tv Brian Lamb Susan Swain James Traub Peter Drummey The Presidents CSPAN May 18, 2020 12:00am-1:11am EDT
thank you for braving the elements and joining us this evening. i am the president of the massachusetts historical society. as our members and regular attendees know -- [laughter] that is wonderful, i have not done anything yet. we provide workshops, run national history day, convene academic seminars and mount exhibitions. more than anything, what we do is hold an amazing collection of almost 14 million items, and we provided to historians and researchers for free. in our holdings we have the equivalent of 2.5 presidential libraries. we have the papers of john adams, john quincy adams, and personal papers of thomas jefferson. that is important to mention because we have a special program with a special connection. we will hear about the publication "the presidents," in which noted historians rank the presidents in a variety of categories. persuasion of the public, leadership, moral authority and more. if there's anything we like to talk about more than presidents, it is historians talking about presidents. this is on brand for us. as we do with most public programs, we have pulled together a small display in the room with the reception. if you did not have a chance to see it, please go by because it has some treasures. including the first letter written on the white house, thomas jefferson's own copy of the inaugural address, and two volumes of john quincy adams's diary.
[chimes] that signals that we should tell you the program is divided into two parts. we begin with an overview from susan swain. she helped launch book tv, american history tv, and traveling local content vehicles. i was interviewed by her on first ladies. after she has set the stage, we have a conversation between james and peter moderated by brian lamb. james is an author and a friend of ours.
peter is on staff and is a librarian and a nearly boundless source of information for american history. peter set up the little display as he always does. last but i no means least, brian lamb is the founder of c-span and serves as its executive chairman. since c-span's founding in 1979, he has been a regular on camera presence, interviewing all of the presidents since ronald ragan, members of congress, journalists and authors. his work has been recognized with a presidential medal of honor and national humanities medal. welcome the distinguished panel. [applause]
susan: welcome. it is a delight to be back. the genesis for this was c-span's 40th anniversary. the house of representatives decided to put itself on camera and the cable television industry with some nudging by brian lamb, agreed to televise the house of representatives gavel-to-gavel without commentary, and c-span was born. we stay with a mandate and it is funded by our affiliates who carry programming around the country to the tune of about $60 million per year.
a staff of 260 people to bring you the house, senate, white house, and maybe someday the supreme court. wouldn't that be a good thing to get their sessions televised? when we were thinking about how to celebrate our 40th anniversary, the idea came to do this book on the presidents. the reason is it allowed us to bring together two very significant resources. first of all, we wanted to engage readers of the book in a dialogue as we head into the 2020 campaign. it serves the purpose of showing what we do is c-span but also for those interested in public policy as we look to elect a leader in 2020. there are two resources involved in the publication. first of all, the archives of our interviews, mostly done by brian lamb for his programs, we have had the opportunity to work with the best contemporary historians in the u.s., to give us their scholarship to share
with you. you can recognize some of the names up there. we use that as the basis for this book of collected biographies. we decided to join that together with a second resource. for the past 20 years, we have done surveys of top historians, 100 historians, 10 qualities of presidential leadership. we've done them in 2000 when till clinton was leaving office, and 2009 when george w. bush was
leaving office, and in 2017 barack obama left office. the 10 qualities were decided upon in 2000 with help of three historians we worked with so often, richard norton smith, might be a familiar name to you. douglas brinkley, who has worked on a number of presidential biographies. and edna greene medford of howard university in washington, d.c. she is just stepping down as the dean of a liberal arts program there. she is a specialist on the civil war and reconstruction era. they helped us devise the 10 qualities of presidential leadership that the historians have ranked presidents on. they include public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with congress, vision and setting an agenda, pursued equal justice for all, and the tenant is a bit of a catchall category, which is performance within the context of their times.
the historians wanted to do this because the office of the presidency has changed so much. to add some context of the times in which they serve and for our changing society. it gives people a chance to even out some of the others. what we did with the book was take rankings from 2017, and the chapters are organized in the book by how the presidents fared in the survey. over the course of the survey, you might be interested to know who changes, because historians have had a chance, papers and biographies have come out, american society has changed, and there has been some movement in the ranks, which is one of the reasons why we do these polls. it is fascinating to see how they change. andrew jackson has gone from 13-18 in 20 years.
woodrow wilson has gone from the sixth spot to the 11 spot. rutherford b hayes also dropped from 26 to 32. grover cleveland, 17 to 23. historians don't tell us why the rankings have changed, but there is a commonality and i think our historians can speak to that tonight, that is under the category of pursued equal justice for all. rutherford b hayes is tagged with ending reconstruction, woodrow wilson and andrew jackson, we have learned so much more about their policies, jackson with native americans, and he and woodrow wilson with african-americans. grover cleveland does not have the best record either. dwight eisenhower has gone up. a theory has emerged about his hidden hand presidency. he is fifth-place today.
bill clinton came in at 21 when we first surveyed, on the heels of his impeachment process. on the second survey, he went to the 15th spot and remains there. ulysses s grant double 11 spots from 33 to 22. when we look at the big biographies that have come out and change public perspective on these presidents, that's part of it, because historians are subject to changing society. grant benefited from that. the top five, dwight eisenhower, theodore roosevelt -- this will look like mount rushmore -- franklin roosevelt, george washington, and guess who is number one? abraham lincoln. 903 out of a possible 1000
perfect score. not surprising, everyone who does presidential rankings, abraham lincoln generally comes in the top. who were the bottom five? [laughter] john tyler, son of tidewater virginia, who after he left the white house, ran and was elected to the confederate congress. he never got a chance to serve and died before the congress met, but he was buried in richmond, virginia with the confederate flag on his casket. he is not in the last position. one thing to keep in mind, william henry harrison was in office for one month and he ranks higher than all five of these. [laughter] next, warren harding in the 40th spot. we all heard about teapot dome and the v.a. scandal and we've learned more about his love life in the past few years, which probably doesn't impact on his service as president, but in fact, a lot went on during his presidency, she didn't finish, he was felled by heart attack. 31, franklin pierce from your neighbor to the north in new hampshire.
franklin pierce had a problem with alcohol for a lot of his presidency and understandable because he has a very tragic story in his life that he had, he and his wife had had three children. two of them died before he was elected to office and on the train after -- and the train coming to washington, there was an accident with the train and the young son bennie was thrown at the age of 11 out of the train and he was killed and franklin pierce carried his son's lifeless body up to the train to his wife, and in fact, they had to deal with that as he was getting his administration settled. in number 42nd position, andrew
johnson, first president to be impeached, the person that lincoln had put in office as compromise to appease the south. in fact, he ended up having a terrible record toward african americans and voting rights and earned 42nd position. 43rd, james buchanan. pennsylvania's only president. his biography is one of my favorites of all the ones we work with. it captures him perfectly. the title of it is "worst. president. ever." [laughter] i will let you read the chapter in the book why, historians apparently agree. in those categories, mr. buchanan ranked 41, 42 or 43rd in all the 10 categories. quickly through modern presidents.
ronald reagan is the only president in the past couple of decades to be in the top 10, he's in the number 9 position. george h w bush in the 20th spot in between the two adams' which we will talk about tonight. bill clinton in 15. george w. bush is 33rd. he was actually in the bottom 10 in the survey right after he got out of office but we added one more president so he's just out of the bottom. [laughter] it will be interesting to see. that's where he started, and we will see whether time and distance changes the historian ranking. barack obama debuted in the survey in number 12 position. the whole point is to get you interested to learn more. we have the website all for free, c-span.org/thepresidents, that has more information on every single one of the presidents, has the full interview that we did that was the basis of the chapter and annotated. if you are reading a chapter, we have the link for you there.
you can learn more of things as you go along. quickly about the two presidents we will learn about tonight, john adams is in 19th position. highest category was in moral authority. our historians will tell us more about whether they agree with the rankings. he was in 24th spot, total score 604 out of 1000 in 2017. john quincy adams, highest category, pursued equal justice for all, number nine position in that. his lowest category and you might agree with this, public persuasion, where he ranked 33rd among the presidents, total score in 2017, 590 out of the thousand. three other presidents, john kennedy, highest category, number eighth spot, public persuasion, lowest category, moral authority and administrative skills. number 15, his total score was 722 out of a thousand. calvin coolidge, we think of him
as vermont, but in fact, he was the mayor of north hampton, massachusetts. his ranking was 27th. relations with congress highest, lois had four different categories where he ranked number 29. now you might not know that george h w bush was born in massachusetts and so for that fact we included him on the survey here tonight, highest category was an international relations number 8, lowest category vision and setting an agenda. remember he used to talk about the vision thing all of the time? well, historians agree with him, 27 plays for that. total score was 596 out of a thousand. so that in summary is what you will find in our book on the presidents. it's for sale after this is over and we really thank the massachusetts historical society for offering it to you. if you decide to purchase the
book, i want you to know that we are not doing this for commercial reasons. it's all about education and in fact, any loyalties that c-span makes to the book goes to nonprofit c-span education foundation. we make free teaching materials for high school and middle school teachers. with that little bit of a commercial, i will turn the agenda over to my colleague brian lamb. [applause] brian: james, what role did this institution right here play in your book on john quincy adams? james: that is easy to answer. i have to say one of the reasons i'm here is i am so grateful to the massachusetts historical society and the adams project.
the gentleman to my left is the person who made it possible for me to not have to spend any time at the massachusetts historical society because everything has been digitized. i remember when i first thought i would write the book, i thought i would have to spend three months some boston looking at whatever it is one had to look at. then i discovered that the entire 17,000 pages of john quincy adams's diary had been put online in its handwritten version, and that right before i started researching this, the first 15 or so years of his dairy had actually been rendered into type script. so between those things and the fact that adams's son charles francis adams produced a version of his diaries which has between a third or two fifths or so, the massive thing, everything that i needed was in a library, online, or something.
so thank you -- much fond i am of boston, having made it necessary to leave my family in order to write the book. brian: peter, 41 years of this place. do you ever get bored? [laughter] peter: no, and that's largely thanks to you. most of my time that i've worked here has been spent in this room as a reference librarian. in what we call reader services. the only thing you can be sure of is the next person through the door in here is going to have a subject, usually about history, but it's going to be different from any other question you have been asked before. sometimes the questions that have come before make it possible to easily answer a new
question, or assist any researcher, but more often than not, you are starting over every day with a sort of blank slate. i do want to point out, and in terms of jim's book, we are also grateful to all of you as frankly as taxpayers of the united states because the ability to digitize this massive dairy that johnson quincy adams kept over 68 years was through a federal project, save america's treasures. and if there's any object of all the millions of pages of documents and thousands of collections that we have here, if you were going to say, what is a true american treasure, it is certainly john quincy adams's diary. so that was the easiest request i ever had to write to persuade the federal government to sponsor the project. brian: when you wrote your book,
how long did you have to spend with it before you actually published the book? james: i spent five years, i think, writing the book. one of the reasons i wrote the book is this diary answers the question that every historian asks about any person from the not very recent past, which is what was he thinking when? what did he do when? as it happens, i had just finished writing another short biography of a person named judah benjamin, who was jefferson davis's right hand man, and consciously destroyed any archive or material that might have given any insight into him. it is incredibly frustrating. i hate writing, i go to great lengths to avoid that sentence construction. when i wrote about john quincy adams, it's not that i thought that everything that he wrote was the literal truth but i did know this is what he wrote, this is what he thought and felt.
that's an extraordinary thing for a historian to have. brian: peter, what did you find the most interesting about john quincy adams and still discover new things? peter: i would think that john quincy adams is a person who i think a lot of people and you have expressed this very well, he's not an easy person to like. he's hard, he can be terrifying, he can be cold and hard toward the people closest to him, the people he loves. and that i think and be offputting. i think often it is challenging for people looking at his life or his biography. i think that what you discover underneath through the inner reflection contained in this diary, how much -- how concerned he was about this, how much inner reflection there is about
his life. and also in a person that struck a pose as a cold, cynical man, how funny he could be, often in a kind of cynical way. but how human and three-dimensional he was. it's also a part of his life is revealed in the dairy and in the letters he writes. he writes hundreds of letters. he is away from home from the time he's a child, goes with his father to france during the revolution, he serves as a young man as a diplomat for the new united states. he spends years in russia representing the united states there.
he spends much of his life away from what he thought of as home here in braintree, becoming quincy, massachusetts. through that time, he writes hundreds of letters home to both father and mother. i think that's revealing about the three-dimensional, interesting figure that has this harsh, aloof sort of veneer, maybe a very thick veneer. james: even his parents thought he was aloof. his mother especially thought that. peter: that's a striking thing
too, because the one person i think, and you may feel differently about this, not talking about louis katherine adams, or his children, i think the connection with his father is who had the advantage of even as a boy being with his father in europe brought them close together. through the rest of his life had this very warm connection with his father, probably the person he admired most of anyone in his life. probably made the mistake of thinking of his father as being his best political adviser and that might not have been a good move. but his letters to his mother, and i may be exaggerating this, but often his letters to his mother, even as a mature adult when he is in russia, when you see the report that he's writing to the secretary of state, or the letter he's writing to his mother, they're essentially interchangeable. [laughter]
constitution. that is to say, the one time that the house of representatives actually had to go through the process, that the constitution dictates for an election in which there is no majority is when adams and jackson and a third figure were the chief vote getters and nobody had a majority. and the kind of ugliness that came out of that might have been provided a good reason to change the system. it didn't change the system. what is interesting about it in terms of adams's life is he could never admit to being ambitious. ambition was ugly word in his family. you are ambitious for greatness, not for yourself. but he was ambitious, he burned with ambition. he wanted to be president. he didn't even like being president but he just knew we had to be president. and so there was this moment when he was faced with a terrible dilemma because he recognized that the only way he would be president is if the person who finished fourth and was not, according to the constitution, included in the final three-way contest, henry clay, agreed to basically throw his state, kentucky, to adams and that he could leverage that to get a bunch of the other small states because the way the system worked is you got each
state got one vote, whether it was the biggest state or the smallest state. adams had this set of murky conversations with clay which probably would never explicit but clay understood that adams needed him, clay understood that he would be adams's secretary of state and clay considered adams a politically incredibly competent person, which he was. he thought he is going to be a one term president and i will succeed him. and when, in the aftermath of the conversations, kentucky, which had not given a single vote in the popular election, not a vote to john quincy adams, when their congressional delegation voted to give vote of state to adams, this was considered the corrupt part. it was a corrupt bargain. adams could never admit and clay would never admit but it was the one moment when this supremely rigorously moral person was just, i think, pulled by his appetite, by his ambition.
jackson was able to use this every day for the next four years. when 1828 election came around, he just tortured him with it. brian: before you answer the impact of those two elections, what would be the difference between john adams the father and john quincy adams the son? peter: in public life, as president, there is a wonderful biography of john adams called "john adams: party of one," and i think that sums up in a useful way what we think about john adams's political life. he predated the idea of what we think of as political parties. i think that john quincy adams inherited some of that sensibility but, at the same time, had of course, of age in the new republic and so was very much a product of that system. one of the problems that john adams had in his presidency, you could see the indicators for these things in the life of john quincy adams.
even people in massachusetts tend to not remember that john quincy adams as a young man served in the u.s. senate representing massachusetts. elected here as a senator, and this was back when members of the senate were elected by the legislature. the massachusetts legislature elected to john quincy adams as a senator with the understanding that he was a good federalist like his father.
being a man on his own, john quincy adams went to washington being a nationalist, was being somewhat sympathetic to thomas jefferson, supporting the louisiana purchase, the embargo. so john quincy adams has the peculiar honor, if it is one, having his elector elected by the legislature of massachusetts during his term. massachusetts basically fired him before his term was up. that is how much he was resistant.
james: i was surprised that historians only ranked john adams two places ahead. i think of john quincy adams as a terrible president. john adams was not a great president but i think the fact that we did not go to war with france, which was really in the cards, i think of that as a profile in courage. peter: the one thing i would say, making a decision based on assigning points and different things, i think it is wonderfully valuable and gives us the ability to look at presidents far apart in time under different circumstances.
it means that they are kind of average presidents and you could say almost anything about either or both of them given that they are average. the difference of the time john adams was president, only 28 years earlier than john quincy adams, there was also a profound difference in that time. it might be worth thinking about the election of 1800, the revolution of 1800. john adams and thomas jefferson had fonts the first contested presidential election in 1796 and john adams wins by a small margin. he runs for reelection in 1800, burdened by a combination of things that were unpopular, and also things like resisting the war with revolutionary france, which is, i would argue, in the country's best interest but not his political best interest. there is, again, an election thrown to the house of representatives but along a different line. aaron burr and thomas jefferson get the same amount of electoral votes.
for how much we admire the writers of the constitution, they had not seen the possibility -- this was at a time when they were so resistant to party, it was like they were electing officers of a club. the person with the most votes would be president and the person with the second most votes would be vice president. with john adams and thomas jefferson, you had people, essentially opposed, but they were supposed to run the country
together. thomas jefferson had the good grace to essentially withdraw. but in 1800, there is a rerun of that, and that is where jefferson comes out as the winner, but only again after an election where it is necessary to mollify the electoral college, to indicate that votes for president and vice president have to be separately discerned. brian: i want to read you both a paragraph in our book. the author is gordon wood, and historian. i want what your take is on what he says. he says he was a realist. he thought all men are created unequal. he did not believe in american exceptionalism. "we americans are no better, no different than other nations. we are just as vicious, corrupt."
this is not the american myth, the american dream. he took on every myth that america lived by. we cannot live on adams's message, says gordon wood. in other words, adams did not know about genetics or dna, but he believed that people were unequal from birth. he was all into nature, not nurture. james: that is intriguing.
i am reluctant to disagree with anything gordon wood says. but, john adams was not a democrat, that is the truth. in the spectrum of the founders, between those who -- let's just say, between those who really believed what they said, that all men are created equal, and jefferson really said that. adams did not believe that, and he had a fear of the mob that was overwhelming and undemocratic. that is why he came the closest to advocating a monarchy of all the founders. that is absolutely true. the idea that he did not believe in american exceptionalism, that he did not have this providential sense of america, i find that kind of shocking. i can't believe that is right. peter: i think there is a couple
things going on. one thing we don't think hard enough about the importance of religion and the lives of perhaps all presidents and people over time, but in this period we are talking about, the lives of john adams, thomas jefferson through the lifetime of john quincy adams. and gordon would spoke from his podium right over here about this analysis of jefferson and adams, comparing and contrasting them right to this room at one time. what strikes me as a paradox is that john adams is the principal
author of the massachusetts constitution. in the charter of liberties laid out in there, it is very explicitly stated that all men are born free and equal. it is in fact under the massachusetts constitution that slavery effectively ends in massachusetts during the american revolution. so, you have, paradoxically, in terms of john adams's philosophical belief. sure, there are things in his writing and statements that support that, in terms of what he constructs to protect the people of the commonwealth. i think, they are, the protection of liberty and the
celebration of people's equal rights. it is also where he writes eloquently about the importance of education to make an informed voting public. so, i think there is more going on than may be that paragraph revealed. but, at the same time, gordon would certainly spent a long time working hard about these questions and these men. brian: let me divert for just a second and go back to the beginning of your interest in history. where did you get it, how long ago was it? what did you originally want to do with it when you got it? james: first, i need to come clean that i am not an historian. i am a journalist who dabbles in history. i spent much of my life writing about the world that is in front of us. i am sure it is in part a consequence of aging that i become interested in the past. but i would like to say that, when i was in high school, the one teacher who one remembers, my american history teacher when i was in 11th grade was a kind of locally famous person.
everybody who grew up where i grew up remembers this man. his name is eric rothschild. he was -- i will say that he was somebody who just decided he wanted to lavish his gifts on high school students, so he did. as a member of the american association historians, he would talk to and he knew people. we would have these events where we would have a constitutional convention, different figures. he just made this stuff vivid. when i wrote my jqa book, i told him.
alas, he died a year ago and he was quite ill when the book came out. i told him, this is my tribute to you. peter: my story would sound strikingly similar. different person. when people ask me about this, what i usually say, i grew up in a small town just south of boston, across the bay from plymouth, where the pilgrims landed going on 400 years ago. i would say, of course i am interested in history. people would ask, why are you interested in history? but i had the same experience of a remarkable teacher in junior high school, was a retired military officer. so, i am embarrassed to say, i believe his name was james truden, but he was known to all students as colonel truden. he was someone who was embarking on a second career when i had him as a teacher.
he was a mature man, a person with a long military career, but someone just starting out as a teacher. he was excited and interested about everything, trying to find his way into this second career. i think that him thinking of this as an adventure sort of brought his students along with him. while i suspect i was probably, in that small town, probably categorized as the student most likely to end up in reform school if not prison, i did when the history award when i graduated. it did not lead me directly here. there were many steps along the way. but i think that love for history, when someone conveys their own love for history to others, and i think that often turns out to be an individual teacher. brian: fortunately, i have had the opportunity to know peter for a while.
one time, we stopped by to see, is he in. he came down and i said, what can you show us? he took us upstairs, and the picture of that day, it is peter drummey looking at the jqa diary. i have to say, it is amazing to see that diary up close. i would start with, peter, what is the difference between the jqa diary and the john adams diary?
peter: the picture, i pulled up my glasses because i am so nearsighted it is like i have a magnifier. very clear handwriting, very readable, it is just easier to do when you looking at it it is tiny, but all of his letters carefully formed. we were talking before about how his father firmly wrote to him, they had this long correspondence, and always advising him to improve his handwriting. john quincy adams essentially i think, following the example of his father, really his parents. his parents, i don't believe, thought that they were historically significant people when john quincy adams was born and growing up.
but i do believe that they thought they were truly living through epochal times. i think the parents encouraged the children to keep diaries, but also to keep copies of their correspondence, the letters they received, and make copies of letters they send out. so that this incredible archive that is here is really in some respects created deliberately. so, from john adams, when he is not even a teenager yet, going to france with his father during the revolution, through the rest
of his life, for almost 70 years, keeps a diary that is not only a record of his life, his reflections, events, but there is also an act of discipline in doing it. i believe there is a period of about 20 years where it is unbroken. jq a. you go back to john adams, john adams a diary but his diary is essentially surviving fragments. john adams is educated at college but he is the son of a farmer. his diary are these gatherings of small pieces of paper with paper covers, where he is writing. you think of john quincy adams writing small, john adams's
handwriting as a young man, as a young schoolteacher, then when his political career starts, is microscopic. paper is all imported and expensive. brian: james, go back to your time with the diary. give us a couple of examples of what you said, i can't believe i just read that. james: one big difference between these two was the difference between these two men. john quincy adams was a tortured soul, never a happy man. though john adams was thought of as being bearish and prickly, i thought of him being exuberant. john quincy adams was locked. it was like the fires were thanked inside of him. so, when, for example, you read about his courtship of this girl he was in love with, mary frazier, whom he met at newbury, portland, he was at law school.
or he was doing his apprenticeship. he is in love with her, he wants to marry her, but he knows he can't because he was not making a living. john adams met abigail when he was already a successful lawyer. it was not right to propose to a woman that you could not successfully support. it is probable that his father told his mother to tell him this. those passages, which are quite opaque, are very, very painful. he describes, a little later than that, in a very opaque way, trying to pick up prostitutes in boston. he says something like, "came home, successful, by which he means he did not do anything wrong. then, later on, when he is with his wife, he was not a good husband, not a good father.
he was just too unhappy in himself. so, louisa undergoes a terrible pregnancy. he won't ever use the word pregnancy. that was considered inappropriate. and yet he is talking about how she suffers, now he suffers. later, their son commits suicide and the agony for both of them is unbearable. here is this person who wears a cast-iron face in public. but in private, he is a brilliant man, a has an astonishing mind, but he suffers. brian: we need to take some questions from the audience. if anyone has a question, put
your hand up now. i will ask another question, but go ahead and jump in here if you would. if you were going to write a book now about something in this facility here, the 14 million items, you know more than anybody else of what is in here. by the way, david mccullough just called peter drummey a national treasure in front of a big audience here in town. how did that go over? peter: i am not going to repeat my attempt to get under the table. brian: what would you write about? peter: apples don't fall far from the tree. i think one of the most interesting people in this multigenerational clan that the addams family is, my interest grew out of his importance to this institution, charles francis adams junior, one of john quincy adams's grandsons, who is a young lawyer before the
civil war, a cavalry officer during the civil war, commands the black cavalry regiment, is a reformer after the civil war. like many reformers, ends up as the head of the railroads that he was attempting to reform. and the pasty head of the union pacific railroad. as a campaign against all of the robber barons of the late 19th century. he is defeated, driven out of his business career. comes back into massachusetts and spends essentially the last 30 years of his life devoted to the town of quincy.
the reform of massachusetts school. essentially making this place over, a kind of literary club, the massachusetts historical site, he goes back to the -- just after the revolution. john adams was a member, and john quincy adams were members of this institution. it is the grandson of john quincy adams, who played the important role of making this institution the important institution that it is today. we have been saying how hard and tough john quincy adams is. charles francis adams junior was the essence of all of those things. the most cynical hard-bitten of this most cynical and hard-bitten crew. he wrote a pretty good autobiography.
i think he is the kind of person who walks through a really interesting time in american history and deserves more attention than he has gotten. brian: in your book, you point out that john quincy adams would spend an hour a day reading the bible. when george w. bush was president, he referred every day to reading a moment from the bible. how many of our presidents do you think over the years genuinely were interested in what was in the bible. and, was john quincy adams religious?
james: i don't feel competent to answer your first question, so i am going to punt on that. one difference with his father was john adams was a religious person, i don't think he gave it much thought. he was a unitarian. mildly observant. i don't think it was central to his life. he lived inside himself. those moments reading the bible were profoundly important for him. he wrote an almost impossibly erudite set of letters to his son george about theology. he explained the history of judaism and christianity. he talked about the 18th century french theological thinkers. it was astonishing. he was just sitting there. i think he was probably not looking at books, spinning this outside of himself. he wanted george stuff. this was profoundly important to him.
peter: i think we are trying to give you a fair representation of the lives of two really interesting man who, i think as you sum up, it is possible for an objectively bad president to be a great man. i think john quincy adams, i think that. but he covers so much more ground than we can do in a brief period. john quincy adams is an accomplished poet, a theater critic. here is a former president of the united states writing theater criticism.
he is enthusiastic about education. one of the last parts of his long career is traveling to cincinnati in the 1840's for the opening of an astronomical observatory in cincinnati, essentially, he is the person that pushes forward the idea of using the smithson request to found the smithsonian institute. it just covers so much ground. and he was an authority on trees. he wrote a great deal about trees. he was fascinated by this. brian: in a couple of months, you are coming out with a book on liberalism.
we don't want to give away anything you have in your book. james: you can say the title. "what was liberalism?" brian: how many of the founders in those early days were liberals? james: i am so happy you asked me that question. the book begins with alexander hamilton. liberalism is not the same thing as democracy. it lives in tension with democracy. liberalism without democracy is elitism and democracy without liberalism is authoritarianism. this was not a tension that all of the founders were fully aware of. john adams really mistrusted democracy and the kind of cult of democracy found in someone like thomas payne and, for that matter, jefferson. people like jefferson had no real sense of the dangers of authoritarianism. they all were liberals in the broad sense of believing in individual rights and a limited state.
that is a fundamental prerequisite. but, in a more advanced sense, to understand that there is this body of philosophy about individuals beyond the body to make decisions, hamilton was aware of that. and hamilton is almost the sole author of the bill of rights. although he did not think it was necessary.