Tag Archives: John Adams


Hello!  If you are a regular subscriber to this blog, you know that I have been on sabbatical this year and that my posts have been few and far between.  I am looking forward to interacting with you regularly come autumn, but for now I am trying to make as much progress as I can on a book on the rise of American democracy, tentatively titled “We the Fallen People.”

John Adams

I did come across a passage in my reading today that seemed timely, however, and I couldn’t help sharing it.  I spent a glorious morning at nearby forest preserve, and as I sat in the sun on one of my favorite benches, I encountered this from our nation’s second president, John Adams.  The date was January 8, 1776, and Adams, at the time a member of the Second Continental Congress, was writing to Mrs. Mercy Otis Warren, the sister and wife of distinguished patriot leaders and an accomplished political writer in her own right.  In context, Adams was sharing his preference for a republic over a monarchy, as well as his doubts whether Americans possessed sufficient virtue for a republic to survive.  Listen to his conclusion:

It is the Part of a great Politician to make the Character of his People; to extinguish among them, the Follies and Vices that he sees, and to create in them the Virtues and Abilities which he sees wanting. I wish I was sure that America has one such Politician, but I fear she has not.

As timely in 2016 as in 1776.



So who plans on watching tonight’s vice-presidential debate?  I posed this question this morning to my capstone class for senior history majors.  Of the fifteen students present, fourteen answered “no.”  The fifteenth refused to commit either way, suggesting that he might “stream it online” while doing homework.  Intrigued (though not surprised) by this lack of interest, I asked the class how many of them could name the vice-presidential nominees of the two major parties.  Six of fifteen could do so.  I don’t judge them.  I often forget who our sitting vice-president is.

Should we care about tonight’s debate or be at all influenced by its outcome?  If you feel a profound ambivalence, you’re in good company, and you have good reason.  On the one hand, we know that the vice-president is only “a heartbeat away” from the most powerful office in the land.  In an election when both presidential candidates are pushing seventy, this is no insignificant matter.  And yet the vice-president’s Constitutional role is otherwise so limited and ill-defined as to be irrelevant.  In modern times, the VP’s most important role comes during the general election, when his job is to balance the ticket by appealing to constituencies that his running-mate struggles with.  Once the ticket is elected, the VP’s constitutional role is to serve as president of the Senate, but unless the Senate is deadlocked, the vice-president does not vote and filsl a role that is largely ceremonial.  In sum, as President Woodrow Wilson acidly put it, the vice-president’s only real significance lies “in the fact that he may cease to be vice-president.”

Imacon Color Scanner

John Adams loathed the vice-presidency.

Our nation’s very first vice-president discovered this quickly.  John Adams initially looked on the office of vice-president as tantamount to a republican version of the “crown prince,” i.e., as the office reserved for the “heir apparent” to the presidency.  But George Washington interpreted the Constitution as defining the vice-president as, at least technically, a member of the legislative branch (he is president of the Senate, after all), and determined that it would be improper to include Adams in the cabinet’s deliberations.  The Father of our Country reasoned that allowing the president of the Senate to play a substantive role in the executive branch would effectively undermine the Constitutional separation of powers of the two branches.  As a result, Adams came to think of the office of vice-president as politically akin to being buried alive.  As he wrote to his wife Abigail near the beginning of his second term, “my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the leisure it afforded.

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the leisure it afforded.

As much as he bemoaned his fate, Adams perpetuated the pattern when he became the country’s second president in 1797.  After briefly floating the idea of sending Vice-President Thomas Jefferson on a diplomatic mission to France, Adams imitated his predecessor and never seriously consulted Jefferson on any substantive political question.  Unlike Adams, however, Jefferson preferred this lack of responsibility, or at least claimed to.  Writing to prominent founder Benjamin Rush shortly after his election to the vice-presidency, Jefferson noted how grateful he was that he had “escaped” the presidency (he had lost by only three electoral votes) and how thankful he was for the alternative.  Unlike the presidency, which he would later call a “splendid misery,” the vice-presidency was “a tranquil and unoffending” office that promised to afford him “philosophical evenings in the winter, and rural days in summer.”  He would spend most of his vice-presidency at Monticello, his plantation in northern Virginia.

Since Jefferson’s day, a succession of unfortunate souls have made their peace, more or less, with the office’s ill-defined role.  Woodrow Wilson’s vice-president, Indianan Thomas Marshall, remembered his time in the office fondly, noting in his memoirs that, while he had no interest working anymore, “I wouldn’t mind being Vice-President again.”  Franklin Roosevelt’s first of three vice-presidents, Texan John Nance Garner, was less sanguine.  Garner is famous for supposedly comparing the vice-presidency to “a bucket of warm spit,” a memorable line that may be apocryphal.  (The evidence is entirely hearsay.)  What we do know is what he told Collier’s Magazine in a 1948 interview: “There cannot be a great vice president.  A great man may occupy the office, but there is no way for him to become a great vice president because the office in itself is almost wholly unimportant.”  Garner later told another writer that being elected vice-president “was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

Garner might think differently had he taken the office a generation later.  While the office remains Constitutionally trivial as long as the president keeps breathing, vice-presidents since the 1960s have often used it as a platform for their own presidential aspirations.  Hubert Humphrey nearly claimed the presidency in 1968 while the sitting VP, as did Al Gore in 2000, and George H. W. Bush succeeded where they fell short.  Both Mike Pence and Tim Kaine have surely thought about following in the elder Bush’s footsteps.


If you are interested in the possible place of religious conviction and/or religious issues in this year’s campaign, columnist Jonathan Martin calls attention to the primary role of the two vice-presidential nominees in this regard.  See his NYT piece “With Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, Faith is Back in the Mix.”



Angry voters are everywhere these days, apparently.  We’re fed up, put out, put off, irate, furious, and enraged.  Depending on who you ask, voter anger is an irrepressible force welling up from the rank and file of common Americans or a tempest cynically manufactured by calculating politicians, celebrity pundits, and Fox News.  Depending on your perspective, it is popular democracy at its finest or a populist threat to democracy itself.  This much seems clear, however: 2016 will be remembered as the “Year of the Angry Voter.”

So is voter outrage a constructive force or an irrational threat?  My guess is that how we each answer that question will stem more from our personal philosophies and understanding of human nature than from a purported objective assessment of the current political landscape.  I know that that is the case with me.  When I think about today’s angry climate, my mind turns automatically to the New Testament admonition to be “slow to wrath, for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).  I think Scripture teaches that anger can be righteous, but in our fallenness it rarely is.  Is the anger that we feel a righteous wrath against injustice, an expression of our zeal for the Lord and our love for His creation?  Or does it stem from other recesses of the heart?  I can’t say dogmatically, but surely this is the most important question we need to ask about it.

As a historian, I find myself wondering if there’s a careful study that puts voter anger in historical context.  (There may well be; I welcome your recommendations if you know of any.)  It would be interesting to see how 2016 compares in the intensity of voter outrage, and also enlightening to see what concrete results have followed in other times and places marked by strong voter discontent.

As I do every fall, I’m currently teaching a survey of American History up through the Civil War, and it occurs to me that the case can be made that the United States was born in an outburst of indignation.  I say this because my class and I just got finished discussing Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, surely the most influential single work of political propaganda in our history.  Pay no attention to the pamphlet’s title. It was Paine’s anger—not his reasoned argument—that made Common Sense an overnight sensation.

paineThomas Pain (he added the “e” to his name later) only arrived in America in 1774, less than a year before the first blood was shed on Lexington Green to mark the onset of the American Revolutionary War.  Thirty-seven years old, his life to this point had been marked by failure.  The son of a corset-maker in the village of Thetford, England, he had followed in his father’s footsteps, being apprenticed to a stay-maker at age thirteen and spending the next twelve years of his life making whalebone ribbing for women’s corsets.  Dissatisfied with this life (wonder why?), at age twenty-five he left his skilled craft to become, at various times, a tax collector, a schoolteacher, and the proprietor of a tobacco shop.  By 1774, his business was bankrupt, he was separated from his wife, and his life was in shambles.  With a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, he set sail for the colonies to start life anew as a writer for the Pennsylvania Magazine.

If prominent Founders John Witherspoon and Benjamin Rush are to be trusted, Paine’s first anonymous essays actually condemned the patriot cause.  Even if untrue—it’s hard to know for sure—it is undeniable that Paine was an extremely recent convert to the cause when Rush convinced him in late 1775 to use his considerable writing talents to craft a case for independence.  Paine responded with a medium length pamphlet (in my edition it’s about fifty pages long) that was rushed into print by January of 1776.  To put this in context, the battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred the previous April, followed three months later by the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Despite the reality of open war against British rule, popular opinion across the colonies was still divided, and although there were no opinion polls, it seems likely that a decided majority of Americans still hoped for a compromise in which the colonies would be granted greater autonomy over local affairs but remain part of the British Empire as loyal subjects of George III.

Sentiment had begun to change even as Paine sat down to write.  News arrived in the colonies that George III had rejected a petition from the Second Continental Congress pleading for reconciliation and had branded the colonists “rebels.”  News followed soon afterward that the King had hired German mercenaries and intended to use them to subdue American resistance militarily.  Then came reports from within the colonies that the governor of Virginia was actually inviting the slaves of disloyal masters to join the British Army and was offering them freedom in exchange for their aid in subduing their former owners.  Although even now few dared to call openly for independence, the moderate argument for reconciliation was becoming more and more difficult to sustain.

This was the setting when the first copies of Common Sense hit the streets at sixpence each.  Within three months 120,000 copies were in circulation, and the number of colonists who actually read the pamphlet (or heard it read) was far larger.  A rough estimate would be that by April 1776 one half of all the households in the colonies had a copy.  For a comparable sensation, imagine a book released today selling forty million copies by Christmas!


Paine’s case for independence was scattered—an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of argument.  He told readers that government was at best a necessary evil, and he appealed to natural law, Scripture, history, and self-interest to convince his readers that further allegiance to Britain was preposterous.  The most coherent portions of his argument were hardly new; the parts of his argument that were new were hardly coherent.  He argued, for example, that there was not a single benefit to membership in the British Empire, despite extensive evidence to the contrary.  He borrowed selectively from Scripture to argue that ancient Israel had been a republic and that the Lord condemned all monarchy.  (When John Adams privately told Paine that his reasoning from the Old Testament was “ridiculous,” Paine only laughed and made clear that he held the entire Bible in contempt.)

No, it was not Paine’s reason that made Common Sense a sensation.  Two other factors were paramount.  The first was the work’s accessibility.  Most of the political literature of the period was written for a highly educated audience of elites, complete with historical references, literary allusions, and Latin quotations.  Paine’s work was short, full of short sentences and short words that sent no one to the dictionary.

The second factor was the author’s rage, which seems to have resonated powerfully with the mass of Americans.  For its day, the language of Common Sense was coarse and shocking.  Here are some examples:

* The judgment of those who venerated the British constitutional system rendered them unqualified to speak to the present debate in the same way that “a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife.”

* On hereditary monarchy: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”

* On William the Conqueror and the origins of the British monarchy: “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.”

* On George III: “a royal brute,” a “wretch” with “blood upon his soul” who wields “barbarous and hellish power” against his supposed children.

But Paine saved his greatest invective for the colonists who dared to disagree with him.  His ad hominem attacks began with the pamphlet’s title: the argument for independence was “common sense,” which meant that all who argued otherwise were either malevolent or stupid.  In Paine’s accounting, no one opposed independence for principled reasons.  They were either “interested men, who cannot be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; [or] prejudiced men, who will not see.”   Warming to his task, Paine told Americans that anyone who would favor reconciliation with Britain after blood had been shed had “the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.”  (Look up that last adjective.  It’s not a compliment.)

John Adams described Common Sense as a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass."

John Adams described Common Sense as a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass.”

Although they readily acknowledged Paine’s polemical skills, few of the men we now revere as “Founding Fathers” thought highly of the writer.  Rumors circulated from the beginning that his personal habits were dissolute and that he rarely wrote until his third tumbler of brandy.  His supporters got him a position as a clerk to the committee on foreign affairs but he was soon dismissed due to his “obnoxious” manners.  When he sailed for France in 1781, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter wrote from Philadelphia that “there never was a man less beloved in a place than Payne [sic] is in this, having at different times disputed with everybody.  The most rational thing he could have done would have been to have died the instant he had finished his Common Sense, for he never again will have it in his power to leave the World with so much credit.”

Paine further alienated his adopted country when he denounced Christianity in his 1794 work The Age of Reason.  Writing mostly from a French prison—Paine was variously in and out of favor in France during the French Revolution—Paine judged Christianity as “too absurd for belief.”  “Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented,” he opined, “there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity.”


Writing from France in 1796, Thomas Paine publicly denounced President George Washington for his “ingratitude” and “hypocrisy.”

And when President George Washington didn’t act aggressively enough to try to get him released from his French dungeon, Paine further offended Americans by writing a lengthy (64-page) public letter to Washington berating the Father of their Country for his “deceit,” “ingratitude,” “hypocrisy,” “meanness,” “vanity,” “perfidy,” and “pusillanimity,” among other character qualities.  Americans had won their independence through no thanks to General Washington, Paine informed the president, for you “slept away your time in the field till the finances of the country were completely exhausted,” and deserve “but little share in the glory of the final event.”  “And as to you, sir,” Paine concluded, “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any?”

Having denounced both Jesus and George Washington, Paine was now heartily despised by most Americans, to the degree that they remembered him at all.  He eventually returned to the United States in the early 1800s—he had nowhere else to go—and eventually settled on a modest farm in New Rochelle, New York.  There he lived in relative obscurity until his death in 1809.  Most Americans now viewed him as a scoundrel and a self-promoter who turned on those who failed to support him.  The author of the most popular political tract ever written in American history was laid to rest with no fanfare, and little mourning.


I thought I would introduce a new feature on this blog that might interest some of you. I hope it will.

I don’t know if you’re like me, but I know in advance that I will forget about 95 percent (99 percent?) of all that I read. This is why I take notes on just about everything that I read other than the newspaper. When I finish a history book, for example, I type out its central thesis, outline its argument, record the most important factual information it contains, and conclude with an overall evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses. All of this goes into my laptop, where I can readily access it as the need arises.

A tiny subset of the notes I take go elsewhere, however. Several years ago my older daughter gave me a handsomely bound journal as a Father’s Day gift. For some time, Callie had been keeping what she called a quote journal. As she read—and she is a voracious reader—she would write down “keepers,” passages from scripture or favorite books that she wanted to meditate on from time to time. As she explained in a note on the book’s first page, she found it “refreshing . . . to look back through my journal and remind myself of truth.”

She was so right. Since that time I have tried to follow Callie’s example, although I cannot match her prodigious pace. The journal is now one of my most prized possessions. It’s not for general information; it’s for gems—passages that affect me deeply in one way or another. And it has come to mean even more to me as I have come to realize that in keeping the quote journal I am perpetuating a centuries-old tradition. Beginning in the seventeenth century, if not before, it was common for students to keep what were then called “commonplace books,” journals in which they compiled quotations from what they were reading.

Many of our nation’s founders kept such commonplace books throughout much of their lives. In the Library of Congress, for example, you can find an entire collection of commonplace books kept by prominent Americans. The image below shows a page from one of the commonplace books of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson recorded passages from a wide array of books written not only in English, but in Latin and Greek as well. In the digital collections of the National Archives you can view an early commonplace book of John Adams, which Adams began while at Harvard and continued during his first job as a schoolteacher. In 1755, the twenty-year-old Adams recorded passages from a broad range of classical and contemporary works, from Roman poets to Puritan pastors.

A page from Thomas Jefferson's literary commonplace book.

A page from Thomas Jefferson’s literary commonplace book.

From time to time I plan on sharing with you from what I am now calling my commonplace book. Many of the passages I record are explicitly religious. There are Bible verses, prayers, lyrics from hymns and praise choruses, and quotes from Augustine, Calvin, John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Stanley Hauerwas, among others. But there are at least as many entries from historians, philosophers, and educators, reflections that in some way or other help me to think through my calling as a Christian, historian, and teacher. In keeping with the theme of this blog, I will tend to pick passages that shed light in some way on the broad terrain at the intersection of Christian faith, the life of the mind, and contemplation of American history.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

Just to get us started, and to keep this post from getting overly long, I thought I would begin with two very brief quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville, since we’ve been engaging with him quite a bit of late. Tocqueville’s work Democracy in America is so rich that I could share quotes from it for months and still not get to all the good ones. These are both quotes that I regularly include on course syllabi. In all my courses I unabashedly challenge my students to seek life-changing knowledge, and both of these quotes challenge is in this regard.

The first comes from volume I, part I, chapter 8, a section in which Tocqueville is reflecting at length on the strengths and weaknesses of the U. S. Constitution. I tell my students at Wheaton that, whatever God has planned for their future, for the moment they are all clearly called of God to be Christian scholars. As such, part of pursuing their calling faithfully is determining not only to pursue truth, but to be willing to wrestle with truth in all its complexity. There is nothing about the latter that comes naturally. As Tocqueville put it,

A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.

We live in a sound-bite culture. We distil our world views into slogans, express our religious values on bumper stickers, develop our political philosophies on tweets. Our ever-dwindling attention spans demand simple answers to life’s questions, and heaven help the public figure who refuses to play along. As Christians, one of the most counter-cultural things we can do in contemporary America is to reject simplistic answers, even when they tell us things we wish were true.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

The second quote appears about twenty pages later (vol. I, pt. II, chap. 3) in a section in which Tocqueville is discussing the nature of freedom of the press in the United States. In this context, Tocqueville sets out “three distinct and often successive states of human understanding.” The first describes us when we hold a belief that we really haven’t thought deeply about and cannot defend. The second takes place when someone or something challenges that unthinking conviction and it rocks our world, so much so that we are no longer sure whether what we thought we believed is true. The third, and highest stage of understanding, comes when we wrestle with the challenge to our convictions, resolve our doubts, and lay a far firmer foundation for what we believe. Keeping these categories in mind, hear what Tocqueville has to say to us:

One may count on it that the majority of mankind will always stop short in one of these two conditions: they will either believe without knowing why or will not know precisely what to believe. But only a few persevering people will ever attain to that deliberate and self-justified type of conviction born of knowledge and springing up in the very midst of doubt.

It’s a sobering assessment that should bring us to our knees. O Lord, save us from the prejudice of believing without knowing why.  Deliver us from the doubt of not knowing what to believe. And in your mercy, grant us the perseverance in pursuit of truth that makes our doubt, not an enemy of conviction, but the seedbed from which it grows.