John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty by C. Bradley Thompson


Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
340 pp. $26.95 (paperback).

In late 1786, while in London serving as America’s ambassador to Great Britain, John Adams heard troubling news from both sides of the Atlantic. In France, thinkers such as Turgot, La Rochefoucauld, and Condorcet seemed likely to establish a unicameral legislature—without checks and balances on the popular will. In Massachusetts, riotous assemblies were clamoring for the same thing, criticizing Adams’s Massachusetts state constitution and seeking to rid themselves of both senate and governor.

Adams perceived with greater clarity than most the dangers of direct, unchecked democracy. So, with books piled high around him, he began a self-imposed solitude that would last months. Quickly and steadily, it bore fruit. A volume at a time, he published his Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America, which explained in painstaking detail, among other things, the need for three branches of government capable of counterbalancing one another.

In John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, C. Bradley Thompson shows that Adams intended the Defence to be a guidebook for constitution makers. Fortuitously, it would be published just as his own countrymen gathered to write the United States Constitution. It infused debate in Philadelphia and, more languidly, in Paris. Preceded by his Thoughts on Government and his draft constitution for the state of Massachusetts, and followed by his Discourses on Davila, Adams’s Defence was the capstone of his political thought—and his political thought was his greatest achievement and most important bequest.

Yet his ideas have long been left in a dark corner of American history. Prior to Thompson’s study, no one had written a book on the subject since John Howe Jr.’s sociologically inspired The Changing Political Thought of John Adams, published in 1966. That’s sad, because as Thompson shows, much about Adams remains relevant. In our turbulent times, we can benefit from greater insight into the dangers our founders foresaw, the preventive measures they established, and the problems left for later generations—including our own.

Thompson traces Adams’s intellectual development, revealing the early influences of Jonathan Mayhew, John Locke, Montesquieu, Isaac Newton, and Francis Bacon. He challenges the common puritanical, Calvinist portrayals of Adams, which some allege are supported by his diary. According to Thompson, “The diary shows a young man enjoying his liberation from the psychological imperatives and intellectual blinders associated with an inherited culture” (5). He argues that Adams was committed first and foremost to using reason to understand reality, just like the scientists and philosophers who inspired him.

Readers get a sampling of the countless Greek, Roman, and Italian governments that Adams studied, typically in their original languages. Through these, he grasped the characteristics of regimes ruled by king-like authorities (“the one”), wealthy minorities (“the few”),  unrestrained mobs (“the many”), and of their combinations. Adams concluded that the framers of these governments failed, in one respect or another, to fully consider man’s nature, most saliently that men are born with equal rights and that these rights “are not positive grants of the sovereign” but are “antecedent to all earthly government” (50).

Thompson highlights that Adams did not confuse equal rights with general equality. Unlike some of his French contemporaries, Adams was clear-eyed enough to see that men are not equally intelligent, industrious, or virtuous—and that this fact has important ramifications for politics. Adams’s understanding of the natural differences among men led to his conception of a “natural aristocracy.” In free or moderately free societies, those of greater ability, intelligence, wealth, and/or esteem tend to distinguish themselves and are apt to persuade others to adopt their ideas. Thompson shows that Adams’s study of history led him to conclude that when such aristocrats are combined with average people in a single legislative body, they tend to dominate and rig the government in their favor. So arises Adams’s conviction that “aristocrats” should be represented by a separate assembly, the senate, which ought to check and be checked by an assembly representing average citizens—a house of representatives. Both must in turn be bridled by the executive and judiciary. Thompson makes clear that Adams intended these branches not only to restrain one another via mutually exclusive mechanisms of power, but also to balance the goals of the rich and powerful with those of common people.

Adams understood that a government without such checks and balances—one that relied chiefly on the moral character of its leaders—could not long endure. Even so, he wanted to lure the most upstanding gentlemen into government and ensure that citizens respected it. “The structure of government itself,” Thompson writes, “its forms and formalities, its institutional arrangements and procedures, could be used, Adams thought, to elevate and foster a more ‘noble temper’ among the citizenry” (222). As part of this effort, Adams suggested granting politicians noble-sounding titles. Thompson reports that “Adams proposed addressing the President as ‘His Highness,’ or ‘His most benign Highness,’ or ‘His Majesty, the President’” (266). But Adams’s scheme for attracting men of integrity and impressing people with the government’s dignity generated only ridicule. Today, at a time when politicians have never been so derided or so deserving of it, we can recognize that Adams’s plan was ill-conceived even while granting that his concerns—to attract the best and brightest and to project an image of government as a dignified institution—were valid and remain pertinent.

Unfortunately, Thompson fails to address another reason for Adams’s continued relevance: Adams signed into law the Sedition Act, which was a major blow to freedom of the press—a cornerstone of a free society and one that is under attack today. Remarkably, although the book includes a section titled “Posterity Must Judge” in which Thompson details several reasons for the fall of Adams’s reputation, the Sedition Act is not among these. Thompson mentions the act only when explaining that an editor who was once imprisoned under it later corresponded with Adams, recanting his earlier criticisms of Adams’s Defence and lavishing the book with praise.

Thompson also makes this claim: “Following Locke, Adams held that knowledge begins with two basic axioms: something exists that one perceives, and one exists, possessing consciousness or the means of perceiving that which exists” (14). Thompson gives reasons to believe that Adams would have agreed with such a statement, but none to support the claim that he explicitly held these axioms. These ideas appear to be drawn from Ayn Rand’s work, and it seems anachronistic to attribute them to Adams.

Nonetheless, Thompson set out to present the essentials of Adams’s political thought and succeeded admirably. At a time when politicians are unwilling to admit and unable to defend the fact that America is not a democracy, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty provides much needed clarity. Thompson unearths the centuries of political thought that culminated in one of history’s greatest constitutional minds. He reveals the depth of understanding that allowed Adams to predict the atrocities that would be unleashed during the French Revolution. And he shows how Adams forged principles of republican government atop a bedrock of vital truths—principles upon which the first moral and practical nation in history would be founded.

At a time when politicians are unwilling to admit and unable to defend the fact that America is not a democracy, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty provides much needed clarity. Click To Tweet
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