Monday, January 30, 2006

John Adams: The Liberal Founding Father?

As conservatives point to the past for the ideological underpinnings that have given rise to the conservative movement, the founding fathers and their beloved documents quickly take center stage. Brilliant minds like Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Madison and Franklin give credence to the modern conservative view of limited government, states rights and the protection of private property. But it appears as though one of these distinguished men has garnered more attention of late, perhaps in an attempt to show the “diversity” present at the founding of America.

John Adams, subject of a recent “American Experience” documentary on PBS and a Pulitzer Prize winning biography, has enjoyed considerable notice in the last several years. David McCullough’s “John Adams” enjoyed months of being a bestseller and is considered by many the preeminent biography of Adams. Now we have from PBS “John and Abigail Adams,” a documentary about the private life of Adams as well as his political philosophy.

But what is it about Adams that merits such attention? Perhaps all of the founding fathers go through cycles where we are interested in them, one at a time. When DNA tests attempted to prove that Jefferson fathered a child through Sally Hemings, he was the center of attention. But unlike “John and Abigail Adams,” Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on Jefferson captured the sense of contradiction Jefferson’s life and ideas lived out, and was willing to praise him and condemn him when necessary. In this documentary, Jefferson is seen more one-dimensionally as a wealthy, back-stabber who was wrong about the French Revolution, and who only got to write the Declaration of Independence because Adams let him. (Adams would later regret letting Jefferson do it, thinking the Declaration and its language would be forgotten.)

But Adams seems to embody something that Jefferson didn’t, making him the darling of the left and left-leaning media: big government. Adams had no trouble seeing America through a monarchical lens, even though he fought for democracy, and he argued for a strong federal government. Jefferson, meanwhile, espoused a vision of limited federal government and a subsequent pastoral dream world of gentlemen farming and a couple hundred acres of land per family. (Sounds nice, doesn’t it?)

But most of all, Adams fought for that most hallowed value among those on the modern left: peace. When French man-of-war attacked American merchant ships, all of America (apparently) called for war with France. But Adams refrained. Instead he sent not one, but two diplomatic peace missions to France to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict, much to the dismay of Congress and the American public. This unpopular move, which does now seem to be the prudent one, single-handedly cost Adams his re-election according to the documentary. And to make Adams’ plight even worse, his peace treaty was signed, but because of delays in communication, it was not known until after the election.

The implication seems to be that even if a nation supports war, the proper action for a president is to refrain, and diplomatically try to find a peaceful resolution. Sound familiar? And while the documentary paints Adams as a martyr who essentially acted as a fall guy for the peace movement of the 1790s, there were other reasons Adams lost the election, which are hardly mentioned. For example, his extremely unpopular and undemocratic Alien and Sedition Acts brought contempt from both major parties. (The documentary does cover these, but does not seem to offer them as reasons for his defeat.) Doesn’t it seem likely that these contributed more to his loss than not going to war, especially given what the country went through to rid itself of suc centralized power?

And it’s not as though Adams was a gregarious, lovable personality. He was infamously brash and arrogant. But I do not want to discount the contributions Adams made. I don’t doubt his brilliance or regret the role his brash personality in convincing Congress to declare independence. I do discount the modern left’s attempt to “take away” the founding father monopoly from conservatives, and I do not doubt this is what is really at play. If the liberal media can convince some that not all the founding fathers were on the side of modern conservatives, the conservative movement will lose some credibility and there may be hope for big government liberalism. This was the subtext of this documentary, and hence all the attention lately on this Adams fellow.

Oh, and did I mention Adams was from Massachusetts? There aren’t any popular senators and/or presidential hopefuls from Massachusetts, are there? I wonder if Adams would be ashamed of the politicians Massachusetts elects these days?

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