John Adams, statesman, revolutionary, foil and friend to Thomas Jefferson, vice president to George Washington, father of the nation’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams, and himself second president of the United States, was a poor man. Consider the furnishings in the Adams home in Braintree, Massachusetts at the outset of the Revolution: a simple table and chairs, a few beds, three silver spoons. There was a copy of the Bible and a few other books—more than most in their town, but not much more. The home was unbearably hot in the summer and freezing in the winter, except next to the fires in the hearth.
Since the late 18th century, the US and Europe have undertaken a massive expansion and industrialization that lifted standards of living for the common person to levels never before even conceived of even in the richest palaces on earth. Our predecessors created new definitions of wealth and poverty, developed an economic and political “middle class,” linked the world in global trade of raw materials and finished products and sparked unprecedented and persistent global migration of people, villages and cultures.
Curiously, there remains in many a latent assumption of what we would call a Western exceptionalism—that western Europeans and their American descendants are somehow uniquely qualified to lead the world in economic development. Actually, it is not curious at all, but rather parochial and short-sided. For the world is shifting before our eyes, and if we are not open to it, we will miss one of the great seismic shifts in human history.
While Brazil, China, India, Korea and many others possess significant political, cultural and economic differences, they are experiencing massive expansions of technology and infrastructure, developing a more robust middle class (and thus their own consumer bases), and weaving themselves more firmly into the global economy as far more than just commodity providers. For those who genuinely care about reducing poverty and expanding opportunity, these are good things—essential ones. And hopefully, political and religious freedoms will increasingly accompany the expanded economic opportunity, not just because of their inherent value, but also because such freedoms will help make the economic gains more sustainable. We are not naïve about the challenges these countries face along the way; yet history tells us that rich nations underestimate emerging ones at their peril, whether the rich nations are Roman, Babylonian, or members of the Habsburg Empire.
If John Adams were here today, he would have a great deal to say about the lack of political freedoms in many parts of the world and the persistent abuse of the poor and disenfranchised. Yet, he would also see, sympathize with, and respect their eagerness to build something new and better for their families and communities. He would recognize in many places in the world the hunger that he and his neighbors had experienced in the early days of the republic and recall how it powered them against seemingly insurmountable forces. And he also would recall the complacency and parochialism that caused the reigning powers of the time to underestimate the emerging new power in America.
Of course, if John Adams were here today, he probably wouldn’t stand a chance at election, which is probably the biggest change of all…