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The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality

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How the father and son presidents foresaw the rise of the cult of personality and fought those who sought to abuse the weaknesses inherent in our democracy, from the New York Times bestselling author of White Trash. John and John Quincy Adams: rogue intellectuals, unsparing truth-tellers, too uncensored for their own political good. They held that political participation de How the father and son presidents foresaw the rise of the cult of personality and fought those who sought to abuse the weaknesses inherent in our democracy, from the New York Times bestselling author of White Trash. John and John Quincy Adams: rogue intellectuals, unsparing truth-tellers, too uncensored for their own political good. They held that political participation demanded moral courage. They did not seek popularity (it showed). They lamented the fact that hero worship in America substituted idolatry for results; and they made it clear that they were talking about Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. When John Adams succeeded George Washington as President, his son had already followed him into public service and was stationed in Europe as a diplomat. Though they spent many years apart--and as their careers spanned Europe, Washington DC, and their family home south of Boston--they maintained a close bond through extensive letter writing, debating history, political philosophy, and partisan maneuvering. The problem of democracy is an urgent problem; the father-and-son presidents grasped the perilous psychology of politics and forecast what future generations would have to contend with: citizens wanting heroes to worship and covetous elites more than willing to mislead. Rejection at the polls, each after one term, does not prove that the presidents Adams had erroneous ideas. Intellectually, they were what we today call "independents," reluctant to commit blindly to an organized political party. No historian has attempted to dissect their intertwined lives as Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein do in these pages, and there is no better time than the present to learn from the American nation's most insightful malcontents.


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How the father and son presidents foresaw the rise of the cult of personality and fought those who sought to abuse the weaknesses inherent in our democracy, from the New York Times bestselling author of White Trash. John and John Quincy Adams: rogue intellectuals, unsparing truth-tellers, too uncensored for their own political good. They held that political participation de How the father and son presidents foresaw the rise of the cult of personality and fought those who sought to abuse the weaknesses inherent in our democracy, from the New York Times bestselling author of White Trash. John and John Quincy Adams: rogue intellectuals, unsparing truth-tellers, too uncensored for their own political good. They held that political participation demanded moral courage. They did not seek popularity (it showed). They lamented the fact that hero worship in America substituted idolatry for results; and they made it clear that they were talking about Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. When John Adams succeeded George Washington as President, his son had already followed him into public service and was stationed in Europe as a diplomat. Though they spent many years apart--and as their careers spanned Europe, Washington DC, and their family home south of Boston--they maintained a close bond through extensive letter writing, debating history, political philosophy, and partisan maneuvering. The problem of democracy is an urgent problem; the father-and-son presidents grasped the perilous psychology of politics and forecast what future generations would have to contend with: citizens wanting heroes to worship and covetous elites more than willing to mislead. Rejection at the polls, each after one term, does not prove that the presidents Adams had erroneous ideas. Intellectually, they were what we today call "independents," reluctant to commit blindly to an organized political party. No historian has attempted to dissect their intertwined lives as Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein do in these pages, and there is no better time than the present to learn from the American nation's most insightful malcontents.

30 review for The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lynn

    This s far from a fast read but is worth the effort. In part, it is a joint biography of John and John Quincy Adams, the 2nd and 6th Presidents and the first two Presidents to only serve one term. At this level, the book is very interesting, especially since I learned more about JQA. However the real meat of the book comes when the authors explore why they were both kicked out after one term. Their conclusion (and the problem of democracy in the title) is that they were supremely competent but w This s far from a fast read but is worth the effort. In part, it is a joint biography of John and John Quincy Adams, the 2nd and 6th Presidents and the first two Presidents to only serve one term. At this level, the book is very interesting, especially since I learned more about JQA. However the real meat of the book comes when the authors explore why they were both kicked out after one term. Their conclusion (and the problem of democracy in the title) is that they were supremely competent but weren't good at showmanship. To some extent in Jefferson, and extremely in the case of Andrew Jackson, they were replaced by people who didn't necessarily have their background but were better at self-promotion and myth-making. The authors also point out that the Adams' were more moral men than their opponents. Obviously our present political situation simmers in the background as we again are led by an unprepared and in many ways incompetent person who did a good job of convincing people he was amazing.

  2. 5 out of 5

    David Dunlap

    The first father and son pairing to win election to the Presidency of the United States -- John and John Quincy Adams -- is the subject of this book. Both served single terms, losing to men who more successfully captured the public imagination than either of them were able to do (Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, respectively). On one level, the book can be seen (and read) as a dual biography; the authors' purpose, however, is to point to the parallels and contrasts between the Adamses' world The first father and son pairing to win election to the Presidency of the United States -- John and John Quincy Adams -- is the subject of this book. Both served single terms, losing to men who more successfully captured the public imagination than either of them were able to do (Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, respectively). On one level, the book can be seen (and read) as a dual biography; the authors' purpose, however, is to point to the parallels and contrasts between the Adamses' world view and respective political philosophies. It is not dry reading. In their excellent opening Exordium, the authors suggest that the Adamses were onto something when they decried democracy (in the 18th/early 19th century meaning of the term), something that is perhaps more relevant to our contemporary society than any of the accomplishments of the flashier Jefferson and Jackson. I enjoyed the deep insights provided into each man and appreciated the deep bond that existed between them, a bond tried, but ultimately, perhaps, strengthened, by their frequent separations in their work for their country. -- I found the authors' (to my mind) gratuitous slam of David McCullough (buried in the footnotes) somewhat distasteful. I could not decide if it was an attack out of personal vanity (that McCullough's books sell better than theirs) or out of professional pique (that McCullough's undergraduate degree was in English, rather than history). Either way, it was an unnecessary blot on what was otherwise a very good book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Brian Denton

    Intellectual biography of the presidents Adams with important, if unpopular, lessons for today's politics. Take, for instance, their skepticism of popular democracy and the need for judicious institutional restraints on popular sentiment. More apropos, they opposed partisan party politics. They observed that such partisanship cultivated political cults of personality and often had the effect of citizens surrendering their critical thinking skills to party orthodoxy. Anyone familiar with the evap Intellectual biography of the presidents Adams with important, if unpopular, lessons for today's politics. Take, for instance, their skepticism of popular democracy and the need for judicious institutional restraints on popular sentiment. More apropos, they opposed partisan party politics. They observed that such partisanship cultivated political cults of personality and often had the effect of citizens surrendering their critical thinking skills to party orthodoxy. Anyone familiar with the evaporation of the anti-war movement after Obama's election or the sudden Republican disavowal of free trade and free markets under Trump will understand the concern. They also hated partisan media so they would have really hated cable news, Fox News in particular. We need more Adams.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Scott Martin

    (3.5 Stars). This work is an interesting take on the first father/son duo to be president. While there a plethora of bios about both men, this work is interesting in that it focuses on the writing a correspondence of the men. It analyzes what the men read and how that reading and their writing factored into their public and political lives. The title is a little misleading, in that the theme of problems with the American democracy and the discussions about the personalities that threatened it (J (3.5 Stars). This work is an interesting take on the first father/son duo to be president. While there a plethora of bios about both men, this work is interesting in that it focuses on the writing a correspondence of the men. It analyzes what the men read and how that reading and their writing factored into their public and political lives. The title is a little misleading, in that the theme of problems with the American democracy and the discussions about the personalities that threatened it (Jefferson and Jackson) don’t really come into play until the conclusion. The biographic analysis goes into detail about how the elder and younger Adams dealt with Jefferson and how Quincy Adams viewed Jackson, but the title of the book and its role in the work just doesn’t really appear until the conclusion. Perhaps the theme of their views on Democracy in America could have been better interspersed in the book. A good read and did learn some more about the men and their reading and writing. Not the sole source for the biography of both men, but a good reference if you want insight into two men who probably don’t get their due in history.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jaclyn Knight

    If you read the title & were attracted to the phrase “cult of personality” or felt completely in line with the description inside the front cover you will enjoy reading this book. If you like principles practically applied & have felt a sense of incongruity in our present government with the ideals described by our founders you will enjoy this book. This book will solidify in your mind the difference between true democracy & representative government and show how at least some of our If you read the title & were attracted to the phrase “cult of personality” or felt completely in line with the description inside the front cover you will enjoy reading this book. If you like principles practically applied & have felt a sense of incongruity in our present government with the ideals described by our founders you will enjoy this book. This book will solidify in your mind the difference between true democracy & representative government and show how at least some of our founders didn’t believe true democracy was attainable or even desireable. An easy way to digest the authors theories (especially if you know a lot about JA & JQA already) without reading the entire 460 pages is to read the stylistically titled preface & conclusion chapters. In between these two is a condensed (but meandering) history of the lives of JA & JQA highlighting their interaction with so called democracy & how their political & moral thinking was formed & carried out. Each chapter is titled to show a trait or life character that the Adams men shared such as “Exiles” “Party Irregulars” or “Intellects” all while maintaining the mostly chronological history telling. A wonderful secondary theme shows how the lives of father & son were intertwined. My one major critique of the book is that the middle section doesn’t often leave you feeling that you understand why this part of their shared history was included or not included despite obvious attempts. I feel like the book could be tightened up & they could more directly state or point to their theory of Adamsian government outlined in the book end chapters while telling the story or pair down the history so you don’t lose the connections while reading. There are also some real intellectual gems found in the midst of the long middle section that will make the book worth your reading if you take the time. If you believe in principled leadership & detest the cult of personality you will feel akin to the Adams men & want to give them their rightful place in American history as great statesmen & moral leaders.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Brooks

    A very good book, with profound insights in American political and social history as seen through the prism of John Adams and John Quincy Adams. It is not a conventional biography of the men by any means and, in my opinion, requires considerable preexisting knowledge of the lives of the two men. It is a thick book and written in a flowing but not necessarily easy style. Some might assume that the book is intended to serve as a criticism of Donald Trump and his supporters, but the historical lesso A very good book, with profound insights in American political and social history as seen through the prism of John Adams and John Quincy Adams. It is not a conventional biography of the men by any means and, in my opinion, requires considerable preexisting knowledge of the lives of the two men. It is a thick book and written in a flowing but not necessarily easy style. Some might assume that the book is intended to serve as a criticism of Donald Trump and his supporters, but the historical lessons in this work that could be applied to our time might just as easily be directed against any political figure with mass appeal, including Barack Obama. The two Adamses were never popular with the mass of the people and saw themselves as above parties, instead being virtuous public servants who did the right thing regardless of what the people or the political parties pushed them towards.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Robert Sparrenberger

    It’s a provocative title that really just boils down to a dual biography of both presidents Adams. It’s well written and gives you the high points but it’s already been done before in bios of both men with more detail. Nancy really doesn’t like David McCullough. She’s piles scorn upon is book in the footnotes and declares that his book is trash. I think she’s jealous that someone really wrote a very successful book and made a lot of money and beat her to it. She sticks up her nose because he’s a It’s a provocative title that really just boils down to a dual biography of both presidents Adams. It’s well written and gives you the high points but it’s already been done before in bios of both men with more detail. Nancy really doesn’t like David McCullough. She’s piles scorn upon is book in the footnotes and declares that his book is trash. I think she’s jealous that someone really wrote a very successful book and made a lot of money and beat her to it. She sticks up her nose because he’s a English major and she’s the real historian dispensing Information to the masses. I should mention that I didn’t like her Aaron burr book either because she took cheap shots at Ron chernow. This time she stuck it in the footnotes. I guess the other author told her to hide her scorn. Read each man individually. They are on my read list. This one has been done already Nancy. Try again.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Wesley

    This was a fairly dense examination of the Presidents Adams. If you're a total U.S. [political] history nerd and JQA fanatic like me, you'll love it. Though I do have to critique - it drags often at times. What is redeeming to me (and gave this book a five-star rating from me) is the final chapter which summarizes and synthesizes the many ideas presented throughout the book. It offers a stunning message and captures both the political dynamism of the new Republic as well as an examination of wha This was a fairly dense examination of the Presidents Adams. If you're a total U.S. [political] history nerd and JQA fanatic like me, you'll love it. Though I do have to critique - it drags often at times. What is redeeming to me (and gave this book a five-star rating from me) is the final chapter which summarizes and synthesizes the many ideas presented throughout the book. It offers a stunning message and captures both the political dynamism of the new Republic as well as an examination of what this means for contemporary America. If you're looking for biography, this is not your book. But if you're looking for a sweeping examination of America's legacy from the Presidents Adams you are certain to find it here.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Sharron

    The side by side comparisons of John Adams and John Quincy Adams are well written. What is particularly illuminating, however, is the final chapter of this book which is entitled “ad consummandum”. In fact, if you have already read biographies of these men, you could just read the introduction and the final chapter and still feel the purchase of this book was well justified. Note - If after reading this book you want a further explanation of the cult of personality in our society, read Neil Postm The side by side comparisons of John Adams and John Quincy Adams are well written. What is particularly illuminating, however, is the final chapter of this book which is entitled “ad consummandum”. In fact, if you have already read biographies of these men, you could just read the introduction and the final chapter and still feel the purchase of this book was well justified. Note - If after reading this book you want a further explanation of the cult of personality in our society, read Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”. It’s brilliant. I plan to read it again now that I have finished “The Problem of Democracy”.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Dan Cotter

    This book is very well researched and does a good job of addressing the cautions and lives of the Adams father/son team.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Doug McGuire

    An interesting take on how the term democracy was used after the French Revolution. Very good parallel biographies of the father son duo.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Gish

    Thankfully, I was able to obtain this at the library and didn't waste my money on buying it because that would have been horribly disheartening.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    A needed antidote to the Jefferson-Jackson fans who always wind up pillorying the Adams and their integrity.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Statmonkey

  15. 5 out of 5

    Robert Mead

  16. 4 out of 5

    Carol Turner

  17. 4 out of 5

    Grouchy Historian

  18. 5 out of 5

    Debra

  19. 5 out of 5

    Karla

  20. 4 out of 5

    Brady Clemens

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy Andersen

  22. 5 out of 5

    John Baxter

  23. 5 out of 5

    PF Chang

  24. 5 out of 5

    Alan Sachs

  25. 4 out of 5

    Tigh

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tim Downie

  27. 4 out of 5

    Brian Guillaume

  28. 4 out of 5

    Prentice Sargeant

  29. 4 out of 5

    Alissa

  30. 4 out of 5

    Chris

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