Autor: Marek Jáč (Katedra Amerických Studií, FSV UK)
The American Founding Era belongs, undoubtedly, to the most interesting and fruitful parts of history. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and some other Founding Fathers were politicians, thinkers, statesmen who deserve a great credit. It is astonishing that during such a short period occurred so many excellent minds and talents.
All men mentioned above played a key role from the early beginning of the American Revolution till the establishment of the first federal governments. These people had a great opportunity to shape a character of the new state. Therefore, it is, undoubtedly, useful to take a closer look and analyse thoughts and ideas of these great men in order to understand their position and behaviour during the Founding Era.
The main goal of this paper is to examine political thoughts of John Adams during the Founding Era. Was John Adams a hardcore federalist as some of his contemporaries were accusing him? What was his perception of government? Second American President was very influential thinker and politician, however the general literature devotes him, probably, the least attention among the Founding Fathers. And although John Adams is not perceived as a one of great presidents, we can still find many great thoughts and ideas in his political philosophy.
The first chapter of this paper is devoted to a brief political biography of John Adams. In the second chapter, the analysis, using empirical-analytic approach, examines the key political thoughts in Adams’ two major texts Thoughts on Government (1776) and A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787). The third chapter compares some ideas of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the basic characteristics of the American republic.
Unlike Czech literature, English writing authors wrote literally libraries of materials devoted to the American Founding Era. Thus, used second literature is only selective. David McCullough’s excellent book John Adams (2001) was used as a key source for the political biography of John Adams. The comparative studies by Joyce Appleby – The New Republican Synthesis and the Changing Political Ideas of John Adams and Lance Bailyn – Republican Ideology and the Triumph of the Constitution, 1789 to 1793 were very helpful for the purposes of the third chapter. Other used literature is mentioned in footnotes and in the bibliography.
Political biography of John Adams
John Adams was born in 1735, in small village called Braintree nearby Boston, Massachusetts. He was born to a modes and puritan family where since childhood little John had to follow the puritan’s way of life.
After graduation from Harvard and a few years spent in the law office of John Putnam, a prominent lawyer in Worcester, John Adams became a lawyer and opened his own office in Boston. Future president gained a respect of public through his work, wide knowledge of law and his intense analyses of historical examples. However, John Adams was not a popular leader like his cousin, Samuel Adams.
John Adams became “popular” for general public in 1770 when he decided to fearlessly defend British soldiers criminally charged of shooting civilians. He accepted the case although he was well aware that he was risking his reputation and most likely his whole lawyer career. Without surprise the public mood was unanimously against the acquaintance of the soldiers. But due to good Adams’ defense, based on great collection of facts and evidence, most of the soldiers were acquitted.
During the Revolution, John Adams was very active. Already in 1770, he was elected to the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial legislature body). In 1774-1777, he was sent by Massachusetts to the first and second Continental Congresses. On both Congresses he was a member of many committees, fully dedicated to declare independence on the British crown. Some of the members of the Congresses perceived John Adams as a leader of the whole assembly. John Adams had been also a member of committee that authorized Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence and was among the firsts who proposed George Washington to become a commander in chief of the Continental Army. His influence on the Congresses was great.
After the breakout of the War, John Adams was dispatched to Europe (France, the Netherlands) where he was supposed to represent the new union (along with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson). In 1779, John Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution together with Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin when came back on the American continent from Europe for a while.
After the ratification of the Constitution, he was elected as a vice-president. He served as a loyal vice-president for two terms to George Washington. Then, in 1796, he won the presidential election by three votes. Thomas Jefferson, the runner-up, became a vice-president. Although Adams aligned with the Federalists, he was more his own party. He did not agree nor with Hamilton nor with Jefferson. John Adams’ presidency was heavily influenced by the situation in Europe. The Federalists wanted to declare a war to France and blamed Adams to be weak in international affairs while the Democrat-Republicans accused the second President for damaging the relations with the country that helped so much the USA in its foundation. Despite Alien and Sedition Acts and despite strong Federalist opposition, John Adams intended to avoid the war with France almost at any costs and he managed to do that.
In the presidential election in 1800, Thomas Jefferson, his disloyal vice-president, closely defeated him. Bitter and feeling betrayed by the Federalist Party and by his former friend, with whom he kept a personal correspondence and with whom he spent hours of discussions during their common stay in France, John Adams left the office without attending the inauguration of the new president and hastily appointing numbers of new federal judges without any consultations.
As an ordinary citizen John Adams spent rest of his life out of the active politics, however he was closely observing his successors and debating over their policy with his close friend. John Quincy Adams, his eldest son, became the sixth President of the United States. Sixteen month later, in 1826, John Adams died as Thomas Jefferson did. It is almost unbelievable, but both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
Political Thoughts of John Adams
Thoughts on Government
Thoughts on Government are a short text that John Adams wrote in 1776. Throughout the whole text Adams attempts to define the best form of government. From the very beginning Adams argues that: “(…) the happiness of society is the end of government.” Then he provides some historical examples of authoritarian governments and comes to the conclusion that: “(…) there is no good government but what is republican, (because the republic is) “an empire of laws, and not of men.”
For Adams, the principle difficulty of republican government lies in constituting a representative assembly. “It should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large.” And probably Adams’ perception of the role of an assembly in the whole system is the most valuable idea in the whole text. John Adams strictly opposes an idea that the assembly should be empowered by all powers of government. “I think a people cannot be long free, nor ever happy, whose government is in one assembly.” He even rejects the idea that legislature should be composed only by one body. Adams, again using arguments based on his vast studies of historical forms of governments, proposes to form a second, smaller body (20 to 30 representatives elected from the first body) – “council (which) should have a free and independent exercise of its judgment, and consequently a negative voice in the legislature”
The bicameral legislature is a cornerstone of Adams’ system. Unlike his many contemporaries, he was well aware about fragility of single assembly. Since it is “(L)iable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual” and has tendency to follow the notion of majority, vote itself perpetual, make laws for their own interest and judge all controversies in its own favor. He saw more far than many others. Without any doubt, he was concerned either about the executive power. As many others, he demanded annual elections (by joint ballot of both legislative bodies) of key executive representatives because “where annual elections end, there slavery begins.” But the single body legislature assembly represented for him the same threat as an unrestricted executive power. The second body of legislature was an important part of his system of checks and balances. Critics of Adams saw the bicameral system as an onset of creation of aristocracy. They argued that the second body would lead to the artificial creation of “better” people and eventually would turn into the rule either of aristocracy or monarchy and thus destroyed the American Revolution. However, John Adams was not any advocate of aristocracy or monarchy at all. His pure intension was to create a stable and viable system.
A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America
The second Adams’ important political text, or rather vast book, is a work entitled A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States. John Adams wrote this book during his stay in Great Britain as an ambassador, in 1785-1788. And again major goal of his writings is to discuss the best form and characteristics of government.
The second American president does not differentiate much from his previous thoughts. He again defends his classical republican theory of mixed government. Because of his stay in London, he was influenced by the European debate and thus he tries to answer to some European critics who were accusing the USA not being “revolutionary” enough. John Adams answers namely to Frenchman Turgot and defends his idea of bicameralism even though the United States lacked the aristocracies.
Here we can see slight shift in Adams argumentation. He suggests that: “The rich, the well-born and the able” should be set apart from other men in a senate (in Defense Adams calls the second body of legislature as a senate) —that would prevent them from dominating the lower house.” Adams sees the creation of elites inevitable. He rejects the equality and argues that inequalities are common in any community and are part of human nature. However this “natural aristocracy” played an ambivalent role in Adams’ perception. He wanted to “use” the rich, the well-born and the able for good of society and involve them as much as possible. On the other hand he was well aware that this class represented a threat for the whole system. This “natural aristocracy” could easily dominate, corrupt or bribe the legislature and follow their particular interests. This is why the lower house should possess a veto over the upper house and thus should be protected against this class. “Power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest,” ten years after the publication of Thoughts on Governments Adams is a more realistic statesman and in human behavior he saw “more darkness than light.”
Adams v. Jefferson
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and the third American president, were the key figures of the American Revolution and stood by the foundation of the first administrations. They were good friends, however they eventually became political rivals, broke up their friendship and only after their exit from the political life, they renewed their relationship. To some extent, they represented two major political visions in the early USA.
Thomas Jefferson wanted to build up an agrarian and decentralized nation while Adams was much more in favor of Hamilton’s program of supporting industry and cities. However, economics was not their major field of interest. Both were kind of political scientists and politics was superior for them. Both truly believed in the American Revolution and in the republican idea. But both saw different ways how to maintain a young republic. John Adams became eventually afraid of anarchy and therefore demanded more power for the federal government while Thomas Jefferson saw as the most imminent threat for the republic the growing power of the federal government – he was afraid of tyranny, respectively monarchy.
Unlike Jefferson, John Adams did not possess an easy optimism about human nature. He feared human’s irrationality and ambition. He wanted to keep them under control and discipline. Meanwhile Jefferson was not willing to compromise value of liberty at any cost. We could say that Jefferson was casually idealistic. He did not look at the governmental system from the point of view of functionality – as John Adams did. Jefferson believed that the form of government should directly represent the will of the people. This is why he opposed bicameralism, and sympathized to some extent with the beginning with the French Revolution. For Adams, “the popular element” was something fearful and dangerous and he actually made predictions that the French Revolution would turn into a bloodbath.
Without any doubt, both presidents were great thinkers and scholars. However, when we compare both statesmen’s approaches, we can see that John Adams based his opinion about the form of the government on the study of historical examples and his belief in an imperfection of human nature. Adams did not have the penetrable and logic style as Thomas Jefferson did. But Jefferson, probably the most talented man from the generation of the Founding Fathers, was less “scientific” when we speak about their approaches to the construction of the government. Adams was more realistic.
John Adams is a great historical figure which deserves its place in history. He served to his country almost all his life and played a significant and positive role in the creation of the young republic. He was fully committed to the American Revolution and did all his best to maintain republican idea alive and viable.
In the first chapter, we examined the political career of John Adams. Yes, he was well educated, hardworking, and active in the Revolution time, the second American president and father of the sixth American president – perfect career. But as we can see in the second chapter, despite all his political achievements, his political thoughts are the most important contribution to his country. He was political scientist. He became very quickly well aware about all the threats and obstacles that young political system could face.
In comparison with Thomas Jefferson, he did not have a great vision of the United States. However, he had a concrete vision of the American political system. He was a great supporter of the checks and balances system and due to his defend of it – many his contemporaries adopted this idea an implemented it to the American political structures. He did not propose the bicameral legislature because ha wanted to create an aristocracy but because he believed that this was the only solution how to make the system stable and more resistant to the human imperfection.
But he was not a hardcore Federalist either. Like Jefferson, he knew all the risks connected with the strong executive power. On the other hand, he was afraid of the too powerful one body legislature. He believed that one body legislature with vast competencies can become easily corrupted as well as a head of executive can. Therefore his major goal was to balance all powers and thus create stability.
Putting the checks and balances system on the intellectual map and its vigorous defence is the biggest political achievement of John Adams and the most important thought of his work.
- Adams, John, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States. TeachingAmericanHistory.org, John Adams Documents. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=789 (accessed 15/03/2012).
- Adams, John. Thoughts on Government. TeachingAmericanHistory.org, John Adams Documents. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=37 (accessed 15/03/2012).
- Fleming, Thomas. The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers. New York: Harper, 2009.
- Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
- McCullough, David. Státník a prezident John Adams. Praha: Academia, 2005.
- Appleby, Joyce. ”The New Republican Synthesis and the Changing Political Ideas of John Adams.“ American Quarterly, 25:5 (1973): 578-595.
- Bailyn, Bernard. “Buterfield’s Adams: Notes for a Sketch.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 19:2 (1962): 238-256.
- Hay, Robert P. “The Glorious Departure of the American Patriarchs: Contemporary Reactions to the Deaths of Jefferson and Adams.“ The Journal of Southern History 35: 4 (1969): 543-555.
- Kurtz, Stephen G. “The Political Science of John Adams: A Guide to His Statecraft.“ The William and Mary Quarterly 25: 4 (1968): 605-613.
- Miroff, Bruce. “John Adams: Merit, Fame, and Political Leadership.“ The Journal of Politics 48:1 (1986): 116-132.
- Thompson, Bradley C. “Young John Adams and the New Philosophic Rationalism.“ The William and Mary Quarterly 55: 2 (1998):
 Thomas Fleming, The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers (New York: Harper, 2009), 125-126.
 David McCullough, Státník a prezident John Adams (Praha: Academia, 2005), 106.
 This event is called Boston Massacre. In 1770, Boston, British soldiers were attacked in public place by several colonists. In a street confrontation the soldiers killed more than five people and wounded others. They had a great difficulty to find a lawyer representing them before the court.
 Hiller B. Zobel, The Boston Massacre (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 416.
 Bradley C. Thompson, “Young John Adams and the New Philosophic Rationalism,“ The William and Mary Quarterly, 55:2 (1998): 260.
 McCullough, Státník a prezident, 102.
 John E. Ferling, John Adams: A Life (New York: Henry Holt, 1992), 136.
 McCullough, Státník a prezident, 234.
 Bruce Miroff, “John Adams: Merit, Fame, and Political Leadership,“ The Journal of Politics , 48:1 (1986): 130.
 Robert P. Hay, “The Glorious Departure of the American Patriarchs: Contemporary Reactions to the Deaths of Jefferson and Adams,” The Journal of Southern History, 35:4 (1969): 545.
 John, Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776, TeachingAmericanHistory.org, John Adams Documents. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=37.
 Stephen G. Kurtz, “The Political Science of John Adams: A Guide to His Statecraft,“ The William and Mary Quarterly, 25:4 (1968): 606.
 John, Adams. A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1787, TeachingAmericanHistory.org, John Adams Documents, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=789.
 Bernard Bailyn, “Buterfield’s Adams: Notes for a Sketch,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 19:2 (1962): 255.
 Joyce Appleby,”The New Republican Synthesis and the Changing Political Ideas of John Adams,“ American Quarterly, 25:5 (1973): 580.
 Stephen G. Kurtz, “The Political Science,“ 605.