Bookreview: “The Problem of Democracy”
(The Freeman) - April 25, 2019 - 12:00am

“The Problem of Democracy”

By Nancy Isenberg and

Andrew Burstein (Viking)

CEBU, Philippines — Both John Adams and John Quincy Adams disdained a two-party political system. They believed that competence, rational judgment, independence and a commitment to public service should guide our presidents rather than force of personality. Political courage, rather than consensus-building with other politicians, was a core value. That proved to be a shared, serious misstep that helped each to serve only one term as president.

In the ambitious and beautifully written “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality,” historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein show us how the presidents Adams’ healthy skepticism about human nature and the fragility of government have caused them to be misunderstood and underappreciated.

This book offers an abundance of riches. It is both biography and family history of two brilliant men who were deeply concerned about the long-range prospects of their country. They were avid readers, letter writers and diarists, as well as experienced diplomats and keen observers of their own and other cultures. They could be stubborn at times, but to see their lives in tandem makes for absorbing reading.

Isenberg and Burstein push back on a number of accepted tenets of early American history. They believe Benjamin Franklin received too much credit for negotiations ending the American Revolution in 1783, while John Adams and John Jay did more; that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was overrated and did not have as much influence on the Continental Congress as many historians think; and that Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were Southern politicians whose public images “praised the little man, while acting solely in the interest of the plantation economy and the southern elites.”

The presidents Adams wrote much about political parties, demonstrating how the prejudices of the party system allowed men of wealth or with recognizable family names to be turned into idols. Accused of being elitist and anti-democratic, the Adams “did not sell dreams, let alone democratic dreams. They fought a losing battle with historical memory, which made them virtual exiles from their own historical moment and damaged their combined legacy.” Reviewed by Roger Bishop (

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