On this day in 1735, John Adams was born. When I was a kid, I thought quite highly of him. He had a nice wife and most of the best songs in 1776. It was only later that I learned about the four Alien and Sedition Acts. The republic had only been in existence for a scant decade and already Adams and his allies were trying to destroy it. I’m not saying that they weren’t right to have concerns. Armed rebellion was a very good possibility. But the Naturalization Act and the two Alien acts were just xenophobic power grabs. And the Sedition Act was nothing but an attempt to stop the political competition from talking. The truth is, I don’t see how any of the acts made an armed rebellion less likely. But I suspect the real concern — what conservatives are always worried about — was that democracy would work and the Federalists would be thrown out of power. Indeed, Adams would be the last Federalist president, and the party would be gone completely in Adams’ own life.
What Adams most symbolizes to me is the desire among many people in the early days of the United States to have hereditary rule. It is true that Adams said many things during his life, but it is clear what he thought. He did spend much of the later years of his life disavowing this belief. But that was just because Jefferson and company had beat up on him so much. When Adams had political power, he really did have classist beliefs. And I understand that. It is hard not to look out on the world and escape the conclusion that if only everyone listened to my wise self, all would be grand. But good sense always gets in my way. Adams had no such blocking mechanism.
(My ultimate dream is that I could be a kind of Kermit the Frog. I would be the calm in the middle of the storm of creative insanity. I could add that little bit of structure that they all need for greatness. Sadly, in humans — as opposed to the superior puppets — the creative insane tend to break off into their own creative twisters. Alas, my dream is destined to die with me.)
On the other hand, there is the Boston Massacre. Not only did it show some fortitude to take the case, it showed a good deal of open-mindedness. And in the case, he said something that conservatives of my age have lost sight of:
It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished.
But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, “whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,” and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.
So I don’t think Adams was all bad. He wasn’t a slave owner! And he lost the 1800 election to Jefferson because of the South’s inflated population size because of the slave population, which were only citizens for the purpose of giving slave owners more political power. Ultimately, John Adams is no worse than Edmund Burke. And it is clear that neither man would be welcome in the modern conservative movement. And that’s shocking.
Happy birthday John Adams!