The Unpopular Virtue of Moral Certainty

Can John Quincy Adams teach us anything about our politicians today?

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The Founding Fathers studied history a good deal more seriously than we do. Every day when he was 7 years old, John Quincy Adams read to his mother, Abigail, from Charles Rollin’s Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians, and Grecians, a best-seller of the day. Adams’s father, John Adams, and mother assigned their son passages from the great Latin historians and essayists — Cicero, Sallust, Tacitus, Plutarch. John Adams wrote from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to instruct Abigail to quiz their son on his history. Find out, he demanded, “which character he esteems and admires, which he hates and abhors.”

Militant Spirit, my biography of John Quincy Adams, has just been published, and I have begun to do the interview circuit. Invariably, I will be asked to explain, usually at the outset, what we can learn from Adams about our current presidential election. I bridle at the question, since I didn’t write about Adams to shed any light at all on contemporary politics. Then I remember that for Adams and his generation, the study of the events and men of the past was — along with the Bible — the great preparation for republican citizenship.

I’m glad, of course, that history still matters; but it mattered very differently to the founding generation than it does to us. It’s telling that John Adams asked Abigail to find out which figures from history their precocious boy admired and which he abhorred. The Romans were exemplars; they lived in the same moral universe as the Adams family, and indeed the same political universe, for they had forged a republic and then lost it. In 1828, during his last year in the White House, Adams exchanged long letters with his son Charles Francis in which the older man championed his beloved Cicero, “the practical statesman,” while the younger defended his preference for Cato the Younger, “the inflexible moralist,” who had committed suicide rather than consent to live under Julius Caesar’s autocratic dominion.

For men and women of the 18th century, history was not the story of progress — or regress — but of recurrence. Republics rose and fell, to be replaced by tyrannies or anarchy. The American colonists, who yearned to build a republic of their own, studied the past not only as a chronicle, but also as a blueprint.

We are different, of course. Our household gods are not Plato and Aristotle — philosophers of a fixed cosmos — but Darwin and Freud. History, for us, is a story of development, of perpetual leave-taking. We know the past better than Adams did, but it speaks to us from a far greater remove. And our implicit notion of what lies at the bottom of history is not a moral but a psychological one. Adams wanted to know what Cicero stood for, to help him decide what he should stand for; we want to know what Adams was like. Did his overbearing parents drive him crazy, as they would have us? Did he yearn for the love of his fellow man, even as he professed contempt for popularity? This is what so many biographies, especially ones written by journalists like me, rather than scholars, richly deliver.

Yet after five years of reading, writing, and thinking about Adams, I’ve concluded that he really wasn’t like us at all. Of course his consciousness was different, but I imagine he was different even in the workings of his subconscious. Living in a moral rather than a psychological world, a world that does not acknowledge a subconscious realm, makes you radically different, especially if, like Adams, you have fashioned your entire life around principle. Adams should have resented his mother, who perpetually reminded him of his Christian duty and who forced him to break off the great love affair of his life. But he did not; he revered her and thought her spotless. Adams should have been crushed by guilt at the suicide of his eldest son, George, whom he had left with relatives for years while he devoted himself to public service. But he was not, though he was prostrated by grief. He did not question that he had done right.

What, then, is the answer to my interviewers’ question? What does Adams have to say to us today? I have trouble answering this question without resorting to Adams’s own habits of thought — without, that is, thinking in moral rather than psychological terms. Born in 1767, old enough to have seen the Battle of Bunker Hill with his own eyes, drilled by both parents in the imperishable virtues of republicanism, Adams exalted the ideal of public service to a degree that almost beggars our imagination. When, in 1809, the ship taking him to his diplomatic post in St. Petersburg, Russia, was threatened with encroaching ice, Adams calmly insisted on going forward, risking his own life, as well as that of his wife and child, rather than accept a delay of several months. As a congressman in the mid-1830s, Adams received dozens of death threats, many of them highly specific, after he openly challenged the slave-holding power in the House of Representatives; he paid no attention and did nothing to protect himself. No doubt he thought Cicero would have done the same.

It would be absurd to expect Hillary Clinton, much less Ted Cruz, to emulate Adams’s archaic example. In fact, it would be a mistake. Adams’s majestic contempt for partisanship, for horse-trading — for politics, as we understand it today — wrecked his presidency. He had an agenda as bold as Lyndon B. Johnson’s in 1964, with none of that legislative master’s personal gifts. Henry Clay, Adams’s secretary of state and very much the LBJ of his time, would have made a much more effective president. In Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy held up Adams as the very emblem of “political courage,” by which meant the willingness to defy party and public opinion in the name of principle. That was Adams to a tee; but the man who courts martyrdom is better suited as a saint than a politician. Adams may have wished to have been a practical statesman, but at his core he was an inflexible moralist.

Yet he had greatness in him — greatness not of our world and barely even of his own. Decisively defeated by Andrew Jackson in 1828, Adams struck his contemporaries as a remnant of an aristocratic age at the dawn of a new democratic era. He should have slunk away to cultivate his garden in Quincy, Massachusetts. Yet some combination of patriotism and cussedness kept his fires burning bright. In 1831, Adams returned to Congress, as no president had done before and none has done since.

In 1835, when activists began submitting petitions to Congress demanding an end to the slave trade or to slavery itself, Adams, almost alone, agreed to place them before the House. He so enraged his colleagues that twice they sought to censure him; both times Adams, now gleeful in combat, made them regret the attack. Over the course of a decade of relentless struggle, the relic became a national hero. In a speech after Adams’s death, the radical theologian Theodore Parker (from whom Martin Luther King Jr. lifted “the arc of the universe is long…”), said: “I know few things in modern times so grand as that old man … a President’s son, himself a President, standing there the champion of the neediest of the oppressed.”

What, then, does Adams say to us — at least in the moral terms with which he, himself, would have been familiar? He says that a man can inscribe himself in the annals of posterity not only despite, but because of, his indifference to popular opinion. He might even, as Adams did, gain the esteem of his fellow man in his own lifetime, though he could do so only by virtue of not seeking it. That is a very austere message to us mere mortals. I do not expect anyone to follow his example today. I would very much, however, wish for us to revere it.

Image credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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