President Bush announced that on his vacation this month in Crawford, Texas, he'd be reading David McCullough's new biography, John Adams. "I'm particularly paying attention to that part about John Quincy Adams," he told The New York Times. "You might remember, Quincy and I have got something in common."
But as this October 23, 2000 American Prospect article, "Why W. is Not Q." indicates, Bush the Younger may have less in common with the younger Adams than he might like to think.
Before W., there was Q.--John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, the nation's second president. The Adamses were America's first political dynasty, and like Bush, Q. inherited his father's first name and a well-worn middle one from a favorite relative. But American dynasties aren't what they used to be. Where John Quincy Adams succeeded in becoming president 24 years after his father served, Bush may fail--and the difference will owe much to the level of independence each son was encouraged to pursue within the family, and the political value of that independence.
From an early age, John Quincy was pushed to excel. His mother, Abigail Adams, who was largely self-educated (since women weren't formally educated at that time), taught him how to read and write. His father managed his education from the time John Q. was 11, beginning with a diplomatic mission to France. At the tender age of 14, the boy embarked upon a lifetime of service to this country when he accompanied Francis Dana, America's minister to Russia, to St. Petersburg as an interpreter. The two were on what turned out to be an unsuccessful mission to persuade Catherine the Great to recognize the budding republic. While John Quincy was there, he acutely summed up the social structure of St. Petersburg and of Russia generally in a letter to his father: "There is nobody here but Princes and Slaves, the Slaves cannot have their children instructed, and the nobility that choose to have theirs send them into foreign countries. There is not one school to be found in the whole city."
At the same age, George W. complained about having to go to prep school. "Andover," he wrote in A Charge to Keep, "was cold and distant and difficult." Whereas John Quincy overtook his father in almost everything he did--as a student at Harvard, as a lawyer, and as a politician--George W., who attended Philips Academy and Yale, and trained as a fighter pilot, merely kept pace with his father out of loyalty. Mostly, Bush the younger maintained the status quo within the family.
Poking at privilege was also a natural part of the Adams family dynamic. And unlike the Bushes, individual Adamses weren't shy about taking aim at one another. In an early letter to her husband, Abigail Adams criticized the new laws he had helped write that allowed only propertied white men to vote and hold office. "I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives," she wrote.
Abetting privilege, on the other hand, seems to be a specialty of the Bushes--W. in particular. From Arbusto (his earliest energy venture) to Bush Exploration (a subsequent one) to the Texas Rangers to, indeed, his run for the presidency, George W. has advanced by persuading people, mainly moneyed friends of his father, to sign on for their mutual benefit. Whereas his oil partners sought enrichment via the Bush family's Mideast connections, W.'s current Republican financial backers seek enrichment through the capital gains tax cuts, regulatory rollback, and tort reform that are part and parcel of the Bush platform.
W.'s motivation, to put it in business terms, has been to increase the advantage he and his investors already have. John Quincy's was to limit the advantage of other countries over America. In a series of diplomatic posts to Holland, Prussia, Russia, and England, the disciplined and at times belligerent John Quincy stubbornly fought for American interests and influence. His crowning achievement came as secretary of state, when he helped formulate the Monroe Doctrine. "The American continents should no longer be subjects for any new European colonial settlement," it proclaimed. Sealing off the Western Hemisphere from foreign expansion became the bedrock of both America's foreign policy and its geographic sovereignty. During the rampant imperialism of the second half of the nineteenth century--when Japan conquered China, France consolidated Africa, and Britain found new enthusiasm for building the empire--"the Monroe Doctrine stood as an insuperable barrier against fresh acquisition of American territory by European powers," wrote Henry Steele Commager and Samuel Eliot Morison in The Growth of the American Republic.
By emphasizing different family values, the two dynasties have produced very different types of politicians. The Adamses' commitment to independence was expressed by President John Adams, who eschewed party politics to work toward what he called "the greatest good for all." John Quincy was similarly unafraid to put his own convictions ahead of loyalty to a political party or to a member of his family; he followed his father's example so assiduously that one of the son's biographers, Bennett Champ Clark, described him as "the Great Independent of American politics," one who "possessed neither the wiles of the schemer nor the personal attractiveness of the popular leader." In fact, John Quincy was so independent that he broke with his own Federalist Party over a major foreign-policy dispute.
The controversy erupted in 1807, when nearly 20 seamen on the American frigate the Chesapeake were fired upon and killed by the British man-of-war the Leopard after the Chesapeake refused to allow British seamen to board and search for British deserters. President Thomas Jefferson proposed to embargo all American vessels from sailing abroad, a plan that horrified most of the Federalists, who thought it would cripple New England commerce. But John Quincy, then a senator, was so outraged over this violation of international law that he supported Jefferson--the very man who had driven his father from office.
And yet his father praised him for his independence, writing in a subsequent letter, "You have too honest a heart, too independent a mind, and too brilliant talents, to be sincerely and confidentially trusted by any man who is under the domination of party maxims." Why? Because the Adamses, still imbued with the spirit of the Revolution, remained deeply suspicious of domination--whether by foreign powers, the Massachusetts Brahmana, or self-serving political parties. Following his father's example of independence gave John Quincy a larger political advantage: Acting above family and party interests revealed him to be truly independent. He later became the first (and only) Federalist elected president, even though he had earlier served in a Republican administration after fleeing from the Federalists following the Chesapeake affair. John Quincy Adams was known as more than the son of a president; he was his own man.
By contrast, George W. Bush has found it difficult to break away from his image as--to use Maureen Dowd's phrase--"Little Bush" largely because he has followed his own father's example of loyalty to family and party. In All the Best, a collection of letters, Bush the elder indicates that loyalty is as important in politics as it is within the family. Even when he was thousands of miles away from his sons, he conveyed this message to them in long letters from Washington and China. While head of the Republican National Committee during Watergate, he wrote to his sons to sympathize with them about the ridicule they might face from friends toward a father who was trying to build a party that was simultaneously imploding. He told them to appreciate the love in their family and to remember that "we are a privileged people in a privileged country." Then he explained in 3,000 words how he himself was putting a larger loyalty above strong personal feelings of being "battered and disillusioned ... betrayed in a sense by those who did wrong and tracked corruption and institutional subversion into that beautiful White House," emphasizing that he continued to admire President Richard Nixon. "I respect him, still," he wrote, "not for all the tape for some of his employees' past--but for his courage under fire and for his accomplishments." George W. learned well this lesson of familial and political loyalty. In A Charge to Keep, he wrote that he was the self-appointed "loyalty enforcer," the one who protected then-Vice President George Bush from advisers whom he considered improperly self-interested during the 1988 presidential campaign.
It may seem unfair to compare John Q. and George W. After all, few 14-year-olds are found to be escorting heads of state these days, and political parties wield much more power over candidates than they used to. But the differences between the dynasties point to something much larger than how politics has changed in the past 200 years. They speak to the use of privilege.
The Adams family used its high status to challenge other elite groups who had pretensions to greater knowledge, wealth, or power. While the Bush name and legacy helped George the younger to win the nomination, following his father's lesson of loyalty has had larger ramifications for George W. in his presidential campaign. It now makes him appear more concerned with perpetuating rank and privilege than with serving the rank and file. Whereas Adams was broadly considered to be a consummate public servant, dedicated to the greater good, Bush is increasingly perceived to be closely aligned with the American economic elite. George W. may aspire to be, like John Quincy Adams, a president after his father, but he is exactly the kind of politician John Quincy Adams would have used his power to thwart.