The Political Theory Institute at American University will be hosting a lecture by Luke Mayville, PTI Postdoctoral Fellow, on “Wealth, Birth, and Beauty in the Writings of John Adams.” The lecture will be delivered on Friday, December 5, from 5:30-7:00 PM, in the Mary Graydon Center 203-205. RSVP (acceptances only) to firstname.lastname@example.org. It is based on Mayville’s dissertation, "The Oligarchic Mind: Wealth and Power in the Political Thought of John Adams," which draws upon Adams's treatises, essays, and letters to uncover an unfamiliar theory of the political power of wealth. I reprint the dissertation abstract below.
I call this to your attention because Adams authored some of the classic articulations of American foreign policy, most notably the Model Treaty (Plan of 1776). The Model Treaty was intended to guide American diplomats in their negotiations with the French government for diplomatic recognition, but was also to serve as the template for future U.S. relations with other nations. Adams designed it according to the most liberal and “enlightened” strains of diplomatic theory and practice, with no political-military commitments between the signatories, thus allowing the United States to remain neutral in wars between European nations. The Model Treaty provided for the freest possible trade in peacetime and strong rights for neutral commerce during war. The most notable of the latter was the principle of “free ships make free goods.”
As Mayville notes, Adams also participated in a seminal debate among transatlantic thinkers about the proper structure of government, with his 3 volume Defence of the Constitutions of the United States, written in 1786-1787 while Adams was serving as Minister to Great Britain. (By Constitutions of the United States, Adams meant the state constitutions that possessed bicameral legislatures and a separation [balance] of governmental powers. Adams was made aware of the Philadelphia Convention’s proposal for a new federal constitution as he completed the Defence, which he endorsed, albeit with some private reservations.) Adams wrote the Defence to counter the arguments of Turgot and those French (and American) thinkers who favored a single, dominant legislature. He later felt that this grave error in understanding the nature of government led to the train-wreck (as he regarded it) of the French Revolution. The Defence therefore should be seen as part of the debate over the French and Revolutions that included Richard Price’s sermon, A Discourse on the Love of our Country, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Mankind, Adams’ Discourses on Davila, and John Quincy Adams’ Publicola series.
This dissertation draws on the political writings of John Adams to reconstruct an unfamiliar understanding of the political power of wealth. In his letters, essays, and treatises Adams explored in subtle detail what I shall call the "oligarchic mind"--the unique set of psychological dispositions that all but guaranteed the political influence of wealth. Specifically, he traced the influence of wealth to the deep admiration for the rich felt by the public and to the insatiable thirst for that same admiration felt by society's most ambitious. It was the grandeur of wealth, and not merely its purchasing power, that accounted for its immense political influence.
I have divided this dissertation into two parts to reflect the two quite different methods of intellectual history that I have employed. Before turning to a reconstruction of Adams's theory of oligarchy, I set the stage in the first two chapters by disentangling his thought from two lines of late-eighteenth-century constitutional theory. Adams scholars have overlooked the centrality of oligarchy in his thought by reading him as an apologist for elite power. His most significant political writings have been read as efforts to advocate for an English-style "balanced constitution" that would limit democracy to one part of government pitted against aristocratic and monarchical elements. In chapter one I correct this interpretation by situating Adams's Defence of the Constitutions within a transatlantic debate about the desirability of British-style "balanced government." I demonstrate that in the context of this debate Adams was uniquely preoccupied with the danger posed by an overweening aristocratic class.
Chapter two contrasts Adams's thought with that of the most prominent framers of the United States Constitution. Against those who have understood his writings as harmonious with the counter-majoritarian political theory undergirding the United States Constitution, my analysis demonstrates that Adams differed sharply from the Federalist framers, most notably in his estimation of the political power held by socioeconomic elites. Adams argued that even in the modern republican era when formal class distinctions had been abolished, a "natural aristocracy" of birth, beauty, and especially wealth would continue to wield preponderant power.
In the third and fourth chapters I reconstruct Adams's understanding of oligarchic power by situating his thought within a more sweeping intellectual context. In chapter three, I demonstrate through an analysis of his Discourses on Davila that Adams moved beyond a certain republican tradition of conceiving of oligarchic power in material terms. Drawing on the moral psychology of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adams conceived of oligarchy as a product of certain widespread psychological dispositions. In chapter four, I reconstruct Adams's understanding of the problem of oligarchic ambition by contrasting two conceptions of "natural aristocracy" found in a famous exchange of letters with Thomas Jefferson. I demonstrate that although Adams did not reject the possibility that oligarchic ambitions could be redirected towards republican ends, he departed from Jefferson's classical republican idea of a meritocracy of virtue and talents.
In the conclusion I suggest that consideration of the psychological sources of oligarchy reveals a neglected set of normative concerns. If the power of wealth derives, in part, from public admiration of wealth, it would seem important to ask how such power might be curbed or contained. Perhaps those interested in the corrosive effects of money in politics should not limit their focus to the regulation of lobbying and campaign finance, but should widen their scope to consider the regulation of public sentiments. What means do modern democracies have at their disposal to divert public admiration away from wealth? John Adams's writings suggest that one strategy is to create and maintain offices and stations that attract the admiration of the public. When honor and esteem is attached to judgeships, secretariats, and high elected offices, such stations might compete with the grandeur of wealth for the admiration of the public.