From time to time, especially around the Fourth of July, the subject of my son, John Adams’s, name comes up. People typically admiringly ask one of the following questions: “Why did you name him John Adams?” “Do you like the President?” “Are we related to the Adams Family in some way?” “Do we know the musical 1776?” The questions are pretty much the same all the time. Only rarely do I get someone who openly challenges our decision. “Why would you name him after John Adams?” “He was the second president, not the first (so first loser, I suppose).” “He was insecure and arrogant.” “He was a Federalist.” “He was the first one-term president because he was so unpopular.” Or most damning of all, “He signed the Alien and Sedition Acts allowing the Federalists to lock up score of political opponents!” “Guilty as charged,” is my usual reply. You cannot alter history (though many in this country try). But where most people tend to judge the lives of others like John Adams solely upon one or two events – he was President of the United States, his letters with wife Abigail and Thomas Jefferson, the dreaded Alien and Sedition Acts – the John Adams I’ve come to know and admire is more the product of knowing a little more about many of the aspects of his life, and trying to tease out his overall net worth as a person post-mortem. This approach to assessing the entire life of a person is appropriately called The Whole Man Theory.
I had never heard of The Whole Man Theory until I started listening to The Thomas Jefferson Hour several years ago. As a matter of fact as I was researching for this article I found a related article written by Clay S. Jenkinson of The Thomas Jefferson Hour fame for The Bismarck Tribune. Here is the link to that article if you’d like his specific take on the subject:
As I understand it, The Whole Man Theory asks us to consider all of a person’s positive attributes and contributions to civilization, and then do the same for their negatives, weigh the two against each other, and finally assess their life based on the balance, or imbalance of the two. That’s it. No secret formula. No drawn out plan. Just look at the big, entire picture before you judge. It should be easy. But our own biases of right and wrong frequently skew our tallies and cloud our judgement. And then there’s the fact that often overall good people have seriously bad baggage. Consider the following:
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he owned slaves. George Washington defeated the British to secure us our country, but he owned slaves. FDR all but won World War II and got America through the Great Depression, but he imprisoned all the Asian-Americans in concentration camps. Though I’m citing extreme cases here, I firmly believe that no one who has lived a life of some significance has no dirty laundry in their past. Please believe me when I say I’m not making light of their faults, I just don’t think there is any such thing as a perfect human.
We have a troublesome tendency towards vilifying our public figures over singular incidents, Nixon and Watergate for example. And sometimes, rarely thankfully, there is an Adolf Hitler who tips the scale so far toward the “dark” side that there is no hope of looking for balance. But most lives are made up of good and bad, successes and failures, periods of light and darkness, and we would do well to remember that until the day we die the sum total of our experiences has yet to be tallied.
As for naming my son John Adams, well, Nancy and I do admire the second president with all of his faults. He was irascible and vain, insecure and at times an elitist, and he did sign the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, putting the Alien and Sedition Acts aside, he was a loving husband and father, a brilliant rhetorician and statesman, arguably the most well-read man in the colonies, first vice-president, second president, first United States Ambassador to Great Britain and, most importantly, without his dogged tenacity in Congress we would very likely not have our own country. It’s true that the Alien and Sedition Acts must be researched and wrestled with if you really want to know the man and not just lionize him. But based on my own research, within the context of history there are very real and unfortunately valid reasons why he gave in to temptation on this one issue. It’s a decision that stained his character, marred his presidency and subsequent legacy in the eyes of generations after him, and he regretted it the rest of his life. But I have the benefit of time and historical context on my side and so see the mistake for what it was (or at least what I think it was), and in my final analysis I can still greatly admire the rest of him. I have forgiven John his tragic error in judgment, and slowly much of the rest of the country has come around to the same conclusion.
The larger challenge is applying the principles of The Whole Man Theory to people who do us personally wrong. Is their decision to harm us unique from their overall character or is it a hallmark of their overall personality? How can the world at large admire those who hurt us? Can we move past a personal injury to see the big picture that is another person’s life still in progress without the benefits of time and distance? It’s not easy. And even as I write I can think of several individuals I still struggle to see clearly through the pain. But President John Adams is not one of them for me. His life balanced well in my book and, despite his flaws, I’m proud my son is named in his honor.
Now, for my son’s middle name, Tiberius…
Well, we’ll save that discussion for another day.