Adams vs. Jefferson Repeat in 2012

In 1800, John Adams was accused of being an out of touch, arrogant, elitist while his opponent, Jefferson, won with the image of a real American, a man of the people, and a champion of liberty.  For example, in a well-publicized national discussion, when the new republic was trying to decide what to call the president, Jefferson pushed for the title “Mr. President” while John Adams was willing to call him “His Excellency” or something that lent the position more gravitas.  Adams, spending years abroad in England and France, was viewed as having been poisoned by aristocratic and foreign sensibilities and communism was to Joe McCarthy’s USA as monarchy was to Jefferson’s.  As part of the Federalist Party, albeit a reluctant member, Adams wanted to consolidate government power while Jefferson, of the people, by the people, and for the people, had spent his whole life in America and was the people’s man.  He wanted their freedom and saw the small-holding farmer, as opposed to industry, as central to American life.

But biography is ironic.  Jefferson was the son of a rich plantation owner.  At age 21, he inherited 5,000 acres (20 km2) of land, 52 slaves, livestock, his father’s notable library, and a gristmill.  In 1768, he used his slaves to construct a neoclassical mansion known as Monticello.  In 1773, the year after Jefferson married a young widow, her father died. She and Jefferson inherited his estate, including 11,000 acres and 135 slaves.  With these additional slaves, Jefferson became the second largest slaveholder in Albermarle County with one of the biggest estates. The number of slaves from this time forward would fluctuate around 200.

Jefferson enjoyed an enormous income for his entire life, yet was almost always deeply in debt.  He spent lavishly and was constantly remodeling Monticello for no particular or practical purpose.  He spent great sums of money while abroad, especially in France, where he enjoyed the French aristocracy and their way of life.  He loved fine wine, expensive furnishings, and speculation, and died 1-2 million in debt.

Adams, on the other hand, was raised by a farmer who farmed the land himself.  Young Adams loved farming and he ran a farm his entire life, which he worked whenever possible, shoveling manure and plowing fields without the aid of slaves.  (Adams thought the only sensible investment was in land.)  As a boston lawyer, he had trouble making ends meet, and had to farm.  He hated taking cases without merit.  In fact, he took the case defending the British soldiers at the Boston Massacre, the case that launched his public career, in part because he was having trouble finding work.

Throughout his public career, Adams was frugal with his modest income, especially while serving abroad in the company of high socieity, which, unlike Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, he hated.  He could not stand the theatrics, the sleaziness, the politics, the make-up, the decadence, or the rich food; it disgusted him and he never fit in.  In fact, Franklin had the Continental Congress recall Adams against his will because he was too blunt and impolite; he was a “bull in a china cabinet.”

Nonetheless, for decades, no matter what he did, Adams could not shake the public image of an elitist snob who had been poisoned by foreigners, and Jefferson won the 1800 election.

Barack Obama has also been called an out of touch, arrogant elitist.  I hear it daily.  Indeed, he has given some fodder for this charge.  During his 2008 campaign, he mentioned that rural Americans can “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”  He called the economy “fine” a few weeks ago.  He spent some parts of his life in foreign countries.  Maybe he is out of touch with real America?

But Obama, we must remember, was raised by a single mom who worked for non-profits.  Mitt Romney’s dad, George Romney, was a successful businessman, a multi-millionaire, Governor of Michigan, Sec. of HUD, and ran for President against Nixon.

Obama finished paying off his school debt in 2004 and, though he is a millionaire now, only became one from book sales after his 2008 campaign picked up.  Romney, on the other hand, is worth over $250 million, making him the richest man ever to run for president — he always has been the 1%.

Obama was a community organizer working closely with underserved populations in Chicago before he became a lawyer, professor, state senator, Senator, and then President.  Mitt Romney worked as a Mormon missionary in France, a high-powered business consultant, a wildly successful venture capitalist executive for 14 years with an initial $37 million, chaired the 2002 Winter Olympics, became governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007, and has been running for President ever since.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what “out of touch” is supposed to mean.  Everyone is “in touch” with something.  As for me, I like Obama because he, like me, is multi-cultural and has been exposed to poverty.  Like me, he knows what it is like to worry about school debt and making ends meet since the majority of his life he paid close attention to electricity bills, travel expenses, and food prices.  He understands why they are important.  Romney seems like a good guy, but he has been enormously wealthy nearly his entire life.  Romney is Wall Street to Obama’s Main Street.

Did you hear about the $12 million expansion to his Ocean Front property in San Diego?  It includes a car elevator.  But car elevators can be super cool right?  Romney could be just a rich guy having everyman fun, like Obama when he enjoys the perks of bringing the musicians he loves to perform in the White house, or flying up to NYC for a dinner and a show with Michelle.  But surely all excess does not signal everyday humanity.  Maybe some excess is just excessive, such as the time and ink spent on this whole discussion of who is more ‘out of touch.’

So, vote for Obama?  It’s not really my point.  Instead, let’s just all try mightily not be as out of touch as the electorate in 1800.

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About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

5 responses to “Adams vs. Jefferson Repeat in 2012

  • Whit

    In the military I still hear people talk about how “everyman” George Bush was, as if every man has owned a baseball team. And I’m not saying that Bush wouldn’t have been fun to have had a beer with, I’m sure he was, I just know he’d also be the guy that suggests we move this party to that new down-town roof top bar as he slams down a shot of Johnny Walker Blue while throwing up Long Horns, as I lick the salt and cringe into my profligate Chili’s Apple-Margarita and pretend that the appetizers here are really a meal in and of themselves, really, I’m fine, and actually, I kinda need to go home and check the roaster of my fantasy baseball team, so I’ll catch you guys later, unless anybody wants to go bowling… or play Halo 2 at my place? Ladies I’m looking at you. And by ladies I mean you Jeremy Clifton.

  • Jer Clifton

    Everyman appeal is an age-old tradition in American politics, or in politics in general, particularly since the revolutionary era. GW Bush is a classic example for sure of biography completely at odds with image. In an early campaign did you know he lost because he wasn’t ‘texan’ enough? He swore to never be not ‘texan’ enough again. It’s too bad the electorate falls for it so easily.

  • Benster

    Interesting comparison. It seems in this election that the main point is to portray the other guy as more out of touch than oneself. I’m sad that Obama’s campaign seems to be going for the damn-the-truth-full-speed-ahead attack ads just as much as Romney, getting back at the Super PACs by playing their game, I guess. Of course any historical campaign, especially in the early 19th century was much worse (I seem to (mis?)-remember that for WH Harrison they were giving out free whiskey in log cabin shaped jugs to show what a down-to earth guy he was and shamelessly bribe the populace). There’s also the regional trope of the elitist, cold New Englander as common thread between Adams, Romney, and Kerry.

    • Jer Clifton

      Yeah. American politics have not really gotten worse in that way. Corruption in the late 1800s and during prohibition era was incredible. However, I have started to think that maybe Congress is more deadlocked now than it used to be, especially about relatively minor issues. Of course it is impossible to measure these things. Keep the thoughts comin!

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