Two early presidents raised warnings about the cult of personality

In ‘The Problem of Democracy,’ Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg write that John Adams and John Quincy Adams recognized the pitfalls of the U.S. political system.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
‘The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality’ by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, Penguin Random House, 576 pp.

If you believe the national mythology that grew up around President George Washington, he led the country without partisanship, a spirit-pure Cincinnatus who ruled the new nation. It was only when Washington left office, made weary in selfless service, that the noise of party politics became the theme song of America. Lesser men followed him, according to the myth, and the first and most emblematic of these “lesser men” were the country’s first father and son to become president: John Adams and John Quincy Adams. 

The two presidents were acerbic, verbally combative, unapologetically bookish, and physically unimpressive, and they lacked the genteel disinterest that typified the aristocratic Virginians – and slaveholders – who set the tone for the country’s ruling elite. In all their prickly, complicated glory, the pair are the subject of The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality by historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg. Burstein is the author of, among other books, the fascinating “The Passions of Andrew Jackson,” which presented readers with a complex and repellently accurate portrait of the country’s seventh president, and Isenberg wrote the 2016 bestseller “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” which challenged its readers with an account of class in America that was decidedly counter-mythological. 

They’re the perfect team to take on that mythology when it comes to John and John Quincy Adams. “The Adamses didn’t suddenly wake up on the wrong side of democracy,” we’re rightly told. “Democracy was something that winners declared. They found it useful to them to exclude the presidents Adams from a mighty genealogy.” 

The authors point out that the usual narratives about the early presidents, especially Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are reverential and reflexively tend to exclude men like the Adamses. John Adams was always mindful of the worst elements of human nature and had “an abiding faith in political structures” to restrain them, and his “entire career had been fixed on dislodging falsehoods.”

“The Problem of Democracy” shows father and son exuberantly punching and pivoting in the roiling politics of their day. John Adams comes across as the one iconic Founding Father who’s never mugging for posterity; he’s unfailingly himself, a stranger to image-burnishing, a worker for the unglamorous day-to-day functioning of the new country. And the portrait of John Quincy Adams in these pages is more detailed and elaborate than that of his father. The younger Adams was a prodigy of memory and insight, a less passionate and more complex figure than his father, more observant but less forgiving of human foibles. Burstein and Isenberg have written the best dual biography of these two men that American presidential studies has ever seen. 

The political infighting of their time was as fierce as anything in modern times. Jefferson, for example, “exploited the old perceptual division between Whig and Tory, between democrat and aristocrat, between Republican and Federalist,” and he was hardly alone in this; despite the venerated image, Washington himself not only participated in that infighting but also created its template. His carefully cultivated air of “disinterested magnanimity” was “a character the Adamses knew he did not deserve.”

Much of that infighting revolved around the political parties that grew naturally out of a system of counterbalancing federal powers. The  authors are unfailingly shrewd in their analysis of the partisan trench warfare that still affects the country. John Adams, they tell us, “targeted three outstanding sins associated with parties”: They served private interests and were therefore driven by greed; they fostered and capitalized upon celebrity culture; and “they were so stuck on the Washington image that they made it a standard for all others.”

Isenberg and Burstein are frank about the shortcomings of their subjects, who often engaged in the same sins for temporary political ends. They view frankness as a necessity of the perilous age we live in. “The framers of the Constitution did not erect a democracy. It was not their intent to do so,” they write. “We must not assume that the United States is a democracy today either. … The presidents Adams are our vehicle in an effort to provide a germane, perhaps even urgent, interpretation of the nature of American politics. Persistent myths can no longer suffice.”

There are no myths in “The Problem with Democracy,” which instead asks its readers probing questions about our political origin story and demands serious answers.

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