The "Atlas of Independence"
The newborn United States of America had eight years of single-minded, cautious consolidation under the highly polished maintenance skills of the Guardian President, George Washington. His capable stewardship of the infant nation completed, Washington retired to his beloved Mount Vernon. The United States was secure enough to look again to its vision for the future.
It elected as its second President John Adams of Massachusetts. Adams was an intellectual firebrand, for eight years Vice-President and minister to France under Washington and one of the primary figures in the Revolution. Along with James Madison, he was one of the most influential figures in the framing of the new Constitution, and in the establishment of the United States and its government. His active commitment to the nation was so intense, so single-minded, and finally so important to its cause that he was called by some "The Atlas of Independence." In this John Adams was a typical Fieldmarshal: single-minded, vision fixed always on his goal, tightly focused on central issues, and impatient with inefficiency and irrelevancies of any kind.
Like Washington, Adams was a patrician, an aristocrat; not so much a man of the people as a man for the people. But Adams the soft-spoken Proactive Rational stands in clear and remarkable contrast with Washington the Supervisor Guardian, in spite of their shared patrician backgrounds and their powerful commitments to the new country. Adams was a scholar, a life-long student of political science. He was also an able writer on the theory of government whose knowledge of the theory and practice of government was probably greater than any other man who has ever occupied the presidency. Of course his intense and wide-ranging scholarship in this area differentiated him from the more concrete "Farmer Washington," but the differences do not end there.
Those who knew him knew that Adams the scholar, scientist, and political pragmatist was a very learned man. They could hardly avoid noting, sometimes with great discomfort, that he was also vain, obstinate, and suspicious, a man whose outbursts of temper were set off by a hair trigger. John Adams was outspoken and tactless, sharp-tongued and disputatious. He was habitually sarcastic in speech and contemptuous in manner of those he saw as his inferiors -- which meant almost everyone. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," for instance, a very influential, in fact rabble-rousing call to rebellion, was quite valuable to Adams' revolutionary cause. Nonetheless Adams once described Paine's most powerful work as nothing but "a poor, ignorant, malicious, shortsighted, crapulous mass." Alexander Hamilton fared no better in Adams' commentaries. In a fit of anger Adams proclaimed Hamilton to be no more than "the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler." To make matters worse, Adams was unwilling to do anything to soften the impact of his contentious manner, or to reconcile himself with those he offended.
Adams' intemperance created many unnecessary enemies, people with whom he could have been friendly. Instead of allies, he generated a plague of enemies with whom he was absolutely unwilling to be conciliatory. Even when his temper was under control his stern and patrician manner alienated him from most people anyway, leaving the impression, often quite justified, that he was looking down on them. Thomas Jefferson once wrote that Adams was "distrustful, obstinate, excessively vain, and takes no counsel from anyone."
Some Rationals do find it difficult to hide their contempt for those around them whose intelligence is not the intelligence of the Rational. This is most especially true of them when they are very bright, and it is especially noticeable if, like Adams, they are especially concerned with expanding and honing their own intelligence. They do not consider the forms of intelligence characteristic of the other temperaments to be worthy of their attention, much less their respect.
So consistently disdainful, stiff, and distant did he appear that any departure from this demeanor was a surprise. Thus on one occasion then-President Adams was to turn over a few shovelfuls of dirt as a part of what we would call today a ground-breaking ceremony. Since it was a hot day he removed his coat before proceeding. As his coat came off he was astonished to hear applause coming from the people witnessing the ceremony. The crowd was applauding Adams' simple, homely gesture of removing his coat!
Though he could be quite arrogant Adams was not blind to the competencies of other Rationals. He and Thomas Jefferson were asked by the Continental Congress in June of 1776 to write the document which later we came to know as the Declaration of Independence. Adams insisted that Jefferson should write it, not he. Most of the reasons he gave were politically astute, but two of them also reflected his recognition of the personal side of the matter and his frank admiration of Jefferson's ability. "I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular," he said to Jefferson. "You are very much otherwise [and] you can write ten times better than I can."
More often, however, Adams seemed to observers as genuinely puzzled (when not annoyed) by the behavior of men of lesser intellect or of less aspiration. Further, his own rigidly held principles came before any affiliation with any person, as is typical for the Rationals, and few men and fewer motives could conform to his principles. Political parties had already begun to emerge on the scene, the Guardian Washington was already warning against their excesses, and the Rational Adams already held them in contempt. Even the Federalists, his own political party, could not escape his scorn. He was indebted to them for his election, but because he was of the opinion that the Federalist party was much less principled than he, Adams was contemptuous of them and usually refused to collaborate with them.
Rationals usually respect the process of law though they may hold in contempt most sets of particular laws they encounter, and Adams was a rather typical Rational in this regard. In the eyes of Rationals such as he, laws must be carefully written statements of principle, rather than mere chronicles of precedent. This viewpoint stands in clear contrast with the Guardian perspective in which laws are regulations concerning procedure. Laws define how we are to conduct ourselves; these definitions of conduct are for the Guardians the essence of law. Not so, say the Rationals. Laws are policy statements, rooted in principle, and regulations are drafted merely to enable application of policies to real situations. Customs, traditions, procedures, accepted practices -- these follow rather than precede the formulation of laws. Individual laws are likely to be trivial, impertinent, and, as often as not, contradictory to the law they are presumed to execute. For the Rational the abstract principle is the important issue. The Rational asks if a given law is coherently and comprehensively written. If it is not, then rewrite it. If it is, then apply it. But apply it only if the occasion for its application arises as a matter of principle.
It was John Adams who, in keeping with his profound respect for the abstract process of law (not just "the laws," a mere set of regulations), defended in court the British officer and six British soldiers involved in the infamous Boston Massacre. He certainly had no sympathy with the British cause; he was among the first to declare that total independence from Britain, rather than mere redress of grievances, should be the colonies' goal. Nor did he adopt a popular position in undertaking the defense; quite the contrary. It was rather his respect for the process of law, however unpopular its application might be in this instance, that led him to take their defense. It was perfectly clear to Adams that the murderous actions of these soldiers, however detestable their justifications, must not be the occasion for abandoning the process of law.
Adams was not thoughtful about explaining, or patient about having to explain, principles to others. He said what he had to say and if others didn't comprehend, then so much the worse for them. It was important to Adams, as it is to all Rationals, that ideas be stated logically and clearly. Logic is for the Rational neither more nor less than the rules of self-consistent sentence construction. Given this definition of logic, scratch a Rational and find a logician, however little a given Rational has studied the writings of those who proclaim themselves logicians. If the precisely formed sentences of the Rational are not understood, it is the fault of the listener, not the speaker, the failure of the reader, not of the writer. Unfortunately, as often happened with Adams, this sometimes means that accuracy overtakes comprehensibility, and the Rational's desire to explain is overtaken by impatience and scornful intolerance.
Because of his angry and scornful impatience Adams often failed to persuade others of the value of his ideas. Unfortunately, though not unusually for an Organizer, he often compounded his difficulties by acting as if others' understanding was irrelevant anyway, and the manner in which he did so was of course often curt and extremely offensive. Benjamin Franklin knew John Adams well and summarized Adams' heedlessly outrageous side nicely when he wrote that Adams was "always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses."
Franklin was commenting on Adams' conspicuous lack of interest either in being diplomatic with others or in observing the traditional civilities, regardless of the status or power of the other. Rationals are largely indifferent to status, whether in the form of rank or repute. Indeed, they are more than indifferent; they discount rank and status absolutely. Only relevant and coherent statements count, only logical coherence. The status of the speaker therefore carries not one ounce of weight. (Rationals would probably be willing to converse with Lucifer himself if he has something useful to say.)
Artisans and Rationals have in common that they are utilitarian in their choice of actions. They do not like to do, indeed they will not do, useless things. They typically refuse to do useless things even when such useless conduct might win them the approval of others, and the more intelligent and aggressive they are, the more ruthless their rejection of pointless action undertaken merely to appear cooperative. John Adams was a Rational and he was highly intelligent and quite aggressive. It is little wonder that he was so impatient with social nicety for its own sake.
Distaste for tradition, pragmatic criteria for deciding on a course of action, weighing and balancing effort and results, a respect for the rational, which is to say, the carefully and logically thought-out: all these characterized the Rational John Adams. Especially did they come together for him in the creation of the Constitution of the United States. Here was a document that was not the mere extension of tradition but was rather the reasoned product of rational discourse. Here was a document whose guidelines were the expression of a strategy for maintaining all of what was most valuable for the body politic. Here, he believed, was rational creation that worked, and worked with elegance. Its operation, he declared, "has equaled the most sanguine expectations of its friends, and from an habitual attention to it, satisfaction in its administration, and delight in its effects upon the peace, order, prosperity, and happiness of the nation I have acquired an habitual attachment to it and veneration for it. What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?"
The Constitution was for Adams a very important safe harbor in the midst of a dangerously irrational world. Adams not only rejected custom regularly, but he also had a strong distrust of the passions of the people. His “rejection” by the electorate in 1792 (which re-elected Washington to the presidency) did nothing to soften his distrust. He therefore spoke of a strong central government, one which could operate on behalf of the people, but which would be largely unimpeded by them. He thereby evinced a preference for a more European model of government in which the government would go about its business and elections would be held rarely and only by special request rather than as a routine matter of the calendar.
Adams unbending arrogance, though it made his life (not to mention the lives of those around him) much more difficult than it might otherwise have been, had its occasional advantages. A noteworthy example of this: for various reasons war had been brewing between the United States and France, its recent ally against Great Britain. The French, now under Napoleon, were showing an imperious disregard for American sovereignty. By 1798 war appeared inevitable, especially in view of the fact that there were numerous sea battles already taking place between French and American warships. The Americans were winning these battles rather regularly and a formal declaration of war against France was being widely and enthusiastically encouraged. War is after all always more attractive when one's own side seems to be winning.
But John Adams the strategist recognized that such a war was unnecessary and might eventually become disastrous. Coupling his analysis with his innate distrust of popular passions, he determined to fight the will of most of the population of the United States to prevent matters from worsening. To be sure, when Adams took the conflict over from Washington, he made war-like gestures toward the French. But then, having beefed up the army, and particularly the navy, he shifted his position and was able to negotiate, from a position of greater strength, an acceptable resolution of the difficulties.
But his party and much of the nation hated to give up on what might have been a stirring war. As usual, he waged his struggle under a full head of highly pragmatic and principled steam, but almost alone. And as usual he did so with little regard to the matter of his own personal or political popularity. In the end he prevailed; more moderate courses of action were found, and a bloody and expensive war was avoided. But here was another action he had taken against the wishes of a large segment of his own Federalist Party. Many Federalists, including the very influential Alexander Hamilton (that "bastard brat of a Scotch peddler"), never forgave him. The presidential election campaign which followed in 1800 was very closely fought, and the lack of support from the Federalists cost Adams a second term in office. He lost to Thomas Jefferson.
Adams and Jefferson apparently managed to stay on good personal terms through the campaign. But strong philosophical and political differences including the dispute over the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Adams' condemnation of the French revolution (which Jefferson ardently supported) eventually led them to break off contact with each other. Abigail Adams made an effort several years later to reopen communications with Jefferson, but their brief correspondence broke down quickly because of the heated feelings the two men still had about their political differences. (It seems, then as now, that political differences are readily transformed into personal differences.) In 1816 John Adams finally extended what might be seen as the Rational's olive branch. He presented it in terms that ought to be well understood as a peace offering by another Rational (even if others might be less certain of its peaceful intent). "You and I," he wrote to Jefferson, "ought not to die before We have explained ourselves to each other." For the next ten years, they corresponded by letter. Those Adams and Jefferson letters are a national treasure of the United States. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two of the more important founders of the United States, died on July 4th, 1826, exactly fifty years from Independence Day.
Excerpted from Presidential Temperament by David Keirsey, PhD and Ray Choiniere, PhD
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