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Axelrod presents a thematic and historical analysis of the thought and principles of John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States. Axelrod analyzes the principles of management Adams articulates, analyzing his letters, diary and published essays, as well as his official acts while President of the republic.
Lessons from Another Time
He has abstracted from Adams' prolific writings and records 126 Lessons. He quotes from Adams, discusses the historical and political or social dynamics of the time, presents Adams' perspectives and draws an application for today's approaches to business or political management. This volume is very informative about the relationships and interpersonal dynamics behind the American Revolution, the reality and complexity of the situation.
Axelrod shows how practical Adams' concerns and management approaches were. Adams' writings give us insights into the deep struggles the colonial leaders went through to discern a new path, to ensure liberty and avoid anarchy in a new decentralized society. Common recollections of Adams are incomplete and often fail to take into account the broad commitments this Founding Father had to personal liberties and to Public Safety and self-government.
Two Enlightenment Streams
Especially helpful are Adams' extensive interactions with his dear friend Thomas Jefferson, with whom he disagreed on some important philosophical matters related to human nature and public management, as they both worked together in their common task of extricating the colonies from what they understood as tyranny.
Jefferson was a secular Rationalist, while Adams, though an Enlightenment Rationalist, retained his guiding perspectives from his New England Congregational Calvinism. Many current readers will be able to identify with him and some of the sentiments and concerns that inform his writings and practical efforts on behalf of the new society he helped form.
While Adams rejected the hard Calvinist concept of total depravity of the human spirit, he remained more cautious and pragmatic, wary of Jefferson's strong belief in the "Perfectibility of Mankind." He was aware of the inertia of the status quo and wanted a system that would encourage the responsibility of individual citizens and prevent acquisition of power by a small group, either religious or political.
The clear portraits of these two personalities will help modern readers appreciate how different either of these Founding Fathers was from the facile picture we hear sometimes about how all the Founding Fathers were strong Christians (usually meaning fundamentalist evangelicals) and made sure this was a "Christian country."
Separation of religious and secular powers was a critical principle for both the believer Adams and the skeptic Jefferson. They lived too close in time to the Religious Wars of Europe Religious and Political persecutions of Europe for this need to be denied.
Axelrod provides important evidence to counter the trend of recent decades of recreating American history into a dynastic story of religious government. Adams expresses himself strongly against the danger of the dual tyranny of religion and government.
Adams' references the English Civil War and the depredations caused by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell's reign of terror. Adams wants to avoid the merging of ecclesiastical and governmental power that he saw devastate England and her territories under the dictatorship of Cromwell and his Roundhead vigilantes, supported by the compliant and complicit Parliament.
Adams had a keen awareness of the persecution this religious government inflicted upon those who tried to exercise their conscience to worship as Catholics or dissenters. In more recent times, most colonies had wearied of the persecution and imposition on personal liberties caused by established religious authorities. Notable are the stories out of Massachusetts and Virginia.
Axelrod provides context by presenting key segments of Adams' thoughts and declarations. Adams wanted to avoid the deterioration of the high Enlightenment principles of liberty into a religious dictatorship, where government was driven by religious institutional enforcement or the church was under the control of the government.
Fairness and Equality
Equality of all individuals and all groups within a society was the starting point for Adams. Pragmatically, however, he acknowledged the common state of affairs is that a small number of more influential individuals will arise as leaders in each working setting of public life. Adams took pains to analyze the role of the wealthy and prosperous, acknowledging that all of society needed the leadership of such.
To Adams it seemed to simply be the nature of human societies that the segments of a society come to be influential, either directly or indirectly. This natural influence needs simply to be bounded to protect the politically and economically weaker segments of society.
Adams was thus always concerned to establish mechanisms of fairness and limitation to ensure against the unfair, exploitative and selfish use of power by any individual or group of persons. This volume provides valuable insights enabling New Generation Americans to understand more clearly the beliefs, conflicts and streams of thought and practice involved in birthing the land Americans now know in a different context.
Correctives in Culture and Politics
Axelrod weaves this story together on several levels. This will not come across as a dry academic analysis, but as a vivid picture of a tumultuous and exciting time in the life of a real situation. The reader will not only learn fact and information but will become familiar with the ethos of an era.
We see the fully rounded personalities of the key players in the foundations of what became America. But also pictured here are the foundations of what became American Culture. Adams and others whose lives make up this story are our inescapable cultural forbears. This volume should help counter some of the new myths of American history concocted by various power groups in recent years to wield political power over other Americans through misuse of our past heritage.
Axelrod leaves us with a good grasp on what we can call Politics. This book provides insights into the practical factors, probing past the common mythical, theoretical and romantic concepts of popular thought.
He provides important insights into the origins of the United States and factors that led to the unique institutions and national character of this new political entity and people. And he makes practical application of these and provides guidelines for modern business and society.
See related reviews and articles on this site:
Enlightment in and out of the American Churches
One Continent, Three Siblings
Naivité and Intellectual Poverty in Modern America: The Ethical Challenges
Rationalism, Natural Religion and Tolerance
Religion and the State
Rome as a Business Conglomerate: Reflections on History and Modern Business
Related on the Internet:
When Baptists voted for a heretic [Jefferson]
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See my book reviews on Amazon.com
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Many other books have review notes with the reading list entry
First reading notes written 13 April 2010.
Final review written and posted 21 April 2010
Reviewed on Amazon 22 April 2010
Last edited 24 January 2012
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.