Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

A Wanderer Between Two Worlds

by Jeff Polet, Director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

Aristotle argued that the only just polity had to be a “mixed regime,” and that meant one that blended popular and aristocratic elements. Too much power concentrated in a ruling class would become an oligarchy, and too much in the people at large would be “democracy,” but anarchic. Democracy, much like the populism of our age, was considered a great danger. Alexis de Tocqueville’s introduction to Democracy in America begins with him tracing the 700 year “great democratic revolution … taking place in our midst.” Democracy’s champions and opponents “have been driven pell-mell along the same road” toward a world that is “wholly new.” But because wholly new, wholly unknown and uncharted. Indeed, Tocqueville considered the emergence of democracy as something “fated.” Even those working for or against democracy were “blind instruments in the hands of God.”

As Lincoln did later, Tocqueville sought to balance the demands of freedom against a Providence that tended to reduce us to puppets in the hands of God. He argued that “Providence has created humanity neither entirely independent nor completely slave. It traces around each man, it is true, a fatal circle out of which he cannot go; but within its vast limits, man is powerful and free; so are peoples.” It is only when the state intervenes as “a second providence” that human freedom is threatened.

Tocqueville claimed that the social classes in aristocratic cultures, though separate, were bound together in relationships of obligation and dependency, a result of which was that their relations were determined by generosity and humility rather than sympathy or resentment. Indeed, any society must reckon with that ways in which social and economic classes relate to one another, and a well-ordered society will seek to harmonize these class relations justly. This tension between aristocracy (elites) and democracy (populism) is highlighted in the lives and writings of America’s most aristocratic family: The Adamses.

The Adams Family

The dynamic alterations of the interrelationships between Providence, freedom, and aristocratic rule and status can be traced through the lineage of the Adamses. For four generations the Adamses were American royalty, John Adams and his son John Quincy both being president and John Quincy’s son Charles an ambassador and diplomat. This line of high-level political engagement ended with Henry Adams. The well-known opening of The Education of Henry Adams, with its ironic detachment and rueful references to the Boston State House, the home of John Hancock, and Beacon Hill, bespeaks not only of his sense of being out of place in the emerging world, but that the whole way of being and thinking in the American republic that characterized the Adamses had itself reached an end.

As Edward Saveth wrote: “The Adamses believed, as did Jefferson, that there was a natural aristocracy upon whom political leadership was incumbent. And though they may not have said so in as many words, they all seemed to be convinced that they themselves belonged to this natural aristocracy; if they were drawn to public service, it was by a sense of duty—by patriotic obligation and something like noblesse oblige, not by ambition. Somewhere, one feels, they agreed with the ancien régime, and its kings and nobles, that the art of ruling was an inborn gift that could not be conveyed to others, and that political power was, as Henry Adams himself said, aristocratic in its very nature, and that democratic power was a contradiction in terms.”

John Adams

John Adams the patriarch was often criticized for his aristocratic mien, and this resulted not only from his publicly expressed distrust of democracy but also from his focus on aristocratic virtues, those required to balance in the body politic the excesses of democratic turbulence in a manner similar to how virtues control passion and desire within the self. Temperance, moderation, restraint, prudence were all called for, while on the more active side courage and magnanimity, the latter the essential quality of the person called to roles of political leadership. The magnanimous man understood the importance of honor within the social system, and is confident in his ability to achieve and receive such honoring. Abandon such balancing and justice is done for; abandon honor and statecraft gets turned over to the meanest and lowest types. Indeed, the Adamses were always dogged by such creatures, most notably Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant.

The chapter on Grant in The Education provides a fine example of aristocratic unease with crude democracy. Henry Adams (Adams wrote the book in the third person) “simply could not forgive, or retain hope in, an electorate that preferred U. S. Grant and corruption to the reformers with whom he had cast his lot.” “What worried Adams was not the commonplace; it was, as usual, his own education. Grant fretted and irritated him, like the Terebratula, as a defiance of first principles. He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. The idea that, as society grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called–and should actually and truly be–the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as commonplace as Grant’s own commonplaces to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”

“America,” he bitterly continued, “had no use for Adams because he was eighteenth-century, and yet it worshipped Grant because he was archaic and should have lived in a cave and worn skins. Darwinists ought to conclude that America was reverting to the stone age, but the theory of reversion was more absurd than that of evolution. Grant’s administration reverted to nothing. One could not catch a trait of the past, still less of the future. It was not even sensibly American.”

The elder Adams could inform Jefferson that even if he couldn’t believe in human perfectibility, he at least believed we could be better than we are. He openly sneered Rousseau and the philosopher who held that mankind was greater in its uncivilized state. Neither was President Adams tolerant of the democratic impulses generated by this myth: “To teach that all men are born with equal powers and faculties, to equal influence in society, to equal property and advantages through life, is as gross a fraud, as glaring an imposition on the credulity of the people as was ever practiced by monks, by Druids … or by the self-styled philosophers of the French Revolution.” His opposition to this democratic impulse animated John Adams’ argument against Turgot in his Defense of the Constitution.

Aristocracy, for John Adams, was not simply a creation of society; it inhered in the nature of things. It could not be eradicated, only relocated. The best aristocracy is that which conforms with the inequalities of talent and ability determined by nature. It had nothing to do with “artificial titles” and everything to do with a man’s “virtues, his talents, his learning.” Adams had no difficulty recognizing an aristocracy’s flaws and vices, but neither was he blind to its virtues. “Real merit,” he wrote, “should govern the world; and that men ought to be respected only in proportion to their talents, virtues, and services. But the question always has been how shall this arrangement be accomplished?”

John Quincy Adams

John Adams defended democratic principles and practices, but also worried about their abuse, particularly the instability of democratic governance. Democratic instability in many ways shaped the world and determined the fortunes of John Quincy Adams. Like Tocqueville, John Quincy thought democracy was providential, and, like Tocqueville, that idea filled him with some dread. The junior Adams connected democracy to the lodestar of his political thinking: a vigorous nationalism. When made president, Adams was convinced God had placed him there to help make the nation great; in defeat, he questioned whether God existed at all.

Samuel F. Bemis, biographer of John Quincy Adams, wrote: “There are certain words that stick in the mind of one who has read his writings, printed and unprinted, public and private. These are: ‘Almighty,’ ‘God,’ ‘Disposer of Events,’ ‘Time,’ ‘Fate,’ ‘Bible,’ ‘Job,’ ‘Psalms,’ ‘soul,’ ‘religion,’ ‘morality,’ ‘truth,’ ‘conscience,’ ‘inner monitor,’ ‘duty,’ ‘law,’ ‘temperance,’ ‘prudence,’ ‘defense,’ ‘fortitude,’ ‘justice,’ ‘frugality,’ ‘industry,’ ‘benevolence,’ ‘humility,’ ‘self-control,’ ‘fate.’ Grandson Henry’s recurring words and phrases are ‘hopeless,’ ‘despair,’ ‘panic,’ ‘tension,’ ‘disaster,’ ‘trembling on the brink,’ ‘going to pieces,’ ‘destruction,’ ‘breakdown,’ ‘collapse,’ ‘decay,’ ‘rot,’ ‘degeneration,’ ‘anarchy.’” This makes vivid the contrast of mood between these two generations of the Adams’ family, the son having abandoned his father’s hopefulness for America.

Henry Adams

His great-grandfather having despised the thought and work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry used the Frenchman as a model for his Education. It was Rousseau, Adams believed, how saw how education was perverted by attention to the outer man, to the world of perceptions and power, while a true education had to tame the only power that mattered in the world: force.

His Education is an ironic memoir, the story of how an 18th and 19th century man was completely unprepared for the 20th century. It was never about his education but always about his failure to be educated. The world of his grandfather and great-grandfather was dissolved by the acids of industrialization, by speed, by social disintegration and mass democracy, The old world had been one of unity, the new one of multiplicity; the old one a world of worship and the new one a world of impersonal forces; the old world dominated by great men and the new world populated by little ones; the old world one of propertied persons and the new one of alienated city-dwellers; the old world traversed by walking among neighbors and the new one in railway cars with strangers.

Behind Adams’ dark pessimism rested the conviction that developments in science and technology were not signs of progress but of doom, of the undoing of humanity itself. No longer able to see history as Providential, he saw it as the story of human destruction. In a typical passage in the Education, reflecting on the science of magnetism, he wrote: “In all this futility, it was not the magnet or the rays or the microbes that troubled him, or even his helplessness before the forces. To that he was used from childhood. The magnet in its new relation staggered his new education by its evidence of growing complexity, and multiplicity, and even contradiction, in life. He could not escape it; politics or science, the lesson was the same, and at every step it blocked his path whichever way he turned. He found it in politics; he ran against it in science; he struck it in everyday life, as though he were still Adam in the Garden of Eden between God who was unity, and Satan who was complexity, with no means of deciding which was truth.”

The most important chapter of The Education, “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” contrasts the world that gave us Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres with the world that gave us the machine and the steam engine. Adams felt “the forty-foot dynamo as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the cross.” Man had “translated himself into a new universe which had no common scale of measurement with the old.” “All the steam in the world,” he observed, “could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.” Instead, the steam engine was hurtling us “into a silent infinite,” a world of material success and spiritual death, and the old world could never be recovered.

In 1909, in his “Rule of Phase Applied to History,” and a year later, in “A Letter to American Teachers of History,” Henry Adams developed the theory that mankind and the universe were progressively losing physical and intellectual energy. Adams thought he had discovered scientific confirmation of this in the Second Law of Thermodynamics, grounding his belief in a dying universe and the waning of mankind’s powers. By 1921, at the latest by 1924, calculated Adams, thought would reach the limit of its possibilities and mankind would become incapable of responding creatively to the challenge of its environment. Shortly thereafter the heritage of Henry Adams, along with everything else in the universe, would go down in disaster.

If the story of the Adams family is in some ways the story of America, it’s a story of decline, of loss, and of despair. Tocqueville talked of a new science of politics for a world wholly new, while the last of the Adamses bemoaned a new science that made the world uninhabitable for and unintelligible to democratic persons. It is the story of divine Providence replaced by mechanized force. Henry Adams contrast his failed education to the arrogance of his successors: “He had never been able to acquire knowledge, still less to impart it; and if he had, at times, felt serious differences with the American of the nineteenth century, he felt none with the American of the twentieth. For this new creation, born since 1900, a historian asked no longer to be teacher or even friend; he asked only to be a pupil, and promised to be docile, for once, even though trodden under foot; for he could see that the new American–the child of incalculable coal-power, chemical power, electric power, and radiating energy, as well as of new forces yet undetermined–must be a sort of God compared with any former creation of nature. At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power. He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind. He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society. To him the nineteenth century would stand on the same plane with the fourth–equally childlike–and he would only wonder how both of them, knowing so little, and so weak in force, should have done so much.”

Discussion Questions:


Sign up to receive new content from the Ford Forum.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: