J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Luke Mayville on John Adams and Aristocracy

There are actually two books about John Adams’s political thinking on aristocracy coming out this year. In addition to the one author Richard Alan Ryerson will speak about tomorrow, there’s also John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy by Luke Mayville, published by Princeton University Press.

Earlier this fall the Course of Human Events blog discussed that book with Mayville. Here’s some of its posting:
“I argue in the book,” Mayville explains, “that John Adams is probably the most profound analyst and critic of oligarchy in American history.” (Mayville substantiates this claim, in part, by pointing to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, a book that would also contend for the title of most profound analysis of oligarchy. Mills viewed Adams as a predecessor for his own analysis.) Adams’ writings about oligarchy are interesting, of course, because of his importance in the foundation of this country. But his writings are especially interesting and relevant because the classical concept of the few and the many faded in his lifetime as the more modern concept of a single, classless citizenry became popular. . . .

Adams’ views on oligarchy have drawn criticism from historians who believe his thinking is obsolete or irrelevant for our time. Mayville accepts this criticism to a point, given Adams’ defense, as he puts it, of “certain far-fetched institutions or implausible institutional arrangements.” For example, he proposed a senate exclusively for aristocrats. As Mayville explains, “it wasn’t meant so much to privilege the aristocracy as to—in Adams’s words—ostracize them.” Essentially, the idea was to corral the social-economic elite in a single chamber of government and thereby prevent them from controlling the entire government. Leaving the “far-fetched” aside, Mayville argues that Adams’ thinking remains “uniquely relevant” because, more than his contemporaries and more than many thinkers in the tradition of American political thought, “he retained a critical perspective on the power of elites and the role they play in politics.”

Who exactly did John Adams count among the elites? . . . Mayville asserts that Adams “repeatedly pointed to wealth as the most reliable source of aristocracy or elite power. And in this sense, I think there are important parallels between his view and the contemporary idea of the 1%.” . . . Mayville notes: “Adams shared today’s growing suspicion that the wealth of the few or the 1% isn’t so much the product of work or talent as it is the product of luck or inheritance.”
Adams also described and praised a “natural and actual aristocracy among mankind,” families that can “rise up” through talent. In a 1790 letter to Samuel Adams (quoted here) he praised four Boston families as exemplifying that process: “the Craftses, Gores, Daweses, and Austins.”

Incidentally, the Crafts, Gore, and Dawes families all play major roles in the events of The Road to Concord. So they really are important.

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