But, Mr. Adams…
Like pretty much everyone else, the 2016 election is making me tired. So tired that I suddenly really get why people watch Nancy Meyers movies. However, it is not making me quite as worried as some of my friends and family. I’m not not worried, but I have heard people talking about the election as though there is once choice that means absolute salvation and one that means absolute damnation, like some kind of secular morality play. There is a version of the future where this is true. There are also many versions of the future where, no matter who wins, there will be a lot of problems, but maybe we won’t all die. So, anyway, I was thinking about why I am not apocalyptically scared of either a Trump or Clinton presidency (again, I am scared, just not buying my zombie bunker yet), and I realized that the reason I wasn’t scared was that when I thought of each of them, iI wouldn’t worry because I would think “Oh, we had one of those kind of presidents before, and things were sort of not horrible.” Then I realized that both times, I was thinking of the same president. No, it wasn’t Andrew Jackson. You see, both Clinton and Trump have many of the same flaws as former President and birthday boy John Adams.
Now, there are some obvious caveats, since there are some major flaws in the 2016 candidates that Adams does not cover. Trump has drawn a lot of criticism for his bigoted stance on women and minorities, and while Adams was absolutely not up to 20th century standards in terms of how he treated either of those groups, he was reasonably fine in terms of 18th century standards. His ideas about women are a good example. Yes, there was that one time he said that women smelled weird because they did not bathe often enough, and he had a whole section in his autobiography addressed to his children assuring them that they have no bastard siblings, even though he really wanted make some because he started having sexual thoughts about women at 10 years old (it’s an odd book), but he didn’t come anywhere close to the Trump zone. He had a good relationship with his wife and often took her counsel on political matters. When Mercy Otis Warren wrote that he was too ambitious and monarchical, he was angry that a writer and a friend would think that about him, not that a woman would have the temerity to insult him. I think the gulf between Adams and Trump is typified later in the autobiography/diary when Adams remembers a moment in France where he saw a beautiful woman, describes her hair in a way that makes it very clear that long, flowing hair on a woman is definitely something he is into, but ultimately realizes that he “viewed her more attentively than she fancied.” Then the woman gets up and leaves. That’s it. He made a woman uncomfortable, realized that is what he was doing, and then chose not to continue the encounter in any way, which is clearly a superpower that Trump does not possess.
With Clinton, the difference between their characters is a bit more splitting hairs. Both Clinton and Adams have actively encouraged armed conflict when others around them were considerably less sure about the advisability of that decision. Clinton’s hawkish pursuit of armed conflict has been a thorn in her side, since it hurts her with the more liberal members of the Democratic base. Adams vigorously pursued a separation with Britain that would necessitate armed conflict. The difference is that this decision turned out so well for him that the behavior that got him there could scarcely be viewed as a flaw. Also, he later advocated against war with France, going against some of the voices in his own party, so he had a varied record pursuing war. However, I think that Adams had enough flaws in common with both candidates to maybe make us all reconsider .5% of our worries about the upcoming election, or at least be very, very glad that nuclear weapons did not exist in the late 18th century.
As anyone who has ever seen literally any Saturday Night Live sketch about the former First Lady can tell you, people think that Clinton has wanted the White House since she was born, if not before. I cannot speak to the accuracy of this with regards to Clinton, but Adams had ambition in spades. Ambition was not looked on fondly in Adams’ era, and Adams himself often did not view it favorably, yet noted that it was “one of the more ungovernable passions,” and it was just so for him. In his twenties, before he had gone into politics, gotten married, or even moved out of his parents’ house, Adams wrote about his desire to “spread an opinion of myself as a lawyer of distinguished Genius, Learning, and Virtue.” In the same entry in his diary, he reminds himself that “Reputation ought to be the perpetual subject of my Thoughts,” which seems like the thought process of a person who had some idea of wanting to be president before there was a country to preside over. He also made a more specific plan for his future: that he would “attempt some uncommon, unexpected enterprize [sic] in law…I will watch every opportunity to speak in court, and will strike with surprize-surprize [sic]bench, bar, jury, auditors, and all. Activity, boldness, forwardness, will draw attention…I’ll have some boon in return, exchange: fame, fortune, or something.” Well, a colony declaring independence from the mother country was uncommon, unexpected, and surprising, so I guess he got his wish.
This is a trait that both Trump and Clinton share, but they go about it differently. Clinton has a tendency to withhold (i.e. her pneumonia) because the way the media and public have viewed her in the past makes her think that insularity is preferable to trust. Trump’s paranoia manifests seemingly as the belief that we are all a certain number of [insert social phenomena he does not like i.e. immigrants, politically correct phrases, etc.] away from living in a science fiction-style hellscape. Or how the whole election is being rigged by a Rube Goldberg-esque combination of media stories and politically orchestrated events. There is a certain element of “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” to any story about a politician with fears about the world aligning against them, because everyone in public life has actual real life enemies (sidebar: does Tim Kaine have enemies, or does being the VP candidate not count as “in public life” unless you’re Sarah Palin?), but what we’re talking about here is fears that either out of proportion with reality, or not backed up by any evidence. This was Adams’ specialty. Clinton’s retreat to her inner circle would have been intimately familiar to him, for during his presidency he was surrounded by a cabinet that he could not fully trust, and depended on his wife as a de facto policy advisor (with mixed results). In 1797 he wrote to her “I can do nothing without you. We must resign every Thing but our public Duties, and they will be more than We can discharge, with Satisfaction to ourselves or others I fear.” Adams also had a habit of believing that colleagues, even friends, were conspiring against him in some vague way. He thought that John Hancock had “launched a persecution against me across the Atlantic” and after the Revolution, he wrote that “The Artifices of the Devil will be used to get me out of the Commission for Peace…Congress means well, but is egregiously imposed upon and deceived,” though he did not get into any specifics. Sometimes the plots against him were almost too specific, such as his belief that Benjamin Franklin had hired a secretary “as a spy on me” or that Franklin had “mysterious intercourse or correspondence” with King George III. During his time at the Continental Congress, he believed that the Congress’ secretary, Charles Thomson, was conspiring against him by altering the records kept by the Congress so that those records would reflect favorably on his enemies but not on him (omg, it was rigged!). Later in his life, after frequent political differences with Alexander Hamilton had provided many clear reasons for the two men to harbor animosity toward each other, he had a different explanation. He said that the root of the problem started in 1776 when he had publicly opposed a military appointment for Phillip Schuyler, Hamilton’s brother-in-law, and, according to Adams, the memory of that incident, “had been rankling in Hamilton’s heart from 1776 till he wrote his libel against me in 1799” (just for the record, during this period but before Hamilton really got to know Adams, he wrote that “Mr. A…has always appeared to me to add an ardent love for the public good.” People “actually getting to know him” was often a problem area for Adams).
I don’t peruse those parts of the internet, but I assume there are message boards that sing of the Clinton second cousins who will one day be our grandchildren’s overlords. For Chelsea Clinton’s sake, I hope the Clintons are a little less intense about their dynasty than the Adamses were about theirs. In one letter, Adams suggested that his son John Quincy read some Hobbes and Thucydides because Adams wanted to make sure John the Younger focused on studies that “will afford you the most solid instruction and improvement for the part which may be allotted you to act on the stage of life.” Though Adams was not specific about exactly what that part would be, he did say that knowledge of this nature would be useful because “the future circumstances of your country, may require other wars as well as councils and negotiations, similar to those which are now in agitation.” This letter was written in 1777, when John Quincy Adams was ten years old.
There is a political trope about the ability to “have a beer” with a politician as a positive attribute. Clinton would not pass this test, but it is doubtful she could fail as hard as Adams, and not just because of his fun party trick where he would solicit non-fiction reading lists from dinner companions (it was a uuuuuge hit in the French court). The beer test would also be hard for both of them because of the pervading sense that they might not want to participate in the imbibing of pedestrian beverages with regular people. I don’t know the real truth about Clinton, but with Adams, this was not, shall we say, totally inaccurate. As a young lawyer, Adams knew that he had to have clients who did not have his elite education, because if they did, they would not need a lawyer. He described his process for attracting those clients thusly: that he would “converse familiarly…on the common tittletattle of the town and the ordinary concerns of a family, and so take every fair opportunity of showing my knowledge in the law.” He eventually rejected this as a potential strategy, because talk with common families would merely present opportunities only to talk about trivial things like property law, while he was more familiar with “Roman law.” As he grew up and got into government, he developed a mistrust of “the people” as a group that was characteristic of many in the Federalist party (and also many in the Democratic Republican party, they were just more sneaky about it). It was a post French Revolution world, but even that doesn’t totally excuse Adams’ fear of “the extravagances of which the populace of cities were capable when artfully excited in passion” (for reference, extravagances=guillotines). He was sometimes even more direct, saying “The poor People…are seldom aware of the purposes for which they are set in motion…and when once heated and in full career they can neither mange themselves nor be regulated by others.” First, when he says “poor People” he is not literally talking about people with less money than him, but rather expressing concern for people who are not as smart as he is. If that statement really doesn’t sound like the words of someone who wants to sign up to do the regulating, it’s because it wasn’t. “The people” (well, the electors chosen by the white, property-owning men) had just voted him out of office.
5. Being a Woman
Yeah, the story circulated during the election of 1800 that Adams was a hermaphrodite was almost definitely a lie, but if it wasn’t, I think that makes him at least as much “first female president” as Bill Clinton was “first black president.”
6. Not Great at Talking to People
Clinton has never pretended to be a captivating public speaker. She’s not bad, it’s just…good that she has so many policy positions to talk about. Adams was also not uniformly bad at talking to people; there were many situations where he was perfectly fine, but there were also times when it was a real problem. His default manner was hot tempered and not necessarily charming, though he could also be a very good conversationalist (frequently in private, on paper, to his wife). Like Clinton, he absolutely knew public presentation was a problem for him; he once lamented that is was hard to make conversation because “objects before me don’t suggest proper questions to ask, and proper observations to make.” He was a harsh critic of his own behavior, stating that he “behaved with too much reserve to some and with too stiff a face and air, and with a face and tone of pale timidity.” One kind of adorably sad entry in his diary recounts all of the instances at a party where he made someone laugh but remains despondent about his overall performance, saying “Besides this I have insensibly fallen into a habit of affecting wit and humour, of shrugging my shoulders and moving [and] distorting the muscles in my face. My motions are stiff and uneasy, ungraceful, and my attention is unsteady and irregular.” Does anyone else feel like they have heard that exact statement as an assessment after a presidential debate, coming out of the mouth of someone with the title “Body Language Expert”?
To Be Continued…
[Sources will be posted in the Part 2/Donald Trump post]