As regular readers will know, I admire Dwight Eisenhower for his modesty, moderation, and prudence. One of the ironies of our politics is that the American conservative movement that began in opposition to the New Deal really took off when the right identified Eisenhower and similarly accommodating Republicans as Public Enemy No. 1: “Our principles are round, and Eisenhower is square,” William F. Buckley Jr. declared. Eisenhower accepted the New Deal as a fait accompli, and the postwar right would not. Ironically, they found their champion in Ronald Reagan, who idolized Franklin Roosevelt and habitually described himself as a New Deal Democrat estranged from his party by its radicalism in the 1960s. But if Republicans are looking for a president to emulate in these trying times, the first man to turn to is neither Eisenhower nor Reagan nor the sainted Abraham Lincoln but the chief executive who, in my mind, has a very strong claim on being the founding father of American conservatism: John Adams.
Some of you will be familiar with a few lines from Adams’ letter to John Taylor dated December 17, 1814. Adams, by then a former president—a one-termer who appeared to many of his contemporaries to be a political failure—has some harsh words for democracy: “I do not say that Democracy has been more pernicious, on the whole, and in the long run, than Monarchy or Aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as Aristocracy or Monarchy. But while it lasts it is more bloody than either. … There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.”
My friends and colleagues Jonah Goldberg and Nick Catoggio have been on a very amusing tear about the baleful influence of small-dollar donors on our politics. Nick writes that we don’t really have a small-donor problem as much as we have an internet problem, and there is something to that. But the fundamental problem is the one that commanded so much of Adams’ attention more than two centuries ago, what he and the men of his generation called “passion,” and its twin, “enthusiasm.”
It is worth reading the rest of the Adams letter rather than attending only to its most famous lines. The epistle in its entirety should be taught in our history and civics classes.