Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Decline of Jefferson and Rise of Adams

Over the past few years, I can't help but take note of the fact that there seems to have been a major shift in the way both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are perceived by the general public. In a nutshell, John Adams has surged in popularity while Jefferson is being left in the dust. Obviously the hit HBO drama on the life of John Adams has done much to bolster this one time self-defeating founder (as Adams himself put it, "History will remember very little of me...I will have no monuments.") while Jefferson is being removed from textbooks because he "wasn't Christian enough."

While it is true that John Adams was once considered a "lesser" of the Founding Fathers, recent events and research have propelled Adams to a higher level of recognition and appreciation. On the flip side, the once prominent Thomas Jefferson (personally speaking, my favorite Founding Father) has witnessed a decrease in his popularity. The man who was once hailed as the greatest political mind of his era is now being remembered more for his views on religion and slavery. Jefferson's lack of Christian orthodoxy, combined with his views on slavery (not to mention the huge impact of the Sally Hemmings affair) have caused Jefferson to slip a little.

Is this fair? Should we promote Adams at the expense of Jefferson?

If there is one thing I have learned from studying Jefferson and Adams it is that their legacies are joined at the hip. Their on again, off again, on again friendship is a highlight of the revolutionary era. Like Batman needs the Joker, Jefferson and Adams often needed each other. The fact that they were polar opposites on virtually every political (and sometimes religious) issue serves as a template for later social and political struggles the United States would face. When we compare Adams and Jefferson, we are often comparing North v. South, Puritan v. Anglican, Federalist v. Republican, aristocrat v. farmer, passionate v. reserved, tall v. short, sophisticated v. crass. As a result, I guess it would only be natural for one man's stock to go down as the other's went up. As the American political/social pendulum swings from left to right, so does the general public's approval of Jefferson v. Adams. As historian Joseph Ellis states, Jefferson and Adams really were "the head and the heart of the Revolution...a brotherhood that illustrates America's diversity of thought." As a result, it is only natural that Americans today will, from time to time, see Jefferson and Adams in different ways...as representations of America's continually shifting pendulum.

In conclusion, I couldn't help but include my all-time favorite Jefferson quote. In one of his final letters to John Adams (who had earlier written Jefferson to complain about the current course of American politics in the typical Adams doomsday style) Jefferson responded with this. Enjoy:

"We shall have our follies without doubt. Some one or more of them will always be afloat. But ours will be the follies of enthusiasm, not bigotry. Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism. Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders and hobble along by our side, under the monkish trammels of priests and kings."

38 comments:

King of Ireland said...

Brad,

I am not sure I agree. Jefferson is getting a lot of air time in the states rights/interposition movement that is a large part of the Tea Party.

But, I do agree that the HBO thing helped Adams.

T. Greer said...

Right, and those folks who aren't Tea Party partisans find themselves moving away from him for those same reasons.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If you look at Jefferson's career outside his 2 terms as president---which were more good stewardship than "transformative" or ideologically eventful----there isn't much to recommend him.

The Declaration would have been written anyway, the revolution would have gone on anyway [and he did little in it]; he was out of the country at the Framing and signing of the Constitution.

Mostly he's quotable, and he's the most secular of the Founders, which makes him a favorite with the academic establishment.

As for Adams, after his miniseries is forgotten, so will he be. Aside from being a mover in kickoff of the revolution, he did little either: nothing in the Framing, and the classic one-term nothing [except despised] president.

Brad Hart said...

Well, I certainly agree with you about Adams. He probably will fade after the miniseries dies away from memory.

As for Jefferson, I think you don't give him the credit he deserves. I know his secularism rubs you and others the wrong way (or should I say the fact that so many academics favor his secularism) but let's not allow that to cloud our judgement. Jefferson was a tremendous mover and shaker during the founding. He was extremely influential and did play a legitimate role. I know you will probably disagree so I will simply leave it at that and go no further with this. I'm not interested in hearing how my "facts" are wrong so perhaps agreeing to disagree should suffice.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sure. Feel free to argue for Jefferson's importance with your own facts.

It simply occurred to me that had Jefferson not served two terms as president in the post-Founding era, his importance among the Founders would be rated much lower, since he did little more than write the Declaration.

As for Jefferson's secularism, he was far less militant about it than some who claim his mantle are today. I was just positing it's part of his popularity with the academy.

That, and certainly, his quotability. He quotable as hell.

T. Greer said...

TVD, I think you underestimate the influence both of these men had on the politics and ideas of the revolutionary era.

Jefferson's impact is the easiest to see. Every 'R' and 'D' attached to a politician's name is a testament to his influence. Joseph Ellis wrote a wonderful essay to this effect for his book American Creation - without Mr. Jefferson our current two party system might not exist. His politcking forged the [Democratic] Republican party, and all that its creation entailed for the American political system.

Jefferson was also the author of the Kentucky Resolution. In many ways this document, coupled with the Declaration, can be described as the intellectual foundation of all those arguing for secession and nullification decades later. Certainty if you were to ask Calhoun which founder he drew the most inspiration from, he would point straight to Jefferson. In a broader sense, Jefferson's vision of a yeoman's democracy, kept strong and vital by a population of self-sustaining agricultural republicans, was the template the South itself was built upon 'til the civil war. (One could play the "does the man make the times or the times make the man" game with this one, but Jefferson's articulation of this vision is undeniably the most artful.)

The influence of Mr. Adam is a bit harder to see, but it is there. His intellectual contribution was enormous - Adams Thoughts on Government was the outline for many a state constitution, and his constitution of Massachusetts played the same role for the federal. What reason is there to dismiss these contributions?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jefferson's introduction of back-stabbing [as Washington's Sec of State] and party politics need not be viewed positively.

We discussed some of the Kentucky Resolution stuff [anti-Adams' tyranny of the Alien & Sedition Acts], but Madison's 1800 report to the Virginia Legislature [and his private moderation of Jefferson's more radical stance] may have been more influential.

Regardless, a result of Adams' ham-fistedness in the first place.

What we can say is that Jefferson hardly helped with actually fighting the revolution, and was in Europe during the Framing of the Constitution.

As for Adams' influence on state constitutions, that sounds interesting; I'd like to hear more. Certainly not what he's revered for, and altho mebbe a worthy contribution, not exactly entry into Major Founder status. From what I understand, his Defense of the Constitutions was largely ignored, altho I might be wrong about that. It's certainly ignored these days, though, as is most or all of his formal canon.

Brad Hart said...

Jefferson being in Europe doesn't mean that he had no role in the development of the Constitution. All one needs to do is read the letters between him and Madison. Jefferson was regularly sending Madison his input. Sure, he wasn't at the Convention, but that doesn't mean he was irrelevant.

I've noticed, over the past couple of years on this blog, that a handful of people have always had a serious bone to pick with Jefferson. It's always perplexed me. I think this is due to the fact that Jefferson is so much of an enigma. When I first got into studying the founding era, I HAAATED Jefferson. But after a few years I think that I began to understand the man...at least a little bit.

Yes, Jefferson was a stereotypical aristocrat. Yes, he had a relationship with Sally Hemmings. Yes, he could stab his political colleagues in the back. Yes, he was more secular (but as Tom points out, not as secular as some make him out to be) in his religious views. BUT, I don't think this all makes him an irrelevant (or less-than-relevant) figure in the founding. Jefferson was an idealist. As his biographer Joseph Ellis states, Jefferson saw his world in terms of black and white, good and evil, virtue and vice. When people got in his way he simply pushed them out. Not too terribly different than many today.

Bottom line, Jefferson is an enigma...probably even to himself. I think the title to Joseph Ellis' bio on Jefferson is appropriate. He really is the "American Sphinx."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I'm just having fun playing skeptic. But my estimation of Jefferson has lowered since I joined this blog, if only because it seems to me the "minor" Founders are a much bigger part of the Founding than the Major Founders thesis gives credit for.

It wasn't that there was a strange historic gathering of a half-dozen geniuses who founded the country, it was that there were dozens of them.

And it does seem to me that Jefferson and Adams get jacked higher because of their presidencies. By contrast, it seems that Madison's presidency was much less successful than Jefferson's, and that might detract from more deserved credit.

But it's fair to say, I think, when folks really want to dig into the Founding, it's Madison's thoughts they start with, not Jefferson's or Adams'.

But Jefferson's definitely the best aphorist: when you want a quote, Jefferson's usually got an elegant zinger that fits. Madison isn't as zippy and pithy, and like Adams, there really aren't any or many Madison quotes on the tip of America's tongue.

http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/j/james_madison.html

And like Adams, he's not on any currency either.

King of Ireland said...

I would have to agree with T Greer on Jefferson.

King of Ireland said...

I would have to agree with T Greer on Jefferson.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The DOI would have been what it was w/o Jefferson's authorship.

Likewise Jefferson's authorship of the VA Statute on Religious Liberty, what Bernard Bailyn terms arguably the most important document of the American Founding, likewise was monumental.

bpabbott said...

"The DOI would have [NOT] been what it was w/o Jefferson's authorship"

Jon did you miss the "not"?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Jefferson, altho an aristocrat, knew his responsibility, and not just his priviledge.

" Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders and hobble along by our side, under the monkish trammels of priests and kings."

He believed in equality under law and defended America's fight for Independence.

I think it would be fascinating to compare Luther's "reformation" and Jefferson's "declaration". Would Erasmas and Adams be similarly compared, as they were not radicals, but conservatives?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Ben,

Absolutely. Sometimes one word makes all the difference.

Pinky said...

.
Thomas Jefferson's time has to be taken into consideration.
.
What's going on now is quite a different story.
.
He has had great influence on our evolution as a society.
.
Seems he knew he would slip into the background as time marched on.
.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Pinky,
The "issues" never change...

Government, institutions, law, foreign policy, liberty, equality, fraternity, idealism/realism...these are fodder of our realities, and will always be...

Ray Soller said...

Angie,

I agree with that it would be fascinating to compare Luther's "reformation" and Jefferson's "declaration". I suspect you have Luther's Doctrine of Two Kingdoms in mind. The Wikipedia article notes: James Madison explicitly credited Martin Luther as the theorist who “led the way” in providing the proper distinction between the civil and the ecclesiastical spheres.

I've just come across the book, Political Theories of Martin Luther by Luther Hess Waring (1910). I found the two chapters, (pgs 135 - 162) and Chapter IX - Limits of the State (pgs 233 - 261) especially interesting.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thanks for the reference, Ray,

I was thinking along several lines, but primarily about authority.

America was nominalist in their ideology about "god", because we were a Protestant nation and because we allowed for individual conscience, without an institutionally sanctioned Church stipulating how we were to "worship god".

Today, we find a movement that has bred the culture wars we are experiencing today and I speculate it is because the academics (who understand the questions) have led the way in "creating unification" about the "ideals" that are foundational to our "American experiment". And whenever the "ideals" are already negotiated, and defined in a society we limit liberty of conscience.

Religion is dangerous when it is alligned with politics, because it alligns definition with power, and that becomes deadly and has caused wars "in the name of God"....

On the other hand, because the real world consists in the areas of the disciplines, and public policy, why is the transcendent necessary? (unless one wants to make a "power play" in the name of 'god').

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The limitations of defining "god" in how one is "supposed" to live their life, is a limitation on the State.

In effect, both State and "God" is held in tension to prevent abuse of power by any one segment of society.

Accountability is the result of balancing power. And our government has understood itself to be a 'moral government' that is accountable to its people, in representation.

Pinky said...

.
Angie, "The only thing constant is change."
.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The DOI would have been what it was w/o Jefferson's authorship.

Likewise Jefferson's authorship of the VA Statute on Religious Liberty, what Bernard Bailyn terms arguably the most important document of the American Founding, likewise was monumental.


Jefferson's eloquence in paraphrasing Locke [Declaration/Second Treatise, Virginia Statute/Letter Concerning Tolerance] was never in doubt. It's his claim to fame.

Bernard Bailyn and the "Harvard Narrative" rise again, but as Hutson argues

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2008/09/scholarly-malpractice-and-founding.html

it wasn't Jefferson's
eloquence or Madison's secular-Enlightenment logic in Memorial & Remonstrance that swung the day, it was opponent Patrick Henry's retirement, and mostly the minority Baptist sect realizing that without it, they might end up with the brown end of the stick.

Religious tolerance as a "Christian principle" was already accepted by orthodox like Samuel Adams as early as 1772. The Virginia Statute [written 1777] hung around unratified until 1786.

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/03/religious-tolerance-in-christian-nation.html

Hagiography is a door that swings both ways. ;-)

T. Greer said...

TVD-

I never did say that I thought Jefferson's contributions were good for America - only that they were significant. Jefferson has fair claim to be called one of the most influential men of American history. Past '78, however, the merits of his influence is debatable.

[As a short aside - I would argue that the reason popular culture jacks up Jefferson - and really Adams as well - is their role in the Continental Congress. I have heard people quote the DoI as "the eternal words of Jefferson" or the equivalent many a time.]

Adam's Defense of the Constitution was largely ignored when it was published in 1787. And for good reason - the essay is larger than most books, accessible only to those with a classical education, and generally hard to read. To mark an easy contrast, the Federalist papers were all short essays digestible one bit at a time, and are fairly easy to read today. Adam's own verbosity ruined any chance he had of being part of the debate.

The same was not true in 1776. Adams was the most adamant proponent of independence, and this forced him to think about how the colonies would function once GB was out of the picture. Towards this end he wrote a short essay titled Thoughts on Government (Link HERE) made for pamphlet form. Contrast his thoughts on the shape of government with a contemporary's plan - that presented by Thomas Paine in Common Sense. One can see which of these was taken more seriously by the state's founding framers. Ideas like bicameral legislatures and the separation of powers weren't being discussed until John Adams placed them in firmly in the public mind. He had little impact on the conversation once it began, but I question whether it would have began at all without his writings and speeches.

Well, that is not quite true. Adams did have a bit of influence on the debate after his initial salvos in '76. He was the author of the constitution of Massachusetts, the state constitution most similar in form to that of the federal government's. Compare it to the Pennsylvania constitution, for example,
to get a good idea of how diverse the state constitutions really were. The state of Massachusetts provided a working example of a bicameral, seperated-powers, type government in action.

King of Ireland said...

T Greer,

I think Jefferson had a positive and negative impact with small government, states rights, pro-agriculture stance that built the South.

Small government in my mind was good. States rights can be either good or bad. When checking the power of the Alien and Sedition Acts is was good. Or in checking the madness of Hamilton and his merchantilist aspirations too. Bad when looking at helping to perpetuate slaver and the later Jim Crow laws.

I also think his missed what Hamilton got. That is the coming of a new wave of history at the time and that the factory would be king.

It is a lot like today. I compare these tea parties with the democratic clubs that Jefferson and Madison created that turned into the Republican party years later.

Pinky said...

.
Small agri-society demands small government.
.
Large econo-society demands large government.
.
It's foolish not to recognize this simple truth.
.
But, both societies demand an educated public.
.
We experience the same problems that faced the Founding generation. Extremes in the private sector.
.

King of Ireland said...

"Large econo-society demands large government.
.
It's foolish not to recognize this simple truth.'

Do you base this on anything? We had a small government with a large economy for many years.

Pinky said...

.
We never had as large an economy as we have today. And, our society is well over 300,000,000 people and growing by leaps and bounds.
.
What we need in more participation and involvement by citizens.
.
Maybe some consideration by intelligent people will provide us with some good ideas on how to gain more control over those we vote into office to represent us.
.
It's a common sense thing.
.
Cutting government would only make it easier for run-a-way multinationals to screw us more and more.
.

bpabbott said...

Re: "Do you base this on anything? We had a small government with a large economy for many years"

I'm not sure what qualifes as "small government", or "large economy".

However, ignoring entitlements paid to citizens the cost of running the government has been shrinking relative to the GDP for decades.

And through the 80's and 90's government expenditures maintained a downward trend.

King of Ireland said...

Maybe is it better to say limited government and big economy. Goes back to Goldstone's thesis that I agree with accept his wrong view of the causes and effects of the "people sovereign over a limited state" due to his distorted view of European and Christian history.

Pinky said...

.
If we're imaginative, perhaps we'll be able to open up new vistas?
.
I sure don't like being held to the past as much as I respect many of those past heroes that I revere so highly.
.
But, we're standing on their shoulders and we should see the future with far more clarity than they were able to envision.
.
We can have our own visions.
.

King of Ireland said...

We can have our own visions but if we do not consult history for the lessons it teaches us we are foolish.

bpabbott said...

On the big/small government/economy thing, I infer the current economic situation is an important context.

I came across a blog post titled, Austerity is stupid, stimulus is dangerous, lying is optimal, economic choices are not scalar.

In economics, austerity is when a government reduces its spending and/or increases user fees and taxes to pay back creditors. Austerity is usually required when a government's fiscal deficit spending is believed to be unsustainable.

I won't vouch for the author's reasonableness, but the post is well written and explains his position well.

Pinky said...

.
That's what it means that we stand on the shoulders of those that lived before us. And, if we're going to see over the mess all around us, we'd better stand on the shoulders of the tallest giants in our past.
.
There's no reason to be resistant to that simple fact of life.
.
We have to learn the lesson of that was then and this is now; but, the future is up ahead in the next clearing.
.
Life is a journey and not a review of the past.
.
Of course, it is important to study history. How else can we know what shoulders are the best on which to stand?
.
I agree with your point.
.
What are we learning from our studies of history? Is it that this or that commentator is more correct than the other? Or are we seeing a pattern of argumentation that gets in the way of doing the real work?
.
Life is filled with complexities.
.
.

Pinky said...

.
We owe a great debt to those men and women that uncover the facts of our history.
.
We must take their different interpretations to heart. It is up to us, the living, to make choices that will lead us into the future of our desires--and not to be led by the ideologies of the dead.
.
There are several of you, here, and we appreciate your work. Even so, you need to be shaken up every once in a while. Otherwise....
.
Who knows?
.

Pinky said...

.
In asking, "Who knows?", I guess there is a good chance that a worship of the dead could lead us into a morass that will be almost an impossibility--like the BP gulf oil disaster.
.
We need to put our attention on where we're going as well as to gain as much understanding as is possible about where we've been.
.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, TGreer. Ace stuff on the Mass Constitution, and definitely a huge argument in Adams' favor.

King of Ireland said...

Tom,

I think you provided a link before about Adams studying the author of Vindicae and how that impacted his ideas on Constitutions. May be a good time to dust that off if you still know where it is.

Brian Tubbs said...

Thomas Jefferson may have slipped a little, but I don't think this is unfair.

Jefferson was WRONG on a lot of points. Major points.

The wisest, most honest, and most levelheaded Founder of them all was Washington, and Jefferson stabbed him in the back!