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Adams, John

Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment

C. Bradley Thompson

Adams, John 

(1735–1826), American statesman, political philosopher, and second president of the United States (1796–1800).

John Adams was on center stage in the American Revolution from beginning to end: he assisted James Otis in the Writs of Assistance case in 1761, and he was a participant at the Paris peace ceremonies in 1783. As a Revolutionary patriot, he was an important leader of the radical political movement in Boston, and he was a principled voice for independence at the Continental Congress. Adams also wrote some of the most influential documents of the Revolutionary period. His most important writings during the imperial crisis include A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765)—an essay in moral education that sought to alert Americans to the tyranny of the Stamp Act—and the Letters of Novanglus (1775), an examination of the constitutional relationship between the colonies and Great Britain. His pamphlet Thoughts on Government (1776) and his 1779 draft constitution for Massachusetts represent the most sophisticated and influential constitutional designs of the Revolutionary period. His writings as a political theorist include A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (3 vols., 1787–1788), which has been described by Gordon S. Wood as the “finest fruit of the American Enlightenment,” and the Discourses on Davila (1790–1791), which critiques the principles of the French Revolution.

Adams's first exposure to the Enlightenment came during his college years at Harvard, where he was introduced to the new philosophic rationalism associated with Francis Bacon's Novum Organum (1620), Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica (1687), and John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Adams quickly rejected New England Calvinism and embraced the Newtonian conception of nature as understood by Lockean epistemology. “In Metaphysics,” he wrote in 1760, “Mr. Locke, directed by my Lord Bacon, has steered his Course into the unenlightened Regions of the human Mind, and like Columbus has discovered a new World.” Following Locke, Adams thought reason capable of establishing a demonstrative science of ethics based on an examination of nature and human nature.Adams divided his political thought between what he called the “principles of liberty” and the “principles of government.” The first were concerned with the nature of justice and political right, and the second with constitutional design and construction. Adams's principles of liberty were most powerfully influenced by Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1689). In A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law and the Novanglus essays, Adams argued that the two fundamental facts of human existence were man's metaphysical freedom and the moral equality of all individuals. For Adams, each human being is an autonomous, rights-bearing individual with an equal right to self-government. Parliament's violation of the Americans’ right to self-government during the 1760s and 1770s legitimized the invocation of what Adams called “revolution-principles.”

Adams elucidated the principles of government in his Defence of the Constitutions. He wrote the Defence in competition with French philosophes as a guidebook of political architecture for American and European constitution-makers. He wrote to challenge a rationalist, a priori, deductive philosophic tradition in the political sciences that he associated with Plato, René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Baron Anne-Robert Turgot, and the marquis de Condorcet. Adams identified his own political epistemology with an empirical, a posteriori, inductive tradition that he associated with Aristotle, Cicero, Niccolò Machiavelli, Viscount Bolingbroke, and the baron de Montesquieu. The Defence, published in three volumes, is a panoramic survey of some fifty ancient, medieval, and modern republics, as well as an analysis of the writings of political thinkers extending from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero to Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Montesquieu, David Hume, and many others.

At the core of Adams's political theory are three basic principles of political architecture: first, representation instead of direct democracy; second, a separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers; and third, a mixture and balance in the legislature among the one, the few, and the many. The first two, representation and separation of powers, are distinctly modern inventions, both logically derived from Lockean natural-rights theory and its corollary theory of consent. The last principle, however—what Adams called the “triple equipoise”—is hardly a modern invention; with its roots in the theory and practice of classical antiquity, the mixed regime rests on an entirely different theoretical foundation. Adams's contribution to Enlightenment political science was to reconcile these very different principles.

Adams's political science began with an examination of human nature. Drawing on Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adams argued that humankind has a natural longing for attention. This desire for distinction, or what he called the spectemur agendo (“the desire to be seen”), is ranked by many gradations from the simple desire of the weak for recognition to the desire of the hyper-ambitious for immortal fame. Recognition of this preeminent political passion created two problems for Adams's republican constitution makers. The first was to find a constitutional device by which to neutralize the vices, but also to utilize the talents of the exceptional few. The second was to establish institutional checks and balances that would neutralize the natural social conflict between the few wealthy and the many poor.

Adams's unique solution was a synthesis of the ancient idea of mixed government with the modern doctrine of separation of powers. He thought that mixed government and separation of powers could be employed as overlapping and mutually reinforcing principles. By embodying the one, the few, and the many in the legislature to watch and protect one another, he thought that each order, with its incomplete view of justice, would be forced to moderate and elevate its partial claims. Then, when combined with a separation of powers, the triple equipoise would produce and necessitate laws that were just, equitable, and ultimately for the common benefit. His understanding of mixed and balanced government was unique and should be distinguished from that of the classical philosophers and the eighteenth-century British constitution. Adams certainly appealed to the great tradition of the mixed regime, but he was also an innovator within that tradition. His Defence of the Constitutions may well be the most important reformulation of the theory of mixed and balanced government since Aristotle's Politics.

Adams's final judgment on the Enlightenment was ambiguous; he was both a critic and a friend. He was unremittingly hostile to the French philosophes and their belief in the inevitable progress of reason, abstract reasoning, the natural goodness of man, and the idea that constitutions should be constructed de novo; he blamed them for the French Revolution and the Terror. Adams did not think that the human mind or society could progress toward perfection, but he did think that the Enlightenment of Newton, Locke, and their disciples had greatly expanded the boundaries of human knowledge and produced an unparalleled revolution in technology, navigation, commerce, religion, and politics. In the end, he recognized that the eighteenth century “notwithstanding all its Errors and Vices has been, of all that are past, the most honourable to human Nature.”

[See also American Revolution; Locke, John; and Smith, Adam.]


SourcesFind this resource:

    Adams, John. The Works of John Adams. Edited by Charles Francis Adams. 10 vols. Boston, 1850–1856; repr. Freeport, N.Y., 1969.Find this resource:

      Adams, John. Papers of John Adams. Edited by Robert J. Taylor et al. 10 vols. (to date). Cambridge, Mass., 1977.Find this resource:

        The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. Edited by Lester J. Cappon. 2 vols. New York, 1971.Find this resource:


          Ellis, Joseph J. Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. New York, 1993. A highly readable and provocative account of Adams's later years.Find this resource:

            Ferling, John. John Adams: A Life. Knoxville, Tenn., 1992. The best one-volume biography of Adams's life and character.Find this resource:

              Handler, Edward. America and Europe in the Political Thought of John Adams. Cambridge, Mass., 1964. A study of Adams's later political writings in their European context.Find this resource:

                Haraszti, Zoltan. John Adams and the Prophets of Progress. New York, 1964. A readable and entertaining study of Adams's confrontation with eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau, Turgot, Condorcet, and Frederick the Great.Find this resource:

                  Howe, John R., Jr. The Changing Political Thought of John Adams. Princeton, N.J., 1966. An intelligent introduction to Adams's political thought, based largely on his correspondence, that argues the old-fashioned thesis that Adams's view changed over time.Find this resource:

                    Thompson C. Bradley. John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty. Lawrence, Kans., 1998. A comprehensive study of Adams's political thought.Find this resource:

                      Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic. New York, 1969. The best general study of the political thought of the Revolutionary period, with a provocative chapter on the irrelevance of Adams's thought.Find this resource:

                        C. Bradley Thompson