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Perspective

Hail to Which Chiefs?

The new popularity of John Adams raises interesting questions about Americans' connection to their history.

July 29, 2001|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES CULTURE CORRESPONDENT

On July 3, 1776, for example, he wrote to Abigail from Philadelphia and before describing passage of the resolution for independence expressed apprehension that his lack of means soon would force him from public life "to support my Family."

Adams went on to describe himself--rather improbably--as one who "delight(s) in nothing so much as Retreat, Solitude, Silence and Obscurity. In private Life, no one has a Right to censure me for following my own Inclinations, in Retirement, Simplicity and Frugality; in public Life, every Man has a Right to remark as he pleases, at least he thinks so."

He was also in the view of many of his contemporaries vain, irritable, difficult and toweringly opinionated. He was deeply suspicious of how ordinary people might exercise their franchise, and in the same letter heralding the advent of independence expressed his wariness that "the People will wield unbounded power. And the People are extreamly addicted to Corruption and Venality ..."

His deference to executive power was such that he sought to have Washington addressed as "His Majesty, the President." As chief executive himself in 1798, he enthusiastically signed the Alien and Sedition Act, which sought to fine and imprison critics of his government. It was the single most repressive piece of legislation ever enacted by the American republic and remains the archetypal affront to basic notions of civil liberties. And after one term, the voters spurned him for Jefferson.

Even McCullough assesses Adams' embrace of the act as "reprehensible," though he argues that it must be viewed "in the context" of possible homefront subversion during the undeclared naval war with revolutionary France.

Clearly, a significant number of Americans are willing to do just that. Many of them, particularly the aging boomers, also appear drawn to Adams' "authenticity" as a recognizable contemporary type with admirable virtues and forgivable faults.

It is an accommodation many--particularly among the baby boom generation--find increasingly hard to concede Jefferson.

As an exemplary 18th century man, who esteemed the life of the mind as no less real than any other, he seems in the contemporary eye increasingly remote and "inauthentic." His interests--architecture, philosophy, connoisseurship of all sorts--were elevated.

Fewer and fewer seem to know quite how to take his friend James Madison's famous remark that Jefferson "believes all men are equal not because he feels it in his heart, but because he reasons it must be so."

Fewer still find it possible to accept any "context" in which intellectual provision could be made for Jefferson's personal reliance on slavery or his covert sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings, who was not only decades his junior, but also his legal property.

In the boomers' collective consciousness, sexual coercion and racism are social sins unexpiated by authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia statute of religious freedom. Taken together, contemporary popular taste judges these contradictory characteristics as hypocrisy and not the inconsistencies of a man who rose above his time in some ways and not in others.

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