Friday, November 12, 2021

Of Rocks and Runs

By Michael Liss

I live on an island. It happens to be a rather densely populated island, with a surface that seems largely covered by steel, masonry, glass, and architectural curtain wall, with nary a coconut or palm tree in sight. Still, it’s an island.

We island dwellers engage in R&R differently than our suburbanite friends and family. There are no golf courses, no country clubs, no massive “Friday Night Lights” facilities. Still, we don’t lack for sports. The newest craze is “Dodge the Electric Bike,” which improves agility and hand-to-eye coordination, particularly when the deliveryman is going the wrong way on a one-way street.

For myself, I like to run. If one wants to call it that. I’m certainly not particularly good at it, but I’ve been running/jogging/plodding since shortly after the end of the Peloponnesian Wars. I’ve torn through countless pairs of running shoes, each with an idiosyncratic wear pattern that is a not-so-subtle reminder that a major factor in my lack of speed is also a pronounced lack of grace. To demonstrate that I have no self-consciousness about this, I’ve run in a fair number of New York Road Runners races. Yesterday’s Fifth Avenue Mile was my 49th, and, I’m happy to report, I’m slower than ever.

I don’t care. I like doing it anyway. Running gets me outside; running (temporarily) satisfies my sitzfleish deficiency; and it has probably kept me off statins. During the darkest part of the pandemic, it helped with sanity, like a lightning rod grounds electrical charges. Get into your shorts (or tights, depending on the season); fill your pockets with whatever is needed out there; take two masks (believe me, you will want the second after you finish); and go.

Running offers the gift of both solitude and community. Run by yourself; find a rhythm; and the hills seem easier, the miles shorter. Run with friends; and enjoy the communal vibe, the gasps and groans, and the mutual suffering. Running transforms us into patrons at a senior-community diner, engaging in what could be called an ambulatory organ recital. Knee, hip, calf, thigh, back, foot, nose (allergies), all can be complained about in an overall atmosphere of physical vigor, giving you the best of both worlds. You get a nice workout with permission to feel miserable about it.

You can’t run every day down Fifth Avenue, and one mile is barely a warmup, so, where else on my island do you go? That might involve some fudging, like over the Queensboro into Long Island City, or up the East Side promenade to the Randall’s Island pedestrian bridge. Westsiders have Riverside Park and a path along the mighty Hudson that goes from the Battery up towards the George Washington Bridge. And we all have “Summer Streets,” which twice or three times each August closes off Park Avenue to cars from 72nd down to the Brooklyn Bridge, where the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island can’t help but stir some ancestral memories.

Still, the heart always leads back to Central Park. The air is cleaner. No cars, except for a handful of service vehicles (and the occasional ambulance). No stoplights. Lakes and fountains, statues, a castle, a blockhouse designed for defense against the British in 1812. Thirty-six bridges, some cut out of living rock. Rowboats and skating. Fauna as well: the occasional raccoon, the misplaced (and therefore thrilling) bird of prey, ducks and geese, horses, five billion squirrels, and (naturally) the odd rat.

But I do not come to praise the flora or fauna. Instead, I want to behold the simple rock. Central Park has a runner’s joy: hills and more hills, and each rise and dip comes with its own set of rocks.

So, I’m going to speak of rocks, and rely on your tolerance, because I’m a complete layman and have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. The great John McPhee summed it up beautifully when he wrote in Annals of the Former World, “The structure of Manhattan is one of those paradoxes in spatial relations which give geologists especial delight and are about as intelligible to everyone else as punchlines delivered in Latin.”

Amen to that. I was foolish enough to think that doing some research, reading a few papers, would at least give me some passing fluency in describing what had occurred tens or hundreds of millions of years ago and had come to be under my feet. That was wrong. After many hours of reading, I came away with the same sense I have when contemplating a six minute Fifth Avenue Mile…a “not in my wildest dreams.”

To give you an idea of the mountain I was trying to climb, I found this reference in a scholarly work by Charles and Mickey Mergurian: “This unit is composed of brown-to-rusty-weathering, fine- to medium-textured, typically massive, biotite-muscovite-quartzplagioclase-kyanite-sillimanite-garnet-graphite-pyrite schist and migmatitic schist containing interlayers centimeters to meters thick of mica granofels and layers of calcite±diopside±tremolite marble and calc-silicate rock.”

Looks like it should be some German compound word, right? When I saw it, I thought about reaching out to Tom Lehrer (who apparently lives in Manhattan) to put the whole thing to music, but Wikipedia says he’s retired. Instead, I’m going to try to make a tiny bit of sense out of things by doing a Google Earth and pulling back (or away) a few thousand feet.

South of 125th Street, Manhattan is a contradiction in plain sight. At the bottom of the island, we have the massive, lumbering edifices of the Wall Street area. Then the verticality of the island takes a rest, and for three miles, gently wends its way uptown through a variety of low-slung neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, and Little Italy, all the way through the Twenties. In the Thirties, height and bulk return spectacularly, with the Empire State Building, continuing on up north to the Chrysler Building, from there to gleaming office towers, and then to the insane Billionaire’s Row, whose temples to excess shoot up more than 1400 feet from 57th and 58th Streets, just a few hundred yards from the bottom of Central Park.

Why would 60 blocks-worth of prime space be dedicated to tenements, small commercial buildings and the like? This isn’t merely because of some desire to keep those three miles quaint, it’s a function of an uneven topography under the streets. The island elevates gently from sea level, south to north, a total of about 280 feet over a length of 13.4 miles. The famed Manhattan bedrock (mostly Manhattan schist) doesn’t just sit there like a flat paved road. Rather, it undulates. If you try slightly cupping your hand, tilting it downwards, and curling up your fingertips at the bottom, it gives you a rough idea of what is going on. The last joints of the fingertips are lower Manhattan, where the bedrock rises up from the seabed to give builders solid ground to plant redwoods. Come off that, just North, and for those 60-odd blocks, the bedrock drops away and the open space (the cup of your fingers) is filled with geological debris, looser rocks and dirt brought by a glacier (or, arguably, two glaciers). It’s just not sturdy enough for monumental structures. Move north of 30th, and you are back in the meaty portion of your hand, where the bedrock is closer to the surface, and ambition soars. Of course, two centuries of development leave what’s underneath the blacktop to our imaginations. That is, until you travel a couple of football fields from the rich and powerful and hit Central Park. There, wherever Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s design called for leaving well enough alone, you see huge rocks and outcroppings, eroded but still mighty, often glittering with bits of mica, up to 500 million years old.

Put on your running shoes and come with me for a light jog. The Park stretches from 59th Street to 110th, and from Fifth Avenue to what would be Eighth. If you stay on the interior paved road, the distance is 6.02 miles, just about perfect for our purposes.  Start on the West Side just south of Tavern on the Green, go counterclockwise, and you will pass the massive Umpire Rock (formerly known as “Rat Rock” for its formerly plentiful colony of rats). Umpire Rock is really old, and as good an indicator as any of what lies beneath the surface. Not only is the primary rock among the oldest in the Park, but the rock itself was scored and shaped by a glacier that covered much of Manhattan about 30,000 years ago.

Move to the East Drive into the 60s and then uptown through the 80s, and this mostly uphill area (may) be the beginning of something called Cameron’s Line, an actual fault from the Ordovician Period which was formed as part of the continental collision known as the Taconic orogeny. As one might imagine, this smashing, wrenching, folding and crushing event and the later Alleghenian one were extraordinarily violent, and the thought that somewhere (and perhaps several places) along your run you might be stepping on a stupendous fault line that helped create a continent (and certainly our island paradise) is quite striking.

Let’s keep going north past the Reservoir until we hit 106th Street and we get to the area of some irony to runners. Here is where the original plan of Olmstead and Vaux stopped, and I think if you asked many of us (and the casual tourist biker looking to circumnavigate the Park), we’d have been just fine if their ambitions ended right there. Alas, they didn’t, and, in 1859, they asked that the area between 106th Street and 110th be added. In the beginning, you can be beguiled by this, as the road bends somewhat downhill towards the lowest elevation in the entire park, the man-made Harlem Meer. But soon you realize you are dealing with a monster, first a prolonged upgrade as you head south along the top of the West Drive, followed by a final piece of wending mercilessness as you near the top of The Great Hill. About 20 years ago I was running up the East Drive and found myself abreast of a group of middle-aged Frenchmen who were in for the Marathon. For about a mile, they talked easily to me about their training, what they were doing in New York, and the places they had gone. The chatter ground to a halt, punctuated by occasional curses (in more languages than French) as we tackled the Hill of Death.

We’ve made it to the West Side, scrambled over a pair of West Side hills, run past the Reservoir, and between 84th and 81st Streets come to two interesting formations, one natural, the second man-made. Immediately to our right between the road and Central Park West is the highest elevation in the park (about 140 feet), Summit Rock. In this area was Seneca Village, home to an African-American community that existed there from about 1820 to its annexation and ruthless clearing in 1857. To our left is Belvedere Castle and the Great Lawn, which, prior to 1929, had been a second reservoir for the city. Both locations contain traces of rock that apparently originated in the New Jersey Palisades, across the Hudson River.

We have about a mile to go, and I’m going to take a detour, off the road and onto the bridle path. This is my single favorite stretch of the Park. I like the irregular surface, the switch from gravel to sand to soil and back. I like the way it cuts through and around the man-made structures; and I particularly like the trip along the Park’s west wall running parallel to Central Park West. Here, the street is well above the path, and you run through rock-cuts, under man-made bridges, and past berms, sometimes seen, sometimes not. It’s here where I plan to be every Thanksgiving morning, as the parade assembles and starts its march down to 33rd Street, and above you are the tops of the balloons struggling in the wind and sounds of marching bands.

Then, you go over a last uphill, where the surface changes to sand and gravel, and you end at Tavern on the Green, just where you started, and just where the New York Marathon comes to an end.

We’ve made the loop, and that brings me back to where I began this piece, and a little personal news. Two weeks ago, while running to the Park to train for the Fifth Avenue, I took a header on a street that had been freshly milled for resurfacing. Hands, elbows, face, and particularly knee and ribs took the jolt, and I broke my glasses. I limped home, bloodied and battered. By that evening, I realized there would be no more running for a while—even if I could cover my knee, my ribs hurt too much to move out of a slow walk. All joking aside, this particular excuse for expected poor performance was a little too real. I was morose, until a week later, at 11:23 p.m., when I got this wonderful text from my daughter: “Guess what I just did? I signed up for the Fifth Avenue Mile. And I’m so excited.”

So, on Sunday, September 12th, I gingerly made my way over to Fifth Avenue, with a final reminder from McPhee that Manhattan is nothing more than a compressed and folded loaf of rock between two rivers, worn by erosion. And Fifth Avenue, on the high middle of that loaf, is running up the center of the trough of a syncline. Loaves and synclines, when you put it that way, eh, I can do this.

In the event, we ended up with five—me, two of my running buddies, my daughter, and one of her friends, who was also running in her first race.

By some cosmic kismet, three of us, running in three separate heats, ran exactly the same time. And my daughter…she blew us all away.

Now, that is a runner’s high.

Of Rocks and Runs was first published on September 13, 2021 on  

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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Sunrise at Monticello

We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.

—Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1801

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. White House Collection/White House Historical Association.

Inauguration Day, 1801. John Adams may have beat it out of town on the 4:00 a.m. stage to Baltimore, but the podium filled with dignitaries, none more impressive than the man taking the Oath of Office. Thomas Jefferson, Poet Laureate of the American Revolution, former Secretary of State, outgoing Vice President, was standing there in all his charismatic glory.

As politicians have done, presumably from time immemorial, he pronounced himself awed by the challenge (“I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking”), imperfect (“I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment”), and an obedient servant (“[r]elying, then, on the patronage of your good will…”). He made the obligatory bow to George Washington (Adams being absent both corporally and in Jefferson’s spoken thoughts), and called upon the love of country that stemmed from shared experience: “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.”

How very Jeffersonian. Inspiring, embracing, collaborative, worthy of his fellow citizens’ admiration and even love. Looking back over 200 years, allowing for the archaic language, and even the sense that this was not his best work, you can still hear in it the echoes of what drew people to him.

Jefferson was more than a symbolic change in direction from the Adams (and Washington) years. He was the physical embodiment of what he later came to describe as the Second American Revolution. The public had cast aside the old Federalism, stultifying and crabbed, with a narrow vision of what democracy meant, and had chosen to move towards the bright light of freedom.

You have to love the story. It fits with an image of Jefferson that many have clung to over the decades. Jefferson was more than a stick figure of stiffly posed portraits, policies, and speeches. He was a full-blooded, passionate person: Jefferson the gourmand; Jefferson the suave raconteur; Jefferson having a grand old time in Paris and at Monticello. He was the courtier abroad, and the master of house and estate at home—his days filled with fine wine, good conversation, books, music, and enchanting women.

This historical version of Jefferson (the image popularized by biographers like Dumas Malone) requires a bit of a filter on the part of the teller—a bit of time spent walling off, explaining away, or even denying some of the less appealing aspects of his life. It is neither wholly accurate, nor how many of his contemporaries viewed him at the time. They saw his flaws, some imagined, many real.

This is not the place to retread that ground. I began this series three months ago talking about partisanship and the emergence of political parties, and Jefferson is the preeminent political party leader of our first half-century. That is the framework I want to use: Jefferson as the co-creator of the Democratic-Republican Party, Jefferson as its first U.S.President, Jefferson (along with Madison) as the molder of an ideology and the prime instrument for amplifying it. So, while not dismissing Jefferson’s myriad defects of character and judgment, I am going to use Garry Wills’ characterization in his book, Negro President (“My Jefferson is a giant, but a giant trammeled in a net, and obliged (he thought) to keep repairing and strengthening the coils of that net.”).

When John Adams got on that pre-dawn stagecoach, the door that closed behind him was also closing on his Federalist Party’s grasp on the Presidency. It’s one of history’s ironies that the last Federalist President wasn’t really a Party man at all. Adams had no interest and certainly no talent for politics the way we understand it. Instead, he had this oddly appealing, yet monumentally impractical, sense that a President should use his best judgment, regardless of the political implications of it. The problem with Adams’ idea as a construct for future Presidents was that Presidents need their Parties to enact legislation, to carry a coherent, unified message, and otherwise to have their backs. The problem the movers in the Federalist Party made for themselves in rejecting Adams, a fellow Federalist, is that they misunderstood the essential connection that the voters make between President and Party. We know this intuitively now…an unpopular President hurts his own team down-ballot. Hamilton (and Timothy Pickering, James McHenry and Oliver Wolcott, his loyalists in Adams’ Cabinet) could not, in their arrogance, recognize that, by undercutting and demeaning Adams, they weren’t showing themselves superior beings worthy of even more power and influence. They were just giving the electorate, such as it was at that time, an opportunity to view them as pompous, aloof, and autocratic.

In fact, the Federalists were pompous, aloof and autocratic. They had largely held their ground in the 1798 Midterms in part because the public approved of Adams’ handling of negotiations with France the previous summer. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Party were unable to see the cause and effect. Adams, they thought, was an apostate to High Federalist dogma—so, never mind that what he had done was both diplomatically and politically effective, it was not what they had counseled, and was thus, by definition, bad.

Still, their continued control of the SIxth Congress and the White House gave them time to recalibrate, and wiser political heads would have recognized the opportunity and acted on it. The American Revolution wasn’t just a liberation from England and King George III. It was also (at least for white men) a liberating moment from the tyranny of being ruled by fiat by the elites. On this, the Republicans offered a clear choice—individual rights as set forth in the Bill of Rights, including the right to dissent, should be sacrosanct. High Federalists were horrified by the idea of too much freedom—what would the common man know about policy? Why should anyone, regardless of his station in life, be permitted to critique them when they were exercising their superior judgment?

To use a modern construct, you don’t say these things out loud, but the Federalists not only did, but used coercion to act on them. They continued to push for Hamilton’s “New Army” even after the threat of outside invasion had subsided; they initiated more prosecutions under the Alien and Sedition Act; and they used disproportionate force in snuffing out “Fries Rebellion” by German immigrants in Pennsylvania. They seemed to have a talent for making new enemies.

What they had missed, what they hadn’t really understood, was that the country was moving into a new century and a new way of thinking. Governments were not permanent; not every well-educated and well-bred man would share their beliefs; and opposition was not treason. Positions of influence often needed to be earned in the marketplace of elections. High Federalists would shudder at the thought of submitting themselves to the judgment of the unlettered and unwashed, but the old paradigm was dead.

Jefferson did understand this, as did Madison, and other politically talented Republicans. Despite Jefferson’s affected stance of being above it all, he actually threw himself into the campaign, if only secretly. Jefferson’s anonymous words found their way into sympathetic publications; his money enabled the dissemination of all types of information (some true, some, decidedly less so); and Jefferson’s private counsel somehow was transmitted to his closest associates.

The Presidential Election itself was close. While Adams and his Federalist ticket (he ran with Charles C. Pinckney) were clearly the losers, Jefferson wasn’t immediately the winner. The public, in addition to broadly supporting Republican candidates, also gave a clear edge to the Jefferson-Burr ticket. The problem was that both men ended up with 73 Electoral Votes, and, before the adoption of the 12th Amendment, that meant they were tied…for the Presidency.

While everyone “knew” Jefferson was at the top of the ticket, the same Constitutional clause that had made Jefferson Adams’ Vice President in 1796 now threw the race into the House of Representatives. There, the Federalists finally woke up and began to act like a Party when they realized they held the balance of power. Jefferson or Burr? Burr was more credible than he might appear today, because this was 1801, before he ruined himself by dueling with Hamilton and then later going off on a wild, arguably seditious ride to form another country in the Southwest. Jefferson, through intermediaries, expected Burr to withdraw. Burr stayed coy…he did, after all, have the same number of votes (and, he might have reminded Jefferson, was instrumental in snatching New York for them, right under the eyes of Hamilton).

This left Jefferson apoplectic. Why should the defeated Federalists choose anything? He began to talk of it as a legislative “usurpation” and even to whisper about armed resistance if the House went for Burr.

Jefferson or Burr? Pick your poison? Or, more accurately, what could be bartered in exchange for the Oval Office? Burr, to his immense credit, refused to offer what the Federalists really wanted, and what Adams had previously asked of Jefferson—job security for at least some of their appointees in the next Administration and a pledge not to dismantle Adams’ robust Navy. Burr then absented himself from Washington altogether, going to New York for a daughter’s wedding.

If Burr wouldn’t commit, but also wouldn’t withdraw, what then? Through 35 ballots and feverish, behind-closed-doors discussions presumably fueled with alcohol and cigars, strange bedfellows, odd alliances, half-promises, murmured commitments, and some actual integrity, a Federalist Congressman from Delaware, James Bayard, voted for Jefferson and made him President. What induced Bayard to get on board, especially as he was thought to have favored Burr personally? Two things, one known, and one unknown. The known is that Burr finally relinquished his claim to the Presidency prior to the 36th vote (Bayard considered him a fool for doing so). The unknown is just what, if anything, Jefferson (or, more likely, people acting with Jefferson’s authorization) promised Bayard and the Federalists.

On February 16th, it was over, and the House chose Jefferson, which certainly seemed the intent of the public. Adams prepared to go home. As outgoing Presidents do, Adams was leaving a mixed bag of issues and gifts for his successor. His most valuable present was his late-in-term diplomatic triumph/treaty with the French.

As an astute reader of last month’s post pointed out, the story of the rocky relationship between the United States and its erstwhile ally merits far more attention than I have given it. Suffice to say that the conduct of the French towards American shipping ranged from merely predatory actions to those that might reasonably be thought of as acts of war. Resolving this, deftly and with tact, as Adams did, was of particular value to Jefferson and Republicans in general. Their Francophile leanings had led them to be tolerant of French overreach and critical of Federalist attempts to protect American interests. With this threat neutralized, Jefferson could avoid direct confrontation at the outset of his presidency and instead focus on cutting an immensely beneficial deal for the Louisiana Territory.

But Adams (and the Federalists) also gave Jefferson both a headache and a political opening. The lame duck session of Congress produced the Judiciary Act of 1801, which, for all its questionable antecedents, was critically important. The Act created 16 districts, which, in turn, were organized into six circuits, sparing Justices of the Supreme Court the necessity of riding circuit. It also, not so coincidentally, created 16 Judicial vacancies, which Federalists urged Adams to fill promptly. These before-he-got-on-the-stagecoach “Midnight Appointments” were a source of rage for Republicans, who had no intention of letting Federalist judges get in the way of their ambitions for Jefferson’s first term.

Jefferson knew this when he rose to speak. It, and the topic of Federalist holdovers would be the first test of his political skills, his newly assumed dual role as President and Party leader, and perhaps even his integrity.

The public had chosen. In the second contested election this country had experienced, the voters selected the Republicans over the Federalists. They weighed two different ideologies, two different futures, and picked the one they preferred, opting to change course. As for Jefferson, and whatever promises he may have made to secure his election, it’s fair to say that “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists” was the highwater mark of bipartisanship in his Presidency.

Sunrise at Monticello first appeared on on Monday, July 18th, 2021.  You can find writing by Michael Liss here, on and for 3Q.

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Friday, June 25, 2021

The Founders Fight: Adams Goes Home

By Michael Liss

Take mankind as they are, and what are they governed by? Their passions. There may be in every government a few choice spirits, who may act from more worthy motives. One great error is that we suppose mankind more honest than they are. Our prevailing passions are ambition and interest…

–Alexander Hamilton, 1787.

March 4, 1800. John Adams, Second President of the United States (and first President to be defeated for reelection) was leaving Washington on the 4:00 a.m. stagecoach to Baltimore, the first stop on his way back home to his beloved home and his wife Abigail. He would not be in attendance when, later that day, his successor (and former Vice President), Thomas Jefferson, would take the Oath of Office and deliver his Inaugural Address.

It was considered by his contemporaries (and most of us would agree) a sour note to end a Presidency. As Washington had voluntarily given up the office when he could have been President-for-Life, a peaceful transition of power was a demonstration of continuity and the stability of a young nation’s experiment in democracy. Adams had lost, fairly so under the rules of the day, and many felt he needed to express public acceptance, particularly at a time when the verdict was not merely a change of person, but also of political philosophy.

There are many explanations for Adams’ behavior, one of which is that Jefferson might have made it known that Adams would not be welcome, but the one that fits best is that, in the absence of a real tradition, Adams was following his heart. He’d had enough of Philadelphia and the new swamp that was Washington, of politics and political infighting, of being judged too harshly for his failures and praised too little for his accomplishments. Like every President since who has lost, the sense of rejection was unavoidable. In Adams’ case, more so because Jefferson and he had once been close, and because some in Adams’ old party, the Federalists, had pointedly withheld support—Alexander Hamilton foremost amongst them, but even some of his old friends. It was time for him to leave.

Adams’ Presidential legacy? It’s complicated. He did one thing extraordinarily well—he managed, while playing a weak hand, to steer the country between the two mightiest powers in the world, England and France, ultimately striking tolerable bargains while fending off harsh criticism from both his own Federalist Party and Jefferson’s Republicans. In connection with that, he correctly perceived that America would need a formidable navy to protect it (Adams called the warships “Wooden Walls”) and pushed for it relentlessly, with some success.

This should not be dismissed. While the British tended toward actions such as ignoring their obligations under the Jay Treaty (which was irritating, but not necessarily fatal), the French were particularly treacherous. They began seizing American merchant ships while playing a diplomatic bait-and-switch game. In what became known as the XYZ Affair, three emissaries of French Foreign Minister Talleyrand demanded a bribe of 50,000 pounds just to arrange a meeting. Among other reasons given, the ruling revolutionary Directory and Talleyrand claimed to be disturbed by some of Adams’ criticism of French behavior, and their pain could only be assuaged by…cash. Adams ordered two-thirds of his negotiating team home (leaving behind his old friend Elbridge Gerry (that Elbridge Gerry—the one who gave gerrymandering its name) to provide an unofficial back-channel and give him on-the-ground information. He also did something else that showed uncommon, and even self-sacrificial tact—he temporarily withheld from Congress the official dispatches describing the bribery request. While it would have certainly helped his domestic political standing, Adams knew release of the information would almost certainly lead to demands for full-scale war. Adams also knew the United States was not ready for that, no matter how distracted the French might otherwise have been. Instead, the two sides engaged in harassing one another in the Quasi-War, with Adams’ new Navy gaining some important victories. This, plus pressures on the French to focus on the British, convinced Napoleon that a negotiated settlement would make more sense, and talks between the sides renewed in 1800. Ultimately, an agreement was reached (word, naturally, reaching the United States just after the 1800 election), and its success later helped Jefferson (again, naturally) consummate the Louisiana Purchase.

What Adams did not do well, he often did exceedingly badly. First and foremost of his failures was in practicing politics. He was awful. Last month I wrote that Adams really was an 18th-Century man. His idea of governance generally and of the Presidency in specific, was driven by what the historian Joseph Ellis has called “a long-term collective interest for the public that could be divorced from partisanship.”

It’s a lovely concept, and something that has an emotional appeal for centrists even today—a President who genuinely works for all Americans. Yet, just as we are now reminded over and over that politics infects the perception of any issue, it was just as true the day George Washington left office. The old General had stature like none other, but even he could not hold back the tide of groups of men aligning themselves to pursue their parochial interests at the expense of national ones. Parties, and their oft-times narrow interests, will inevitably dominate.

What was beyond the reach of Washington at the end was certainly impossible for a John Adams. Equally clear were the cracks in the Hamilton-led Federalist Party. Too many Americans of influence instinctively rejected the more autocratic philosophical underpinnings of the Federalists’ view of individual liberties. The French Revolution and writings like the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” inspired many to reject not just monarchs, but monarchical tendencies, well-intended or not. Many of the newly-minted Democratic-Republicans thought they were choosing freedom, and even if they didn’t aspire to elevated principles, they surely were seeking the freedom from being governed.

In fact, the Republican caricature of Federalists as monocrats and potential autocrats had more than a little truth to it.  This was especially true of “High Federalists,” and Adams’ Cabinet was filled with High Federalist holdovers who were beholden (and reported) to Hamilton. Hamilton had an abiding love for centralized authority—when he was close to the central authority.

A lot can be made of the policy differences between Adams’ Cabinet and Adams himself—although, ultimately, he often followed their advice. Of just as much consequence was the animosity and even contempt some of the members had for Adams. Faced with that, he did something no other President, while in office, had done before or has done since….he literally went home, and stayed there. For seven months, between March to September 1799, Adams was in Peacefield, working in comparative solitude. As bizarre as that might seem to some (and it was noticed by his contemporaries), in a time when there were no long-standing traditions to adhere to, and public opinion was formed more by preference than norms, Adams went his own way—literally. He walled himself off from the hostility of some of his Cabinet, his Party, and perhaps even the public.

The great Presidents have egos strong enough that they are capable of surrounding themselves with able advisors with creative minds and a willingness to provide contrary views. They also have the capacity to absorb criticism while not being deflected from their primary purpose. Lincoln and FDR had those qualities. Adams had an extraordinary intellect and an ample ego, but a thin skin.

That thin skin got him into trouble more than was necessary and certainly contributed to his most egregious political mistake, one that mars his reputation to this day, his signing of the four laws that have come to be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Politics is essential, but it can bring out the ugly in people. In November of 1860, in “The American Experiment,” the New York Daily Tribune asked, “Is it possible for a Government to be permanently maintained without privileged classes, without a standing army, and without either hereditary or self-appointed rulers? Is the democratic principle of equal rights, general suffrage, and government by a majority, capable of being carried into practical operation, and that, too, over a large extent of country?”

In 1860, with the nation on the brink of Civil War, that question seemed particularly timely, but if you had asked it in 1800, I think the answer would have been even less clear. Breaking free of England did not mean breaking free of the passions, ambitions, and sometimes expedient behavior of men. With the biggest man of all retiring to his figs and his vines, the center did not, and could not, hold. Ellis suggests that the center did not even exist. There may be something to that when you consider that many of the very same people who were “in the room” during the Revolution and the drafting and ratification of the Constitution fundamentally disagreed on what the entire exercise meant.

Too many people of influence simply did not recognize that the system they adopted had room for both an elected-but-time-limited government with real authority, and a perhaps-fierce-but-essentially loyal opposition. In the 21st Century, we talk about breaking norms, but, at the beginning of the 19th Century, there were no norms. Disagreements turned venomous; long-time friendships not only frayed, but broke apart; some of the press was unbelievably toxic; and an astonishing number of people committed acts that, objectively, could have been considered genuinely treasonous.

If Lord Acton was correct about power corrupting, the Federalists, perhaps sensing they were losing the argument, decided to flex their muscles. With comparatively little debate, they passed the Naturalization Act, the Alien Friends Act, the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act. Immigrants (particularly those from France and Ireland, who were hostile to England, and therefore to Federalists) were targeted in the first three. The Sedition Act cast a much broader net…it was to be a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or its officials. The Senate passed them on, of all dates, July 4th, apparently thinking them an appropriate way to celebrate the day. Adams wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about any of the four, but, after urging from Federalists and his wife Abigail, who usually had impeccable political instincts, he signed them all.

It was a monumental mistake that perhaps a man who really understood how to play the game would have sidestepped. He could have vetoed it, showed himself as a man of principle, someone who really would put the Constitution over narrow personal or party interests.

Unfortunately, Adams didn’t have the ear for it, and an already angry country got angrier. Suffice to say, the partisan press was not cowed. In response, Federalist prosecutors filed a total of 18 indictments against those who spoke unkindly of the “government or its officials,” making many local heroes, or at least martyrs for the cause. In one particularly embarrassing moment, a New Jersey publisher who was a bit of a lush was prosecuted for referring to the size of Adams’ backside—and acquitted by the jury. Adams did have a capacious one, and truth was a defense.

Beyond the theatre, there was also a more formal and cerebral response that would have an impact well beyond the moment. Jefferson (as in, “Vice President Jefferson”) consulted with Madison, and both got busy authoring legislative responses—Jefferson’s the Kentucky Resolutions and Madison’s the Virginia Resolutions. Madison’s was widely circulated in the national press. Far more the Constitutional scholar than Jefferson, he made cogent arguments that led inevitably to the idea that individuals have rights (in this case freedom of speech and the press) that, if infringed upon by the government, must ultimately be vindicated in the federal courts through what would be called Judicial Review. As for Jefferson, much less the institutionalist and far more the revolutionary, he initially drafted his Kentucky Resolutions explicitly to include both nullification and secession. The Kentucky Legislative leadership excised nullification from the final bill, and Madison quietly persuaded Jefferson to step back from the secession portion. Still, Jefferson’s approach toward defining the relationship between the states and the federal government was echoed by those who joined the Confederacy in 1861.

There were other, more immediately practical political considerations as well. The Anti-immigrant portion of the bills was, unsurprisingly, noticed by immigrants, and helped bring large numbers of Irish in New York and Germans in Pennsylvania over to the Republican side.

The truth was that the Federalists were losing the argument across the country, and the Alien and Sedition Acts were just one cause among many. Election Day proved that, and more. Adams actually ran more strongly than down-ballot Federalists. Two years later, Federalists were crushed in the Midterms—Jefferson had veto-proof margins from 1802 on. Federalists never elected another President, and, beyond holding some pockets of strength in New England, were never a serious factor again on a national level.

What did it all mean? That is hard to say. Jefferson later referred to his victory as the Revolution of 1800, but Republican ascendency, despite its Philosopher King, wasn’t as much about a unifying set of principles as it was a rejection of whatever it was that the Federalists stood for. As Jefferson would later come to realize, Republicans really weren’t united on much beyond not being Federalists.

A few final ironies. Adams’ bad luck carried through to the end, but he had the pleasure of signing the Treaty of Mortefontaine, which formally ended the Quasi-War. Alexander Hamilton’s irrational dislike of his fellow Federalist Adams led him to author a scalding repudiation of the President, which, coming late in the campaign, did virtually nothing to hurt Adams, but enraged many Federalists and all but destroyed Hamilton’s reputation. And, finally, with but a month to go in his term, Adams nominated John Marshall, our greatest Chief Justice. Marshall stayed on the bench until 1835, almost certainly the last Federalist of national importance.

Now, John Adams was going home, have served his country imperfectly, and often crankily, but well and with honor. He climbed up into the stagecoach, and found he was sharing it with Theodore Sedgwick, the just deposed Speaker of the House. The two men had been allies at one point, but now cordially and thoroughly disliked each other. The good news, for Adams, was that Sedgwick would be getting off—in Massachusetts.

The Founders Fight: Adams Goes Home was first posted on June 22, 2021 at

You can find us on Twitter @SyncPol 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Founders Flounder: Adams Agonistes

by Michael Liss

My idea of an agreeable person is a person who agrees with me. —Benjamin Disraeli

John Adams was not the kind of man who easily agreed, and it showed. Nor was he the kind of man who found others agreeable. Few have accomplished so much in life while gaining so little satisfaction from it. 

When you think about the Four Horsemen of Independence, it’s Washington in the lead, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and, last in the hearts of his countrymen, John Adams. You could add to that mix James Madison and even the intensely controversial Alexander Hamilton, and, once again, if you were counting fervent supporters, Adams would still bring up the rear.Adams knew it as well. He understood both his flaws and his place in the firmament. He wrote to his friend Benjamin Rush: “The Essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklins electrical Rod, Smote the Earth and out Spring General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his Rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy Negotiations Legislation and War.”

Nevertheless, after eight years of being George Washington’s loyal (but largely unheeded) Vice President, he had just enough support to be elected to succeed him in 1796. As much as he wrestled with his own ego and even his insecurities, he (and Abigail) thought he had earned it, and he had.

He was stepping into a monumental mess. Adams’ core problems coming into office were in some respects similar to any newly minted President. Like it or not, you inherit the issues the previous Administration couldn’t resolve, and, in Adams’ case, George Washington had left a doozy—the very real and constant threat of hostile acts of the two most powerful countries on Earth, England and France. Washington had a vision of an expanding America, one that would grow to dominate the continent. The reality, in 1796, was that the British and French (along with the Spanish) controlled large chunks of North America, and, more importantly, dominated the Atlantic Ocean. American ships were constant targets, and the feebleness of the American response wasn’t as much a policy failure as it was an expression of the simple fact that we were a young nation with then-limited resources. Both parties had their (opposing) ideas on how to fix that (the Federalists aligning with the British, the Republicans with the French), but that didn’t change the reality (or potency) of the foreign threat.

Adams also inherited an unresolved and intensifying political issue: The Federalists and the Republicans didn’t just pick a foreign partner as a tactical judgment. They also were expressing a preference for a form of government. Subsequent generations of politicians (to this day) ritualistically claim that their vision is the Founder’s vision, but that can’t possibly be true: The Founders themselves lacked consensus as to the substance of what had been agreed. Moreover, as men sorted themselves out into Federalists and Republicans, the disagreements became more personal, more hostile, more poisonous. In a proto-democratic climate where a vocabulary for opposition hadn’t been developed, it became an easy step for many to see even close former associates as now treasonous. Each could say the other had abandoned the ideals of the Revolution.

In broad strokes, Jefferson and Madison’s newly created Democratic-Republican Party rejected the Federalists and Washington’s concept of government. Washington (and Adams) understood the compact made in 1787 as one of consent of the governed (the people and the states). The public works within a framework of choice as to whom to lead, not the scope of leadership’s authority after that choice is made. The next election, they may choose someone else, but the grant of authority is the same.

Jefferson’s vision, upon close inspection, not only views the initial “consent of the governed” to be an impermanent one (he proposed that each generation should review and renew the Constitution), but also seems to be more than a little situational—he wanted a form of government that would advance his (and Virginia’s) interests.

The problem with Washington’s approach was that it was more monarchal than the public was ready to support for any President—except for George Washington. The problem with Jefferson’s (and Madison’s) is something that remains relevant today: If one really does support the idea of diffused political power in most things (not just self-interested ones), how does a country move as one to meet a national challenge? Jefferson’s implicit answer (demonstrated vividly later, during his own Presidency, when he imposed and enforced the massively unpopular Embargo Act) is, in its own way, very monarchal: When the issue interests him specifically, the grant of authority is always great enough to ensure that he’s in charge.

It’s easy to look at the ambiguities and contradictions of both sides and ascribe them solely to political opportunism, but that’s probably unfair. Jefferson really did believe that we threw off the British for greater freedom not just from King George III, but Kings everywhere. He admired the French Revolution for this very reason—ordinary people upsetting the traditional order to assert their individual liberties. Washington and, like him, Adams believed that their monarchical tendencies were benign—a President should float above petty political disputes and do what’s best for the country. Since Washington was the physical embodiment of personal sacrifice and leadership, most of the citizenry trusted in his intentions even when they did not agree with his policies. Neither Adams, nor anyone else, could possibly pull that off. Even Jefferson acknowledged that succeeding Washington might be the most thankless job in the world. You can’t replace Babe Ruth.

All that being said, Adams was peculiarly unsuited to the moment. He was, in one critical way, an 18th Century man, where Jefferson was a modern one. Presidents who lacked the awesomeness of a Washington needed a political party behind them—the infrastructure, the legislative support, the critical mass of ideas and talents willing to serve. From Jefferson’s time on to today, Presidents are both heads of political parties, and creatures of them. Adams didn’t get it, and wouldn’t have wanted it.

Contrast this with Jefferson, who resigned as Washington’s Secretary of State to form, with Madison, an opposition political party. In doing so, he was playing the long game, on the one hand “retiring” to his beloved Monticello and pretending to be above it all, on the other, constantly (privately) scheming with Madison to build a potent political organization. Jefferson was also quite the behind-the-scenes gossip, particularly in using others to peddle derogatory material about Washington himself.

It was a quintessentially modern move, and one as to which it’s hard not to be at least a little cynical. On the one hand, given his political differences with Washington, Jefferson’s resignation might be seen as an act of conscience. On the other, his ambitions were limitless, and it’s altogether possible that, by 1793, he saw time slipping away: Washington would serve at least another three years, his favorite was the hated Hamilton, and Adams was Vice President and would surely have a strong claim to the Presidency. We love to see Jefferson as a romantic (Joseph Ellis, in his biography American Sphinx, calls him “light, inspiring, optimistic”). That he was does not preclude the possibility that he also every inch the politician, with a thirst for the top spot. Staying within the Washington orbit probably would have blocked his path, whereas he was the undisputed political leader of the Republicans.

So, when Washington dropped his “Farewell Address” bomb in September 1796 (only 10 weeks before the Election!), Jefferson cashed in his bet. As always, he affected a disinterest, claimed to be completely content with his bucolic-yet-enlightened life at Monticello, and accepted the nomination. The short sprint to the Presidency ensued (with neither man campaigning—the custom of the time was that it was too crass) and Adams edging Jefferson by just three Electoral Votes.

John Adams had reached the pinnacle, and it was all downhill from here.

First, fate dealt him a bad hand—the original text of Article 2, Section I of the Constitution instructed the Electors to cast two votes for President, then “In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President.” John Adams was to be President. Thomas Jefferson, his former friend, now fierce political and ideological opponent, his Vice President.

To our contemporary eyes, this seems insane. Imagine a Trump-Clinton Administration or a Biden-Trump. It’s fairly clear the drafters of the Constitution didn’t quite grasp the possibilities of political parties, and, if you contextualize it that way, it makes a certain amount of sense. The Electors would look for sane, competent men (at least initially from the Revolutionary generation), and why not have the runner up (not unlike in a beauty pageant) serve out a Presidential term if the President were unable? The fact is that the Framers worried about partisanship, but had not yet fully grasped that it would be delivered through political parties.

This created almost insuperable difficulties for Adams. While no one had a better idea of the limitations of the Vice Presidency than he, he was stuck with Jefferson in a different way than Washington had been. Jefferson was no fool—he was now a heartbeat away from the Presidency, did not serve at the pleasure of the President, and there was absolutely no reason for him to resign or support the Administration. They were stuck together (or, more accurately, Adams was stuck with Jefferson).

Adams being Adams, and remembering the old days, when the two were close friends, then made a remarkable suggestion: He let it be known that he planned to send a delegation to France (not England) to see if a peace treaty could be worked out. And, he wanted it to be a bipartisan delegation. Would Madison and Jefferson head it up?

You can’t help but admire Adams for making this gesture, which went against the advice of and even enraged much of the rest of his Cabinet. Not only was he inviting in the enemy, he wanted to talk to the French instead of continuing the Federalists’ Anglo-centric policy.

Whatever its generosity and even bravery, it was doomed to fail. Adams still didn’t understand partisanship and didn’t quite grasp that Madison and particularly Jefferson were now party leaders. As too many politicians have demonstrated down through the years, the pursuit of power often causes one to make the decision to keep an issue alive, rather than participate in its solution. Madison said “no”; Jefferson, in his more circuitous way, the same. All Adams had accomplished was irritating his own “side.”

There would be more rejections for Adams in the weeks to come. For some reason, perhaps out of misplaced loyalty to Washington, perhaps because of familiarity, he failed to pick his own men for his Cabinet. What he did not know, and wouldn’t come to realize for two years, is that those old hands did not see themselves as members of his team. Rather, they worked for, and took their orders from, the “retired” Alexander Hamilton. Their advice to Adams would be directed by Hamilton. That did not, automatically, render it incorrect, but, since Hamilton had different motivations than Adams, it often reflected Hamilton’s priorities instead of Adams’.

Spurned by Jefferson and Madison, held at arms-length by the very people upon whom he should have been able to rely for support and advice, Adams found himself in no-man’s land. One of the great mysteries of the first few months after his election was why he didn’t move decisively to change this. The answer may lie partially in his background: for all his accomplishments, as an advocate, a representative, a negotiator, a political theorist, he had never actually led. He had no executive experience, either in war or peace. But the rest was surely his temperament. He ranted privately, to Abigail, to John Quincy, to a handful of friends, but accepted it.

It was a fateful decision. As Adams prepared to face the twin and even existential threats of a foreign policy crisis and a political one, he was in a singular place for an American President, mostly alone. This created opportunities, but would, in the long term, leave him a man without a home, and with few moments for joy.

He had been warned, by Washington himself, on Inauguration Day: ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which one of us will be happiest!’”

We will pick that one up next month.

The Founders Flounders: Adams Agonistes was first published on May 24, 2021 on

And, you can follow SyncopatedPolitics on Twitter @SyncPol

Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Founders Flounder

by Michael Liss

There was a time when we had no political parties.

It was brief, like the glow of a firefly on a warm late summer evening, but it occurred. There were no political parties at the time of the American Revolution, or when the newly freed colonies joined in the Articles of Confederation. None at the time they went to Philadelphia to hammer out the Constitution, and none when it was ratified (although the supporters of it were called Federalists and Alexander Hamilton eventually organized them as a party). For the first three years of the new government, until May of 1792, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican Party, the Federalists were the only political party in the land.

When we 21st Century Americans, out of desperation, look to the Constitution for a way out of intractable and pernicious partisanship, we often look in vain for the answers because they really aren’t there. The Constitution was not intentionally designed to compensate for party-based partisanship. Rather, it was a balancing act between regional forces, between economic interests, between small and big states, between slave and free, and between political philosophies. The Framers needed to find enough compromises to get the states to agree to the new framework. No interest got everything, but all got something, because they had to. Why join otherwise?

Obviously, the Framers were aware of political parties (England’s Parliament had its Whigs and Tories). They were also aware of the dangers of partisanship (most notably, Madison in Federalist No. 10). But they hadn’t yet made the leap to only negotiating governance through the synthetic framework of a multiparty system, nor to the idea of candidates for Chief Executive differentiating themselves by party identification. The model for a President was in front of everyone—George Washington.

They also, as would soon seem obvious, didn’t really have an agreement on what we think of as a core question: just how much reach the national government should have. Madison’s exquisitely designed mechanism assigned (tolerably well) responsibility and created a modality for action, but it didn’t, and couldn’t, resolve the fact that any system of government creates winners and losers. He assumed compromise would be necessary and hoped that the dynamic equilibrium he created would foster it. Federalist No. 10 tells us he wasn’t naïve, but he still had hopes.

Finally, the Founders assumed that men (and they were all men) would, in the aggregate, find it within themselves to act simultaneously in their self-interests, their state and regions’ interests, and in the national interest.

They could be a bit optimistic because they had just done this: put aside enough of their parochial interests to act in a Burkean manner and make a Grand Bargain. In retrospect, this confidence might seem to have been misplaced, but it was not inherently irrational. Whatever their political differences, they understood one another. The best type of leadership would come from people like them: men of education, of property, of experience in leading other men. The fears they had about representative democracy came less from concern about their fellow aristocrats, and more from the rabble. Sensitive to those concerns, Madison and his fellow drafters created plenty of distance between actual authority and the rank-and-file voters.

Still, it was all just a theory that men could govern themselves. These men hadn’t even lived in a Constitutional monarchy. They were just a bunch of colonies under the thumb of the most powerful nation on Earth, one that did not faint at the use of coercion to get its way. Meaningful representation had been denied them; they had been taxed, imprisoned, even forced to quarter their own captors. The colonial assemblies they did have had little real influence. Now they were “free,” but what did that really mean? It’s hard to govern, and to accept governance, when no prior guidebook has been internalized.

At the very beginning, the nation had the enormous advantage of having George Washington as its first President. It is not possible for us to grasp the hold Washington had on the population when he began his Presidency in 1789. His prestige was enormous. His blessing was necessary for the Constitution; he gave eminence and legitimacy to the Office of the Presidency that it created; he was, in many respects, the benevolent King that George III had never been. Yet those assets came at a price: Washington would be a strong Chief Executive heading a strong central government, when so many in the country thought the Constitution said otherwise. And, because he was technically unaffiliated (although presumed to have views similar to Hamilton), he couldn’t be attacked as a factional leader. In fact, he couldn’t really be openly criticized at all because of the reverence with which the people treated him. This meant you could only oppose the government’s actions in the abstract, or by going through proxies.

It didn’t take all that long for those proxies to become well-defined. By the middle of Washington’s first term, Hamilton (as Secretary of the Treasury) was continuously facing off against Jefferson (as Secretary of State). These two men found virtually nothing that they could agree upon, especially in the key areas of foreign policy (with Hamilton’s wanting closer relations with England, and Jefferson’s tilting towards his beloved France) and the authority of the Federal government (Hamilton was for a great deal, while Jefferson barely recognized it).

In the beginning, Jefferson was at a considerable disadvantage because Hamilton had a huge head start in both organization and patronage. By creating the Federalist Party, Hamilton accomplished three major goals: giving it the imprimatur of leading the country, creating an infrastructure at the state level for expressing influence and attracting votes, and distributing patronage. Jefferson, in contrast, effectively had on golden handcuffs—while he could argue his case inside the Cabinet, he couldn’t publicly oppose the government of which he was a part.

Enter, James Madison. Madison had undergone something of a political conversion. Where he was once concerned about the central government’s (and the President’s) not having enough power to be effective, now he pivoted and professed to understand the Constitution he had largely written as having much more of a states-rights emphasis. Madison was an unexpected example of what happened to many American leaders when faced with the reality of the new government. A theoretical framework was just that, and, if the end product took them in an undesirable direction, they had no problem reading their own preferences into its vast ambiguities. Madison then partnered with Jefferson (quietly at first, more openly when the Democratic-Republican Party became public) in opposition to the Federalists. As inspirational and charismatic as Jefferson could be, it was Madison who did much of the spadework of putting together the party apparatus.

Where was John Adams in all of this? Absent for much of the period from 1777 to 1788, working on behalf of his country. First, in Paris with Benjamin Franklin to negotiate an alliance with France and later the end of hostilities (a more mismatched pair it was hard to imagine), then with Jefferson trying to establish legal recognition and diplomatic relations with foreign nations, and finally in London, in the critical job of first Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

It is one of those ironies of history that neither Adams nor Jefferson attended the Constitutional Convention, and so played at best an indirect role in drafting the Constitution. If they had been there, then perhaps they would have suggested a viable work-around for something that would bedevil them both in the future.

John Adams felt the pain first, as the nation would honor his service by giving him the worst job in government, “the most insignificant office that even the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived.” Adams became George Washington’s Vice President. Then, as now, the job contained its expectant undertaker’s aspect—the Vice-President should be ready to serve when duty called. And then, as now, the Vice-President played a role in breaking ties in the Senate. Finally, then, as now, that’s all there was.

Adams being Adams, he thought his Senate role should include speaking (actually, a lot of speaking). And, Adams being Adams, obnoxious and disliked, he quite quickly wore out his listeners, who then voted to silence him. Apparently, the decisive moment occurred when he allowed himself to argue, endlessly, that a President should be called “His Majesty” or “His Highness.”

It’s hard to imagine this prickly, opinionated, deeply flawed, but utterly loyal and truly great man being muzzled at a time when even his eruptions might have added something of value, but Adams was. His position in the Administration became even more marginalized because his silent presence in the (substantially smaller) Senate was often actually needed—he cast a tie-breaking vote over 30 times. This meant he was unable to attend Cabinet meetings regularly, and he found himself outside of Washington’s inner circle (the President feeling that the job was largely legislative and that too-close consultation between him and Adams might therefore violate separation of powers).

As to Washington himself, he found himself frustrated and angered by the emerging partisanship and, perhaps, to the emerging resistance to his decisions. The country was still weak; its political institutions were new and fragile; it was still somewhat diplomatically isolated; and England and France were still potentially hostile behemoths. He had always intended on serving only one term, but the old General could see that the enemy was not only at the gates, but might also be within.

The great lesson that Washington had learned in fighting the British was that time mattered more than even geography. As long as he could field an army, the American Experiment would go on. He was confident in his own abilities, less so in those of the men who surrounded him. They didn’t look ready to him.

At this critical juncture, he decided to stand for re-election, knowing the challenges ahead might be even greater than those already faced. He was largely right—the Jay Treaty, his Proclamation of Neutrality, and his forceful ending of the Whiskey Rebellion were in the future, as was Jefferson’s resignation from the Cabinet to pursue his own ambitions. But he was still George Washington, still first in the hearts of his countrymen (if not all of the politicians who aspired to higher office). It was a quirk of the pre-political party Constitution that the two highest Electoral College vote-getters would be President and Vice-President—there was no consideration given to a ticket. This was to lead to some serious mischief in the two elections to follow, but, here, there was only a harbinger. Washington was essentially unopposed and re-elected unanimously. Adams, however, found himself in a tighter-than-expected race for the Vice-Presidency. The newly minted Democratic-Republican Party fielded a candidate against him, New York’s Governor George Clinton. Clinton won his own state and a few southern ones, including North Carolina and, of course, Jefferson and Madison’s Virginia. In Congress, there was a very tight split between supporters of the Administration and those opposed.

That split, and others, would manifest themselves constantly over the next few years, and Washington’s frustrations would grow. Even his own Teflon began to fray a bit, as more of the Administration’s opponents would start to whisper that he wasn’t really in control any more, and was perhaps growing a bit feeble. He was still a giant, though, as Madison was to find out when he opposed the Jay Treaty and was routed.

As for Adams, he remained locked in circumstantially required silence, tagged with the blame for policies he had little influence over. Because of his thin skin, he was an easy target, perhaps even easier than the hated Hamilton. Jefferson, on the other hand, grew more and more voluble in opposition, less and less disciplined in language. The two sides began to think of each other not merely as disagreeing on policy, but fundamentally mortal enemies who must be defeated.

Washington the Hedgehog had grasped that, and more. In 1792, despite an abundance of talent, we weren’t really ready for the implications of the choice of government we made in adopting the Constitution. The next four years were to prove more of the same. We wouldn’t be ready in 1796, as the war between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans—and between former collaborators and friends, Adams and Jefferson—got even hotter.

All this Washington knew as he prepared to leave office. The unhappiness he expressed in his Farewell Address said it well, but only hinted at something that was obvious: the chalice he would be handing over to his successor, whomever that might be, was not exactly filled with the smoothest of wines.

More on that—on the battle between the two parties and between former collaborators and friends Adams and Jefferson, the role of the French, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Judiciary Act of 1801 and Adams’ appointment of “Midnight Judges,” Jefferson’s extraordinary road to the Presidency (on the 36th ballot), and the “Second Revolution”—next time.

The Founders Flounder was first published on Monday, April 26th, 2021 on

To see some of our other work, you can find links at

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Monday, May 3, 2021

Dewey Really Does Beat Truman

 By Michael Liss

Let’s talk about voter suppression. Not about whether it’s good or bad or legal or moral (you can get more than enough of that virtually 24/7), but about what practical implications it might have.

I have looked at the 35 Presidential Elections from 1880 to 2020 to see how tight they were, and where modern forms of voter suppression might have impacted past results.

I made a few assumptions. The first was to limit it to just suppression, and not include potential crossover votes. To make that a bit clearer, if you have an election that ends up 50-50, I propose to simply eliminate votes from one side, not add to the other. I set the bar at two suppressed votes per hundred (I’m going to call that a “Suppression Penalty”), which I think is conservative, given the extent of some of the new laws being passed. Applying that 2% Suppression Penalty, would it have changed the results of some of the closest and most controversial elections of the past?

Obviously, this is a crude method. Some states engage in suppression, others do not, and different forms of suppression will have disparate impacts. But I thought the exercise was worth it, as ever-increasing sophistication in targeting, along with a sense of anything goes, will encourage more use of the tactic.

140 years brings a lot of variations in races. Looking closer at the 35, at least 13 could be characterized as blowouts, including both Reagan wins, FDR’s, LBJ-Goldwater, Bush I-Dukakis, and Hoover-Smith. Another 11 were decisive, even if not routs. In this category, three William Jennings Bryan losses, both Clinton wins, both Obama wins (even though he carried Florida by only .88%, there was no real viable pathway for Romney, given his performance in other key states). In this Obama/Romney mold, I would also put Nixon-Humphrey. There is some historical evidence that Democrats were coming home to Humphrey late in 1968, but he ran out of time and the final numbers aren’t that close.

That leaves us with 10 elections of some interest: Trump-Biden and Trump-Clinton, Bush-Gore, JFK-Nixon, Truman-Dewey, Wilson-Hughes (1916), Benjamin Harrison-Cleveland (1888), Cleveland then regaining the White House against James Blaine (1884), James Garfield over Winfield Scott Hancock (1880), Bush II-Kerry (2024), and Ford-Carter (1976).

2016 and 2020: Given the recency of the Trump-Clinton and Trump-Biden elections, there is no reason to spend a lot of time on them, besides pointing out the obvious—we would be in Trump’s second term if the Republican State Legislators had managed to pass the bills they now enacted or have proposed in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia. Those three states represent 37 EVs, and, without them, the election would have been thrown into the House, giving Trump the win. As to 2016, Clinton’s relative underperformance elsewhere, as against expectations, put her in a position of having to win all three of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania (her fourth option, Florida, had a Trump margin of over 100,000 votes). It’s a bit ironic to note that, if the Democrats were good at Voter Suppression, and the same 2% Suppression Penalty had been applied to Trump’s vote, the Big Dog might still be hanging around the White House

2000: Of the other more modern elections, Bush-Gore is, of course, the most notorious. What is not often noted is that Gore won four states, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon (a total of 30 EVs) by very small margins (New Mexico’s was 343 votes). If they had switched places, with Gore getting Florida, but Bush getting the four, Bush would still have won. Wisconsin, Iowa, and Oregon total 25 EVs, so a swap of Florida’s 25 EVs for those three wouldn’t have changed anything. If Gore had won Florida, but Bush had won New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Iowa, or, alternatively, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Oregon, there would have been an EV tie, and into the House we would have gone. Imagine the fun we all would have had.

1976: Ford-Carter belongs in somewhat the same category as Humphrey-Nixon, but this election was closer. Ford was making big strides through the early Fall. Ohio was excruciatingly close—about an 11K margin for Carter out of more than 4 million votes cast, and the Suppression Penalty would have flipped the state, but that would have still left Carter with the win, and it was Ford who won the other closer states. The next closest win for Carter was in Wisconsin, but, applying our 2% Suppression Penalty would still have left Ford about 14,000 votes short.

2004: Bush II-Kerry is controversial, because of the suspicions (unproven) regarding Karl Rove’s fixing of the state’s votes. But the margin in Ohio was 118K for Bush, and the only other path for Kerry would have been to take from Bush New Mexico, Iowa and Nevada (although the spread in Nevada was outside the Suppression Penalty), keep the faithless Elector who voted for John Edwards, and then tie Bush 269 to 269. But that would have just pushed it to the House, where Bush would have won. Kerry needed Ohio, and, based on reported numbers, he wasn’t close enough.

1960: Another race similar to Bush-Kerry, in that it floated on something unprovable, was JFK-Nixon in 1960. We all sort of wink and nod about shady activities in Illinois, but what is forgotten is that Republicans’ affection for claiming vote fraud isn’t new…nor, in 1960, did they limit themselves to Illinois. There was also LBJ’s home state of Texas, where JFK won by about 46K. In all, Republicans claimed fraud in no fewer than 11 states. The election was brutally close (assuming the numbers were true). Six states had differences of less than 1%, and only one of those went Republican, Nixon’s home state of California. Hawaii was astonishing—JFK won there by a total of 115 votes. If you look closely at the results, and imagine a Suppression Penalty, there are multiple ways Nixon could have won…but, of all the elections we have had in the last 100 years, I doubt there was a tougher team in the trenches than JFK and LBJ.

1880: James Garfield-William Scott Hancock had several features that are worth mentioning, even though the result probably could not have been flipped. It was the first Presidential Election in which the voters of every state were permitted to vote directly for Electors; previously, there had been a few states (South Carolina, naturally) that had their State Legislatures pick them. There was also a third-party candidate, James Weaver, of the Greenbackers. Weaver got no Electoral votes, but may have siphoned off some Hancock votes in Indiana. The popular vote difference was the smallest in history, just 1898 votes. Scott, in losing, did something that had not been accomplished before—he united the Southern States, with the Solid South becoming critical to election planning for the next century. The race in California was extraordinary—the two men were separated by just 95 votes out of 160K cast. New Jersey was also close—2010 votes out of about 142K, but Hancock won both states. If you examine the state-by-state totals, it’s hard to see how Hancock could have flipped the end result.

1884: Four years later, Grover Cleveland managed a narrow victory over James Blaine when Cleveland took his home state of New York by 1,149 votes. Applying the Suppression Penalty, he clearly would have lost the state, and the Presidency. Adding more than a little spice to this election were the accusations that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child (which he did not deny) and the stunningly stupid remark of a New York minister, Doctor Samuel Burchard, who said Democrats were the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” (a comment that did Blaine no good among the Irish and Italian workmen in New York).

1888: Turnabout is fair play. Without the motivating insult, Cleveland lost his bid for reelection in 1888 when he lost New York to Benjamin Harrison. His loss, by 14,373 votes out of almost 1.3 million cast, is just outside our Suppression Penalty. It was also reflective of a close race nationally, although not close enough for a different outcome.

1916: Woodrow Wilson-Charles Evan Hughes. One of my favorites. Hughes was a unique figure in American life. He was first Governor of New York, then resigned to take a seat on the Supreme Court, resigned from SCOTUS to accept the 1916 Republican Presidential nomination, lost to Woodrow Wilson, then became Secretary of State under Harding and Coolidge, and then, in 1930, returned to the Supreme Court to become Chief Justice (where he bedeviled FDR). One wonders what he did in his spare time. It is the 1916 election that interests me here. Hughes actually didn’t “run” for the GOP nomination. He was selected by the party bosses in whatever smoke-filled room they smoked in because Republicans were desperate to avoid a repeat of the crack-up of 1912, with the party splintering along conservative and Progressive lines. Hughes was perceived as both a relative moderate and not particularly ideological. He also let it be known he’d accept if offered.

The race was close. Wilson was not a particularly accessible figure, and World War I was raging in Europe. Given that the Republicans were considered the majority party at that time, it was presumed that Wilson’s election in 1912 was an accident, and Hughes would regain the White House for them. Hughes had some flaws—he was quite anti-labor, and fairly militaristic at a time when the country seemed more attuned to Wilson’s attempts at neutrality. But the election may have turned on a gaffe—when Hughes went to campaign in California, he did not meet with Hiram Johnson, then Governor, formerly TR’s running mate.

On Election Night, the expectation was that Hughes would win, and early returns (and early editions of New York newspapers) indicated as much. Wilson took New Hampshire by 56 votes, Hughes, Minnesota by 468 out of nearly 400,000 cast. As the rest of the country sorted itself out, it came down to California, and the Hiram Johnson snub may very well have been the decider—Wilson won by 3773 votes, while the Prohibition candidate, James Hanly, took 27,713.

1948: One more, put last not because of chronology, but just because I like politicians with a little juice in them. Truman-Dewey, 1948, and the comeback that people thought impossible. Truman, of course, was an accidental President, chosen as FDR’s running mate because FDR knew his health was deteriorating and he did not want the incumbent Vice President, the very liberal Henry Wallace, to succeed him.

1948 found the nation in flux, newly empowered and newly challenged. Some wondered whether Truman was really up for the job. He had struggled in 1946, and perhaps the country was tired of Democrats. In the Midterms, the Republicans crushed Democrats virtually everywhere. They won 55 House seats, 12 Senators, flipped control of both chambers, and set about making Truman’s life a little bit harder. The most popular man in America, by a huge margin, was Dwight Eisenhower, and both parties sought him as their nominee. Everyone else, from the President on down, seemed puny. Ike, after assaying the field of battle, as Ike was inclined to do, declined to run and asked that his supporters cease their activities on his behalf. Eventually, the Republicans turned to Thomas Dewey, who had run a credible (if stolid) race against FDR four years before.

Democrats, as is and has seemingly always been, were a mess. Truman was not popular, particularly with the more liberal wing of the party. Henry Wallace was, and decided to go off on his own and helped create and lead a new Progressive Party. Southern Democrats were getting concerned that Truman was too sympathetic to civil rights, and walked out of the Democratic Convention over a platform plank supporting them. They formed the States Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) and nominated Strom Thurmond for President. They all knew they had no chance of winning outright, but thought that, if they could deny Truman the victory and throw it into the House, they could extract concessions on Jim Crow from one of the sides.

No one thought Truman had a chance. Early polls showed him way behind; virtually every newspaper and pundit wrote him off. Republicans settled on a strategy not unlike Dewey himself—distant, boring and filled with platitudes. Truman, on the other hand, had a ball cutting loose. He ripped into the GOP-led 80th Congress, criticized Dewey, and generally gave Republicans Hell. Expectations amongst the pundit class didn’t change, but the voters began to. Truman’s crowds were jazzed up. Dewey’s began to thin, and those who came seemed unenthusiastic.

On election night, Truman took the early lead, which was initially dismissed, as columnists wrote (and, in some cases, filed) their “Dewey Beats Truman” stories. But Truman had closed the gap, and in more than one way. His institutional disadvantages—the Progressives and the Dixiecrats—turned out to be less problematic than expected. Wallace’s ticket got only 2.4% nationwide. The Dixiecrats took just four states, a wound for Truman, but not a fatal one.

The final Electoral Vote was 303 Truman, 189 Dewey, and 39 Dixiecrat, but, if you look more closely at the numbers, you can see Dewey came agonizingly close. Truman took Ohio’s 25 EV by just 7,107 and California’s 25 by 17,665—even a 1% Suppression Penalty would have flipped the states. Add Illinois 28EVs, and its margin of 33,612 and adjust for a Suppression Penalty of 1.5%, and we really would have had a President Dewey.

Thomas Dewey is elected President in 1948, and a butterfly flaps its wings. With Dewey running again in 1952, no Ike. No Ike, no Nixon as Vice-President, no Nixon as Veep, no Nixon in 1960 (possible Nelson Rockefeller and the GOP goes in an entirely new direction). Maybe no Nixon in 1968, no Agnew, no Ford, no Rockefeller as Veep. And, no Nixon, no Roger Stone. No Roger Stone….wait, that’s too far.

Dewey Really Does Beat Trump first appeared on on March 29th, 2021

You can find us on Twitter at @SyncPol

Friday, April 16, 2021

Down The Rabbit Hole With Schubert and Hawley


The Machine has me in its tentacles. Some algorithm thinks I really want to buy classical sheet music, and it is not going to be discouraged. Another (or, perhaps it is the same) insists that now is the time to invest in toner cartridges, running shoes, dress shirts, and incredibly expensive real estate.

Swinging over to the relative peace and quiet of my email box, I find an extraordinary number of politicians bidding against one another for my attention. It’s a little like Christmas come early: “Now, Stringer, now, Helen, now Andrew and Adams! On, Williams on, Loree! on, Kallos and Weprin! Every single one of them vibrates with intensity, assuring me that he or she is ready to serve me, my family, my community, and the world. Oh, and, by the way, brother, can I spare a dime?

I need my dimes right now. I’m not moving to a deluxe apartment in the sky, and I’ll buy more dress shirts when the world gets back to normal and I ditch this pandemic-related beard. So, back to Schirmer’s Selected Piano Masterpieces (Intermediate Level). I know my sin. My daughter and I were talking about the accompaniment in Schubert’s Lieder and I (foolishly, without going into a private viewing mode) did a quick search. This was more than two weeks ago, and The Machine will keep at me until it is convinced I absolutely, positively, won’t give in. Machine, if you are reading (and I know you must be), please trust me, I can’t play the piano, and I definitely can’t sing. I’d be happy to post something to YouTube to prove it. Or ask my friends to confirm—after all, you know who they are.

I invited this. I knew I wasn’t in a secure area; I wanted a quick answer to something; I browsed; and, in doing so, reaped the whirlwind. A good friend who works in tech reminds me, regularly, that the use of social media and search engines tag me, and free access to them is not free when I’m the product. I just pay the price when I hear from folks who sell Schubert and toner and footwear.

I am not alone. Short of heading to Walden Pond and completely unplugging (leaving one’s phone behind, of course) we all live with some version of the same Machine. Do we really have a choice? Not so long as some of the Titans of Tech keep a chokehold on the market and on the legislation regulating the market. You see politicians scurrying about, holding hearings, voicing outrage, and generally doing the ineffectual but noisy things they are famous for, but you don’t see them going after the core of the problem—the immense profitability that springs from knowing things like my (now regrettable) interest in Schubert. There’s just too much money in it, and, unlike some of our brethren in Europe, many of whom are philosophizing over the societal costs (see this thoughtful piece in 3Q), we tend to be situationally pro-free-market here, and fond of putting dollars over social harmony.

So, what are our elected leaders doing? Mostly worrying about themselves and looking for grievances. They know places like Facebook aren’t just about selling consumer goods, they are also about selling ideas and causes, and creating and sustaining access points to exchange them. Politicians and political parties profit from this, either literally from fundraising, or emotionally, through either inspiration or provocation.

It was inevitable that smart candidates hired smart techies to get across their message. Obama ran a very sharp digital ground game built around his message of hope and change, and that helped energize more tech-savvy younger voters. But it was truly a seminal moment when Cambridge Analytica obtained data from Facebook and, with direction from Steve Bannon, used it to test out populist and conservative messages, and identify potential voters who might be interested in them. Bannon’s linking up with former President Trump was a genius-level move that combined Cambridge Analytica’s sophistication with Trump’s unparalleled emotional connection with his base, supercharged by use of Twitter.

Trump is the embodiment of politics on steroids, and once one slugger goes to the needle, the rest will follow. Other candidates, party organizations, and issue groups did. We are now surrounded with Mini-Trumps using many of the same techniques. Democrats haven’t entirely closed their eyes to this either, and they, too, are getting more sophisticated and less cautious.

This is an extraordinarily dangerous trend because, in what has increasingly become a winner-take-all system, the morality of the means seems far less important than achieving the ends. There are a lot of lies out there, deliberately spread for their emotional impact, capturing the thoughts of whole groups—and many of those groups make their homes on places like Facebook. Some of those turn to advocating for dangerous and even lethal behavior.

One might reasonably ask why this was not foreseeable to the leadership of the social media giants. After all, what they were doing was akin to renting out their restaurant to a group of anarchists or Klan members, and providing them with a list of potential customers. In fact, we know it was foreseeable, and know there were debates inside the industry. They were buried, because the profits were just too great.

Not to be too harsh, but the horse was well out of the barn before the insurrection of January 6th. Frightened by what it had enabled (and, quite cynically, perhaps reasoning that an autocratic government’s imperiousness might be a lot worse for the bottom line), social media looked to temporary bans, de-platforming, and purging. But none of that comes without controversy, both political and philosophical.

We ought to look at this from three different vantage points: free speech implications, private property rights, and potential consequences. I can’t think of a better person to build that discussion around than one of my least favorite politicians, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO).

Many know Hawley as the young, lean guy in the good suit who raised a fist in the air to encourage the rioters to storm the Capitol on January 6th. He’s Ivy-educated, considered a political prodigy, and has his eyes firmly set on the Resolute Desk.

Following that “iconic” picture, some grandstanding, and some intensely inflammatory remarks, Hawley found himself shunned not only by some in the Senate, but also by former supporters back home, including a major financial backer. He also lost a book contract with Simon & Schuster and temporarily went silent on Twitter. The Senator was furious, headed for every conservative talk show and conference he could find, and made grievances his breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Senator Josh’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad experience is a perfect teaching example. From my perspective, it is thoroughly earned. But, when you clear away all the fire and brimstone, does he have a legitimate complaint?

To an extent, he does. He certainly should be able to exercise his First Amendment rights, and, short of calls to violence and libel, those rights are fairly broad. We don’t demand people be truthful, or honorable, much less to agree with us, to have those rights. If you are going to shut down Hawley (or any other person, no matter how fringe), you need more than just revulsion as a justification.

Where is the justification? I do not see it. We shouldn’t censor based on content, unless that content falls within some sort of public safety imperative. If Josh Hawley wants to stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shout insults about Democrats he’s got every right to do so.

Hawley frames some of his grievances in that way—that mean Leftists and their allies in the media are trying to stifle him. But when you dig a little deeper, you realize there’s an additional dynamic involved. Social media platforms are private businesses. Shouldn’t the owners/managers of businesses be permitted to choose who they serve, so long as they don’t violate anti-discrimination laws? Josh Hawley went to Harvard Law School—surely he knows that attorneys turn down clients when they don’t think it’s a good match. By the same token, shouldn’t those same businesses be permitted to decide what they display (in this case, content) just like any business can choose its stock? We wouldn’t force a bookstore to carry Hawley’s book; why should we force Twitter to transmit his Tweets?

There is an obvious answer here, which is that the tech behemoths exercise monopoly power, akin to that of many public utilities. Those utilities are required to serve any customer who wishes to use them, so long as the customer is willing to abide by basic rules. So, too, Cable broadcasters are subject to “must carry” regulations regarding local television stations. Why not extend those types of consumer protections to the social media industry?

It is an intriguing question, particularly if you favor criteria that are broadly tolerant of freedom of speech and assembly. Let’s take a leap of faith and say that both business and politicians are willing to make good-faith efforts to find solutions to prune back some of the deeply fringe and scary, while protecting access more generally. What does that look like?

If, for example, Hawley doubles down and insists that the election was stolen, Hugo Chavez is alive, and 24 million Democratic votes came from a Zombie factory in Haiti, shouldn’t he be permitted to do that? If he wants to advocate for peaceful Civil Disobedience to the Biden Administration, shouldn’t he be permitted to do that as well? The red line can’t be bizarre and divisive theories and excessive self-aggrandizement. It has to be more—words that are a potential danger to the public at large, such as those targeting an individual or a group, promoting self-harm, or inciting violence.

Of course, a platform that is completely open to whatever Josh Hawley wants to say, whenever he wants to say it, is not really what he wants, or, to put it more precisely, it’s not all that he wants. What Hawley craves is an environment in which there are no consequences for anything he says or does. He is angered that he’s been judged and feels he’s above the scrutiny being given to him. The open rejections by his previous supporters sting, and the loss of the Simon & Schuster contract is a loss of face. He is defiant, getting louder, more obnoxious, more disruptive, but he’s too smart not to realize he’s been diminished in the public eye. Hawley may be a force for decades; he may even, in this insanely partisan environment, become President, but he’s never going to recover the central promise of his early years. He’s shown himself, and it’s not pretty. The market for his product has been radically altered.

This is where the Hawley experience is so valuable to us—the idea that exercising freedoms that are Constitutionally guaranteed may still lead to consequences. Mike Lindell, the “My Pillow” guy, complained recently that he’s lost $65 million in business. Putting aside the pun that I’m not going to cry myself to sleep over that, why should he be immune? If a business owner puts up a sign asking people to wear a mask, or not to bring a gun into his store, and he loses some customers because of it, that’s a choice he’s made, understanding the risks. It is, coincidentally, the choice I am making as well, by publishing this piece under my own name. A potential client might find it and disagree with it enough to decide not to hire me.

This result is not inherently unjust, although it may, at times, seem disproportionate. I don’t see how regulating social media platforms changes that. Yet, I don’t think that really is the problem. The amplification of anger, paranoia, and an urge to violence is. It’s eating at our civil society, and perhaps even our civilization.

Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology notes that people have been focused on the moment when the “intelligence” of machines exceeds humans. That’s not what we should be fearing: “There’s this much earlier moment when technology actually overwhelms human weaknesses.” In testimony before Congress, he asked what might be the critical question of our time: “How can we solve the world’s most urgent problems if we’ve downgraded our attention spans, downgraded our capacity for complexity and nuance, downgraded our shared truth, downgraded our beliefs into conspiracy theory thinking that we can’t construct shared agendas to solve our problems?”

Harris is right. The Machine is not only messing with our heads, but also with our glands. That red light that’s flashing on a screen up ahead isn’t just another pitch for sheet music, or shirts, or political causes. It is a “road washed out ahead” sign,.

We’d better take heed of it.

 Down The Rabbit Hole With Schubert And Hawley first appeared on March 1, 2021 at

You can find it, and links to other pieces at