John Adams, Cicero and the Traditions of Republicanism
Cornish, Paul Joseph, Michigan Academician
John Adams' approach to republican politics emphasizes the need to check and balance powers in a republican constitution, but also the need to check the power of the 'aristocracies' that arise in society. The need for checks on power is explained in terms of the weakness of human reason relative to the passions, and in terms of the need for harmony and justice to promote happiness in society. Adams retains a Ciceronian view of the origins of human society and of republican government, and relies on Cicero's definitions of 'people' and `republic' to help frame his Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America. His approach is conservative in that part of his defense is to stress that the colonial governments that existed before Independence were republican, and that the institutions of the colonial governments were the primary models for the new state constitutions after Independence. The study suggests that historical interpretations of the 'republican tradition' are better understood in terms of a `traditions of republicanism.'
John Adams lived a life that was in many ways similar to that of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Like Cicero, Adams was a remarkable lawyer who became an accomplished statesman and philosopher. Adams was a central figure in the struggle for independence after the Seven Years War, defended soldiers charged with manslaughter after the Boston Massacre, was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, served as a diplomat during the War for Independence, was the primary author of the Constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was elected the first Vice-President of the United States in 1788, and was elected the second President of the United States in 1796. In addition he wrote significant treatises of political theory before, during and after the War for Independence. Like Cicero then, he combined the prudence of a statesman and the rhetorical expertise of a lawyer with the theoretical wisdom of a philosopher.
But there is more, namely Adams' pervasive use of Cicero's political arguments and rhetorical techniques in his own works. Adams' most substantial works of political philosophy, his Defense of the Constitutions of the United States (1) and the continuation of his argument in Discourses on Davila, (2) are considered to be works that, to a degree, harmed his reputation as a defender of republican liberty during the struggle for independence. They have been described as outdated works about the classical republican ideal of a mixed regime that was no longer applicable to a society based on an ethic of moral and political equality (Bailyn, 1967; Wood, 1969, Ellis, 1993). Adams' view of the mixed regime is clearly framed by his reading of Cicero, and other Romans.
The present generation of scholars has produced studies of Adams' life and works that amount to an admirable defense of his status as one of the greatest minds of the founding generation. Historian David McCullough has captured the heroic story of Adams' personal sacrifices and statesmanship in his biography (McCulloch, 2002). Scholars of political thought, including George Carey, Ralph Lerner, C. Bradley Thompson and John Patrick Diggins have carefully reconstructed the written evidence of Adams' commitment to republican political principles throughout his life, and drawn attention to the relevance of his understanding of human nature and the inevitability of aristocracy to contemporary politics in the United States (Diggins 2003& 1984; Carey, 2000; Thompson, 1998; Lerner, 1987).
The purpose of this study is to offer an overview of Adams' republican political teaching in his A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which I categorize as 'conservative' republicanism. The terminology is not ideal, since it was not used in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but it is useful as a description of Adams' contribution to one strand of republicanism in North America and Europe. My work breaks from certain aspects of the explanation of Adams' political teachings found in C. Bradley Thompson's study, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, but upholds the key finding of Thompson's study: namely that Adams was deeply committed to the structuring of a republican constitution that could balance the power of the variety of 'aristocracies' that arise in any free society. Adams denied that hereditary standing in the law was an essential condition for the existence of an aristocracy, (3) and so believed that the principles behind Cicero's mixed constitution are still applicable in what Madison called "unmixed and extended republics." (4)
In what follows I read John Adams as a statesman and political thinker motivated by a concern for the conservation of ordered liberty in the United States and its promotion around the world, but especially in revolutionary France. Adams knew of no stark opposition between the ethical principles we commonly identify as classical liberalism and the governmental systems he understood to be republican (Rahe, 2005, xix-xxx). The complexity and ambivalence of his political teaching stands in stark contrast to the optimistic liberalism of the French statesmen and philosophers like Turgot and Condorcet and Americans like Franklin who believed that freedom and equality could be spread through education and a simple, centralized government. Adams' works are a stern and prescient warning that any political system that centralizes political authority in the hands of a single institution, class or person in order to transform human society could descend into tyranny and war.
Adams' approach relies on the rhetoric of fallen nature. Regardless of Adams' unorthodox theological views, one must still account for his continued use of the concepts of the 'fall' and fallen nature that is so much a part of medieval and Reformation approaches to politics (Lerner, 1987, 4861). Part of this issue can be resolved by focusing more clearly on the Ciceronian and Augustinian aspects of Adams' political teaching. Here I hope to show that Adams not only emulated Cicero's rhetorical styles, but that he accepted important aspects of Cicero's and Augustine's accounts of human nature and the permanently problematic nature of civil government.
Before proceeding further it may be helpful to note some general observations about methods in the history of political thought. I intend to apply the approach suggested by Cary J. Nederman in his recent study of political thought, Lineages of European Political Thought: …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: John Adams, Cicero and the Traditions of Republicanism. Contributors: Cornish, Paul Joseph - Author. Journal title: Michigan Academician. Volume: 41. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2012. Page number: 22+. © 2008 Michigan Academy of Science Arts & Letters. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.