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John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy


Luke Mayville


Princeton: University Press, 2016

Hardcover. xi+216 pages. ISBN 978-0691171531. $29.95


Reviewed by Christopher N. Fritsch

Mountain View College, Dallas (Texas)




A multitude of sources show America has had an aristocracy. The author, Luke Mayville, presents us with an examination of John Adams and his perceptions of aristocracy and oligarchy. Mayville allows the reader to see Adams’s perception of human nature and its impact on society. The reader has the opportunity to draw conclusions about Adams’s perception of oligarchy and its connection to our modern world. Mayville leaves no doubt that Adams’s oligarchy would be similar to those throughout history.

Certainly most historians agree that Adams was key in the development of an American revolutionary response to the United Kingdom. Adams lived his life questioning how he would be remembered. His role in the Revolution secured Adams’s place in history, but many believe Adams became much more conservative in the years following the Constitution. Adams became the target of an antidemocratic, pro-Federal sentiment by people of his own time and later by historians.

Mayville’s goal is to explain Adams’s views of oligarchy in the eighteenth century. For Mayville, Adams lived, not without fault, but as a man consistent in his thought. For the author, Adams became an early critic of American exceptionalism. Adams saw America as any historic or current nation. Thus, Adams was a student of human nature and Mayville presents Adams as a social and political realist in his perceptions of the United States and its future [151].

If Adams were a realist, he was most realistic about man’s human nature. As a political scientist, Adams believed that all republican governments faced a threat from oligarchy [149]. Throughout history, republicans and aristocrats squared off against each other. Aristocrats posed the greatest dangers to the independence and political stability of popularly elected legislatures and chief executives. To Adams, aristocrats would not be satisfied with their prescribed role within a republic—the holding of one vote. Their ability to influence legislators, executives and legislation with their wealth and prominence provided them with greater influence and power and thus, their ability to protect their wealth and interests.

With everything he wrote, Adams found more critics and criticism. Thomas Jefferson, John Taylor, and the Reverend James Madison, all believed Adams had become a monarchist [28]. His writings, though, were only part of his problem. When Adams became Vice President, he found himself in uncharted territory. Seemingly, all he had to guide him was his understanding of history and his experiences. From these, Adams believed that titles of honor created esteem. He thought these types of titles would limit aristocratic pretensions.

Therefore, Adams believed that government needed to be balanced. Without some form of balance, aristocrats with their “goods of fortune”—wealth, birth, and beauty—would overshadow the “goods of the mind”—wisdom and virtue [114]. The lack of political structures to limit the advantages of wealth, birth, beauty, and the power they created would leave the United States in the hands of people who would use government for their own ends and not the national interest. Adams saw the downfall of the American republic unless a national aristocracy was checked. So, he feared the establishment of the Society of Cincinnati. In the Society Adams saw an aristocracy that would quickly overpower republicans throughout the nation. To Adams, the Society would construct an American aristocracy, as descendants inherited positions and titles based upon birth and not any clear act of honour and virtue.

If there is a weak portion of the book, it is the author’s presentation of Adams’s perception of the Society of Cincinnati and his use of titles. Mayville portrays Adams’s intellectual relationship to these issues in an awkward way. The author discusses Adams’s perception of the Society and the use of titles, not through Adams’s own works or thoughts upon the subjects but rather from one of his most vocal critics—William Maclay. Sitting in the Senate, Maclay held a front row seat to Adams’s pronouncements on the title of the President. According to Mayville, Maclay placed Adams within the pro-monarchy camp. To Maclay, Adams shifted from his former republican outlook and “sought nothing less than ‘the creation of a new monarchy in America’ ”[127]. Through this debate, Mayville explores Adams’s defense of titles and concludes that Adams was misunderstood by Maclay and later, Jefferson. Adams saw no value in the titles themselves but saw them as having the “capacity to govern the passions” [130].

In some respects, as convincing as Mayville can be, his argument here seems the weakest. Although few historians and biographers explore Adams’s perception of the Society of Cincinnati or Freemasons, Peter Shaw in his work The Character of John Adams portrays Adams as fearful of the power of the Society of Cincinnati. However, even he fails to provide much primary source support for his position. Adams did provide insight into his views on such organizations. In volume nine of The Works, Adams responded to letters of support from a Masonic lodge in Maryland and two organizations of the Society of Cincinnati, one in Rhode Island and the other in South Carolina.

In his response to the Freemasons in Maryland, Adams noted that they often have been associated with being injurious to government and religion, but to these men of Maryland, Adams reminded them of the origin of their liberties and called upon them to love their country. His letters to the Cincinnati asked for similar emotional responses. They provide an insight into the fear that Adams held toward the Cincinnati. In both, Adams reminded the members of what they fought for and the fragility of what they had achieved. To the members of South Carolina, Adams wrote, “When the Cincinnati of South Carolina pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, I believe no man will doubt their integrity” [The Works, Volume IX : 222]. Adams knew that members of the society could set themselves, their fortunes, and their children’s birthright before the nation and pointed them in the direction of his “goods of the mind”—wisdom and virtue. Adams believed it took wisdom to see the truth and reality of the current political situations.

Although Mayville chose to utilize the perspectives of some of Adams’s critics, this does little to detract from the overall point of the book. The author is at his best when he places Adams in the context of the eighteenth century. Adams becomes all the more complete when we examine more than just his formal writings. His personal responses to people and organisations were a reflection of his political ideas and his perception of human nature. As Mayville shows, Adams was no monarchist; Adams did not desire the creation of an oligarchy. He wanted political structures that provided balance against these and strongly hoped that society in United States would be founded on wisdom and virtue—the tools to maintain the republic.


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