The President delivered a primetime speech about the “continued battle for the soul of the nation,” but who is he to declare close to half the country his enemies? What moral quality and compass does this man have to define democracy itself, proclaim himself everyone else’s better, and demand we conform to his view of the world or be considered immoral insurrectionists? John Quincy Adams he most certainly is not.
Last week, President Biden delivered a primetime speech about the “continued battle for the soul of the nation.” He chose Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA as the venue for what was billed as “major address,” the site of the landmark signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Constitutional Convention, and Abraham Lincoln’s address before the start of the Civil War. Beneath stark crimson lighting and flanked by marines in silhouette, the President began by saying, “This is where the United States Constitution was written and debated. This is where we set in motion the most extraordinary experiment of self-government the world has ever known with three simple words: ‘We, the People.’ ‘We, the People.’ ‘We, the People.’ These two documents and the ideas they embody — equality and democracy — are the rock upon which this nation is built. They are how we became the greatest nation on Earth. They are why, for more than two centuries, America has been a beacon to the world. But as I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under assault. We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.” The message couldn’t be more clear: The President is the inheritor of those great legacies, making his detractors the equivalent of British Royalists at best, Confederates at worst. “That is the work of my presidency, a mission I believe in with my whole soul. But first, we must be honest with each other and with ourselves. Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal. Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
This is all ground he’s tread before in some fashion, claiming some ill-defined subset of Republicans, one which can easily be extended to a significant majority of a major political party, were “semi-fascists” barely two weeks ago, along with a striking litany of attacks, from Jim Crow to Neanderthals, for a man who promised to unite the country. Predictably, much of the mainstream media praised the speech with the possible exception of The Washington Post. CNN’s resident propagandist, Stephen Collinson, declared the President delivered his “most jarring warning yet that democracy is in severe danger,” tacitly accepting all of his premises and assumptions as fact. Mr. Collinson went so far as to say this highly partisan, dark, and alarmist speech wasn’t any of those things, saying flat out “his comments cannot be considered alarmist.” A colleague of Mr. Collinson’s, the reporter Eva McKend, claimed the President had “reclaimed” patriotism. “Often you hear Republicans argue that they are the pro-America party. The Democrats are not patriotic enough,” she said. “But what was more pro-USA than this speech?” The Washington Post had the courage to question the tone and political nature of the speech, claiming they “agree with the president about the urgency of the issue,” but you “don’t persuade people by scolding or demeaning them,” meaning they too agree with the underlying assumptions. Few bothered to ask: Who is Joe Biden to make such a speech and declare close to half the country his enemies? What moral quality and compass does this man have to define democracy itself, proclaim himself everyone else’s better, and demand we conform to his view of the world or be considered immoral insurrectionists?
The way he and the media would have it, Joe Biden is a modern John Quincy Adams, a pillar of moral rectitude that refuses to compromise on any of his key principles despite the political cost. John Quincy achieved the summit of political power as the sixth President of the United States, but he was something of a political orphan throughout his decades long career, highly skeptical of both emerging political parties, and unpopular with partisans on both sides. A Northeasterner, hailing from Braintree, MA outside of Boston, and the son of Founder and President John Adams, the younger Adams was a Federalist by birth and upbringing. He spent most of his years before ascending to the Presidency working for the Anti-federalists, however, because he believed it was his duty to serve whenever he was called, and he insisted on maintaining his core principles whatever the personal or political costs. John Quincy’s initial break with the Federalists began earlier, during a single term in the Senate, when he supported his father’s sometime friend, sometimes nemesis Thomas Jefferson’s foreign policy and rejected party politics in general, refusing to play the endless game. Rather than continue in the remnants of the Federalist party, he went on to serve Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, as an ambassador to Russia and ultimately Secretary of State under James Monroe. He spent close to a decade away from his country, freezing in Russia and enduring almost untold personal hardship. In many respects, the Southern slaveholders he worked for were political enemies. Jefferson had defeated his father and maligned much of the Federalist movement, but they understood that the upright John Quincy could be trusted and John Quincy himself believed he had an important job to do. Their combined faith was not misplaced: He was critical to crafting the treaty that ended the War of 1812 and drafted the Monroe Doctrine that defined American foreign policy for decades.
As President, John Quincy had more detractors than supporters throughout his single, tumultuous term in office. He was elected by the House of Representatives after Andrew Jackson failed to gain a majority in the Electoral College despite winning the popular vote. The Jacksonians, largely from the south and west, were incensed at what they claimed was a “corrupt bargain” that put him into power and fought him bitterly at every turn, creating political scandals where there were none. The campaign itself was so insane that they claimed John Quincy couldn’t be trusted because he was a Mason when he wasn’t and while Andrew Jackson actually was. Things didn’t improve after he took the oath of office. The north and east were little more thrilled because he continued to buck party and sectional trends, striking his own path guided by his belief in the long term future of America and a vision of unifying the country with the judicious application of federal power. His agenda, by far the most progressive and ambitious of the early Presidents, was stymied at almost every turn, but he never shied away from vociferously advocating for his beliefs and principles. Freedom of speech and association was always paramount in his mind. A reverence for the Constitution as a sacred pact between the states and skepticism of advocates for unfettered states rights, especially those who thought you could withdraw from the union, coupled with a deep loathing for slavery. A belief in the rule of law and the impartial application of the law. The need for America to engage with the world, especially in the southern hemisphere, and a distrust for interventionism. The ability of the federal government to fund public works and education projects for the betterment of the entire country, and to help form a stronger union.
John Quincy served only one term as President, but he is unique in the history of the United States: He continued in politics afterwards as a Congressman from Massachusetts for more than a decade, still fighting for his core beliefs until he literally died in the House of Representatives itself. If anything, his battles in Congress were even more daunting as the schism between the southern slave-states and the free north grew into a chasm that presaged the Civil War, the ultimate threat to democracy. As John Quincy put it in 1835, “Slavery is, in all probability, the wedge which will ultimately split up this Union. It is the source of all disaffection to it in both parts of the country.” Between the Founding generation and the mid-1800’s, slaveholders had progressed from believing slavery was a necessary evil that would ultimately be excised from the land to insisting it was a God-given right and necessary for the preservation of democracy itself. This change in philosophy was accompanied by an acrimonious, take-no-prisoners approach in Congress that threatened decades of precedent. At issue was the ability for citizens of the United States to submit petitions that would be heard on the House floor and a belief that states had the power, on their own, to nullify federal laws they didn’t like. Southern politicians were incensed at the increasing number of petitions calling for an end slavery, and sought end debate on the topic entirely, literally to prevent members of Congress from discussing it on the House floor. “These are the tenets of the modern nullification school. Can you wonder that they shrink from the light of free discussion? That they skulk from the grasp of freedom and truth?” John Quincy noted in a public address.
The Southerners were in the majority, however, and could not be stopped. They ultimately succeeded in implementing a “gag rule” that permanently prevented discussion of slavery, what John Quincy believed was a threat to free speech and a violation of the Constitution as well as Natural Law. At the risk of censure and expulsion, including threats of grand jury investigations and criminal charges, he fought tirelessly for a decade before finally prevailing on December 3, 1844. The fortitude and cleverness displayed throughout this battle is the stuff of political legend, especially when John Quincy represented a minority in Congress and had few political friends. He triumphed by combining sober reasoning, passionate polemics, and a belief that his adversaries would one day go too far. The chance for real change arrived after he was appointed Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and received a petition to remove him from the post because his sympathy for “dark skinned people” would bias him in decisions regarding the annexation of Mexico, another highly controversial topic. No one knows if the petition was a practical joke or the real thing, but it was a wedge he would use over and over again. Next, he submitted a petition to dissolve the union itself, continuing to play against what everyone knew were his long-held positions. Thomas Gilmour of Virginia and Thomas Marshall of Kentucky pounced, accusing John Quincy of nothing short of treason, demanding he be censured at a minimum. This was, in fact, the opportunity he was hoping for: Gag rule or no, the charge gave him the ability to defend himself and he held the House floor for five days. Afterwards, one of his adversaries, Henry Wise remarked that John Quincy was the “the acutest, the astutest, and archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.”
Nor were these the only battles John Quincy fought over a long and illustrious career serving his country at every level. Somehow, he managed to find time to argue for the freedom of the African blacks on the illegal slave ship, the Amistad, before the Supreme Court. He helped found the Smithsonian and ensured it was devoted to learning, rather than a slush fund for politicians to enhance their own electoral prospects. He harangued multiple Administrations over the illegal, unconstitutional war in Mexico, believing it a stain upon American honor. He delivered hours-long speeches across the Northeast and even into the Midwest, well into his 70’s, truly ancient for the era, continually addressing the causes of his life distilled into a narrative struggle founded on his core beliefs. In his view, the Declaration of Independence was a statement of principles. The Constitution, though imperfect and in need of amending to eliminate such atrocities as the three-fifths compromise, was the first step in enshrining those principles into law. Education and the free exchange of ideas was forever linked to freedom itself. Knowledge was the key to liberty. He addressed the construction of an observatory in Cincinnati, OH on November 10, 1844. The founding generation “spoke of the laws of Nature, and in the name of Nature’s God; and by that sacred adjuration, they pledged us, their children, to labor with united and concerted energy from the cradle to the grave, to rid the earth of all slavery.” “The whole soul of every citizen…must be devoted to improving the condition of his country and mankind…Education multiplies and sharpens these faculties…Man is a curious and inquisitive being, and the exercise of his reason, the immortal part of his nature, consists of inquiries into the relations between the effects which fall within the sphere of his observation, and their causes which are unseen.” He continued, “among the modes of self-improvement, and social happiness, there is none so well suited to the nature of man, as the assiduous cultivation of the arts and sciences.”
Given his decades of service, his tireless advocating and toil for his country, and an adherence to core principles acknowledged by even his adversaries, when John Quincy spoke about the soul and spirit of America and the threats we face, people listened. He’d established himself as a statesman of the highest order and one of the most upright members of the political class, a reputation supported by a lifetime of monetary troubles, struggling to make ends meet on a government salary and some rental properties. He was so committed that he sat in Congress even after a severe stroke, refused to miss a vote, and ultimately collapsed in his seat, dying two days later in the Speaker’s office on February 23, 1848. By that point, he was such a lion of the era that even his detractors grudgingly gave him respect and admiration. President Biden, on the other hand, has spent a similar lifetime in politics as nothing more than a craven and self-serving demagogue, changing his positions to suit the needs of the moment and amassing a fortune well beyond his government salary could possibly afford. This was a man who bragged about his close relationships with segregationists and former Klan members, opposed federal programs like school bussing, and has a long history of racially questionable remarks. He once said you can’t go into a 7-11 without an Indian accent. He referred to President Obama as “clean.” He has been on the wrong side of every foreign policy issue for decades. In fact, there is not an issue I can think of where he hasn’t taken both sides at some point, from policing to the filibuster. His own mentor, President Obama, said never underestimate his ability to fuck things up, but suddenly he thinks himself the the conscience of the nation like John Quincy.
Even worse, he has the temerity to claim things aren’t “normal” when there has been absolutely nothing remotely normal about his time in office despite his promise to return us to exactly that. Inflation isn’t normal. Gas prices aren’t normal. Using the filibuster to pass major programs isn’t normal. Passing those laws to prioritize funds based on skin color isn’t normal. Spending up to a trillion dollars on your core constituents without approval from Congress isn’t normal. Refusing to hold press conferences and do interviews isn’t normal. Using cue cards with reporters isn’t normal. Colluding with private companies to censor those who disagree with your positions isn’t normal. Attempting to create government offices with the express intention of censoring unapproved speech isn’t normal. Claiming you know absolutely nothing about an FBI investigation into your potential 2024 opponent isn’t normal. Not commenting on an assassination attempt on a Supreme Court Justice isn’t normal. Having your Department of Justice turn the FBI loose on parents concerned about their children’s education while refusing to enforce the law against illegal protestors outside the homes of Supreme Court Justices isn’t normal. Doubling the number of opioid deaths isn’t normal. Record numbers of illegal immigrants flooding across the border isn’t normal. A land war in Europe isn’t normal. Defeat by the Taliban isn’t normal. Forcing people to get injected with experimental vaccines isn’t normal. Pretending it’s acceptable for schools to be closed and then taking credit for opening them isn’t normal. All of this would be unimaginable before Joe Biden took office, but here we are and here he has the gall to claim those who disagree are a threat to democracy itself.
I, for one, will not be lectured or scolded by this craven, doddering, incompetent, arrogant, hypocritical, and ridiculous old fool, a man who has succeeded at nothing in his entire life except self aggrandizement and enriching himself at our expense. President Biden deserves nothing from me and people like me except our scorn and contempt, his office be damned because he shows he doesn’t deserve it with each passing day. John Quincy Adams he is not.