John Adams was the second President of the United States. Adams entered the spotlight of the political arena during the early stages of the American Revolution. In fact, his contribution to Congress adopting the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was remarkable. He became Washington's Vice President after being a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, as well as an important negotiator on behalf the United States to Europe. In 1797 Adams became President of the United States. John Adams has been regarded in recent decades as "an archetypal American-conservative or an anachronistic founder wedded to European models of mixed government." In fact, the perspective on the political persona of Adams has taken several shapes since the 1950s. During the 1950s, his political system was decoded in an ideological manner which determined conservatives to argue that Adams was a hero, "the model of the American conservative." The following two decades generated an opposing view which was based on an institutional approach. Most of the scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s focused on Adams's arguments for balanced government and argued that they deviated from the Federalist view. At this point, Adams was no longer considered an archetypal American conservative, but a political figure endowed with pathos but anchored in outdated European principles.
John Adams was a classical Republican who argued in favor of the theory of mixed government. This paper looks at the political ideas of John Adams from a contemporary perspective, and strives to deconstruct the three main political concepts that lie at the basis of his political system: meritorious service to the republic, a just distribution of fame, and the dangers of corruption represented by the public triumphs of inauthentic men. Although these three concepts guided Adams's political vision, they have been largely disregarded by many scholars who focused their attention especially of the President's view on government. This paper investigates into Adams's political ideas as a symbol of classical Republicanism, a political order which was indeed based on "merit, or talents, virtues, services," and not upon birth or wealth. From this perspective, one can argue that Adams valued politics over economy which represents both the premise and the conclusion of the paper. However, my argumentation will escape the fallacy of circular reasoning because in this case, the premise - that Adams was a classical Republican, - is true, thus the body of arguments presented are aimed at investigating into Adams's hierarchy of values in which politics comes before economy, and ultimately, at explaining why Adams was disappointed with contemporary political life.
John Adams has been portrayed as an archetypal American conservative, and a Puritan who was always complaining about not getting enough public recognition, and that his peers were unrightfully benefitting from his deeds. However, in order to truly understand Adams's political thought, one must link him to the classical republican tradition, and attempt to get a more profound understanding of his values. Adams believed in the primacy of politics, and meritorious public men whose virtues and talents would translate into their service to the republic. Adams studied the classical republican model of Rome, and understood that republican politics could be rooted in the human appetite for fame.
Miroff talks about this aspect in his article, "John Adams: Merit, Fame, and Leadership." Disinterestedness has always been rare in politics, and the days of the Founding Fathers make no exception. Adams realized that ambition and the desire to accumulate both fame and wealth were the engines driving many public men; he also became aware of the fact that a republican polity could not be built and supported by the few men who did not place their own interests among those of the republic. Adams turned to those who yearned for fame in order to ensure republican leadership. It is very interesting to note here that he had a profound vision of Roman republicanism, and was not afraid to borrow elements of political life from the Romans. Adams became an advocate for a transparent public realm, "resplendent with symbolic rewards." He argued in favor of the distribution of political titles and dispensation of honors according to "talents, virtues, services..." Ferling also writes, "Adams had limned the traits of an ideal republican officer: learned, dedicated, rational, honest, methodical, just, gracious, and humane." These were, in fact, the traits of character which he would have labeled as essential in any republic diplomat, magistrate or statesman. However, Adams soon realized that even though his principle of dispensing honors to the meritorious was just, it was merely an utopia which could not be put into practice simply because in the end, it was the unworthy who were being celebrated. This could be explained by the fact that in America, just like everywhere else, the cunning and superficial were not threatened by the meritorious public men who were being neglected and overlooked. In this sense, American politics - as he himself concluded, - would fall short of Adams's classical republican model.
There is another important factor to consider when discussing Adams's political thought. In this sense, historical circumstances become extremely relevant. His vision on leadership i.e. political elites was expressed against an emerging capitalist order which rendered the two incompatible. In fact, his principle of "talents, virtues, and services" has always been rejected by the realities of politics. Adams's case is, if not unique, certainly the first of its kind in American history. Adams exhibited the strength needed in order to resist economic seduction in a society which values wealth much more than merit. Adams believed that inequalities and democracy could not live together, and that the former would end up destroying the latter.
Political ideas are shaped in time, and often influenced by historical and social circumstances, family background, and education. This is why the following section of the paper will refer to Adams's life and background in an attempt to evaluate their importance as far as his political thought which guided his actions first as American politician, and then as President of the republic. While on the topic of Adams's youth and formative years, one cannot overlook aspects such as the place of religion, aspirations, as well as academic background, all of which will be referred to in the following paragraphs.
Through hard work, John Adams's father who had inherited a property worth around 75 pounds, managed to raise an estate worth over a thousand pounds at the time of his death in 1760. John Adams was born into a well-to-do family, and, being the eldest, was given the advantage to go to Harvard College. This was considered a great privilege. In fact, Adams's grandfather had also sent his eldest son to Harvard and upon his death had divided his property among all of his other sons in an attempt to make matters as equal as possible. John Adams graduated in the class of 1755, which, according to his son, "in proportion to its numbers contained as many men afterwards eminent in the civil and ecclesiastical departments as any class that ever was graduated at that institution." It is also interesting to note here that it was during his youth that Adams decided to subordinate religion to morality thus reversing the order of common men in eighteenth century America.
His character was shaped during this period. In fact, one can safely argue that in many respects, Adams was the same from the cradle to the grave. One can also make an interesting parallel between Adams and his Federalist adversary, Alexander Hamilton. The two do not resemble at all; Hamilton is ambitious and asserts leadership qualities whereas Adams does not speak of any extraordinary personal quality, and does not express a longing for a remarkable career. In fact, his ambitions are good repute, influence and certain prosperity, ambitions which are shared by most men in those days. However, Adams felt the importance of the moments preceding the American Revolution, and that he was in the presence of momentous events. Morse notes in his book, "the presence of a great shadowy but grand future was always with him, and impressed him like a great religious mystery. This feeling lent a solemn earnestness to his conduct, the wonderful force which is plainly perceptible, even to this day, in the meager fragmentary records which have come down to us." Indeed, Adams's political thought was shaped at this point, and his faith in the American republic was unshakable.
Republicanism had numerous meanings in 1776. Nonetheless, in calling himself a republican, Adams defined the two most important concepts he sought to realize as a result of the revolution. Adams wanted to eradicate "idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical pride," and to replace them with the belief that the people represented the source of authority and power. This was, in fact, the idea of popular sovereignty, a radical concept for 1776. Adams was aware of the opposition that such a concept would receive from many congressmen which considered it to be a threat. Also, a significant percentage of the…