Sunday, July 17, 2011


The following essay served as the basis of my guest sermon at Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, on July 17, 2011. Because the congregation is latitudinarian, I chose to address a topic of near universal interest, happiness, and to ground it in several traditions. I would like to thank the Rev. Fred Wooden for inviting me to address the church.

A Vain Pursuit?

Imagine two different people. One of them discovers that she’s won the lottery and is suddenly worth millions of dollars. The other is run over walking to church; he survives but will suffer from paraplegia for the rest of his life. Now fast-forward one year. Who will be happier, the person who wins the lottery or the person who suffers from paraplegia? 

If you are like me and like most people, you’re confident predicting that the lottery winner will be happier a year from now. And we’re wrong. Dan Gilbert points out that real case studies show that the person who wins the lottery and the person who suffers from paraplegia will be about equally happy one year after their sudden change of fortune. (That's assuming they have roughly similar baselines of cheerfulness to begin with.) This morning, I hope to unpack the mystery of why this is so.

But first, I’d like to thank Rev. Fred Wooden and the Fountain Street community for inviting me to share some thoughts with you. Aware of the eminent men and women who have preceded me in this pulpit, I come here in humility and won’t take the approach of a guest speaker in a church across town who began by saying, “There are many ways to worship God – you in your way, and I in His.”

As a historian, I have developed some expertise in the American presidency. A couple of my friends kid me, saying that I’ve specialized in answering questions that people don’t ask. This morning I will depart from the usual expectation and address a question that is either in the foreground or background of your mind: How to be happier?

We ask the question in every stage of life. It is just one of those existentials. As mortals we are aware that every day brings us closer to the end of our time. So we want to get life right; we want our portion of happiness; so we chase after it in all kinds of things -- in people or nature, in adventure or habit, in myth or philosophy, in ritual or addiction, in therapy or worship, in new cars or new houses, in new spas or sprees at the mall.

We see a Niagara of ways this obsession with happiness inundates us: In shelf after shelf of self-help books generated by our therapeutic culture; in a cottage industry of so-called happiness coaches; in the Gallup Organization’s world poll in which more than a half-million people have participated when asked about their state of happiness and satisfaction; in the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey that’s been coming out since 1972; in the World Database of Happiness out of Rotterdam. (See In preparing for this morning, I was surprised to see the number of TED talks devoted to the topic.

So we are all thinking about it. You want it. I want it. They (out there) want it. The evidence is that Homo sapiens – which is Latin for “people are weird” – have been thinking about happiness seriously and systematically for at least 3,000 years. And yet – and yet – is it not striking that there is so little agreement? There is no consensus on defining happiness. There is no consensus on the qualitative difference between relatively enduring states of happiness vis-à-vis relatively temporary experiences of pleasure. There is no consensus on how to achieve this state of flourishing and wellbeing. There is not even a consensus whether happiness should be one of the ultimate goal of our efforts. Moreover, when you read the sages, prophets, and philosophers of the last 3,000 years -- then consider your own life – happiness has a surprising quality that often violates our everyday experience and common sense. 

Chinese ideogram of happiness
A Personal Survey

I began inquiry into happiness when, as director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, I searched out the link between happiness and leadership. My hypothesis was that happy people make better leaders and better followers than unhappy people, so I did two things: I thought about what I had picked up about happiness from others, and then I looked at what psychologists and social scientists had to say in scholarly studies. What did I learn from reflection on others' experience with happiness? 

1. Let’s start with individuals who practice the dominant religion of our culture, Christianity. During the Cold War, I taught German students in a Gymnasium. Some of my students were from Eastern Europe or traveled to see family there. From them I learned about the reality of Christian martyrdom. These students told me of relatives behind the Iron Curtain who had been physically and psychologically tortured yet, at the height of their agony, experienced a beatific vision of union with Christ that filled them with peace and joy. Try to get your mind around torture as a source of happiness.  

2. When I lived in Colorado, I used to visit my sister at a Taoist commune, Still Point, and listen to talks by Gia-Fu Feng. A disciple of Lao Tzu, Gia-Fu had journeyed from China to Big Sur to Colorado and taught about the Taoist tradition of wu wei that emphasized natural harmony in all our thoughts and actions. We could only be happy if we did not try to be happy, but surrendered our ego and lived effortlessly in harmony with the nature of things. Try to get your mind around surrendering your individuality as the way to happiness. 

3. When I talk to my cousin Christopher Clowery, now called Heng Sure, an ordained Buddhist monk and director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, he helps deepen my understanding of “nirvana,” a concept built from two Sanskrit words indicating the “blowing out” of a candle or the fire of desire, greed, anger, and ignorance, so as to make one free of suffering. From my sister Pam, an ordained Buddhist nun now named Jin Hai, I learn that Buddhism is a religion without God and that its disciples surrender their ego (their distinction as individuals) to release themselves from Vesuvian desires. Try to get your mind around being happy by not wanting to be happy. 

4. When I was a senior in high school, I practiced Transcendental Meditation and learned from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Vedic tradition that happiness is only attained in a transcendent state called “cosmic consciousness” when one’s being is absorbed into a larger reality like a raindrop falling into the ocean. Again, in such a tradition there is no being like our Western God, and no privileging of the individual. Try to get your mind around the idea that being a raindrop in the ocean is your happiness.  

5. When as a teenager I hitchhiked to Taliesin and Taliesin West to learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright and a life of creativity and good work, I discovered that the Fellowship at Taliesin sought not happiness so much as satisfaction. Satisfaction was found in the integrity and intensity of one's work. Try to get your mind around the thought that laboring is the source of your happiness.  

6. As an undergraduate, I read Elizabeth Kübler-Ross on death and dying, and discovered that a surprising number of people had their peak experience of happiness during the process of dying. I have since looked at David Casarett's work, Last Acts, and spoken to many families with a loved one in hospice care, and they speak of the peace and reconciliation their loved one experiences when the body begins to shut down. Try to get your mind around the awareness of dying as your happiness.

The examples in this little survey violate our common sense as Americans, do they not? We normally don’t associate happiness with persecution, loss of personality, extinguished desire, unceasing work, and the process of dying. On the contrary, we learn to pursue happiness in power, profit, pleasure, privilege, performance, prestige, and pride in getting our way.

General Social Survey (University of Chicago)

Flummoxed by all the unconventional ways people claimed to experience happiness, I next turned to the social scientific literature, starting with the General Social Survey conducted by the University of Chicago since 1972. It is one of the most thorough studies of happiness ever undertaken in the U.S., and it consistently shows that:

  • Climate has hardly anything to do with one's happiness. Hard as it is to believe, people in Michigan are basically as happy as people in California.
  • Americans grow happier as they grow older.
  • My generation, baby boomers, are not as content as other generations.
  • African Americans are less happy than whites.
  • Men are less happy than women.
  • The happiness of a people waxes and wanes from era to era.

Arthur Brooks

I also looked at the work of the behavioral economist Arthur Brooks, author of Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America – and How We Can Get More of It. He sought the sources of happiness in our values, behavior, lifestyle, culture, and even public policy. Brooks used U of C’s General Social Survey and research into identical twins separated at birth. He found that seven elements are particularly important in the calculus of happiness.

  • Having good DNA is essential. Genetics accounts for 50-80 percent of our baseline cheerfulness. That should not make us despair. We can work with the other 20-50 percent that is not genetic, so it’s important to get our values, behavior, and lifestyle right.
  • Practicing a religion is important. It turns out that 30-40 percent of our proclivity to worship is genetic, and the rest is environmental, so you should choose a church whose doctrines you believe are true and that provides a rich, regenerating experience.
  • Having good friends and meaningful relationships is also important to enjoying life (en-joy-ment – literally, being in a state of joy).
  • Giving voluntarily to others increases our well-being.
  • Having pathways of opportunity to fulfill our potential is important to our flourishing.
  • Having the feeling of earned success beats the alternative.
  • And -- here is the darker side -- perceiving that we are relatively better off than our neighbors makes us feel better. Whether it's a bigger car, nicer house, prettier yard, more prestigious job, or more successful children, we like to compare how we are doing with others.

Notice that winning the lottery did not make the list?

Brooks has also looked into very specific demographic slices. He discovered, for example, that the average age a man feels most miserable is 44 years old. That’s when:

  • his wife figures out he a bore;
  • a strong divergence emerges between his sense of success and his earning power;
  • and his kids turn into teenagers!

Daniel Kahneman

After reading Arthur Brooks, I turned to Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel laureate. He asks, why is it that people can go through an experience and not think they are happy, but then remember the experience as a happy one? The converse, too. People can go through an experience convinced that they are happy, but remember it as an unhappy time. Kahneman concludes that there are two psychological selves at odds within us, and they confuse experience and memory. There is a difference between being happy in your everyday life – in your current experiencing self – and being happy about your life in the narrative you keep. When we reconstruct our past, we are choosing not so much between experiences, as between memories of experiences. And when we look toward the future, we look at what we are about to go through as anticipated memories. We are beings that consume memories. Thus we are constantly negotiating between these two selves.

The Founders and Happiness

Remember my saying a few minutes ago that happiness has a surprising quality that often violates our everyday experience and common sense? In my research, one of the surprises came from something familiar -- the American founding. It was Thomas Jefferson and America's original "greatest generation" that set culture on a new course when they declared that all human beings had the inalienable right to the "pursuit of happiness." It has been said -- by David McCullough and Jacob Needleman, among others -- that that phrase in the Declaration of Independence has done more to shape the sensibilities of the modern age than any other.

About one year ago, I was asked to teach a class on the American founding. During the months I prepared, I reexamined the founders – George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Mercy Otis Warren -- and I was struck by how differently they defined happiness compared to definitions that are current today. Their definition sought to integrate private and public happiness. Nowadays we tend to think of happiness as a  private good. We have lost the sense of "public happiness," but it was much on the minds of the founders in their debates over what qualities of citizenship Americans should possess, and what kind of republic America should be. Allow me to elaborate.

The founders' notion of private happiness is foreign to postmodern sensibilities. Their sense of well-being was informed by Aristotle and Cicero, who believed that happiness was inseparable from virtue. The starting point for any understanding of human flourishing is that we must obey our informed conscience. If you have a bad conscience, you cannot be happy. If you are a slave to your passions, you cannot be happy. John Adams expressed this stern idea when he defined happiness as the ability to do what one ought. Where there is no virtue, there is no happiness. No abstract virtue, this. For many of the founders -- people of the Enlightenment though they were -- virtue was inseparable from religion. Performing the rituals that were pleasing to God -- being in right relation to God -- was essential to human flourishing.

The founders' notion of public happiness also seems foreign to postmodern sensibilities, but it was based on balancing two great traditions in our Western heritage: the civic republican tradition that emphasized duties, and the natural rights tradition that emphasized (what else?) rights. The former stretched back to ancient Greece and Rome, while the latter was traceable to the European Middle Ages. The founders managed to balance both of these living traditions -- the civic republican tradition that stressed each person's duties to community, and the natural rights tradition that underscored the inalienable rights each person enjoys before the state. If there is too much emphasis on duties, the citizen lives unhappily in an authoritarian state. If there is too much emphasis on rights, the atomized citizen lives unhappily in anarchy, licentiousness, or narcissism. One current of conversation at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was about achieving this balance of rights and duties in the "common wealth." (Think about that word.) If the behavior and habits of citizens reflected the balancing of rights and duties, then individuals had a chance to live integrated -- and thus relatively happy -- lives in community. But balancing the two is the key to the integration, and thus to the happiness.

The founders comprise one of the greatest generations of political leadership in any time and any place. No utopians, they were realistic about the pursuit of happiness. Essential to well-being were virtue in one’s private life and a judicious balance of rights and duties in one’s public life. The founders, I believe, got it right. In the end, they afforded me the best case studies for my hypothesis that happy people tend to make better leaders and followers than unhappy people.


I teach the founders. I believe that young Americans should learn from them. But it is difficult to do so because the founders lived in a different time, place, and mentality. They did not know a world transformed by industrial, urban, or high-tech revolutions, nor the radical ideas of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein. We face challenges of integration that they did not. Perhaps that is why, for many of us, happiness remains elusive. It is not just a mood, not just a fleeting spike of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Because it cannot be grasped by the prefrontal cortex alone, it remains a mysterious and irreducible state of being.

And yet, somehow, we know happiness when we experience it in ourselves, and we sense it when we see it in others. It’s people living their passion – building a boat, writing a symphony, educating their child, growing flowers in their garden -- but it's more. I believe the pursuit of happiness is linked to a primordial urge deep within us. It's a mythic return to Eden as the vestibule to the Heaven that awaits. This urge leads humans in all cultures and in all eras to redeem their time and to sanctify their place. 

In reality, of course, we never find Eden on Earth. But we should not despair. As Denis Waitley observed, even though happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed, happiness is the spiritual experience of living every possible moment with love, grace, and gratitude.

To love, grace, and gratitude let us say “amen”!


Below are some resources out the various traditions of happiness that I consulted while preparing these remarks:

Confucius on Happiness

here, here and, with a lot of modern psychology added, here.

Ancient Greeks and Romans on Happiness

St. Thomas Aquinas: "Happiness is the conscious possession of a good."

Scottish Enlightenment Thinkers on Happiness

Francis Hutcheson portrait and prose on happiness here.

Darrin M. McMahon book here.

Daniel N. Robinson article here.

America's Founding Generation on Happiness

John Adams on the link between happiness and virtue: The happiness of the individual is the end of man. The happiness of society is the end of government. Upon these points, all speculative politicians, divines, and moral philosophers will agree. All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention Jewish and Christian authorities, have agreed in this. ~close paraphrase of John Adams, letter to George Wythe, 1776

Where did Thomas Jefferson's notion of the "pursuit of happiness" come from? One of the few books annotated by Jefferson was Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, written by the Scottish moral philosopher, Lord Kames (1696-1782), a leader of the "moral sense" school that argued that human beings had an inner sense of right and wrong. Lord Kames, also known as Henry Home, provided the philosophical foundation of the phrase, "pursuit of happiness," which was included by Jefferson as an inalienable right of mankind in the Declaration of Independence. ~paraphrase from the Library of Congress's Jefferson collection

Happiness -- the product of civic virtue and public duty: As a scholar well-versed in the ideas and ideals of the French and English enlightenments, Jefferson found his greatest inspiration in the language and arguments of English philosopher John Locke, who had justified England's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 on the basis of man's "natural rights." Locke's theory held that government was a contract between the governed and those governing, who derived their power solely from the consent of the governed and whose purpose it was to protect every man's inherent right to property, life and liberty. Jefferson's theory of "natural law" differed in that it substituted the inalienable right of "the pursuit of happiness" for "property," emphasizing that happiness is the product of civic virtue and public duty. The concept of the "pursuit of happiness" originated in the Common Sense School of Scottish philosophy, of which Lord Kames was the best-known proponent. ~from the Marine family website

Religion, morality, and knowledge are three essential components of the happiness of a people. From Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance: Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Happiness linked to holiness.  The Continental and Confederation Congresses were the first national governments of the United States. The majority of men who served in Congress believed that the "public prosperity" of a society depended on the vitality of its religion. Nothing less than a "spirit of universal reformation among all ranks and degrees of our citizens," Congress declared to the American people, would "make us a holy, that so we may be a happy people." 

David McCullough links happiness and education in the thought of Adams and Jefferson: I think we need history as much as we need bread or water or love. To make the point, I want to discuss a single human being and why we should know him. First off, he is an example of the transforming miracle of education. When he and others wrote in the Declaration of Independence about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," what they meant by "happiness" was not longer vacations or more material goods. They were talking about the enlargement of the human experience through the life of the mind and spirit. They knew that the system of government they were setting up would not work if the people were not educated. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "it expects what never was and never will be."

George Will
"America was born in recoil against an overbearing executive's 'repeated injuries and usurpations' (the Declaration of Independence); modern conservatism was born in reaction against executive aggrandizement, first by Franklin Roosevelt, then by his acolyte Lyndon Johnson....
"The idea of American exceptionalism is obnoxious to progressives, who, evidently unaware of the idea's long pedigree (it traces to Alexis de Tocqueville) and the rich scholarship concerning the idea, assume it is a crude strain of patriotism. America, Tocqueville said, is unique because it was born free -- free of a feudal past, free from an entrenched aristocracy, and [free from a] established religion.
"The American Revolution was a political, not a social, revolution; it was about emancipating individuals for the pursuit of happiness, not about the state allocating wealth and opportunity. Hence our exceptional Constitution, which says not what government must do for Americans but what it cannot do to them.
"Americans are exceptionally committed to limited government because they are exceptionally confident of social mobility through personal striving. And they are exceptionally immune to a distinctively modern pessimism: It holds that individuals are powerless to assert their autonomy against society's vast impersonal forces, so people must become wards of government, which supposedly is the locus and engine of society's creativity." ~George F. Will, "A Congress that Reasserts Its Power," Washington Post, January 16, 2011 [at]

Jack P. Greene, Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of Modern Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

Robert Hamowy article here.

History of Political Ideas article here.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, "The Lost Meaning of 'The Pursuit of Happiness,'" William and Mary Quarterly 21:3 (1964). 

Naomi Wulf, "Liberty, (the Pursuit of) Happiness, and the Anxious Democrat: Conflicting Views of Liberalism in the Early Republic," Cercles 17 (2007). 

Freud on Happiness
Carmelo Scudari PDF here, here, here,  


Saturday, July 2, 2011

American Founding -- John Adams 5

Why the Fame?

Given John Adams's liabilities -- his prickly personality, several career setbacks, and the inconvenient fact that his presidency was shoehorned between that of eminent Virginians -- it is hardly surprising that his revival came so late -- 200 years after his retirement from public life. I'd argue that it is not justifiable to give all the credit to David McCullough and HBO. It is true that Adams needed people to plead his case before the bar of public opinion, but there was a good case to champion because of the man himself. Adams himself deserves the fame that Americans now accord him because of his decisive response to the challenging times in which he lived, as well as because of his good character, hard work, intelligent writing, ability to judge character, and vision for our nation. Let's examine these half-dozen elements in more detail. 

birthplace of Abigail Smith Adams
1. The grand stage  It's a truism that's lost none of its truth: "the times make the man." A person is more likely to be famous if by accident of birth he lives in heroic times and if by accident of geography he is close to the action. The American founding was a threshold in the human experience, changing the human estate forever. Adams was born in 1735, near Boston. He was nearing forty years of age when hostilities commenced at Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, near Boston. Harnessing his considerable moral and intellectual virtues, Adams seized opportunities to lead during the crisis with Great Britain. The accidents of history and geography put a man leaving his youth and entering his best years in the cockpit of revolutionary tumult then gripping Massachusetts.

I cannot help but add the "accident" of a great marriage to those of time and place. The Adamses were exceedingly fortunate to have found and married one another.

Adams, like Jefferson, read Plutarch's Lives in the original Greek
2. Classical education  Adams's lifelong reading of the classics also prepared him for fame. His teachers were Thucydides, Polybius, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Cicero, Suetonius, Plutarch, Jesus, and St. Paul. Each ancient teacher grounded him in the understanding that fame is a social state that is not inherited but earned. If earned, it should be based, above all, on the fineness of one's moral character. Honorable living, courage amid danger, prudence in decision-making, temperance in the face of temptation -- all these virtues are the result of a lifetime of moral discipline.  They become more evident when living in challenging times, and when life-and-death decisions have to be made.

Adams knew that fame could be fickle, and he knew not to confuse fame with celebrity. He would be appalled by today's celebrity culture that has confused celebrities with heroes. Adams would have scoffed at the way people seek to break into 24/7 media coverage with 15 seconds of insipid notoriety.

John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence," in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, captures not the Fourth of July, but the presentation of the document to the Second Continental Congress on July 2nd, after legal separation from Britain had been achieved. Adams, appropriately, is the delegate in the middle of the picture -- on the left among the five founders who are submitting the Declaration of Independence to the chairman. Jefferson is the tallest of the group, and Franklin is on the right.
3. Ambition  Adams was ambitious to make something of his life. As a young person he thought he might be happy as a farmer. But the more he learned about himself, the more he set his shoulder to the wheel of ambition. His rise from humble beginnings was impressive -- from the Braintree house to scholar at Harvard, to teacher, to law apprentice, to small-town lawyer, to delegate to the Continental Congresses, to diplomat, to constitution maker, to Vice President, to President of the United States, to elder statesman. At each stage in his career he performed his duties with integrity and intensity. In the Continental Congress, for instance, he served on 90 different committees -- more than any other congressman -- and chaired 20 of them. His work on behalf of our country meant long periods of time when he could not be with Abigail and his children, or tending his farm in Braintree. His diligent study and hard work insured that what he said and what he did made genuine contributions to his country. In Paris, his hard work probably saved him from many a temptation [McCullough 236-37]! More, his sense of duty made him stoical in the face of difficulties. He wryly observed that, "No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it."

4. Master stylist  Adams was a serious student of the English language, and his attention to the ancient liberal art of rhetoric helped him become a forceful writer. Writing, he admitted, was a self-imposed discipline. "I have a great Deal of Leisure, which I chiefly employ in Scribbling, that my Mind may not stand still or run back like my Fortune," he once wrote. He became one of the most prolific and quotable of the founding fathers, spitting out quips ready-made for Bartlett's. Some of the best quotations from America's original "greatest generation" came from Adams's quill. A good example: "Facts are stubborn things," uttered by the young attorney when he courageously defended the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre in 1770. Years later, contemplating his frustrations with the do-nothing Continental Congress, he supposedly complained (revealing a wit worthy of comparison with Mark Twain's): "In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, two are called a law firm, and three or more are called a congress."

One Great Founding Mother: Abigail Adams
Lasting fame is built on evidence of greatness. Americans are fortunate to have access to two great letter exchanges, both involving John Adams. His writing gives us insight into the most interesting aspect of the human person, the inner life. The letters reveal how his mind worked and how his character responded to challenges. The 1,160 letters he and Abigail exchanged offer a treasure-trove to posterity, yielding rich insights into the politics, mores, and domestic life of the era. These exchanges with his "Dearest Friend" are all the more rewarding to read because of Abigail's insightful observations and powerful intellect, the match of her husband's.

In addition, the famous Adams-Jefferson correspondence, resumed after more than a decade of chilliness between the second and third presidents, offers insights into the religious, philosophical, and historical dimensions of the American founding.

Also notable are the letter exchanges between John Adams and his good friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush. The correspondence of these two minds of the Enlightenment tended to probe the power of the irrational in human affairs [Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers, 215].

5. Judge of character  Adams also deserves fame because he was an estimable judge of character. He pushed for George Washington to serve as the commander of the Continental army, persuaded Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, and nominated John Marshall to be chief justice of the United States. Not bad calls, these.

6. The American idea  Finally, Adams richly deserves fame as a patriot because he got the American idea right. There is a good reason to call him our greatest philosopher president. For one thing, he was no woolly thinker seduced by the gauzy utopian schemes of French salons. Rather he held to a clear vision of what citizens of the new republic must be to thrive in a hostile world of fallen human beings.

Here it is worth saying a word about Adams's religious beliefs, which were complex and deserve more space than I can here devote to the topic. Privately, Adams was not an orthodox Christian, as we understand the term today. Theologically he was not a Trinitarian. He was a Unitarian who yet called himself a Christian and "followed" Christ. Students are confused by the fluidity of meaning, but I point out that Adams followed Christ in much the same way that Buddhists follow the Buddha (understood to be a man and not a god). In his public life Adams was like a flying buttress: supportive of more orthodoxly Christian churches but content to be outside of them. He believed in Providence, which mostly consisted of the laws under which God had created the world (so the human duty, if the goal was to prosper, was to learn these laws and act in accordance with them). Nor did Adams have any doubt that religion was necessary to the survival of the new republic. As he famously put it, "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other" [Adams to the Military, October 11, 1798].

Adams got the American idea right in other key ways. When we look at the spectrum of ideas among the founders, he took the via media, convinced that the center must hold. On the one hand, he distanced himself from radical revolutionaries like Thomas Paine and his cousin Sam Adams, rejecting anything like pure democracy. "Remember democracy never lasts long," Adams advised John Taylor in 1814. "It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." On the other hand, his energetic temperament as well as his grounding in history and first principles led him away from the more pacific instincts of founders like John Dickinson. When the time came to move decisively for independence, Adams had already thought it through and was able to shape the course of events.

A keen student of history and political theory, Adams also understood the nature of republican government. It was not just anti-monarchical, nor just a democracy expressed through elected representatives. Properly understood, a republic was a form of government that balanced the three historically dominant classes of power: rule by the one (monarchy), rule by the few (aristocracy), and rule by the many (democracy). The tensions among these three groups is what Adams and others exploited to articulate the separation of powers. Thus the monarchic impulse would find expression in the Presidency; the aristocratic impulse, in the Senate and Supreme Court; the democratic impulse, in the House. Power was further attenuated in a federated polity that did not over-concentrate power in the national capital but respected civil society's "little platoons" found at the local level as well as the traditional prerogatives of villages, townships, counties, and states. Above all, power must never accrete to one ruler. Human nature was too corruptible to trust any man or woman with too much power. "They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men," wrote Adams in Novanglus No. 7 (March 6, 1775).

Finally, Adams got the American idea right by articulating a wise conception of happiness. He brooded quite a lot on human flourishing. Perhaps his broadest utterance on the topic is found in Thoughts on Government: "We ought to consider what is the end of government before we determine which is the best form," wrote Adams. "Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man.... All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue" [Thoughts on Government, 1776].

This statement strikes modern sensibilities as too Puritanical. Nowadays we only think about happiness as a private good. And over time, that private good has tended to degenerate into narcissism, into the calculus of I-me-mine. Today we pursue happiness in power, profit, pleasure, prestige, preeminence, progress, and pride in getting our way.

But Adams held to a deeper understanding of happiness that sought to integrate its public and private dimensions. Although Americans today have lost sight of "public happiness," it was much on the minds of the founders when they deliberated over what qualities of citizenship Americans should possess, and what kind of republic America should be. Allow me to elaborate.

Adams's notion of private happiness was informed by Aristotle and Cicero, who believed that well-being was inseparable from virtue. Most fundamentally, we must obey our informed conscience. If you have a bad conscience, you cannot be happy. If you are a slave to your passions and drives, you cannot be happy. Adams expressed this stern idea when he defined happiness as the ability to do what one ought. Where there is no virtue, there is no happiness. And as we have already seen, virtue for Adams was inseparable from religion. Performing the rituals that are pleasing to God -- being in right relation to God -- is essential to human flourishing.

Adams' notion of public happiness was also informed by ancient traditions of our Western heritage: the civic republican tradition that emphasized duties, and the natural rights tradition that emphasized (what else?) rights. The former stretched back to ancient Greece and Rome, while the latter was traceable to the European Middle Ages. Adams managed to balance both of these living traditions -- the civic republican tradition that stressed each person's duties to community, and the natural rights tradition that underscored the inalienable rights that each person enjoys before the state. If there is too much emphasis on duties, the citizen lives unhappily in an authoritarian state. If there is too much emphasis on rights, the citizen lives unhappily in anarchy or licentiousness, or both. If the proper balance could be struck -- if the behavior and habits of citizens reflected the proper balance of rights and duties, then individuals had the chance to live integrated, and thus relatively happy, lives in community.

In sum, happiness for Adams was inseparable from religion, virtue, education, civic participation, and -- and marrying a good wife. He was fortunate to have a peerless spouse in Abigail. In the end, perhaps it was her excellent influence that helped make John Adams worthy of the fame that he craved, and that posterity has finally bestowed upon him.

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This essay is the fifth and last in a series on John Adams. The Adams series served as the basis for my talk accompanying the exhibition, John Adams Unbound, organized by the Boston Public Library and the American Library Association. The talk was given at the Loutit District Library, Grand Haven, Michigan, on June 30, 2011.

This Adams series is posted on July 2 because he thought that was the day our country's independence should be pondered and celebrated.

For more on presidents and leadership, see

American Founding -- John Adams 4

His Rotundity -- His Own Worst Enemy

Like any public figure who lives into his nineties, Adams experienced his share of setbacks -- more than a few of his own making. Isn't one of the most difficult things any of us learns is how to deal with our own personality and its liabilities? Adams fessed up that he had a difficult personality. He could be his own worst enemy -- ironic given that he once wrote Abigail a letter cataloging all her faults!

Examining the numerous liabilities of his personality, biographer John Ferling observes, "Adams struck many people as vain, irritable, irascible, supercilious, and tactless. He maintained a stiffly formal and aloof demeanor, what one acquaintance called a habitually 'ceremonious' manner.... Abigail once scolded him for his tendency to indulge in 'intolerable forbidding expecting Silence' while in the midst of a conversation; 'tis impossible for a Stranger to be tranquil in your presence'" [Ferling 170].

Moreover, he nursed a tendency toward brooding pessimism. As he revealed to his diary on the eve of the Second Continental Congress -- the Congress that would declare independence -- "I wander alone, and ponder. I muse, I mope, I ruminate. We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, education, in travel, fortune -- in everything. I feel unutterable anxiety" [McCullough 23].

Adams also had a hot temper. He managed to keep his outbursts confined to private conversations, but there was widespread conjecture that he might be emotionally unstable. One of the most egregious outbursts occurred the only known time Adams demeaned a subordinate to his face. In the presidential mansion one day he dressed down an aide, James McHenry, unjustly accusing him of scheming with Hamilton to bring Adams down. Then came the volley of insults. He frothed that that "foreigner," Hamilton, was "the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not the world." "The bastard brat of a Scotch peddler” had a “superabundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off.” Finally Adams decried “the profligacy of his life; his fornications, adulteries and his incests.” Such a surprising outburst, this, that McHenry later wrote down what happened in letters to friends and family. He ventured that the second president of the United States was "actually insane" [McCullough 538-39].

Besides a penchant for being his own worst enemy, there were situations that arose which Adams thought might do harm to his reputation.

1. At great risk to his young law career, Adams defended the Redcoats who were involved in the Boston Massacre because he believed that the law rather than popular passions should rule Massachusetts.

2. Adams's two terms as Vice President were frustrating for a man of his restlessness, vigor, brilliance, and vanity. Complaining to Abigail, he opined, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." After eight years of biding his time, a lesser man might have given up and gone home.

3. The four Alien and Sedition Acts as well as the so-called Midnight appointments to the judiciary -- on the eve of Jefferson taking office -- made Adams look thin-skinned, unprincipled, and unpresidential.

Scumbag: James Calender
4. Perhaps his most bitter setback was losing the White House to Jefferson in the Election of 1800. Adams despaired that his reputation could ever recover from such an ugly campaign. We think politicking is a dirty business today, but we forget that it was even dirtier in the early republic. In 1800, Jefferson and his allies roused an unprincipled journalist, James Callender, to attack Adams's character in the Richmond Examiner. The sitting president was accused of being a monarchist, a warmonger, and even a hermaphrodite who had "neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Callender especially wanted to drive home the impression that Adams was insane with rage. He spread the unfounded rumor that Adams once became so enraged he ripped off his wig, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it [McCullough 536-37].

It gets worse. Callender, with Jefferson's blessings, accused Adams of importing two mistresses shortly after being elected president in 1796. Ridiculous rumor, of course, but in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, this was a serious allegation. One of the mistresses supposedly was from France, the other from Germany. As Alf Mapp humorously puts it, "While retaining the French charmer ... Adams supposedly had returned her rival to her native Germany. The Pennsylvania Germans were incensed, not so much by reports of sexual immorality as by the thought that the president would reject a fräulein while holding fast to a mademoiselle [Mapp 55]. Because Adams couldn't carry Pennsylvania, he wasn't reelected, and to Adams, this further robbed him of respect.

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This essay is the fourth in a series on John Adams. The Adams series served as the basis for my talk accompanying the exhibition, John Adams Unbound, organized by the Boston Public Library and the American Library Association. The talk was given at the Loutit District Library, Grand Haven, Michigan, on June 30, 2011.

This Adams series is posted on July 2 because he thought that was the day our country's independence should be pondered and celebrated.

For more on presidents and leadership, see

American Founding -- John Adams 3

The Thorn of Fame

John Adams has finally gotten the fame he craved, but it was a long time coming over a rough road. Already as a young man he tortured himself thinking about a future without fame. Historians don't need to speculate on this point because he and his wife Abigail seemed to write down everything. Because of the thousands of letters they left us, we know John Adams's inner life better than the inner life of any other founding father. We know, apropos of this talk, that he thought he should be famous, once declaring that the "Times alone have destined me to Fame" [Ferling 170].

Yet the quest for fame was a thorn in his side. As David McCullough put it, as a young man "John Adams was not a man of the world. He enjoyed no social standing. He was an awkward dancer and poor at cards. He never learned to flatter.... There was no money in his background" [19]. Everything he earned -- from respect in the courtroom, to readership in the newspapers, to leadership in Philadelphia -- he had to work hard at. He knew that fame can be fickle and fleeting. For that reason, he feared posterity would not pay him sufficient homage.

Moreover, he was eaten up with envy when he thought of the more illustrious founders of his own day. Given his Puritan New England heritage, Adams knew envy was one of the seven deadlies, but he seemed helpless before the green-eyed monster. Even when Adams was the runner-up to George Washington in our first national election, he still felt green with envy. One year after that election, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, Adams railed: "The history of our revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod -- and henceforward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war."

Adams gold coin
Adams's hunger for fame stands in stark contrast to the easy-going attitude of a later president, Ronald Reagan, who quipped: "There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit." Lacking Reagan's insouciance, Adams yearned for the credit. But here's the good news. If Adams didn't get enough of it in his own time, he perhaps is finally satisfied with the credit he receives today. Looking down on us (for he believed in eternal life), this stubborn man would likely be happy to concede how wrong he was about posterity. Americans have been lionizing him since the Second World War.

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This essay is the third in a series on John Adams. The Adams series served as the basis for my talk accompanying the exhibition, John Adams Unbound, organized by the Boston Public Library and the American Library Association. The talk was given at the Loutit District Library, Grand Haven, Michigan, on June 30, 2011.

This Adams series is posted on July 2 because he thought that was the day our country's independence should be pondered and celebrated.

For more on presidents and leadership, see

American Founding -- John Adams 2

Rising Tide

Tides do rise, and John Adams's reputation started to rise a half century before McCullough's biography. In 1953 Russell Kirk canonized John Adams in his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind, arguing that of all the patriot founders, it was our second president who best understood history, constitutions, and the consequences of ideas. Kirk realized Adams's intellectual achievement was one key to any fame posterity would confer.

Two decades later the musical 1776 came out, and it was not Washington, Jefferson, or Franklin in the limelight, but the brainy delegate from Braintree, Massachusetts, who took center stage. In the movie that followed, Adams's irritability was turned into a clever device to make him more human and approachable than he otherwise would be.

Also during the Bicentennial celebration, PBS aired a 13-part series called the Adams Chronicles that presented 150 years of the family's history and fetched many Emmys.

And then McCullough's masterpiece came out in 2001 and brought about a historiographic revolution, a paradigm shift in the way we regard America's founding fathers. Adams waxes, Jefferson wanes. As of this writing (June 2011), according to, McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Adams is the 9th-most-purchased book on the American Revolution, and the 14th-most-purchased book on US presidents. And the HBO production based on McCullough's book is the 4th-most-purchased miniseries on the site.

The book's splash caused more than a ripple. The historian Gordon Wood, who is currently editing a collection of Adams's papers for the Library of America series, observes that Washington and Jefferson got only one volume each of their writings, whereas Adams is getting four volumes.

And the U.S. Treasury has issued a John Adams gold coin honoring the 2nd president, an unwitting double-entendre for his "currency."

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This essay is the second in a series on John Adams. The Adams series served as the basis for my talk accompanying the exhibition, John Adams Unbound, organized by the Boston Public Library and the American Library Association. The talk was given at the Loutit District Library, Grand Haven, Michigan, on June 30, 2011.

This Adams series is posted on July 2 because he thought that was the day our country's independence should be pondered and celebrated.

For more on presidents and leadership, see

American Founding -- John Adams 1

America's greatest philosopher president
Once Forgotten Founding Father and Philosopher President Makes a Comeback.... Why?

Ten years ago, David McCullough told audiences something that still has the capacity to surprise us. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author said that he initially intended to write a joint biography of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. At first his concern was that Adams could not hold his own next to Jefferson. But the more research he did, the more his concern shifted. At some point he realized that Jefferson could not hold his own next to Adams, so he decided to devote the biography to our second rather than to our third president. As the distingished historian Pauline Maier notes, "McCullough's biography of Adams inevitably has a lot to say about Jefferson, but on virtually all points of comparison between the two men, Jefferson comes in second."

High recommendation, that, and arguably so. John Adams's public life makes for a compelling story. Consider the number of firsts that he is associated with during the early days of the republic. He was:
  • the lead author of the oldest constitution in the world still in use (that of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, dating from 1780);
  • the first vice president of the United States;
  • the first president who lived in the White House;
  • the first president who was challenged for re-election, indeed, the only president in U.S. history who was challenged by the sitting vice president (Thomas Jefferson);
  • the first one-term president (because he lost to Jefferson);
  • the first commander in chief who had to direct major military operations off U.S. territory (the Quasi War that was fought against the superpower of the day, France, in the Caribbean Sea);
  • adapting Plato's term, "philosopher king," let us also call Adams our first "philosopher president" -- the best we have ever had.
All of these points make Adams worthy of admiration, but the last point makes him worthy of the fame he coveted and that we posthumously confer on him. And yet, from my experience in the classroom, I am not certain that most Americans are aware of his intellectual achievements.

One of the greatest first ladies, Abigail Adams
I will come back to the intellectual achievements of our philosopher president later in these remarks, but first let's remind ourselves that, in the pre-David-McCullough world, John Adams was our "forgotten founding father." If you go to Washington, DC -- the city of great monuments to presidents -- there is not a single statue of John Adams. His absence in Statuary Hall is especially conspicuous in light of the statue of his cousin, Samuel Adams, and the marker where his son, John Quincy Adams, died at his desk. There is not a single statue of him in Philadelphia, even though he was the most ardent defender of independence at the Second Continental Congress. There is not a single statue of him at the U.S. Naval Academy, even though the first vessels of our permanent U.S. Navy were launched during his administration. The most prominent statue of him you'll find is in his hometown of Quincy (Braintree), Massachusetts; yet even this memorial was erected just a few years ago, after McCullough's biography.

"Dearest Friend" -- John to Abigail, September 14, 1774
Adams himself predicted that he would be the forgotten founding father. To Benjamin Rush, he wrote with mock humility, “Mausoleums, statues, monuments will never be erected to me. I wish them not. Panegyrical romances will never be written, nor flattering orations spoken, to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors. No, nor in true colors. All but the last I loathe” [John Adams to Benjamin Rush, March 23, 1809].

Why the neglect relegating Adams to the founding fathers' back bench? One explanation is that his presidency was shoe-horned between two very dominant figures -- George Washington, the indispensable man who became a legend in his lifetime, and Thomas Jefferson, who was not keen on rehabilitating Adams publicly. Moreover, Jefferson and his party enjoyed longevity in contrast to the Federalists, who would soon die out as a political force. Jeffersonians set the nation's political agenda for more than two decades following the Adams administration. For many decades, the New Englander got lost in a Virginia crowd.

And even though John Adams's son, John Quincy Adams, won the White House in 1825, he also was a one-termer. The Adams name again went into decline because Andrew Jackson booted JQA out of the White House in 1829. The succeeding "Age of Jackson" was not friendly to the Adams brand. As a consequence, the reputations of our 2nd and 6th presidents suffered in the popular imagination.

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This essay is the first in a series on John Adams. The Adams series served as the basis for my talk accompanying the exhibition, John Adams Unbound, organized by the Boston Public Library and the American Library Association. The talk was given at the Loutit District Library, Grand Haven, Michigan, on June 30, 2011.

This Adams series is posted on July 2 because he thought that was the day our country's independence should be pondered and celebrated.

For more on presidents and leadership, see