I wonder it it’s fair any longer to refer to John Adams as a forgotten founder. His stock has risen among American historians in the past 20 years or so. He even got an HBO mini-series–though, so far, no Broadway musical. In law and religion circles, Adams most famous for his observation that the US Constitution “was made only for a moral and religious people” and “is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Whether or not one agrees with Adams on that, his contributions to American constitutional theory are increasingly acknowledged.
This past year, the Johns Hopkins University Press published a new study of Adams’s political thought, John Adams’s Republic: The One, the Few and the Many, by historian Richard Alan Ryerson. The publisher’s description follows:
Scholars have examined John Adams’s writings and beliefs for generations, but no one has brought such impressive credentials to the task as Richard Alan Ryerson in John Adams’s Republic. The editor-in-chief of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Papers project for nearly two decades, Ryerson offers readers of this magisterial book a fresh, firmly grounded account of Adams’s political thought and its development.
Of all the founding fathers, Ryerson argues, John Adams may have worried the most about the problem of social jealousy and political conflict in the new republic. Ryerson explains how these concerns, coupled with Adams’s concept of executive authority and his fear of aristocracy, deeply influenced his political mindset. He weaves together a close analysis of Adams’s public writings, a comprehensive chronological narrative beginning in the 1760s, and an exploration of the second president’s private diary, manuscript autobiography, and personal and family letters, revealing Adams’s most intimate political thoughts across six decades.
How, Adams asked, could a self-governing country counter the natural power and influence of wealthy elites and their friends in government? Ryerson argues that he came to believe a strong executive could hold at bay the aristocratic forces that posed the most serious dangers to a republican society. The first study ever published to closely examine all of Adams’s political writings, from his youth to his long retirement,John Adams’s Republic should appeal to everyone who seeks to know more about America’s first major political theorist.
Next month, Penguin Random House will release a new book by philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Genius of Judaism. The book discusses contemporary anti-Semitism and argues that Western democratic ideals have Jewish roots. Here’s the publisher’s description:
For more than four decades, Bernard-Henri Lévy has been a singular figure on the world stage—one of the great moral voices of our time. Now Europe’s foremost philosopher and activist confronts his spiritual roots and the religion that has always inspired and shaped him—but that he has never fully reckoned with.
The Genius of Judaism is a breathtaking new vision and understanding of what it means to be a Jew, a vision quite different from the one we’re used to. It is rooted in the Talmudic traditions of argument and conflict, rather than biblical commandments, borne out in struggle and study, not in blind observance. At the very heart of the matter is an obligation to the other, to the dispossessed, and to the forgotten, an obligation that, as Lévy vividly recounts, he has sought to embody over decades of championing “lost causes,” from Bosnia to Africa’s forgotten wars, from Libya to the Kurdish Peshmerga’s desperate fight against the Islamic State, a battle raging as we speak. Lévy offers a fresh, surprising critique of a new and stealthy form of anti-Semitism on the rise as well as a provocative defense of Israel from the left. He reveals the overlooked Jewish roots of Western democratic ideals and confronts the current Islamist threat while intellectually dismantling it. Jews are not a “chosen people,” Lévy explains, but a “treasure” whose spirit must continue to inform moral thinking and courage today.
Lévy’s most passionate book, and in many ways his most personal, The Genius of Judaism is a great, profound, and hypnotic intellectual reckoning—indeed a call to arms—by one of the keenest and most insightful writers in the world.
Here’s a fun article on J.S. Bach’s magnificent Mass in B minor, one of the magisterial and final pinnacles of his oeuvre, and yet in some ways puzzling. What, after all, was a faithful Lutheran doing setting an entire Roman Catholic Mass–a Missa Tota?
And for performances, stay away from the trendy and the faux HIP (Historically Informed Performances). Someday I will write a rancorous essay entitled, “Historically Informed Performances: The Living (and oh so HIP) Originalism of Classical Music.”
Instead savor the magnificently moody and measured performances of Furtwängler and Scherchen. Or, if you can’t get ahold of those, this version conducted by Herbert von Karajan will do.