The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality

The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality

by Nancy Isenberg, Andrew Burstein


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"Told with authority and style. . . Crisply summarizing the Adamses' legacy, the authors stress principle over partisanship."—The Wall Street Journal

How the father and son presidents foresaw the rise of the cult of personality and fought those who sought to abuse the weaknesses inherent in our democracy.

Until now, no one has properly dissected the intertwined lives of the second and sixth (father and son) presidents. John and John Quincy Adams were brilliant, prickly politicians and arguably the most independently minded among leaders of the founding generation. Distrustful of blind allegiance to a political party, they brought a healthy skepticism of a brand-new system of government to the country's first 50 years. They were unpopular for their fears of the potential for demagoguery lurking in democracy, and—in a twist that predicted the turn of twenty-first century politics—they warned against, but were unable to stop, the seductive appeal of political celebrities Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.
In a bold recasting of the Adamses' historical roles, The Problem of Democracy is a major critique of the ways in which their prophetic warnings have been systematically ignored over the centuries. It's also an intimate family drama that brings out the torment and personal hurt caused by the gritty conduct of early American politics. Burstein and Isenberg make sense of the presidents' somewhat iconoclastic, highly creative engagement with America's political and social realities. By taking the temperature of American democracy, from its heated origins through multiple upheavals, the authors reveal the dangers and weaknesses that have been present since the beginning. They provide a clear-eyed look at a decoy democracy that masks the reality of elite rule while remaining open, since the days of George Washington, to a very undemocratic result in the formation of a cult surrounding the person of an elected leader.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525557500
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/16/2019
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 49,128
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 2.10(d)

About the Author

Nancy Isenberg is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University, and the author of the New York Times bestseller White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, and two award-winning books, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr and Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America. She is the coauthor, with Andrew Burstein, of Madison and Jefferson.

Andrew Burstein is the Charles P. Manship Professor of History at Louisiana State University and the author of ten previous books on early American politics and culture. These include The Passions of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson's Secrets, and Democracy's Muse. He and Nancy Isenberg have coauthored regular pieces for national news outlets.

Read an Excerpt

Mythic Democracy 

They were the only two chief executives in the American republic’s first half century to be turned out of office after a single term. There is no giant marble memorial to either of them in Washington, D.C.

Alive or dead, they do not embody the beau ideal of the democratic spirit. Who would claim that John and John Quincy Adams speak credibly, meaningfully, to the modern age? We would.

It is precisely because they are not obvious symbols of democracy that we find the two Adamses compelling subjects as we search for a better way to understand how the United States could have proceeded from its ecstatic opening pledge—the magnanimous “spirit of 1776”—to where it is today as a distressed political system. No historical investigator until now has committed to telling in any depth the story of the first father‑and‑son presidents. In these pages, we retie the broken threads of our nearly 250‑year‑old political inheritance. We see the Adamses’ experiences and their unpopular (but not necessarily wrong) positions as an opportunity to present to the politically engaged of our own time an accurate picture of a political heritage too many Americans are loath to address. It includes, but is not limited to, the unfortunate tribalism of the two‑party system.

With a fixation on influence‑buying, poll‑shifting dollars, we live at a moment in history when confusion reigns as to the dependability of all high‑sounding founding‑era rhetoric. If you were to ask an average citizen what America stands for, he or she would most likely repeat something from grade school about freedom and democracy. The simplistic response is not to be mocked, but it does betray what’s wrong: lack of definition. The framers of the Constitution did not erect a democracy. It was not their intent to do so. We must not assume that the United States is a democracy today ei‑ ther. That is why we have written this book. The presidents Adams are our vehicle in an effort to provide a germane, perhaps even urgent, interpretation of the nature of American politics. Persistent myths can no longer suffice.

How, then, do we extend the discussion from what we think we know about the two Adamses to what we should know about them? John Adams, the second president, assumed a lead role in the looming Revolution, vocally defending the Declaration of Independence when it came before the Continental Congress. But that is not what we consider most memorable about him. John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, was the first president not to have been old enough to take part in the Revolution; he stood before the Supreme Court in 1841 and argued valorously in order to win freedom for the kidnapped Africans who had dispatched their captors on board the Amistad. But that is not what we consider most memorable about him. The best reasons we find for remembering the Adamses are those that concern their stubborn insights into human psychology.
They understood the tricky relationship between human nature and political democracy, and how emotionally induced thought often undermined social and political justice.

To the extent that their critique has been dislodged from America’s proud history, it is because it does not comport with the ecstatic, celebratory, self‑congratulatory script that grew into the political faith we know as “American exceptionalism.” If the emotive writer Thomas Jefferson planted the seeds of exceptionalism (“this whole chapter in the history of man is new,” he pronounced), the presidents Adams cultivated a cautionary, less intoxicating political science favoring a balance of interests to counteract those urges that led a ruling few to undemocratic self‑aggrandizement.

The two shared a critical disposition in perceiving (much as we moderns claim we can perceive) the hollowness of celebrity. They saw how image supplanted truth and how the public mind was captured by a clever concept that hid a political agenda. They took note as popular personalities acquired power over citizens’ minds. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were perfect examples. But they were neither the first nor the last.

The presidents Adams knew that the powerful in government were elitists, no matter what they called themselves. There were those, like Jefferson, Jackson, and many of their fellow southerners, who skillfully employed a rhetoric that concealed their class interests, their impulse to protect those most like themselves; and there were those in the Adamses’ New England who dismissed all social inferiors without apology. The two Adamses might have been snobs in their own way, but they hated all forms of deception and intimidation, subtle or direct, regardless of its origin. To the endless frustration of father and son, each spent the greater part of his po‑ litical career facing the same charge: of holding an especially dangerous degree of elitist sympathy. Guilty or not, they took a perverse pride in refusing to court public opinion through dishonest means. They were, in short, pained politicians.

The presidents Adams were never very sanguine about the two‑party system, and this may be the most distinguishing feature in their political profile. Others forecast a favorable outcome to party competition, convinced that 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.

On the day of his own inauguration as president, betting against his father’s prognosis for one brief shining moment, John Quincy Adams allowed that the two parties that dominated the early years of the Republic had both contributed “splendid talents” and “ardent patriotism” along with the more obvious “human infirmity and error.” For these defects, he adjudged, a “liberal indulgence” was due. Inaugural addresses were, then as now, intended to inspire more than to describe a work agenda, and over the course of a long and ruffled career in deliberative bodies John Quincy would nevermore invoke party business without presenting it as a history of manifest intrigue. Political parties did not guarantee democracy to everyone; they merely protected the interests of their most influential members. It is easy to relate to John Quincy’s inauguration day remarks on the “collisions of sentiments and sympathies” that accompanied party rivalry. Father and son identified flaws built into the two‑party system that would prove fatal to the Union in 1860, and that continue to harass political society even now. As conspicuously, they detested the provocative mania parties allowed for, when they roused an intense enthusiasm for select, heroically framed men without objectively assessing their merit first.

Few understand how much the Adamses 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 law‑making threatened good government. Their cure for malignant control was to be found in institutional solutions aimed at simultaneously mitigating personality‑driven considerations and preserving a balance of power across social classes.

To synthesize, then, as much as this book centers on the Adamses’ still fertile, endlessly rewarding world, it reassesses the roots of the fractured democracy of today. It tackles misperceptions, beginning with our common assumptions about democracy’s historical inevitability as a function of ethical progress. It challenges the orthodox American faith in “government by the people.” That hallowed phrase explains nothing. It ignores the real question: Who makes the wheels of power turn?

Table of Contents

Exordium xi

Part I Progenitor 1

1 Exemplars 3

2 Wanderers 49

3 Envoys 86

4 Exiles 128

5 Instigators 179

6 Extorters 222

7 Intellects 255

Part II Inheritor 281

8 Second President 283

9 Party Irregulars 351

10 Shape-Shifters 391

11 Distant Companions 430

12 Sixth President 500

13 Surviving Son 547

14 Standard-Bearer 582

Ad Consummandum 643

Chronology 685

Acknowledgments 693

Notes 697

Bibliography 821

Index 853

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