The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality
John Adams was our first one-term president. A generation later, his son John Quincy was our second.
These men are not remembered for their presidencies. Biographers of the father and son tend to devote scant few pages to their presidencies, admirers brushing of the four years each man spent as head of state by saying their talents lay in other areas – one a political theorist, the other a statesman. John’s legacy depends on what he did before he was president; John Quincy’s on what he did after.
But Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein attempt to amend this “mismanagement of history.” Instead of looking on the Adamses as “obstructionists, stuffed shirts, surly malcontents, who were resistant to the supposed good intentions embedded in Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy,” the authors portray them as “serious students of the road not taken,” and use their truncated presidencies as a way of looking at the rise of idol worship in American politics.
Of course, when we read about the failure of old-timey American people to accept the Adamses, we’re really reading about the failure of our own modern-day American selves to make wise political decisions.
Isenberg and Burstein use the Adams to discuss the cult of personality and cult of celebrity that has invaded not only American culture but American politics over the past two hundred and fifty years. In this solid anti-consensus history, the Adamses are warriors against scurlogging, delightful old New England legal jargon for “the crime of inciting a mob through scurrilous talk.”
The Problem of Democracy is a reminder that the American people “are not always right, can be misled, and will arrive at conclusions with insufficient information.”
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