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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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reviewing John Adams’s Political Ideas

Today’s leg of my trip takes me from Philadelphia to the Washington, D.C., area—a move the federal government made in John Adams’s administration.

Here are extracts from Tom Cutterham’s review for the American Journal of Legal History of two books published last year about Adams’s political thinking: John Adams’ Republic: The One, the Few, and the Many by Richard Alan Ryerson, and John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy by Luke Mayville.
John Adams’ reputation as a reactionary proponent of American aristocracy emerged from the bitter political disputes of the 1790s, when the norms and structures of the new republic were still being shaped. Thomas Jefferson first promoted the hypothesis that Adams had been swayed from the path of revolutionary republicanism by his time as ambassador in the courts of Europe. Mercy Otis Warren repeated the claim in her anti-Federalist history of the revolution. Most historians since, at least those who have not specialised in Adams’ thought, broadly accepted the Jeffersonian narrative. But it was false. John Adams never was a friend of aristocracy. In fact, he was its most vigilant and perceptive critic. . . .

Whether it was best described as aristocracy or oligarchy, Ryerson and Mayville agree that the primary quality of this dangerous grouping was its money. The revolution, and especially the exigencies of the war, had helped create “a new, enlarged, aggressive aristocracy of wealth,” transforming Boston and other cities in the new republic (Ryerson, p. 243). Yet Adams could be slippery with his definition. As Ryerson emphasises, aristocracy implied a quality rather than a quantity—a distinction which fits Adams’ approach. What mattered was not the precise membership of the category, but the processes that created it. Mayville, following C. Wright Mills, pins Adams as a theorist of the “power elite.” We might simply call it the ruling class. . . .

While Ryerson’s account embeds Adams’ political thought deep in the context of his own life and writings, it does not pay much attention to other thinkers. Mayville’s book, while much shorter, gives us a better sense of the authors with whom Adams was in conversation, including contemporaries like Jefferson, James Madison, and John Taylor of Caroline, as well as European authorities like Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Jean-Louis de Lolme. Of course, what all these men shared—most of the time, anyway—was a disdain for the political abilities and virtue of ordinary citizens. Both Mayville and Ryerson are clear that Adams was no democrat. His theorising was bent on the task of taming natural aristocracy without handing control to the licentious mob.

In 1774 it was the masses, not the aristocrats, who overthrew imperial rule in Massachusetts. “Real authority now derived from the people, exercised directly in their town meetings and militia companies” (Ryerson, p. 156). Their government had neither executive nor judicial branches, and Adams was “deeply impressed, indeed astonished,” at their “good order” (p. 161). If his theory of aristocracy foresaw that men of wealth and influence would never allow such conditions to persist, there was a certain perverse ingenuity to the way Adams and men like him—politicians, thinkers, natural aristocrats—helped bring his prediction to pass.
So Adams might have been more of a critic of the aristocracy on paper than in practice.

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