John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams grew up with his parents’ expectation that he would serve his country as president. His father, John Adams, took him at the age of 10 to Europe on a diplomatic mission to Paris. He spent his teenage years in France, the Netherlands, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. After graduating from Harvard, he served under President George Washington as Minister to the Netherlands; he served under his father, President John Adams, as minister to Prussia; and he served under President James Madison as Minister to Russia and later to the United Kingdom. He also served one term as a Senator from Massachusetts, and served under President James Monroe as Secretary of State.

With all his training and all these credentials, how was it that he became the worst, most ineffective, president in history? The short answer is that all his education taught him how to relate to the educated elite of society. He was a great diplomat because he spoke many languages and could connect with European royalty and high society. His education taught him to speak to the intellectual elite – he never bothered campaigning or speaking to the common people of the country. As president, he alienated the American people and most of Congress by appearing to make a deal with Henry Clay to give Clay the position of Secretary of State in exchange for Clay’s delegates’ votes for the presidency, thus stealing it from Andrew Jackson, who had won the popular vote for the presidency.

However, after his one term as president, he was given another national political life as an independent member of congress from Massachusetts for 17 years, where he was a defender of justice, winning freedom for kidnapped Africans on the slave ship Amistad. During his time in Congress he learned to connect with people all across the country, bringing their petitions to the floor of the House of Representatives. He fought against slavery and by doing so alienated his fellow House members, who created a new rule that became known as the Gag Rule in order to keep him from talking about slavery. At the end of his career, he finally got the Gag Rule repealed with the help of Abraham Lincoln.

The most important leadership lesson I gleaned from John Quincy Adams is that a leader needs to speak the language of the people. A leader cannot be disconnected from the people that he serves. John Quincy’s ideology disconnected his from most of his fellow representatives, but he was reelected time and again because he spoke the language of and served the abolitionist cause of the people of the northern United States.

Next up: Andrew Jackson

James Monroe

When James Monroe became president, the Federalist party, that of Presidents Washington and Adams, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, which believed in a strong Federal government and a strong, almost royal, executive, and close ties to Great Britain, was dead. The Republican party (no relationship to today’s Republican party), which believed in States’ rights, a weak Federal government and executive, and close ties to the revolutionary republic of France, reigned supreme. It is worth noting, however, that Monroe continued Madison’s movement of the Republican party closer to the center of the political spectrum. The White House was significantly more formal than it was during Jefferson’s presidency, and while consolidating the United States’ control over a swatch of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, he expanded the power of the Presidency considerably.

Monroe was elected to a second term virtually unopposed. Were it not for one electoral vote for John Quincy Adams, he would have been the second president (after Washington) to have been elected unanimously by the electoral college. We think that the lack of organized opposition would guarantee his ability to get things done. This was not the case. In Monroe’s second term, his cabinet members and congressional leaders were more interested in pursuing their own political agenda than in working with their president. For example, according to Harlow Giles Unger, author of “The Last Founding Father,” Madison’s Treasury Secretary, William Crawford, deliberately misreported the financial state of the government (he reported a surplus, when in fact there was a $5 million deficit) in order to make John Calhoun, Secretary of War, look bad because of the heavy spending on the military.

It turns out that the lack of party politics meant that there was no cooperation to get things done, because there was no opponent against whom to organize. It was every man for himself. A decision making body comprised of people who all think the same has no one to challenge their thinking. A knife needs a sharpening blade, a whetstone, or some other hard substance upon which to grind it in order to keep it sharp. A Board or a Congress without an opposition will similarly lose its sharpness.

This ought to be a lesson for synagogues and other institutions, when recruiting Board members. They shouldn’t look for ideological uniformity, but rather for people who are willing to talk to and learn from those with very different political or religious outlooks.

Next up:  “John Quincy Adams,” by Harlow Giles Unger.

James Madison and Disability

In “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” author Lynne Cheney demonstrates that Mr. Madison’s epilepsy fundamentally affected who he was as a politician. What specifically caught my attention was the connection between his condition and the first amendment to the Constitution.

The “people first” language of the disability rights movement asserts that we are not “handicapped, epileptics,or wheelchair-bound,” but rather a person with a handicap, a person with epilepsy, or a person in a wheelchair. The difference is that first they are people just like any other. Their condition doesn’t define them, but rather gets integrated into their personhood just like a person’s height, hair color, or temperament.

James Madison read widely on the subject of epilepsy, seeking a cause for and hoping to prevent his “sudden attacks.” Christian sources suggested that they a person who exhibited symptoms of seizures was a lunatic, possessed by the devil or a dumb spirit, or sinful. He struggled with this explanation, which didn’t ring true. He found in other books suggestions that regular exercise and sufficient sleep could prevent seizures.

It is likely that Madison used the same investigative logic with which he researched his physical condition to also examine his spiritual condition. Just as he cast aside the notion that Satan was the cause of his epilepsy, he also began to move away from other ideas of traditional religion.

He began to understand that religion, like science and medicine, needs to be tested. In order to test religion, society needs free and open discourse on religion. When government and religion are connected, it is not possible to openly question religious precepts. Thus, there is a direct line from Madison’s epilepsy to his questioning of religious texts to his belief in the separation of church and state as expressed in the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Next up in the presidential biography series: “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness.”

The Leadership Qualities of Thomas Jefferson

One of my occasional projects is to read presidential biographies. I am reading them because each of them had the leadership qualities to get elected to perhaps the highest office in the Western world, so by definition there is something in their lives that is worth studying.

I have just finished “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” by Jon Meacham. Jefferson was a man who lived for the chance to increase his knowledge about anything and everything. He could engage virtually anyone in conversation because he could find a genuine interest in something that the other person was interested in. In his political leadership he was able to blend two opposing qualities that made him enormously successful. As president, he wanted to know everything that was going on in his cabinet so he could shape events according to his will. He wanted control. At the same time, he would do almost anything to avoid a direct confrontation. He understood that the way to maintain cordial relationships is to avoid arguments. So when he wanted to push some piece of legislation or introduce some controversial idea, he would often ask another person to do it for him, while keeping his involvement a secret. In this, there was an element of humility – he didn’t care whether he got credit for his ideas (on one case, he asked that the recipient burn the letter in which he suggested that the recipient introduce the legislation – we only know about this because the recipient didn’t burn it!). Jefferson blended control with humility. Although at one point he and John Adams were on opposing sides of a fierce struggle for the future of the emerging country (Federalist vs. Republican), at the end of their careers the two of them were on very good terms.

Jefferson also understood that theoretical idealism does not work in the real world of politics. He was elected as a States’ Rights Republican anti-Federalist (whom he called Monarchists), but over the course of his eight years he saw the wisdom of a strong president and a strong Federal government. For example, the Louisiana Purchase would not have been possible had he waited for a Constitutional Amendment (which he theoretically believes was necessary) before signing the agreement.

A synagogue should be an inclusive institution, and this means that within the boundaries of the mission statement, arguments should be avoided. People ought to be welcomed where they are, and the mission of the synagogue ought to be to encourage them to explore the depths of Judaism and increase their commitment to a Jewish life. The mission of the synagogue ought to be encouraging, not coercive. Synagogue business ought to be conducted with humility, with the awareness that control over the institution ultimately belongs to Torah, which embodies the mission of the congregation.

Next up: “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” by Lynn Cheney.