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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Sunday, November 02, 2008

John Adams on “Natural and Actual Aristocracy”

As I discussed yesterday, the U.S. of A. never created a formal hereditary aristocracy on the British model. But before American politics turned against the whole idea of aristocracy, some leaders argued that some sort of noble class was a useful check on both autocracy and democracy.

Notably, on 18 Oct 1790, John Adams wrote to Samuel Adams about the value of “nobles” in preserving balanced government:
By nobles, I mean not peculiarly an hereditary nobility, or any particular modification, but the natural and actual aristocracy among mankind. The existence of this you will not deny. You and I have seen four noble families rise up in Boston,—the Craftses, Gores, Daweses, and Austins. These are as really a nobility in our town as the Howards, Somersets, Berties, &c., in England.

Blind, undistinguishing reproaches against the aristocratical part of mankind, a division which nature has made, and we cannot abolish, are neither pious nor benevolent. They are as pernicious as they are false. They serve only to foment prejudice, jealousy, envy, animosity, and malevolence. They serve no ends but those of sophistry, fraud, and the spirit of party.
(This transcription isn’t exact. When this letter was published at the time, printers cleaned up Adams’s spellings.)

All the families that Adams named had risen from the ranks of craftsmen to that of gentlemen (particularly lawyers, his own profession) in his lifetime:
  • Thomas Crafts was a decorative painter who helped organize the earliest Stamp Act protests in Boston, commanded the Massachusetts militia artillery during the war, and became a selectman and magistrate.
  • John Gore also started as a decorative painter and became a militia officer. His oldest daughter, Frances, married Crafts; his middle son, Samuel, became a factory owner; and his youngest son, Christopher, went into the law and eventually became governor of Massachusetts.
  • The elder Thomas Dawes was a house carpenter who went into politics; his son of the same name became a judge. (William Dawes was a cousin.) The family’s descendants included Senator Henry L. Dawes and Vice President Chester G. Dawes.
  • Benjamin Austin, a merchant and state legislator, and Jonathan L. Austin, eventually state treasurer, were the sons of the manager and part-owner of a rope factory.
An unstated subtext of this letter was that the Adams family was also part of America’s “natural aristocracy.” After all, John’s father was a farmer and rural selectman, but in 1790 John had become Vice President. Samuel Adams, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, wasn’t doing too bad, either. The people who most like the idea of a natural aristocracy usually see themselves as natural members of it.

Adams’s insistence on the value of such a “natural aristocracy” reflected his view of proper constitutional balance was always a shifting contest among the one (monarch, President), the few (lords, Senate, political class in general), and the many (Commons, House of Representatives, voters or people in general). Not to mention his penchant for dividing groups into thirds.

Other thinkers of the time also advocated a tripartite division of power, but that wasn’t the only constitutional model Americans were working with. For example, during the Revolution some states opted for a one-chamber legislature and/or a council of men instead of a single person as executive. But Adams’s model won out, in Massachusetts in 1780 and in the U.S. of A. as a whole in 1788.


pilgrimchick said...

Very interesting--I recall Adams making this argument from my studies years ago, and in the context of the "order" of beings that was studied over and over again in the culture of the 18th century (mostly European, though), I am not at all surprised that Adams, and probably others, looked at the rise of certain people in the developing American society, as naturally becoming that classification. It's also interesting that the families he describes--families that apparently were wealthy and recognized then--produced few, if any, people of note subsequently.

Anonymous said...

What New England founder John Winthrop, Esq. called a 'mixed aristocracy' was the standard form of American government from the 17th c. founding of the North and South Atlantic seaboard British colonies all the way through the early years of the 19th c. aristocratic Republic. The excessive democratization our our government is exactly what our founding fathers feared and warned us against. Fetishizing mob rule has now resulted in our current decline and dubious status as the world's largest debtor.

J. L. Bell said...

Why are critics of democracy so forthright only when they are anonymous?

Bill Greene said...

J. L., Not all critics are anonymous. Many historians have pointed out that democracies are "temporary" forms of government. Most started as Republics, in small locales with an independent group of citizens--such as in ancient Greece, Rome, Carthage, Phoenicia, Venice, Holland, Switzerland, and America. Some were born out of the European kingdoms in more recent times when reforms limited the power of hereditary power. They were uniquely meritocratic and open societies, and that allowed any serious and naturally gifted individual to move up the scale in wealth and influence. Many did so and built successful democracies.

But when matured, those societies were gradually weakened by the rise of an intellectual class, an expanded government, corruption at the top, excess foreign entanglements, and a growing underclass looking to government for support. The intellectuals usually criticized the culture and traditions of the society and called for transformation to meet their abstract ideas about what good governments should be like. Once a successful nation loses its traditional culture--the one that made them succeed--they start to decline in power and confidence. Patriotism and the spirit of team work is replaced by moral decline, dependency, and ethnic/class divisions. The people then start to elect demagogues who promise them everything and those who might belong to a natural aristocracy are absent from the political scene.

In America today the elected leaders are professional politicians, amateurs in the business of honest and sound management, catering to the loudest voices in the mob. Few competent individuals are willing to enter that fray, to be attacked by all opponents including those with few virtues to their credit. We are ruled by the least able, who preside over and burden the honest capable taxpayers who keep the country going. For 300 years from 1620-1920 America grew and prospered with few intellectuals, a small government, a strong spirit of self-reliance, influenced positively by the Judeo/Christian religion, and an enterprising population. Most of those positive forces have been undermined during the last 100 years. There are no Jeffersons, Lincolns, Adams, or Washington's to set us straight.

We have people like the Carters, Clintons, Obama, and GW Bush who allow the Wall Street bankers to run the Treasury Department while they meddle in failed foreign policy, redistribute the nation's bounty, and reward bad behavior while punishing all good behavior. God help us!

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you, Mr. Greene, for putting your name to this poor opinion of the U.S. of A. I don’t share that opinion or your interpretation of the past, but such forthrightness is a refreshing change from the previous commenter.

Bill Greene said...

If one admires the Liberty Boys of 1776, and the distinguished farmers and merchants who assembled in Philadelphia, and gave us this wonderful exceptional nation, then you must be concerned about the transformation of our people and culture that has occurred over the last 100 years. The natural aristocracy is clearly absent from the nation's political leadership. Instead we are led by amateurs of dubious moral character. And we are shackled by political correctness.

It is useful to remember that in 1775 those timid souls who opposed the revolution were tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail, and their homes confiscated. The most independent and daring souls remained and won the war and the future. Today we are divided, bickering over ideology, the huge bureaucracy mismanaged and corrupt. I have a great opinion of America; it has been arguably the best society in all of mankind's history, but I deplore the recent gradual change in our culture, our people, and our leadership. That is why many of us love to look at the past, the 1770s, its wonders, and the original founding culture that created this nation. But when your gaze returns to the present, the hard lessons of history seem very clear and depressing.