John Adams’s expectations have been fulfilled: his reputation is dwarfed by that of his presidential successor, Thomas Jefferson. Adams claimed that his refusal to flatter the people in the way his Jeffersonian opponents did accounted for his low standing with the public. However, Adams believed that his fall from grace was owing not just to the public’s comparison of him to the Republicans, but to the Republicans’ distorted account of his political writings.

C. Bradley Thompson, a historian and political scientist, attempts here to set matters aright. If he has his way, the public—and especially the portion of the public responsible for past statesmen’s reputations and standing—will realize that it is not the optimistic, localist southerners (Jefferson, James Madison, and John Taylor of Caroline among them) but the realistic, nationalist Adams who deserves to be considered the oracle of sustainable, republican government.

This task is a very significant one. Gordon Wood, the leading scholar of the founding era, is ranged against Adams. In his magisterial Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787, Wood devoted a chapter to the notion that Adams’s political science owed much to the second president’s ignorance of the vector of American thinking in the 1780s. Adams, Wood concluded, is “irrelevant” to America’s tradition of political philosophy. Thompson succeeds in showing that the Republicans, and particularly their greatest theorist, essentially misread Adams’s thought; in doing so, he corrects Wood’s view, too.

Because his book’s focus is on the outstanding works of political theory that Adams wrote in the 1780s, Thompson devotes considerable space to Adams’s political thought in the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary periods. First, Thompson disputes the accepted notion that Adams’s refusal to indulge in the kind of faith in his fellow citizens that marked the thought of Thomas Jefferson was a result of his essentially Puritan outlook. On the contrary, Thompson says, Adams self-consciously rejected the main tenets of his father’s Calvinism early in his life. In particular, Thompson’s Adams rejected double predestination (the idea that some men were bound for Paradise and some destined for eternity in Hell even before they were born) and the Augustinian/Calvinist view of the Fall (the idea that all men bore the guilt of Adam fruit, as Jaroslav Pelikan has shown, of the Vulgate Bible’s simple mistranslation of Romans 5:12) as simply absurd. In fact, like Jefferson, Adams early fell under the influence of a group of latitudinarian thinkers and decided that classical Protestant theologizing consisted of a tissue of absurdities.

Instead of Enlightenment political philosophy, though, the accustomed place of old verities in Adams’s thought was filled by lessons he drew from his reading of history and ancient political thought. One of the great strengths of Thompson’s work is the care with which he has divined the influence of the various authors and particular texts Adams admired. Specifically, the part played by John Locke in the shaping of Adams’s mature religious views is clearly demonstrated here. The same ultra-realism his study of Locke instilled in the religious Adams obviously would affect Adams the practical politician and political philosopher. The complexities of Adams’s interaction with the philosophical currents of his day, clearly explained by Thompson, cannot be explored in all their nuances in a book review. Suffice it to say that Adams insisted (and in this respect he sounded like Anselm of Canterbury) that nothing could be accepted as true that could not be understood by man’s reason. Therefore theology was essentially useless, for man had “Reason, to find out the Truth, and the real Design and true End of our Existence.”

The path from this conclusion to the decision that he should become a lawyer/statesman and not the Protestant minister his father had hoped he would be was not long. In this way, Thompson’s Adams becomes a kind of Pelagian, believing that man can achieve God’s favor by proper effort. From the Calvinist extreme of God’s completely arbitrary grace, Adams moved to the opposite pole, cutting God’s will out of the equation altogether. The idea that theology was useless and the idea that men could earn their way into God’s favor through their own initiative gave Adams a religious ground on which to base the single-minded (not to say obsessive) career of a professional politician. This religion dovetailed perfectly with his public morality, which he summarized in the precept “Be just and good.”

Adams assumed, evidently as a result of self-examination, that public esteem was all men’s leading motive. He played a leading role in fomenting the American Revolution. Then, when independence came, other Continental political leaders recognized Adams’s preeminence in political learning by soliciting his advice when their states were drafting new, republican constitutions. Thus was John Adams’s notion that power must be offset against power incorporated into several early American constitutions. Thus, too, was each natural “order” of society given its place in American constitutionalism.

In his great works of political theory, his multivolume Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America and his Discourses on Davila, Adams attacked the idea, popular among French philosophes, that unicameralism was the best form of government. Displaying the broad learning that won him acclaim in his own time as the best-read American politician, Adams defended the idea that Aristotle’s three orders of society—the one, the few, and the many—should be incorporated into the properly structured government. It was this idea, and particularly what they read as his defense of monarchy and aristocracy, that won Adams the obloquy—indeed, the lasting political enmity of James Madison, John Taylor, and even Adams’s old colleague from Continental Congress days, Thomas Jefferson.

According to Thompson, the identification of Adams with his fellow Federalist of the 1790s, Alexander Hamilton, as someone who favored hereditary monarchy was based on an incorrect reading of Adams’s labored tomes. Thompson is at pains to demonstrate that some leading Republicans, such as the Virginia statesman William Branch Giles, had not even read the books they were so quick to criticize. It seemingly is true that Adams was misread in this way, that he meant only to see that each of the natural orders would have its effect, not that they should be created artificially via laws conferring hereditary offices; yet, the fault is partly his, for besides advocating the incorporation of institutions representing the one and the few into republican constitutions, then–Vice President Adams also let slip in a conversation with the Virginia senators in the Senate chamber in the 1790s that he expected Americans to erect a monarchy soon. Although in this case two plus two may not have yielded four, the Virginia Republicans can probably be excused for not having mastered Adams’s higher math.

In the end, the views against which Adams aimed his blunderbuss yielded the Terror and the 18 Brumaire of Napoléon Bonaparte, followed soon afterward by Napoléon’s self-coronation, so Adams’s forecasts all came true. Indeed, the regimen young Adams had imposed on himself, that of reading widely in law, modern history, classics, and philosophy, proved an excellent preparation for a statesman. Yet, somehow, his having been correct never redounded to Adams’s benefit when it came to public esteem. Thompson’s book shows that there is much that one might learn from Adams in the matter of republican governance; one hopes, too, that the Massachusetts statesman’s great books will be republished soon.

Kevin R. C. Gutzman
John Jay College, City University of New York
American HistoryFreedomGovernment and PoliticsLaw and LibertyPhilosophy and ReligionPolitical Theory
Other Independent Review articles by Kevin R. C. Gutzman
Winter 2008/09 Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective