Thursday, July 05, 2018

John Adams on why we are suckers for men with gold toilets

Yesterday, in addition to marking U.S. independence from George III, was the 192nd anniversary of the death of John Adams. The second president of the United States was a Massachusetts lawyer, an instigator and signer of the Declaration, the chief diplomatic representative in Europe of the upstart republic during the Revolutionary War, and not a very competent politician. During his presidency, he urged executive rule against a fractious Congress and is tarred with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts restricting citizenship and penalizing dissident speech. Civil libertarians then and now consider these laws abominations. At a moment when the new country was developing its politics, Adams lacked the essential knack of making friends and coalitions.

But Adams was also different from the more aristocratic gentleman founders, never owning slaves nor enjoying the financial security of commercial wealth or a grand plantation. Perhaps in consequence, he had a sharp eye for how men of wealth maintained their advantages in a democratic republic. According to historian Luke Mayville:

Adams drew on the moral psychology of Adam Smith to describe how public admiration of wealth, much like public admiration of royalty, could be a potent source of political power. ...The political power of wealth, he insisted, could not be fully appreciated without understanding its roots in public sentiments. Though it was true that oligarchic power derived in large part from more tangible sources, such as social connections and relations of material dependency, Adams insisted that “there is a degree of admiration, abstracted from all dependence, obligation, expectation, or even acquaintance, which accompanies splendid wealth, insures some respect, and bestows some influence.”

Adams did not deny the importance of the purchase of political influence by money. It was “a natural and unchangeable inconvenience in all popular elections,” he wrote in Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, “that he who has the deepest purse, or the fewest scruples about using it, will generally prevail.”

But Adams also traced the influence of wealth to the deep admiration for the rich felt by the public and to the insatiable appetite for that same admiration possessed by society’s most ambitious. It was the grandeur of wealth, and not merely its purchasing power, that accounted for its immense political influence. ... ... Adams warned that “the distinction of property will have more influence than all the rest in commercial countries, if it is not rivalled by some other distinction.”

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Adams also had a pleasantly humane notion of what all that struggle to found a new polity was for.

"I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have the liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine."

I feel certain his fiercely competent and independent wife Abigail reminded him to remember his daughters as well as sons.

3 comments:

Rain Trueax said...

I suppose there are those who admire wealth but I think Americans are more admiring confidence. So wealthy Romney could not beat Obama due to Obama's much more confident demeanor. Recently, the only really wealthy presidents have been Roosevelt and now Trump. Kennedy was in a moneyed class but not sure how much of it he controlled. Most of the rest have been around the fringes of wealth or acquired it like the Clintons after having power. I personally find a gold toilet person to have no sense of true class at all.

Brandon said...

Wikipedia: List of Presidents of the United States by net worth.

Rain Trueax said...

Interesting Brandon and it does seem in the beginning the wealthy class had more clout, which makes sense without a media as such. One thing about their estimate of Clinton's wealth, it'd only matter for Hillary but not Bill as he didn't have it then. I think Reagan got help from wealthy friends when he left the White House to even buy a home. They make a lot once out with speeches, books, etc.

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