John Adams: The American Burke

Conservative Americans have always been at something of a disadvantage. The greatest defender of tradition and prescriptive rights – Edmund Burke – is English and never set foot on our soil. What is more, the American political tradition rests on the premise that government can be crafted from the ground up through “reflection and choice.”[i] In short, traditionalist Americans – usually opposed to revolutionary and ideological forces – find themselves seemingly bereft of a thinker of their own who can help them recast a political tradition that appears boldly rationalistic on the surface. However, Americans have not been quite so abandoned by fortune. The political thought of John Adams – a crusty New England lawyer, statesmen, and one-term president – offers a serious foundation for American conservatism and lessons for our modern age.[ii] Adams’ thought is premised upon his belief in mankind’s decidedly low character, a premise that led him to believe in the impossibility of long-term human progress and utopias. In his eyes, Americans seeking to improve their lot in life should rely on a balanced government and the cultivation of personal virtue rather than dreams of a radically transformed future. Examining this understanding of government has great potential in teaching modern-day conservatives of a better direction for their movement.

Though not truly a monarchist (as was often claimed by his opponents) Adams grounded his political thought in a belief in man’s fallen nature. He rejects the hopeful vision of the Enlightenment (and modern liberalism) that as science progresses so does mankind. Instead, he argues that the increasing knowledge of society has merely worked to further release the pernicious passions of man. Adams believes that adjusting government under the expectation that it would improve as the people did is as likely as entering the age of “dragons, giants, and fairies.”[iii] In his view, human nature is inflexible and man “is as incapable now of going through revolutions with temper and sobriety, with patience and prudence, or without fury and madness” as it ever was.[iv] Simply put, he asserts that the general populace is just incapable of being ruled by reason rather than their selfish desires.

Adams answers this depressing picture of our nature with a firm belief in strong political institutions and the importance of cultivating virtue. Constitutional restraints serve the dual purpose of preventing political officials from abusing their power and preventing the voting populace from tyrannizing over their opposition through a representative majority. Adams goes so far as to contend that without constitutional institutions that check the power of each other and the people, the government always descends into “a state of anarchy and outrage.”[v] It is only through the establishment of constitutional institutions and procedures that the “people’s rights and liberties” can be preserved.[vi]

Adams argued that these constitutional restraints were at their very best when composed of multiple competing parts. Even better if these parts balanced the power of the aristocratic and democratic elements of society since neither group could be trusted with political power on their own. As Gordon Wood has summarized in his masterful work Empire of Liberty: “Nothing but force and power and strength can restrain them [the selfish passions]. Nothing but three different orders of men, bound by their interest to watch over each other and stand the guardians of the law” will maintain peace.[vii]

However, restraining the competing interests of society through political institutions is not enough to guarantee a healthy regime. Adams believed that a vibrant and virtuous citizenry was equally vital to any worthy polity. For the cultivation of virtue, Adams believes that we must rely on religion and strong liberal arts education. He contended that “the happiness of the people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality”[viii] and that state government must work to establish and encourage religiosity among their people. As the primary author of the Constitution of Massachusetts Adams provided for the state funding of congregational churches and, though an advocate of religious tolerance, he had no patience for the propagation of atheist philosophy when he witnessed it in France. For without a firm belief in God, Adams suspected that the morality of the average human would wither away. 

Education – at least as he conceived of the term – was the second tool to bolster morality. Through schools, he hoped that citizens could learn to read and think seriously about moral questions, and in so doing overcome their selfish nature. Like most Christians of his time, Adams did not think that self-improvement came easy, it was something that individuals had to strive for. A task that was impossible without serious reflection about oneself. Adams believed that the reading of great books and the study of natural history provided a means through which to gain this self-reflection and therefore mastery of our vices. As he summarized “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one-mile square without a school in it” for only with education can true morality flourish.[ix]

Conservatives have a great deal that they could learn from the political thought of John Adams. His deeply Christian moral sense that man is fallen, but not beyond redemption sits at the heart of the conservative disposition. And his twin solutions of constitutional restraint and morality serve as strong answers to the eternal problem of forming a good regime. Adams’ conservatism is sober and pragmatic rather than hopeful and populist. But such thinking has always rested at the core of conservative thought and is always worth reviving.

[i] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 1

[ii] As Russell Kirk put it – Adams can easily be understood as the “founder of true conservatism in America.”

[iii] John Adams, “Discourse on Davila”, The Political Writings of John Adams. Pg. 355.

[iv] John Adams, “Discourse on Davila”, The Political Writings of John Adams. Pg. 325.

[v] John Adams, “A Defense of the Constitution of the United States”, The Political Writings of John Adams. Pg. 113.

[vi] John Adams, “A Defense of the Constitution of the United States”, The Political Writings of John Adams. Pg. 115.

[vii] Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty. Pg. 216. 

[viii] The Constitution of Massachusetts.

[ix] John Adams to John Jebb, 10 September 1785.