When the second generation of Americans inherited the leadership of the republic, they must have felt, in equal measure, a mix of immense pride and a sense of dread…
I often imagine how difficult it must have been to be the son of a Founding Father. Can you imagine trying to live up to what your parents had done? After all, just how often in world history can you found a republic? Every time I read about those who fought in World War II as our “greatest generation,” I can’t help but cynically ask what went wrong with their children, the 1960s generation, perhaps the single most decadent and egotistic in our history (though the current millennials are giving them a good run for their money). Don’t get me wrong: I do deeply admire what American men and women gave between 1941 and 1945. I just wonder why things went so crazy wrong when they came home and parented.
Regardless, my point is not about the World War II generation, but the post-American Revolution generation. And, as I think about that poor generation, I can’t help but think of John Quincy Adams: the son of John Adams, who stood with his father in an apartment in Boston, watching the bloody and brutal battle of Bunker Hill. John was an adult, of course, but John Quincy was merely a boy, not yet having even attained double digits. Then, imagine, John and John Quincy leaving Abigail, hearth, and home, traveling the world over, trying against all hope that foreign courts will not only give John a hearing, but actually take him seriously as a representative of a brand-new “republic”—a term that in the eighteenth century was one of high fantasy to the ears of the vast majority of those in power in the West. It was as likely to come about as Thomas More’s Utopia. A fool’s dream and a fool’s errand. How could such an airy notion become real, much less a realistic threat to the world’s most powerful navy and empire? John Quincy had to watch his father persist and be rebuffed more often than not. A “bulldog,” the foreigners called him. Obnoxious to the nth degree. Nothing better than a well-trained barbarian from the forests of the North American wilderness. A rustic. A buffoon. A clod.
For the sake of the republic, for the sake of proper order, for the sake of first principles, for the sake of humanity, and for the sake of his most beloved, John Adams fought against all hope, court after court. And, John Quincy saw it all.
John Quincy Adams might have possessed the strongest ties to the Founding and the Founders, but he was certainly not alone among his generation. Andrew Jackson had felt the cruel boot of a British soldier grinding into his head. Others of that generation—Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, to name just a few—had either lived through the Revolution as young boys and men or had known relatives who had given everything for the cause of the American republic. They were not distant and abstracted from the Founding. They knew the Founding, and they knew the Founders.
When this second generation of Americans inherited the leadership of the republic, they must have felt, in equal measure, a mix of immense pride and a sense of dread. What could they—individually or collectively—ever do to earn the respect of those who had come before? If they did well, they would be merely continuing without much adding. If they did poorly, they would be remembered for having destroyed their inheritance.
While one can feel this anxiety so profoundly etched in the souls of these second-generation American leaders in their letters, diaries, and journals, its most obvious manifestation appears in the congressional debates leading up to the War of 1812, a war that cost much but ended in status quo antebellum. Let’s just pretend the war never happened!
Though it is long, it is well worth repeating the words of the official congressional recommendation for war:
Your committee will not enlarge on any of the injuries, however great, which have had a transitory effect. They wish to call the attention of the House to those of a permanent nature only, which intrench so deeply on our most important rights, and wound so extensively and vitally our best interests, as could not fail to deprive the United States of the principal advantages of their Revolution, if submitted to. The control of our commerce by Great Britain, in regulating, at pleasure, and expelling it almost from the ocean; the oppressive manner in which these regulations have been carried into effect, by seizing and confiscating such of our vessels on the high seas, and elsewhere, and holding them in bondage till it suited the convenience of their oppressors to deliver them up; are encroachments of that high and dangerous tendency, which could not fail to produce that pernicious effect; nor would these be the only consequences that would result from it. The British Government might, for a while, be satisfied with the ascendency thus gained over us, but its pretensions would soon increase. The proof which so complete and disgraceful a submission to its authority would afford of our degeneracy, could not fail to inspire confidence, that there was no limit to which its usurpations, and our degradation, might not be carried. Your committee, believing that the free-born sons of America are worthy to enjoy the liberty which their fathers purchased at the price of so much blood and treasure, and seeing in the measures adopted by Great Britain, a course commenced and persisted in, which must lead to a loss of national character and independence, feel no hesitation in advising resistance by force; in which the Americans of the present day will prove to the enemy and to the world, that we have not only inherited that liberty which our fathers gave us, but also the will and power to maintain it. Relying on the patriotism of the nation, and confidently trusting that the Lord of Hosts will go with us to battle in a righteous cause, and crown our efforts with success, your committee recommend an immediate appeal to arms.
That the second generation of Americans feared disappointing the republicans who had given them this republic is obvious in this report. But the conclusion of the war did little to attenuate their worries over the long run. In the conflicts over a national bank, the admission of Missouri, the nullification crisis, the government remained divided throughout the period we remember as the Jacksonian Era.
Even the way that this second generation ended is telling. John Quincy Adams died on the House floor during the 1840s. Perhaps he alone—as Secretary of State and United States Representative—actually lived up to what his father would have wanted, though he suffered through a miserable presidency. In January 1850, Clay offered his last compromise; but his proposals were easily defeated and then rewritten by Stephen Douglas. On March 4, 1850, John C. Calhoun, confined to a wheelchair and without a voice, delivered a final speech through a friend. Three days later, on March 7, Daniel Webster gave his final speech.
Clay, Calhoun, and Webster were already spent as forces, however, and their careers ended, sadly, with a whimper. No bang, to be sure. Interestingly enough, Clay, Calhoun, and Webster begged for the new generation of the American republic—men such as William Seward and Stephen Douglas—to learn the high art of compromise and to avoid abstraction and metaphysical ideas. Neither Seward nor Douglas listened. They were the third generation who had never known the Founders, and they could—in their youthful arrogance—relegate the founding generation to a series of what-ifs and maybes.
As I write this in early 2017, I realize how much we have to learn from the first three American generations—from their mistakes and their successes. Perhaps we could begin by learning the art of discussion and debate, something, apparently forgotten in the third generation of Americans and rarely reclaimed since.
Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.