Don’t be confused by the title, we are not talking about the spooky family from the 1960s. Rather, in this episode, we turn to the religious history of one of America’s founding families. By focusing on the Adams family, one can trace the evolution of American religion as John, Abigail, JQA, and others wrestle with Providence, the Enlightenment, and a changing political landscape. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are joined by Sara Georgini (@sarageorgini), the author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family.
I have said it many times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home: historians cannot predict the future.
But they can provide much needed context.
That is what Michael Kazin of Georgetown University does in his recent Washington Post op-ed “No matter what he does, history says Trump will never be popular.”
Here is a taste:
…American history is clear: Presidents who’ve lost the popular vote don’t win popular support.
The four previous presidents who finished second in votes cast all struggled to convince Americans that they were doing a good job. Each battled the perception that his victory was undemocratic and illegitimate; each soon lost the confidence of his own partisans in Congress and led an administration that historians regard as a failure. Each faced an uphill struggle to keep his base happy and mobilized while also reaching out to the majority, which preferred policies his voters detested. Most, like Trump so far, did not even try to square that circle.
Only George W. Bush seemed to escape this fate, for a time. But his temporary success had more to do with the acclaim he received after the attacks of 9/11 than anything else he accomplished in office. And this crisis-induced honeymoon didn’t last: During most of his second term, Bush’s rating stalled far below the 48 percent of the vote he had won in 2000, when half a million more Americans preferred Al Gore.
The three other presidents who lost the popular vote all lived and governed in the 19th century. None managed to overcome his initial political deficit or to enact any of the major policies he desired. In the 1824 election, John Quincy Adams drew just 31 percent of the popular vote. The conditions of that contest have never been repeated: Adams was one of four candidates, all of whom nominally belonged to the same party, the Democratic-Republicans. Because no man won an electoral-vote majority, the decision fell to the House of Representatives. Adams triumphed, largely because he agreed to appoint Henry Clay, one of his erstwhile rivals, as secretary of state. Andrew Jackson, whose popular-vote count had easily topped that of Adams, screamed that his rivals had made a “corrupt bargain”; if citizens accepted it, he charged, “they may bid farewell to their freedom.”
Read the entire piece here.
This is the title of Ishaan Tharoor‘s Washington Post interview with historian Larrie Ferrerio, author of the recent Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. (Check out my review of this book at Education and Culture).
The idea of the Declaration of Independence as a “plea for help” will not sit well with many Americans today, especially on the Fourth of July, but this does not make it any less true. I explored this issue a bit in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction?. Here is an excerpt:
Most would agree that the Declaration of Independence was not a theological or religious documents, but neither was it designed predominantly to teach Americans and the world about human rights. Americans have become so taken by the second paragraph of the document that they miss the purpose of the Declaration as understood by the Continental Congress, its team of authors, and its chief writer, Thomas Jefferson. In the context of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence was just what it claimed to be–a “declaration” of “independence” from England and an assertion of American sovereignty in the world.
Historian David Armitage has argued convincingly that the Declaration of Independence was written primarily as a document asserting American political sovereignty in the hopes that the newly created United States would secure a place in the international community of nations. In fact, Armitage asserts, the Declaration was discussed abroad more than it was at home. This meant that the Declaration was “decidedly un-revolutionary. It would affirm the maxims of European statecraft, not affront them.” To put this differently, the “self-evident truths” and “unalienable rights” of the Declaration’s second paragraph would not have been particularly new or groundbreaking in the context of the eighteenth-century British world. These were ideals that all members of the British Empire values regardless of whether they supported or opposed the American Revolution. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the members of the Second Continental Congress who endorsed and signed it did not believe that they were advancing, as historian Pauline Maier has put it, “a classic statement of American political principles.” This was a foreign policy document.
The writers of the Declaration viewed the document this way. In an 1825 letter to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson explained his motivation behind writing it:
“when forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our jurisdiction. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles or new arguments, never before thought of…but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”
John Adams, writing five years after he signed it, called the Declaration “that memorable Act by which [the United States] assumed an equal Station among the nation.” Adams’s son, John Quincy, though not a participant in the Continental Congress, described the Declaration as “merely an occasional state paper. It was a solemn exposition to the world of the causes which had compelled the people of a small portion of the British empire, to cast off their allegiance and renounce the protection of the British king: and to resolve their social connection with the British people.” There is little in these statements to suggest that the Declaration of Independence was anything other than an announcement to the world that the former British colonies were now free and independent states and thus deserved a place in the international order of nations.”
Here is Ferreiro:
We typically look at the Declaration of Independence as a document written to King George III by the American people, stating why we wanted to become an independent nation. That’s what we tell each other when we celebrate the Fourth of July.
But when you look at what happened in 1776, it was clear George III had already got the memo that the Americans wanted to be independent. And when you look at the writing of the Founding Fathers, they make it very clear that they knew they could not fight Britain by themselves. They knew that the only countries that had the motivation and the military and naval capabilities to defeat Britain were France and Spain. And the only way they could join on the Americans’ side was if they knew this was not simply a battle of colonists with their mother country to get a better deal. They only would come to our aid if they saw that we were fighting as a sovereign, independent nation against a common adversary.
The Declaration was specifically written for that purpose, and both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson said this — they were quite clear in their writings. Thomas Jefferson took those ideas and made a document for the ages, a truly enlightened document that read out many of the ideas of the time on what constitutes the rights of the state and the people. But at the core it was a cry for help. The first considered action by Congress after the Declaration was approved was to put it on a ship so it could reach the courts of France and Spain.
Read the rest of the interview here.
He took the exam in 1786.
Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell tells us what happened.
Here is a taste:
Here’s John Quincy’s description of the test from his diary:
Between 9 and 10 in the morning, I went to the President’s [Rev. Joseph Willard], and was there examined, before, the President, the four Tutors three Professors, and Librarian.
The first book was Horace, where Mr. [Eleazer] James the Latin Tutor told me to turn to the Carmen saeculare where I construed 3 stanza’s, and parsed the word sylvarum, but called potens a substantive.
Okay, a little slip there, but he can recover.
Mr. [Timothy Lindall] Jennison, the greek Tutor then put me to the beginning of the fourth Book of Homer; I construed Lines, but parsed wrong αλληλομς. I had then παραβληδην given me.
Uh-oh, the pressure might be getting to him.
I was then asked a few questions in [Isaac] Watts’s Logic [Logic, or The Right Use of Reason, in the Inquiry after Truth], by Mr. [John] Hale, and a considerable number in [John] Locke, on the Understanding [An Essay Concerning Human Understanding], very few of which I was able to answer.
Did Adams pass his exam? Head over to Boston 1775 and find out.
Charles Edel is Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College. This interview is based on his new book, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic (Harvard University Press, September 2014).
JF: What led you to write Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic?
CE: As a young research assistant at the Council on Foreign Relations, my boss handed me a small book that framed contemporary policy in terms of its historical evolution. My boss was Walter Russell Mead and the book he handed me was John Lewis Gaddis’s Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. Comparing the grand strategies of John Quincy Adams, Franklin Roosevelt, and George W. Bush, Gaddis argued that Adams was the prime architect—the grand strategist—of American foreign policy in the 19th Century. This provocative claim intrigued me. But, was it correct? And, if so, did Adams’s strategy have any contemporary relevance?
As I started reading about Adams and U.S. strategy in the 19th century, it became clear that Gaddis was hardly alone in his praise of Adams. All surveys of American foreign policy seem to make John Quincy Adams the hero (or, if you’re a Jacksonian, the anti-hero). Samuel Flagg Bemis, the mid-century Pulitzer-prize winning biographer of Adams, thought that “more than any other one man he helped to shape the foundations of American foreign policy and the future of the United States.” In Bemis’s estimate, Adams stands behind only Lincoln in the annals of American history.
But the more I read, the more it seemed that while historians and statesman alike praised Adams, no one really understood him. This shouldn’t be that surprising. John Quincy Adams’s son said his father’s inner nature was “impenetrable.” His grandson wrote that he had a “nature so complex” that he was “an enigma to contemporaries.” The historian Leonard Richards, concluded that “despite the thousands of words written by Adams and about him, no one has discovered the formula that will fully explain him. He remains in many ways an enigma.”
Such a project would allow me to learn more about someone who was quietly one of the most important and influential Americans in our nation’s history while also exploring the growth and evolution of the United States as a world power. It seemed to me that an analysis of how Adams’s strategy evolved had the potential to tell a much larger story—that of the evolution of American strategic thought during the 19th Century.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic?
CE: America’s rise from a confederation of revolutionary colonies to a continental power is often treated as inevitable, the natural result of resources and demographics rather than the product of a deliberate pursuit. My book argues, on the contrary, that there was an implicit grand strategy that shaped America’s rise and that John Quincy Adams served as a central architect of that strategy.
JF: Why do we need to read Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic?
CE: This book offers a historical approach for thinking about contemporary challenges, presents a new way to look at early American history, and finally, introduces readers to the endlessly fascinating life and career of John Quincy Adams.
The challenges that Adams grappled with are both timeless and extremely relevant. John Quincy Adams famously proclaimed “America goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy” in a speech that has been quoted ever since to justify noninterference by the United States in the affairs of other nations. Adams was not warning future administrations away from helping aspiring democrats, but rather giving his successors a lesson in the necessary trade-offs foreign policy demands. Because the United States was then just a rising power on the world stage, Adams could afford to be neutral on events happening in the world that did not immediately affect the United States. Two centuries later, it is hard to imagine an American President having such a luxury. Yet Adams’s message speaks past 1821, anticipating the democratic upheavals of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and suggesting how best to balance America’s impulse to promote change with its instinct to preserve order.
Additionally, Adams’s grand strategy helps explain the growth of the United States as a hemispheric and world power. Before Adams, the United States had an inchoate national strategy. Almost all of its leading statesmen believed that the country would one day become a powerful and moral force in the world, but they were not able to define the path and the actions that would be needed to achieve that vision. Therefore while Adams was neither the first, nor the only, national politician to promote an agenda for America’s rise, he was the only one who linked, prioritized, and sequenced his policies into a comprehensive grand strategy to harness the nation’s geographic, military, economic, and moral resources.
Beyond that, John Quincy Adams is simply a fascinating figure. He was one of the most accomplished individuals in all of American history—he served as the architect of the Monroe Doctrine, expanded the nation’s border to the Pacific ocean, offered one of the most progressive visions of government in American history, and in the final stage of his career lead the charge against slavery. Yet, his greatest successes were often followed by personal and political failures which left Adams hounded by feelings of insecurity an incompetence. My book, I think, helps explain what elements of Adams’s personality—accessible to us through one of the most thorough diaries in American history—explain these contradictions.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CE: Thanks to my parents and some great teachers, I have always loved American history for the stories it tells us, for the questions it asks us to confront, and for the complexity it adds to our understanding of America.
My first job after college was teaching American history and law at a public high school in New York City. It was a chance to show adolescents—still forming their aspirations, still open to new ideas—how learning was relevant to the issues that affected their lives and the world around them. Each of the courses I taught explored the sources of the American idea and its projection into the world. But it was not until working at a foreign policy think tank that I began to think about how far the real and imagined reach of the U.S. is, and what domestic forces shape and influence its expansion.
As the historian knows better than most, we become who we are based on who we were. The study of history should not be undertaken merely to solve problems or review the past. History, at its best, engenders debate, discussion, and reflection on who we can become.
JF: What is your next project?
CE: John Quincy Adams dealt with a lot of foreign revolutions—the French and Haitian revolution of the 1790s, the Latin American revolutions of the 1810s and 1820s, and Greek revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s to name a few. He had to think through, and help navigate America’s response to those revolutions. In each instance, he sought to do so in a way that would both justify the general principle of revolution against tyrannical regimes without committing the United States to fighting in all such revolutions. That has proved to be perhaps the most persistent and intractable challenge in American foreign policy.
For my next project, I am exploring the idea of America’s response to foreign revolutions—in theory and in reality. A question that cuts across all of American history—from America’s ambiguous response to the French Revolution, to our ongoing struggle to define and deal with the Arab Spring—each successive foreign revolution has challenged the nation’s understanding of the legacy of its own birth, mission, and trajectory. At the practical level, the question of intervention—whether and to what extent—is often framed in terms of policy choices. On a more abstract level, this almost always becomes a debate over American mission. Comparing American reactions over time promises to yield some very interesting results.
Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner.
|Louisa Catherine Adams|
Over at The New York Review of Books, Susan Dunn reviews three new books on John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa Catherine. They are:
Fred Kaplan, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary
Margery M. Heffron, Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams
Margaret Hogan and C. James Taylor, ed., A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams.
Here is a taste of Dunn’s review:
After blasting the type of conservatism found on the pages of The National Review and The Weekly Standard, Andrew Bacevich, writing in The American Conservative, offers a conservative alternative. He calls it “Counterculture Conservatism.” Here are some its characteristics:
- Counterculture conservatism is NOT the “conservatism” of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, Ron Paul, Robert Murdoch, Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, or Grover Norquist.
- Counterculture conservatism IS the “conservatism” of John Quincy Adams, Henry Adams, Randolph Bourne, Reinhold Niebuhr, Christopher Lasch, Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, William Appleman Williams, and Frank Capra.
- Counterculture conservatism protects things of lasting value. It discriminates “between what is permanent and what is transient.”
- Counterculture conservatism is skeptical of utopianism.
- Counterculture conservatism celebrates community and “little platoons” (Burke) over individualism, appetite, and ambition.
- Counterculture conservatism upholds a belief in Original Sin.
- Counterculture conservatism favors the “local” over the “distance.”
- Counterculture conservatism is patriotic, but does not “confuse country with state.” America is not the military.
- Counterculture conservatism favors change through “incremental” and “thoughtful” action.
- Counterculture conservatism knows that it will be virtually impossible to dismantle the welfare state, outlaw abortion and gay marriage, and stop the “sexual revolution.”
- Counterculture conservatism subordinates economic growth to the well-being of “planet Earth.” (Bacevich: “conservatives should make common cause with tree-hugging, granola-crunching liberals”). Sounds a lot like Rod Dreher here.
- Counterculture conservatism opposes “the excesses of American militarism and the futility of neo-imperialistic impulses.” No neo-conservatism here.
- Counterculture conservatism preaches fiscal responsibility
- Counterculture conservatism believes children should be raised by traditional families.
- Counterculture conservatism defends the health of churches and religious freedom
There is a lot here that I can embrace, if not champion. Does that mean I am a conservative?
Today’s quote comes from the diary of John Quincy Adams. He wrote it on his forty-fifth birthday–July 11, 1812.
I am forty-five years old— Two thirds of a long life are past, and I have done Nothing to distinguish it by usefulness to my Country, or to Mankind— I have always lived with I hope a suitable sense of my duties in Society, and with a sincere desire to perform them— But Passions, Indolence, weakness, and infirmity have sometimes made me swerve from my better knowledge of right, and almost constantly paralyzed my efforts of good— I have no heavy charge upon my Conscience—for which I bless my Maker, as well as for all the enjoyments that he has liberally bestowed upon me— I pray for his gracious kindness in future— From John Quincy Adams diary 28, 5 August 1809 – 31 July 1813, page 394.
HT: The Beehive