A little later this month, the country is going to celebrate Presidents Day, one of the more confusing holidays on the annual calendar. It’s a day to honor all of America’s presidents.
It started out as a commemoration of George Washington’s birthday. For almost a century, Feb. 22 was a federal holiday in honor of Washington. There are other presidential birthdays in February, most notably Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12), and back in the (ancient) day, it was common for elementary school teachers to call February the “month of heroes,” and use it to teach some history.
Perhaps pushing this thought further, in 1968, Congress — in its wisdom — passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (it became effective in 1971), establishing five federal three-day weekends. The first of every year is Presidents Day, the third Monday of the month, which replaced Washington’s birthday, and is now generally accepted to commemorate all presidents, ostensibly favoring none. Of course, what many people wind up celebrating is an extra day off.
But because the day calls on us to remember all the presidents we’ve had, there’s one who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves and who speaks very directly to the crisis of government and of democratic culture we are experiencing today. That’s the second one, John Adams.
Despite the critically acclaimed 2008 PBS seven-part miniseries on him, based on David McCollough’s biography, Adams is usually depicted as a fuddy-duddy, a doddering maladroit without political skills who alienated the lions around him, most particularly Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, endorsed the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts and couldn’t win a second term after having served in the background for eight years as Washington’s vice president. That’s somewhat true, but also misleading. Adams was sometimes remarkably politically insensitive, offending the French while working with them on the treaty recognizing American independence, and then the British as the first American ambassador there after the revolution.
But Adams was no aristocrat. He was thoroughly middle-class and a thoughtful observer of political culture who wrote brilliantly about what this new country could and should be, and what it needed to avoid if it was to endure as a democracy. The prestigious Library of America has published three volumes of his most insightful and eloquent papers, and the editor of those volumes, the master historian of the Revolution, Gordon S. Wood, has just published a new biography of Adams and his sometime-bete noire: “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.” (Penguin).
Wood makes clear that Adams was no liberal. He thought the notion that all men are created equal was utter nonsense. One look around will confirm, he insisted, that men and women are neither born equal nor manifest equal attainment in their quests and endeavors, for they have different attributes and different characters. More important, some of the privileged, those of poor character, will always use their privilege and resulting power to enrich themselves at the expense of their fellows. Unless they are restrained, this will be especially true in government, where they will use their positions not on behalf of their country, but themselves. Above all, Adams feared inequalities in the distribution of wealth, which he regarded a fatal imbalance.
At the same time, Adams did not trust the common people. They are driven by their emotions and their poorer circumstances, and their thinking and perspective will always be short-term and short-sighted. As such, they would be easily manipulated by the rich and well-born, in ways not to their benefit.
So Adams sought a compromise. The government of the new nation, he reasoned, must have a place for both, where they would be balanced against one another, in co-equal branches truly independent of one another. The privileged, he argued, would have the Senate and the executive branch, and this would give them a stake in the government. But they would be checked by a people’s House of Representatives, elected directly by the people, with the power of the purse (where money bills must originate) and of impeachment.
That checking of privileged bad character was very much in evidence a week ago as the Speaker of the House dramatically demonstrated the co-equal nature of the people’s branch. John Adams would have applauded lustily.
Steve Haycox is an author and emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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