...ambitious and beautifully written ... This book offers an abundance of riches. It is both biography and family history of two brilliant men who were deeply concerned about the long-range prospects of their country ... Isenberg and Burstein push back on a number of accepted tenets of early American history.
After the bold premise and broad promise of the opening chapter, the book that follows is a surprisingly traditional political biography, covering the familiar ground of political campaigns, diplomatic missions and major crises during the two Adams administrations ... The strength of The Problem of Democracy lies in its masterful intertwining of the narrative of the two Adamses’ lives. This allows us to see how profoundly John Adams shaped his son’s intellectual and moral values and how intensely invested he was in every aspect of John Quincy’s career ... The Problem of Democracy offers a final warning to its readers who live in an era of 'alternate truths' and blind devotion to charismatic leaders: Personal charisma should not substitute for 'proven judgment, a sense of fairness, breadth of knowledge, and administrative command.'
The book functions more as an intellectual biography than a standard history ... There's an entire chapter focused on authors, most notably Cicero, who influenced 2 and 6 (borrowing from how the Bushes have referred to themselves as 41 and 43) ... At the heart of the book are essays...wrestling with the idea of democracy: what form governments should take; what sort of men should serve or even vote; and how much of a buffer should exist between governing and popular opinion ... While the book spends a bit too much time inside the heads of 2 and 6...it still does an excellent job capturing how those institutions fell into place over the long scope of the father's and son's careers.
... an informative, often moving, account of the intimate relationship between John and John Quincy Adams. It serves as well as a meditation on the distinctions between representative and popular democracies ... Isenberg and Burstein mention the Adamses’ faults, but they deserve a few more innings. John Adams, for example, signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law ... That said, Isenberg and Burstein make a compelling case that the Adamses’ ideas, policies and leadership deserve our attention.
As ambitious as their protagonists, Mr. Burstein and Ms. Isenberg offer a frankly revisionist 'lesson in myth busting' ... It’s a fair assessment. So why don’t they loom larger in our collective memory? The authors blame it on voters who stress 'hollow celebrity and contrived popularity' at the expense of 'competence and rational judgment.'
... historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg...[are] the perfect team ... The Problem of Democracy shows father and son exuberantly punching and pivoting in the roiling politics of their day ... Isenberg and Burstein are frank about the shortcomings of their subjects, who often engaged in the same sins for temporary political ends ... There are no myths in The Problem with Democracy, which instead asks its readers probing questions about our political origin story and demands serious answers.
Readers will indeed struggle to square the Adamses’ reputation as antidemocratic conservatives with the father’s unyielding insistence on transparency ... Though the narrative exposes faults in both men, readers will discern in them an admirable independence from democracy-damaging party spirit as they approach major issues ... The Adamses’ anxieties about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century threats to American democracy may bring to readers’ minds the latest headlines.
An unsettling yet well-presented argument that the failures of John and John Quincy Adams illustrate a disturbing feature of American politics ... Besides lively, warts-and-all portraits of the men and the surprisingly nasty politics of the young nation, the authors delve deeply into their philosophies and those of Enlightenment thinkers who influenced them ... A top-notch dual biography of two presidents who deserved better.
...a densely packed double-decker reassessment of the lives and political foresight of father-and-son presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams ... Isenberg and Burstein provide an acute evaluation of the Adamses’ intellectual development, and they have a knack for making prescient observations ... Analysis occasionally supersedes narrative, which can make this weighty analysis heavy lifting even for an interested reader.