Sometimes the “Enemy of the People” Is… the People

Election Eve Special:

Poetry appears in many places—history, even. Is it not poetic justice, after all, that friends and frequent political jousters John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of American independence?

I am reading Joseph Ellis’s bracing new book, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, which has a structure of then (as in, the root of our problems) and now (as in, what flower—or thorns—these roots have wrought since the Founding Fathers’ day).

The first section focuses, appropriately enough, on race and on Thomas Jefferson (then and very much now). And although there is a lot I could say about these fascinating opening chapters, I’m moved instead by what I’m reading in the next pair of chapters (“Equality”), which focuses on John Adams.

But why listen to me? Here is Ellis on a critique Adams offered on Thomas Jefferson:

“…the Adams critique of Jefferson operates at a much deeper level of intellectual and ideological sophistication, involving nothing less than a wholesale rejection of what he regarded as the following illusions of the French Enlightenment: the unfounded belief in the preternatural wisdom of ‘the people’; the naïve assumption that human beings are inherently rational creatures; and the romantic conviction that American society was immune to the class divisions so prevalent in Europe. The political differences between Adams and Jefferson are too multifaceted to be captured in the conventional categories of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ What we must negotiate is the distinction between a realist and an idealist, a pessimist and an optimist, a skeptic and a believer. Both men were rock-ribbed American patriots, though diametrically at odds over the likely shape of America’s future…

“The clear implication of [Adams’] presidency, at least as Adams saw it, was that leadership necessarily entailed not listening to the voice of ‘the people’ when it ran counter to the abiding interest of ‘the public,’ which the president had a moral obligation to defend even more forcefully when it was unpopular… Adams had no trouble endorsing the Lockean doctrine that all political power derived from ‘the people.’ but he could never bring himself to think about popular sovereignty in the reverential fashion that Jefferson embraced with such intoxicating assurance. ‘The fundamental Article of my political Creed,’ he declared quite defiantly, ‘is that Despotism, or unlimited Sovereignty, or Absolute Power is the same in a popular Assembly, an Aristocratic Counsel, an Oligarchic Junto and a single Emperor.’

“Adams realized that this creedal statement was heretical in the Jeffersonian political universe, where it was inherently impossible for ‘the people’ to behave despotically. He was attempting to disabuse his old friend of the same kind of magical thinking that had permitted medieval theologians to conjure up miracles. There was in fact no surefire source of political omniscience on this side of heaven, and making ‘the people’ into just such a heavenly creature was a preposterous perpetuation of an alluring illusion about kings long since discredited by Jefferson himself in his indictment of George III in the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, if you wanted to know where such illusions about the infallibility of ‘the people’ led, you only needed to follow the bloodstained trail of the French Revolution, which moved through massacres at the guillotine to its inevitably despotic destination in Napoleon.”

I’m looking forward to the “Now” chapter that complements this Adams one. It is called “Our Gilded Age” and will draw lines, I am sure, between notions of “equality” then and today.

In the meantime, we’d all do well to remember John Adams’ stark warning. Sometimes the enemy of the people is… the people, voting themselves to perdition and other places we don’t want to go.

Happy Election Day, 2018, and I hope you pick up Ellis’s book for a look-see at Thomas Jefferson’s, John Adams’s, James Madison’s, and George Washington’s “dialogues” with the present day. It will cause you to think, and thinking is something the Founding Fathers valued very, very much.