building blocks for moral values, scientific inquiry, and the construction of nation-states. The Bible and Greek philosophy were to be studied, but not followed as dogma, and the religious trend of the day was Deism, a belief in an all-seeing God. Theology was anathema, and the "Church," in all its forms, the root of evil, since it corrupted the free exercise of reason.
Those were the days of Voltaire and Franklin, Jefferson and Diderot, Locke and Hume, and a wild all-night club scene. The Enlightenment was cosmopolitan and antinationalistic. The publication of books and newspapers, combined with changes in technology, exploded under Enlightenment influence. It became fashionable, and, I'm sure, hilarious, for the upper classes to perform scientific experiments of their own at home. While the era waned, for good reason, after Marie Antoinette's head hit the ground in the Bastille, its influence paved the way for modern political and economic liberalism, humanitarian reform, and a belief in the necessity of progress. Then there was a little thing called the American Revolution.
I'm not the first, or even the 8,000th person to say that our Founding Fathers forged the Revolution through Enlightenment ideals and established the nation while adhering to those ideals with remarkable consistency. America as they conceived it would be the ultimate laboratory of human perfectibility, with reasoned knowledge the key to citizenship in this glowing country on the hill. At this point, I'm sure you see that this essay can't possibly reach a happy conclusion. But allow me to talk about John Adams a little more before we get to the depressing bits.
Throughout his public career, Adams was dogged by the accusation that he was, in his heart, a secret monarchist. There's much empirical evidence, some of it from the practical New England workhorse's mouth, to show this as the truth. Adams, while on a seemingly endless diplomatic mission to France, found himself entranced by Paris under the Sun King, and he expressed little but revulsion at the Jacobins who overthrew him. He believed that Americans had the right to self-govern, but could never bring himself to hate George III, or even blame the excesses of colonial rule on him. He also, it should be remembered, defended the British soldiers who perpetrated the Boston Massacre, not only because he felt they had a right to fair trial, but also because he believed the mob was equally at fault. John Adams was no friend of the mythical common man.
Thus we arrive at John Adams's A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, several vital excerpts of which are included in this volume. Adams's 1787 Defence was a rebuttal to French economist Turgot's critique of the direction of the budding American government. Penned just as the American experiment began to take physical form, Adams here makes his most important contribution to our system of government. He proposes a bicameral legislature, and does so, I might add, at considerable cost to his personal and political reputation. His "defence" concedes, as few politicians then could or now can, that society, by its very nature, creates class differences:
Wherever we have seen a territory somewhat larger, arts and sciences more cultivated, commerce flourishing, or even agriculture improved to any great degree, an aristocracy has risen up in a course of time, consisting of a few rich and honourable families, who have united with each other against both the people and the first magistrate; who have wrested from the former, by art and by force, all their participation in the government; and have even inspired them with so mean an esteem of themselves, and so deep a veneration and strong attachment to their rulers, as to believe and confess them a superior order of beings.
Adams thought that a philosopher king and his philosopher court, a council of wise persons, as it were, should be the true rulers of a free country. It's important to note, too, that he places "art," "science," and "force" in equal stature. Guns alone cannot rule a country, and only knowledge will liberate us from our earthly chains.
But just when you think that Adams is public snob number one, he throws a slider: "Shall we conclude, from these melancholy observations, that human nature is incapable of liberty, that no honest equality can be preserved in society, and that such forcible causes are always at work as must reduce all men to a submission to despotism, monarchy, oligarchy, or aristocracy? By no means."
Adams realized that a land ruled only by the elite would necessarily be shaped to meet the needs of that elite alone. America would be made great not because of its leaders, but because the leaders had established a social framework where citizens were free to own property, where trial by jury was a God-given right, and where a totally free press operated without fear of government reprisal. Still, and here's where Adams could be complicated and exasperating, the aristocracy was better, intrinsically, than the mass. We must be honest, he said:
What are we to understand here by equality? Are the citizens to be all of the same age, sex, size, strength, stature, activity, courage, hardiness, industry, patience, ingenuity, wealth, knowledge, fame, wit, temperance, constancy, and wisdom? Was there, or will there ever be, a nation, whose individuals were all equal, in natural and acquired qualities, in virtues, talents, and riches? The answer of all mankind must be in the negative.-It must then be acknowledged, that in every state, in the Massachusetts, for example, there are inequalities which God and nature have planted there, and which no human legislator ever can eradicate.
If a politician, or even pundit, were to say that in today's America, they'd be rhetorically tarred and feathered. Why, this is America, the land of opportunity, where all men are created equal. We don't like our politicians to be rich, even though most of them are. So we'd rather have them pretend to be "one of us."
Bosh, Adams said:
There is an inequality of wealth; some individuals, whether by descent from their ancestors, or from greater skill, industry, and success in business, have estates both in lands and goods of great value; others have no property at all; and of all the rest of society, much the greater number are possessed of wealth, in all the variety of degrees between these extremes; it will easily be conceived that all the rich men will have many of the poor, in the various trades, manufactures, and other occupations in life, dependent upon them for their daily bread: many of smaller fortunes will be in their debt, and in many ways under obligations to them: others, in better circumstances, neither dependent nor in debt, men of letters, men of the learned professions, and others, from acquaintance, conversation, and civilities, will be connected with them and attached to them.
In other words, four semicolons later, some people are rich, some people are poor, and that's the way of the world. Even more scabrously, Adams dared postulate that not all people are born equal. "The children of illustrious families," he wrote,
have generally greater advantages of education, and earlier opportunities to be acquainted with public characters, and informed of public affairs, than those of meaner ones, or even than those in middle life; and what is more than all, an habitual national veneration for their names, and the characters of their ancestors described in history, or coming down by tradition, removes them farther from vulgar jealousy and popular envy, and secures them in some degree the favor, the affection, and respect of the public.
Excerpted from A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America by John Adams Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 18, 2009
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