Saturday, November 9, 2019

Lessons from a Founding Father

A couple weeks back a friend loaned me their copy of David McCullough's biography, John Adams, offering insights into the life and times of our second PresidentIt's a 650-page monster that was published in 2001, and I just finished it.

There were several aspects of the story that have lingered with me:

Power and Corruption
On the one hand, John Adams—the primary focus of the book—stood out as an exemplar of Puritan ethics. He was a hard worker and lived an agrarian life in Braintree, an outer southern suburb of Boston at the time (today, of course, it's a stop on the T). Money was always a bit tight, but he never shirked from answering the call to public service. He did it as a patriot, and never particularly gained financially from his decades in service.

You get to see how being in public service meant wearing the shirt with a bullseye on it—where you are sure to be mistreated and mischaracterized both by the press and by your fellow politicians. For Adams it went with the territory and he mostly suffered in silence or shrugged it off.

Others, including contemporary notables Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and even Thomas Jefferson, found it more difficult to resist the seductive song of the Lorilei: coveting personal power—to the point where that was more compelling than doing what was best for the nation.

Of course, the story that power corrupts is a very old one, and continues to this day. While our Founding Fathers were remarkable people acting at a special moment in time, they mostly had the same feet of clay as the rest of us. What stood out was that Adams is portrayed as someone who was singularly resistant to the siren call of power. In my view he is all the more worth honoring for that achievement. It's damn hard to do.

Party Politics
In the 1770s Americans sorted themselves into one of two political camps: Loyalists (those reluctant to separate from England) and Patriots (those who thought it was high time to cut ties with the monarchy of George III).

Once the Declaration of Independence was signed the die was cast and Patriots (of various stripes) filled out the Continental Congress and the lead-up to the creation of the US Constitution in 1787. (Of course, the greatest accomplish in the intervening years was General Washington's ability—with French support—to ultimately defeat the British mercenaries on the field of battle, allowing the American Revolution to continue.) Unanimity, however, was a chimera, and didn't last long. To Adams' dismay, two parties quickly coalesced: the Federalists (pro-British) squared off against the Republicans (pro-French). 

Because Adams favored a strong central government he was assigned a Federalist label and was falsely accused of wanting the US government to be a monarchy—something he had no interest in at all. In fact, Adams was the main author of the Constitution.

Epistolary Relationships
I'm old enough to remember being taught penmanship in school… and then being expected to use it. In this day of emojis and instant messaging most people don't even communicate in complete sentences any more, and who hand writes a letter?

Much of McCollough's work is interlarded with snippets of primary source material in the form of actual correspondence. This is especially true in the portraits he develops of John Adams, Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, as so much if what we know about them comes from private letters—rather than from media reports or public documents. Adams spent a large portion of a typical day carrying on an active correspondence with friends and peers. 

As I am drawn to expressing myself in writing, it appealed to me to know that so did Adams. Though I do it almost exclusively through email today, I used to type letters (circa 1975-90) and before that I wrote by hand (in fact, I still take meeting notes by hand). So I can relate to Adams' epistolary discipline.

When Adams was elected President in 1796, the largest city in the US was Philadelphia, with around 55,000 people—which is less than one percent of the number who reside today in the metropolitan area of the City of Brotherly Love. Think of that.

It's amazing to contemplate how well the Constitution has served us given that the country today would have been impossible to envision when it was drafted more than two centuries ago. I am shaking my head at the school of thought among jurists who are styled strict constructionists—who believe that the best we can do is interpret what the Founding Fathers meant in 1787, and stalwartly resist any efforts to reinterpret law situationally, as culture and mores evolve. Are you kidding me? 

The US Constitution was (and is) an experiment in government by representative democracy, and there is no evidence whatsoever that the Founding Fathers considered themselves infallible or didn't think that changes could be made as times warranted. Good thinking didn't end with the Founding Fathers, and I'm convinced that John Adams would have a good laugh, perhaps over a gill of hard cider, if he knew that Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh were working so diligently to interpret his long dead intentions.

The Long View
There were a number of principles that Adams held dear and that are worth highlighting today:

—Wars are incredibly expensive, and to be avoided if at all possible.

—America cannot trust Europe to hold American interests close. England will always be more concerned with France and France will be more concerned with England. America is just a pawn to either. While the value if this insight is diminished in concert with the decline of the British Empire, the rise of America as a world power, and the expansion of the world stage, if we substitute Russia and China for England and France we have a workable principle still.

—The polar star for people in public service should not be what is best for oneself or for one's party, but what is best for the country in the long run. Amen.

—Human nature is such that good people frequently succumb to the temptation to abuse power in pursuit of personal gain. Don't be surprised.

The Power of a Loving Partnership Between Equals
Abigail Adams was a strong woman well before the time when women were allowed to be strong. (Not that there isn't still work to do here, but we've come a long way, baby.) Abigail and John spent a large fraction of their long marriage living apart (she didn't accompany him on his first tour of duty as an American envoy to Europe prior to independence, and often stayed in Braintree to manage their farm while he was a public servant. In addition to his work on the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he played a central role in the Continental Congress that ultimately produced the US Constitution, he served as Washington's Vice President for eight years (1789-1797), and then was in the top spot himself for one term. It wasn't until 1801 that he retired from public life, after 30 years in one saddle or another.

The compelling thing is that Abigail "got it" about public service and personal sacrifice for the good of the country. And John got it about the preciousness of having a partner who got him (especially when many of his political contemporaries wanted to crawl up his back to advance their careers). While John's private correspondence (and Abigail's also, for that matter) contained many instances of their venting frustrations, he largely refrained from carrying on public feuds (oh where is such forbearance today with a President who exhibits no self-discipline about indulging in the corrosive habit of knee-jerk, caustic tweeting).

[Trump supporters who find his raw statements refreshing for their candor, conveniently turn a blind eye to their vicious, divisive, and self-serving nature.]

They were an amazing and inspirational couple. Refreshingly, there did not appear to be any sexual scandal associated with Adams. Abigail (and the judicious application of abstinence) was enough for John.

His Dance with Jefferson
Last, I enjoyed the book for its in-depth examination of Adams' longstanding and complex relationship with Thomas Jefferson, his contemporary to the point where they both died on the same day: July 4, 1826 (I'm telling you folks, you can't make this kind of thing up—they died exactly on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a seminal document that Jefferson drafted and Adams floor managed through the Continental Congress. Wowzers.)

Jefferson and Adams had a powerful, friendship that evolved over the course of decades, and that survived their markedly divergent political views (where Adams was a Federalist, favoring a strong Union and close ties with England; Jefferson preferred a confederation and was inspired by the spirit of the French Revolution) and different styles of political action (where Adams was direct to the point of being blunt; Jefferson was indirect and often preferred working through intermediaries on the front lines while he positioned himself above the fray, pottering around at Monticello).

Despite their differences in substance and style they remained true friends as two voracious readers who energetically discussed various features of their experiment in democracy. Jefferson was the more elegant writer, while Adams was the more talented administrator (his constitutional skills and ability to take the long view were legendary). In the end, the US was lucky to have two such lions both on the ground, fearlessly getting the job done in the chaos of the American Revolution.