January 04, 2010

Revolutionary Brat

It is a well-known British convention for monarchs to refer to themselves with the "royal we." The idea is that the King is both himself and the state---his person and his position. Thus when a King dies, people react with my favorite English expression, which is not self-contradictory: "The King is dead. Long live the King."

Of the first five Presidents, there was little space between the man and the potus. George Washington, for example, totally sublimated his personality to make it fit that of what he considered an ideal leader: stoic, brave, disciplined. James Madison was so consumed with political spirit that there was barely room left for a personality- imagining Madison "the man" is like imagining James Carville "the man." They are what they do. Revolutions just take so much energy. To be a revolutionary is necessarily to dedicate your life to the revolution and you don't have much time for such foolishness as a dramatic inner monologue.

Enter John Quincy Adams. As the son of America's worldliest founding father, Adams was instilled with all of the wisdom and experience of a revolutionary- JQA spoke several languages, including Greek and Latin, fluently at age 11. He was secretary to the minister of Russia at 14, the age at which his father plausibly called him the most well-travelled person in America. When JQA took his entrance exam at Harvard, he requested the exam be in French- the language in which he was most conversant. To read about JQA's culturally privileged childhood is to lazily leap from platitude to platitude, like some pond frog on so many lily pads. A schoolteacher in some country says that JQA is the most brilliant mind he has seen; A king in some other says that JQA is the most promising youth; And so on.

So what's the big deal, you say. Just another genius President. But the difference in this genius president is that he was not becoming brilliant for something. His father studied and studied because he was not born of relative privilege and needed every advantage to be a successful lawyer, and later statesman. Madison's learning was all funneled toward how he could best serve the cause. The student JQA had no particular utility for his knowledge besides vague ideals from his parents to become a "sturdy" man and "not to embarrass" them. He was the first spoiled liberal arts student in the United States of America (I was the 19,000,000th).

And what happens to spoiled liberal arts students? They think too much. They get depressed. They break up with the loves of their lives because the women don't meet their mothers' standards. JQA did all of these things. No milestone in JQA's life escaped his considerable angst. An election to Congress was accompanied with soul searching over whether he wanted to enter a life of partisan politics. A foray into the legal world brought about deep ambivalence about whether to exit public service. When a perfect woman practically dragged JQA to the alter, he set up a Rube Goldberg-esque series of hurdles to ensure the wedding was delayed.

None of this is to say that JQA was a whiny ninny- I actually quite like him. He seems thus far the most genius of the genius Presidents, and most of his wrath was of the self-loathing variety. Most who knew JQA, including his long suffering betrothed, found him a good dude. And man, he wrote great erotic poetry. In one poem, in which he looks forward "to my lonely conch return," he ends with these lines:

Louisa! thus remote from thee,/ Still something to each joy is wanting/ While thy affection can to me/ Make the most dreary scene enchanting.

Here's my point:

We sometimes conceive of the modern presidency as an office through which men can exorcise their personal demons on a public stage. Clinton needed to be liked, Nixon needed to be loved, Bush 43 needed to be taken seriously, etc. Going into this project, I was very much looking forward to learning about the men behind the early presidencies, but was stonewalled. The first five guys aren't just on monuments, they are monuments. JQA was the first to bring a personality to the office that hadn't been formed by a long journey to the office. In a limited sense he was America's modern President- its first Royal We.

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