Tuesday, July 10, 2001

John Adams

I finished reading David McCullough's new biography of John Adams. I enjoyed it greatly, and it's helped solidify where my sympathies in early American history lie.

I had never really liked American history growing up, and as a consequence I hadn't really studied it that much beyond what was required of me. In particular, I took no American history in college. As I've grown a little older (and perhaps wiser), I've become more interested in my country's history. I've tried to remedy my gap in knowledge by going back and reading books, specifically biographies, relating to American history. Originally the plan had me moving roughly chronologically through American history, but I got stuck somewhere near the Civil War -- there was that biography of Grant I never finished. As it turned out, the readings I did about early American statesmen -- Washington, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and more -- developed in me an interest in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in America independent of my original study plan.

So I picked up this latest biography. McCullough devotes some amount of effort to puffing up Adams at the expense of Jefferson. In many cases, he scores good points. Particularly devastating, in my mind, are the reactions the two of them to the French Revolution. Adams, quite early on, realized, "This is going to get out of hand." Jefferson, by contrast, was still cheering it on while the streets of Paris were running red with blood.

It is popular to avoid taking sides in historical disputes of long ago. After all, the people of two hundred years ago lived in an age with its own set of values. Their quarrels are not ours. Some of them may hold views that we find abhorrent today, but we must judge them in the context of their era. True. But some of them were, so to speak, on the right side of history. Jefferson, Jackson, and many of the anti-Federalists were slaveholders. Jefferson famously wrote against slavery ("I tremble from my country when I reflect that God is just."), yet continued to practice it. John and Abagail Adams did not own slaves, and their son John Quincy became an ardent abolitionist.

The Federalists had the foresight to see what a strong national government (as opposed to a collection of strong state governments) could do. If the anti-Federalists had won the historical battle of ideas, we could forget about a Federal Reserve, an Interstate Highway System, and possibly even a strong military. Granted, the Federalists had their flaws. They could be elitists, and Jefferson and Jackson played a great role in making American a more egalitarian society. But I think the next time someone asks me which political party I favor, I'll tell them I vote Whig.

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