Sunday, January 10, 2010

John Adams and the Problem of Contemporary Political Classification

Original post 7/12/08

NB: A version of this was first posted at Anchor Rising.

Providence Journal editorialist Ed Achorn had a piece yesterday on John Adams and recommended taking in the HBO mini-series that is now out on DVD (I hope to). Coincidentally, I had been thinking about Adams after listening to the Independence Day show of local radio talk-show host Matt Allen, during which he he read the entire Declaration of Independence and extolled the virtues of our great nation. (Full disclosure--contributors to another website I co-founded,, have a weekly spot on his show and occasionally are in-studio guests). The conversation was wide-ranging, and along the way he made an off-the-cuff remark along the lines that John Adams was a Democrat and Thomas Jefferson was a Republican.

Wha.....? I thought. I suspected it was based on the fact that Adams was a prominent member of the post-Revolution Federalist Party (along with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, incidentally), which advocated a strong central government. Given Matt's, shall we say, inclination against big government, I can understand why he'd think that anyone for a strong national government--no matter the time or place, I suppose--was akin to what we would call a contemporary, big government Democrat.

As it turned out, Matt was being a bit anachronistic--though knowingly so--by attributing the Federalist's desire to centralize power as the equivalent of today's conception of "big government." The one-off remark missed the historical context surrounding the rise of the Federalist philosophy of government (hey, it was a talk-show!), which was based on a belief that they urgently needed to strengthen and tighten the internal ties of their nascent nation so it could survive in a belligerent world.

As I discussed with Allen (briefly), Adams is considered by most conservatives to have been the first American conservative; one of their own, much less a Founding era Democrat! He wasn't interested in encroaching on the rights of the population or imposing arbitrary taxes or monetary redistribution or instituting a vast bureaucracy or creating programs to address every ill, whether real or perceived. In fact, neither were his political opponents, Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans. I guess the truth of the matter is that, in the Founding era, there really was no equivalent to the modern conception of a big-government Democrat. They came along with Woodrow Wilson and, later, FDR.

Here's some of that historical context I was talking about.

After the Revolution, it was becoming clear to many of the Founders that the Articles of Confederation simply didn't have enough teeth. The government they provided for was very weak and the particular interests of the various states trumped those of the nation to the detriment of all. European powers played the states off of each other and threatened to economically, or even militarily, divide and conquer the young nation. For example, on economic problem was the inability of the national government to place duties on imports. This was a key economic weapon against great powers like Great Britain who restricted imports from America. In 1781 Congress, under the Articles, asked the states for permission to enact duties, but all such actions required "unanimous consent" and--would you believe it--Rhode Island refused.

As for foreign affairs, with no national army, Great Britain made excuses for not abandoning their forts in the American west; with no navy, the Barbary Pirates attacked American merchant ships and put their crews into slavery; with no consolidated diplomatic "vision", virtually no national treaties could be signed (again, because of a high hurdle of approval) while individual states made their own treaties. The colonies had won independence together, but in their freedom, they were drifting apart as each state viewed itself as a sovereign nation. In reality, they were setting themselves up to be cherries ripe for the picking. The states had become their own worst enemies.

In the debate over the creation of a new government, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers to explain why the new Constitution, one that described a stronger central government than that of the Articles of Confederation, was required for a young and vulnerable nation. They were opposed by the Anti-Federalists, who argued against the centralization of power put in place by the Constitution. (Eventually, the Anti-federalist inspired Bill of Rights were thrown in as a compromise to get passage of the Constitution).

During this debate, Adams was in Great Britain, and was asked to hastily compile something to help convince the states of the wisdom of passing the new Constitution. His A Defence of the Consitution of Government of the United States of America helped elaborate further on the principles of the balance of power within government and how a more complicated government guided by laws was necessary to maintain the liberty so desired by the American people. (In this, he was informed by his own work as the chief personality involved in the drafting of the Massachusetts Constitution). A selection from Defence--in this case Adams' theory on the importance of property--is probably enough to show why many consider him a conservative:
Suppose a nation, rich and poor, high and low, ten millions in number, all assembled together; not more than one or two millions will have lands, houses, or any personal property; if we take into the account the women and children, or even if we leave them out of the question, a great majority of every nation is wholly destitute of property, except a small quantity of clothes, and a few trifles of other movables...if all were to be decided by a vote of the majority, the eight or nine millions who have no property, would not think of usurping over the rights of the one or two millions who have? Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty. Perhaps, at first, prejudice, habit, shame or fear, principle or religion, would restrain the poor from attacking the rich, and the idle from usurping on the industrious; but the time would not be long before courage and enterprise would come, and pretexts be invented by degrees, to countenance the majority in dividing all the property among them, or at least, in sharing it equally with its present possessors. Debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich, and not at all on the others; and at last a downright equal division of every thing be demanded, and voted. What would be the consequence of this? The idle, the vicious, the intemperate, would rush into the utmost extravagance of debauchery, sell and spend all their share, and then demand a new division of those who purchased from them. The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If "Thou shalt not covet," and "Thou shalt not steal," were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.
Sound like a modern day, "big government Democrat" (or "Republican" for that matter!) to you?

But it does get more complicated as we look away from political philosophy and towards actual politics. During Washington's first term as President, two factions emerged with different ideas and priorities as to how the new government should operate. Washington, Adams and Hamilton eventually identified themselves as Federalists, which wanted a strong army and navy, central banking (especially consolidation of state debt into national and the establishment of national credit), strong courts and also favored Great Britain in trade and foreign affairs. Jefferson and Madison would dub themselves Democratic-Republicans and they and their party opposed a strong central government, banking, a standing army--and especially navy--and looked to France for political and philosophical inspiration.

In reality, Washington mostly tried to stay above the partisanship. He was all about noblesse oblige and, as Father of the Country, he could pull it off (though he still came under some criticism for being too "kingly"). Hamilton was the heart-and-soul of the Federalist Party and leader of the so-called High Federalists, who, without pushing it too far, thought that Great Britain had the right idea with an aristocracy and all. For his part, as indicated above, Adams believed in the balance of power, but also in the necessity of a strong central government to facilitate the unification of the disparate colonies and factions when needed. Such was, according to Russell Kirk, Adams' "practical conservatism."

After the nasty election of 1796, Adams, who didn't get along with Hamilton and his allies, was a man very much alone as President. He was left to carve his own path during his single term. But with no allies in either party, he weathered a few crises (XYZ affair and the Quasi-war with France most notably) and served only one-term, losing to the popular Jefferson in the election of 1800 (sometimes dubbed the second revolution).

The legacy of John Adams is hard to encapsulate, and a scattershot blog post can't do him justice. But his writings and political philosophy as well as his determination in the face of personal unpopularity stand out for me. And I've got a soft spot because he managed to keep a foundering U.S. Navy afloat when so many, including Thomas Jefferson--who would later benefit from Adams investment in the Navy against the Barbary Pirates--wanted to sell it off. Adams believed in a strong national defense and strong financial institutions and a central government that could stand up to enemies "foreign and domestic." His idea of a strong national government was meant to deal with these issues, not to encroach into every aspect of Americans' lives.

ADDENDUM: Conservatives have long pointed to John Adams as the first prominent proponent of an American-style conservatism. Russel Kirk and Peter Viereck both wrote histories of American conservatism and each regard Adams as an American conservative touchstone. Many historians--Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Richard Brookhiser come to mind--regard Adams as essentially conservative, too. They base their classification on Adams' on political thought as expressed in his voluminous writings.

The Encyclopedia Britannica offers a helpful and concise summary of Adams' political thought (the entry was written by Joseph Ellis):
Adams wished to warn his fellow Americans against all revolutionary manifestos that envisioned a fundamental break with the past and a fundamental transformation in human nature or society that supposedly produced a new age. All such utopian expectations were illusions, he believed, driven by what he called “ideology,” the belief that imagined ideals, so real and seductive in theory, were capable of being implemented in the world. The same kind of conflict between different classes that had bedeviled medieval Europe would, albeit in muted forms, also afflict the United States, because the seeds of such competition were planted in human nature itself. Adams blended the psychological insights of New England Puritanism, with its emphasis on the emotional forces throbbing inside all creatures, and the Enlightenment belief that government must contain and control those forces, to construct a political system capable of balancing the ambitions of individuals and competing social classes.

His insistence that elites were unavoidable realities in all societies, however, made him vulnerable to the charge of endorsing aristocratic rule in America, when in fact he was attempting to suggest that the inevitable American elite must be controlled, its ambitions channeled toward public purposes. He also was accused of endorsing monarchical principles because he argued that the chief executive in the American government, like the king in medieval European society, must possess sufficient power to check the ravenous appetites of the propertied classes. Although misunderstood by many of his contemporaries, the realistic perspective Adams proposed—and the skepticism toward utopian schemes he insisted upon—has achieved considerable support in the wake of the failed 20th-century attempts at social transformation in the communist bloc. In Adams’s own day, his political analysis enjoyed the satisfaction of correctly predicting that the French Revolution would lead to the Reign of Terror and eventual despotism by a military dictator.
By the way, Jefferson was decidedly pro-French Revolution, along with the rest of his party, the Democratic-Republicans. Ellis also wrote the EB entry forJefferson, which includes this bit about the Adams and Jefferson retirement correspondence:
The reconciliation between the two patriarchs was arranged by their mutual friend Benjamin Rush, who described them as “the North and South poles of the American Revolution.” That description suggested more than merely geographic symbolism, since Adams and Jefferson effectively, even dramatically, embodied the twin impulses of the revolutionary generation. As the “Sage of Monticello,” Jefferson represented the Revolution as a clean break with the past, the rejection of all European versions of political discipline as feudal vestiges, the ingrained hostility toward all mechanisms of governmental authority that originated in faraway places. As the “Sage of Quincy (Massachusetts),” Adams resembled an American version of Edmund Burke, which meant that he attributed the success of the American Revolution to its linkage with past practices, most especially the tradition of representative government established in the colonial assemblies. He regarded the constitutional settlement of 1787–88 as a shrewd compromise with the political necessities of a nation-state exercising jurisdiction over an extensive, eventually continental, empire, not as a betrayal of the American Revolution but an evolutionary fulfillment of its promise.

These genuine differences of opinion made Adams and Jefferson the odd couple of the American Revolution and were the primary reasons why they had drifted to different sides of the divide during the party wars of the 1790s. The exchange of 158 letters between 1812 and 1826 permitted the two sages to pose as philosopher-kings and create what is arguably the most intellectually impressive correspondence between statesmen in all of American history. Beyond the elegiac tone and almost sculpted serenity of the letters, the correspondence exposed the fundamental contradictions that the American Revolution managed to contain.


Pete Jones said...

I always thought of Patrick Henry as one of the first "conservatives." Although of an earlier generation than Jefferson and Adams, so a bit difficult to compare to them, he was intensely fearful of a strong central government. Some of his social views also trended toward the conservative, even for the time (teetotaler, did not appreciate Franklin's "indiscretions", very pro-slavery). But then, I'm no colonial historian.

Coincidentally, Henry was immortalized by several of the private schools started to perpetuate segregation in the fifties and sixties (especially in VA). Definitely the most popular founding father as far as that goes (TJ also inspired several HS names). While we don't know where Henry (or any of the founders) would stand on contemporary issues, many Southern conservatives and segregationists thought he would take their side. For what that is worth.

Marc said...

Pete, Thanks for bringing Henry up (more here). He also had the prototypical states-rights approach by serving his "country" (Virginia) but refusing to go to Congress (which is ironic given his famous statement, "I am not a Virginian, I am an American, etc."