History as Mirror

By Edith B. Gelles

There are parallels between Presidents Adams and Obama, ways in which our current president can take comfort and, perhaps, learn lessons from this long gone predecessor. Strange as this coupling may appear, there are overarching similarities between them that should offer lessons from history for the new president.

Unlikely though real, both Adams and Obama come to their ideological commitment from similar backgrounds, common experiences that fundamentally shaped their thinking. First, both were “outsiders.” No need rehearse the President’s background that has brought a deep cultural shift in this country. But, as John Adams liked to say about himself: he was a duck among swans. The most popular and influential politicians of his age and four of the first five presidents hailed from the South.

Second, both John Adams and Barack Obama were trained in and practiced law. Training for the bar produces a method of thinking. It is a discipline that is learned and forms an automatic means of responding to problems. But neither Adams nor Obama was comfortable with the practice of law and each found a way out of its standard professional performance. “O that I was a soldier,” moaned Adams at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, but since he lacked the background to become a general, he became a politician. Mr. Obama came to politics via community organizing.

Religion created for both men not just a lifelong belief system, but a moral code and ethical approach that became part of their natures. In fact, Mr. Obama’s now more conservative religious stance conforms in many ways to John Adams’s then liberal religious approach: belief in God, in a hereafter, and the preciousness of the individual life. Moreover, their religion taught them that the divine spark in a person mandates devotion to public service, and service implied the duty to make the world a better place than they found it.

History provides a mirror, not just for us ordinary citizens to understand our own era by seeing it in context with the past with its similarities and differences, but for our leaders in their quest for solutions to their daunting challenges. President John Adams, by his example, provides some perspective to his distant successor President Barack Obama.

Edith B. Gelles is Senior Scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She is author of Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage (William Morrow).

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