TO THE POINT: FRIDAY, JULY 31, 1964
Tardily, historians and the intelligent public are coming to realize that the most intelligent, as well as most learned, man ever to inhabit the White House was sardonic old John Adams. Unlike the “advanced thinkers” of his time, Adams knew that the future of civilization would not be all beer and skittles. Also he was a most astute diplomat—and so ought to be studied urgently today.
An admirable book about Adams’ thought now is available in paperback: Haraszti’s John Adams and the Prophets of Progress. This is a painstaking but very readable compilation of the notes which Adams wrote in the margins of the serious books in his library. It is full of hardheaded wisdom, and even of a biting humor. Adams assailed shrewdly the leading philosophers and men of letters of the eighteenth century—Rousseau, d’Alembert, Mably, Turgot, Condorcet, Priestly. And time has vindicated Adams’ “pessimism,” as opposed to the Utopianism of these intellectuals. The man from Massachusetts was, after all, a better judge of human nature and practical consequences.
The recent commendable two-volume biography of Adams by Dr. Page Smith, which even achieved mass distribution (which it richly deserved) by a book club, now makes it possible for everybody to understand a politician and political philosopher and diplomat formerly hidden by partisan abuse or cloaked in obscurity. But also we ought to read Adams himself—for he wrote, much of the time (if in sentences rather long-winded for modern taste) more cogently than newspaper columnists. Take this for a specimen of his style and substance:
“Amid all their exultations, Americans and Frenchmen should remember that the perfectibility of man is only human and terrestrial perfectibility. Cold will still freeze, and fire will never cease to burn; disease and vice will continue to disorder, and death to terrify mankind. Emulation next to self-preservation will forever be the great spring of human actions, and the balance of a well-ordered government will alone be able to prevent that emulation from degenerating into dangerous ambition, irregular rivalries, destructive factions, wasting seditions, and bloody civil wars.”
Events since Adams wrote have borne him out with terrible accuracy; yet even today we suffer from the errors of people who still think that mere good-will, cheerfulness, and technical progress will alter radically the whole complexion of society and personality.
Governments built upon the abstract principle of “magnanimous disinterestedness,” Adams commented on reading Mary Wollstonecraft, are the work of idiots or madmen. “Such pretensions are false and hollow, all hypocrisy, like Franklin’s Will and his article in the Pennsylvania Bill of Rights.” (Adams detested Benjamin Franklin.) It would be heartening to hear Adams’ rough and fearless tongue in Washington today.