A few weeks ago, Joe Posnanski penned a great column about the etymology of the phrase “begs the question.” In it, he recalls mentioning the name Amelia Earhart to a colleague and is “stunned” to learn that the colleague has not idea who Earhart is. Posnanski explains: “[She] was the woman pilot from Kansas who disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to fly around the world.”
And then he admits that maybe he shouldn’t have been stunned about his colleague’s ignorance. After all, the sentence I just quoted “more or less exhausts [his] entire catalogue of knowledge about Amelia Earhart.” Mine too — in fact, I did not know she was from Kansas.
That same day, former president John Adams came up in a conversation with a friend. We were talking about Liz Cheney’s objection to American lawyers representing Al Qaeda members, and Adams — who represented British soldiers (successfully!) charged with crimes stemming from the Boston Massacre — naturally came up. We both knew who he was, basically — the second President of the United States, a Boston patriot, even cousin of Sam Adams. But beyond that? Nothing. Not even enough to fill a top 10 list.
I figured that needed fixing. I wasn’t going to go read David McCullough’s 752 page book on Adams, but I wanted to get more than just a glib understanding of his impact on the American Founding. I read Adams’ Wikipedia entry that evening on my commute home, and found a few things surprising. But with no one to discuss them with — my friend was happy with his glib understanding — the learnings fell silent. I wished, quietly, that others had also read the article with me, and shared their top takeaways. Kind of like a book club, but for Wikipedia articles.
So, I’m starting one here, and hope you’ll do the same on your blog, Facebook page, twitter account, etc. Here’s how:
1) If you’re interested in the topic (this time, John Adams), read the Wikipedia article and post your takeaways in the comments. Think of it as a book club, hosted at my place. I want to know what you learned, what you think, etc.
2) Start a Wikipedia Reading Club meeting on your own blog. Pick a topic that you think you should know more about, but don’t. And do what I’m doing, below. The source need not be Wikipedia, either; for example, if you wanted to know more about Cookie Monster, you might suggest reading both his Wikipedia entry and his Muppet Wiki one.
3) Share your participation in this Club meeting and others on your blog, Twitter feeds, etc. I’ll be sharing my participation in this Wikipedia Reading Club meeting announcing it on Twitter (maybe with a #WikiRC hash tag) and by commenting here. If you start your own WikiRC around an article of your choosing, let me know on Twitter, by leaving a comment here, by emailing me, etc. And if I join your meetings, I’ll be tweeting and commenting there, too.
Now, to John Adams:
The fundamental structure of the U.S. Congress was much more radical than I thought. And I thought it was pretty radical. In elementary school and beyond, I (and most Americans) were taught that the core debate of the Constitutional Congress was one of states rights versus a strong federal government. One of the big concerns was that large, populous states (e.g. Virginia) would have more influence than smaller ones. The solution was a bicameral legislature, with one house giving each state equal representation as to any other (the Senate) and the other (the House) tied to population. Seems reasonable — but it’s now how Adams saw a bicameral system operating. He noted “that social classes exist in every political society, and [believed] that a good government must accept that reality.” In his eyes, the elite would be one house, the commoners the other. Given that this theory was propounded by a Founding Father and the 2nd President of the United States, it should go without saying that it was considered. Imagine how different America, and probably the world, would be had the Continental Congress adopted Adams’ ideals.
Adams was an accidental, “electability” candidate for President — and won. Obviously, I knew he won. The first part caught me off guard, but it explains a lot. Coming into this, I knew more about Alexander Hamilton and even Aaron Burr than I do Adams — and neither of them were ever elected President. Now I understand why.
In 2004, John Kerry grabbed the Democratic nomination for President, over the much more passionate and interesting Howard Dean. Dean rallied the base and to a large degree teed up the issues for both the primaries but did came in third (!) at the Iowa caucuses mostly because he was widely regarded as a bit crazy and divisive. Kerry, on the other hand, had a reputation for being “electable” — not someone you’d vote for, not someone you’d vote against, but certainly, if enough people disliked George W. Bush, someone who could win by default. Adams seems to be that type of candidate. The Federalists were more passionate about Hamilton, but wanted to make sure Thomas Jefferson lost. Hamilton was toxic to enough voters as to make him a non-option, so the Federalists went with Adams. And, unlike Kerry’s Democrats, it worked. The second President of the United States was a default candidate. Sad, but apparently, true.
In the late 1700s, Britian and France were at war. American political parties were divided as to whom to support. The war I knew about, albeit glibly. I also knew that for the most part, the United States stayed out of it. But this line absolutely floored me: “Adams’s term (1797–1801) was marked by intense disputes over foreign policy and a limited naval war with France. Britain and France were at war; Hamilton and the Federalists favored Britain, while Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored France.“
The default rule of neutrality made a ton of sense for early America. Isolated from Europe and a very young nation, the cost of war and the time lag made it incredibly cumbersome. But I never thought “who should we support” was contentious.
Take modern day America. Since World War II, has there ever been a deep divide about who the U.S. should support? Perhaps Israeli/Palestinian relations come close, but even then, both major parties back Israel. My knowledge of the history of American foreign relations is lacking, I guess, but I can’t think of a single example where two major powers were at war and the U.S. couldn’t decide what side to be on. I’m flabbergasted.
Your turn. Read John Adams’ Wikipedia entry and leave your thoughts in the comments. And then start your own Wikipedia Reading Club meeting!