John Adams, Cicero and the Traditions of Republicanism

Article excerpt


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. …