, Salem, MA


November 27, 2012

Column: Adams' personality leaps from the page


Though he was a powerful advocate for self-government, Adams had no faith that voters would always make the right decisions, noting that many of them considered only political party in weighing a candidate.

In some jurisdictions, Adams observed scornfully, a “cap on a broomstick” would win office if it was run against a Federalist.

“He’s utterly realistic about human nature,” Wood noted.

Adams found the utopianism of his era’s left to represent ludicrous and dangerous fantasies. He fought for equality of opportunity, though in an imperfect world, that is impossible to achieve in all cases. The idea of state-enforced equality of outcomes seemed monstrous to a man who recognized the horrors of the French Revolution and anticipated those of communist Russia. He believed that people have inherent differences in talent and interests that inevitably create social and economic disparities. This led some to accuse him of supporting an aristocracy of elites, which hurt him badly politically.

“We’re not willing to admit we’re unequal,” Wood said. “He’s cold-eyed about that, and he paid a price.”

One of Adams’ great concerns centered on the loss of civility in everyday life — he was mortified by people who hardly knew each other calling each other by first names — and the vicious personal attacks that marked the party politics of his era.

But it’s not all political philosophy here. We read love letters and marvelous descriptions of the people and places around him.

“He’s incredibly sensuous,” Wood observed, recalling Adams’ visit to a Catholic church in Philadelphia and his description of the beautiful and sumptuous ceremony. “How did Luther ever break the spell?” Adams muses.

It becomes clear studying the Founders’ era that the participants simply cannot stand far back enough to understand what is happening to them.

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