The recent presidential inauguration has already become grist for the mill of punditry. Both extremes have labeled President Barack Obama’s remarks as revealing what they knew to be “really true” about him. That’s probably some kind of success.
Like raccoons grasping at the glint in the stream, we tend to over-focus on the present. Trapped in the historical equivalent of a never-ending fashion week, we easily forget that everything has context. Everything has precedent.
Owning to this tendency, it is fitting that we think about the current president through the lens of those that came before him. Obviously, there are many fine candidates against whom Obama might be cast.
Among them, one distant, perhaps unlikely figure suggests himself: John Adams.
Adams is largely the Rodney Dangerfield of the founding fathers. He just gets no respect. At least he didn’t garner much, either in route to the presidency or during occupation of the office.
Where Obama is the rock star, Adams was vain, easily offended, brooding and aloof.
Where the men converge is in their marriages. The love affair between the Obamas is easily seen in their body language and tone toward one another. Theirs is an obviously warm and enviable household.
Interestingly enough, the love between Abigail and John Adams rings clear and true more than two centuries later. All one need do is read a few of their 1,160 letters to one another to get a sense of the intensity.
Explaining that a sudden storm had prevented a trip to see her at Weymouth, John once wrote to Abigail, “Yet perhaps blessed storm … for keeping one at my distance. For every experimental philosopher knows, that the steel and the magnet, or the glass and the feather will not fly together with more celerity … than somebody … when brought within striking distance — and Itches, Aches, Agues, and Repentance might be the consequences of contact in present circumstances.”
Apparently white powder in the wig meant gunpowder in the knickers.
There are other personal parallels. Both men rose from humble origins and chose the law as their profession. Both have been caricatured as elitist.
The oddity of this casting is complex for each man. Obama had to first fend off a challenge from a beloved popular war hero, but then fate dealt him the hand of facing down a real elitist.
All Adams had to do was beat Thomas Jefferson. The great irony in this contest resides in the fact that the slave-owning Jefferson played better among the common folks. Whereas, Adams, who abhorred slavery was accused of dynastic intentions and secret Anglophilia. Adams won by a three electoral vote margin.
In his recent inaugural address, Obama has now openly championed several causes that will surely cement his demonization among a certain sect.
This is not so different from Adams’ deep conviction to the principle of a fair trial. It bears remembering that Adams represented the British troops who had fired in the Boston Massacre of 1774. Adams argued their case so effectively that they escaped criminal punishment. As such, it can be said that both men have stood by their convictions even unto their detriment.
Adams believed himself to be misunderstood and persecuted. In an 1812 letter to Jefferson, he wrote, “I have constantly lived in an enemies Country.”
One wonders whether Obama will pen such a missive a few decades from now.