How are we to approach the man? No one has ever gotten him quite right. Benjamin Franklin thought him, in a famous remark, “sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” Thomas Jefferson could never fully figure out what to make of such a witty, learned, emotionally open man. In our own day, historians either write love letters about him (see David McCullough’s gargantuan biography) or, like Gordon S. Wood, whom no one surpasses in knowledge of the founding years, dismiss him as having failed to understand the course of American development even in his own lifetime. Yet it’s hard to imagine the founding years of the republic without him. And were any of the Founding Fathers, save perhaps Franklin, more enjoyable companions over Madeira and dinner?
We’re of course speaking of John Adams, the often forgotten Founder. There are no large monuments to his achievements or memory, nothing to recall him on the Mall in Washington. James Madison has become the darling of the right, with almost every new conservative organization carrying his name. Even more stunning, Alexander Hamilton, the founder of Wall Street, has now apparently been captured by the left with help from the Broadway stage and (who knows?) may soon turn up as the mascot of a progressive party. No such fate awaits the man from Braintree.
But now we have something arguably better than an edifice dedicated to the nation’s second president. We have, instead, a monument of scholarship that takes Adams’s political thought deadly seriously. Its author is the perfect person to write it: Former editor in chief of the Adams papers, one of the great editorial projects of our time, Richard Ryerson knows Adams and his life as well as anyone alive. What’s more, he leads readers with an unusually felicitous pen through the thickets of political thought from ancient times to the early 19th century that Adams mastered. The result is a model of contemporary historical scholarship accessible to any who wish to read it.
Though thin-skinned, John Adams was endowed with a confident Calvinist-like personality strong enough to withstand the risk of offending those who disagreed with him. Orthodoxy was not the star by which he guided his life. Yet as Gordon Wood long ago argued, as commendable as that trait could be, it ended up putting Adams outside the community of those who, more clearly than he, saw where the youthful American nation was headed—toward a robust democratic future. Thus, in Wood’s terms, by the time of Jefferson’s presidency, Adams had become “irrelevant” to American political development. Ryerson doesn’t disagree with Wood’s larger point; but the brilliance of his book lies in his explanation of how and why that irrelevance occurred, as well as why he believes that, in the end—meaning in our time—Wood’s characterization, written in 1969, can no longer stand without revision.
Ryerson doesn’t expend many words arguing with Wood. Instead, with stately cadence, he lays out the emergence of Adams’s mature thinking about government, how it differed from contemporary views, and what that difference cost the man. You’d think that a learned, 576-page book about political ideas going back to classical times would be wearying and slow-going. Precisely the opposite: The work’s lucidity is exceptional, its easy flow never interrupted.
John Adams started out in the 1770s, as Ryerson emphasizes, as “the first American to openly praise republican government . . . one of the earliest advocates of an independent judiciary in America,” the first to advance legal and historical arguments for the colonies’ total independence from Parliament, and author of “the finest statement of America’s new republican orthodoxy as it separated from the British Empire.” Yet being in the vanguard of the movement for independence didn’t guarantee that Adams would always agree with his contemporaries. That’s where the problem arose.
Most of his contemporaries, their views formed in opposition to Britain, came to fear both executive power (exemplified by the British monarch) and popular rule (what they called democracy). Adams came to view their fears as misdirected. His experiences at home and abroad, as well as his broad and deep reading of history and political thought, concentrated his fears on aristocracy. Not the earned aristocracy of birth, old wealth, carriage, learning, and prudence, but what he viewed as artificial aristocracy, especially an aristocracy of wealth alone. Accordingly, he came to view a strong executive as less of a threat to any polity than an overweening privileged class. In this, he differed significantly with most of his contemporaries, and with none more than Thomas Jefferson.
In a celebrated exchange about the Constitution with the Squire of Monticello, with whom he had a complex friendship, Adams put it succinctly: “You are afraid of the one—I, of the few. We agree perfectly that the many should have a full fair and perfect Representation.—You are Apprehensive of Monarchy; I, of Aristocracy. I would therefore have given more Power to the President and less to the Senate.” In another famous statement to Jefferson, Adams went on in a different, characteristically bumptious, vein:
Your aristoi are the most difficult Animals to manage, of anything in the whole Theory and practice of Government. They will not suffer themselves to be governed. They not only exert all their own Subtilty Industry and courage, but they employ the Commonality, to knock to pieces every Plan and Model that the most honest Architects in Legislation can invent to keep them within bounds.
With these convictions, Adams also believed in the desirability of what he termed a “republican monarchy.” It was needed to tame his aristocracy. But that very term—and probably also “constitutional monarchy,” as we’d call it today—was scarcely one to endear itself, or its author, to his contemporaries. It was precisely the attraction to him of a monarchical republic that has gotten Adams into such trouble with so many people ever since. It has even led some of them to struggle, in their perplexity, to make Adams out to be some kind of democrat, albeit one different from the apostle of American democracy, Jefferson. But, Ryerson insists, Adams wasn’t a democrat. Despite his youthful revolutionary ardor, Adams belongs firmly (even if not centrally) in the American conservative hall of fame. More significantly, Ryerson leaves no doubt, if there ever has been one, of Adams’s position as one of the nation’s greatest political, constitutional, and historical thinkers, the co-equal in his time of James Madison.
Even late in life, his earlier views “largely unaltered,” Adams was struggling to figure out ways to bring his aristocrats to heel. As he long had argued, one option was stronger executive power—if not through a “republican monarch” or stronger state governors, then by other constitutional and legal devices. Another was to coop his aristocrats up in their own separate legislative house. Both assumed sharp, ineradicable differences between socio-economic groups—an idea anathema to his fellow citizens but one that has a greater resonance today than it did then. In his estimation, the federal Constitution and most state constitutions—even the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, which he helped write—never went far enough to control the upper class he so deeply feared. Since Adams’s day (as Ryerson acknowledges) we seem also to have failed to control it—whether by legislation, regulation, or court decision. If for nothing else than his struggle to get the matter right, Adams deserves more honor and attention than he usually receives.
Ryerson’s study is a biography of the ideas developed by Adams, not a biography of Adams the man. Little is to be found here of his life and achievements, or of his notable family members, save for what is necessary to explain the emergence and maturation of his political thought. The author’s concentration on ideas bears the cost of overlooking the possible inner origins of his subject’s near-fixation on aristocracy. It’s of course justifiable to assume that this always-thinking man thought, rather than felt, his way into any problem; but anyone who knows anything about Adams is also justified in thinking that speculation about the emotional foundations of his ideas, or about the roots of his particular sensibilities, would have been warranted and helpful in enriching this superb book.
Yet its brilliance lies in Ryerson’s ability to make the historical approach to ideas as riveting as the best full Adams biographies have proven to be. His exegeses of Adams’s writings are unsurpassed. Overcoming the inherent difficulty of writing clearly about complex ideas, John Adams’s Republic moves along with unusual grace.
Ryerson has not written a tract for our times, nor has he tried, except lightly and in passing, to argue with other historians. The book is an explanation of Adams’s thought, not an apology for it. Yet one can’t help reflecting on the relevance to our own times of Adams’s fears about an aristocracy of wealth. If Gordon Wood is correct that Adams became irrelevant to his own day, Adams’s warnings about the growth of a rich aristocracy, unmoored from the realities and views of the population from which it emerged, have fresh meaning for our age. What Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison missed, concludes Ryerson, “was the danger, and indeed the existence (which they and virtually all of their countrymen denied), of republican aristocracy.” Perhaps not for his doughty independence, his deep learning, or his fierce patriotism does Adams deserve a monument in Washington but, instead, for his prescience about a problem that has bedeviled American government and society from the start.
It’s often lamented that political history is no longer at the center of the historical enterprise. Even if that has to be conceded, this extraordinary book suggests that the political history of the United States that is being written today has never been of higher quality, a fact that should be more widely acknowledged. This goes especially for the political history of the opening decades of American constitutional government. Moreover, this book makes clear that old-fashioned subjects—such as the political thought of elite white males—never fail to yield up fresh understanding when tackled by historians as skilled as Richard Alan Ryerson.
Ryerson’s prose gives the lie to the assertion that academic historians can’t write readable books. The best of them do, and always have. They surpass nonacademic writers of history in giving readers more than narratives and rhetorical color. They offer ideas, arguments, and strong points of view. John Adams’s Republic is exemplary in those regards—an achievement unlikely to be surpassed, one of the finest works about the nation’s second president that has ever been written.
James M. Banner Jr., a historian of the early republic, is writing a book about revisionist history.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard