We are not so hugely different from people in other centuries. So when my wife recently bought me a 700-page biography called JOHN ADAMS by David McCullough, I found that although John Adams lived mostly in the latter half of the 18th century (1735-1826), some aspects of his life and times sounded surprisingly modern, contemporary even, so that the book shed light on people and issues of our own times.
The political world in which John Adams was immersed, had all the craziness, mindless verbal attacks, biased journalism, betrayals, and outlandish claims that we have witnessed (for example) in the recent U.S. presidential campaigns and debates. As vice-president under George Washington and later as president of the United States himself, Adams and his policies were often lambasted as being the greatest evil the young country ever had to stomach. Of course, these accusations were politically-motivated, usually based on no researched facts, and they were designed simply to bring another party to power which would then become “the savior of the nation.” Sound oddly familiar?
But there was also something quite different from our own times. The many letters and journals people wrote in those days showed a certain depth of reasoning and a purposeful self-questioning and personal reflection — and that does seem rare among political leaders or would-be leaders of our day. In the handwritten compositions of Adams and his contemporaries there was often an honest tone, a humble thoughtfulness, and an intelligent struggling. One gets the distinct impression that these people had substance, regardless of whether one agrees with their political philosophy or not.
Besides, candidates for high office were not supposed to campaign for themselves. No sir — no self-promoting speeches, no attempts to manipulate the masses with clever message-lines, and no careful hairstyles or clothing fashions by which to project an image. Only one’s own friends and associates could campaign and try to influence the election. But a candidate could publish, providing that he did not turn people off by sounding too eager for the office. Just imagine if those unwritten rules were the accepted standard for politicians today!
Next time: John Adams and mental health.