Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

John Adams versus Mary Wollstonecraft on the French Revolution and Democracy

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

John Adams versus Mary Wollstonecraft on the French Revolution and Democracy

Article excerpt


Recent years have seen a surge in scholarship surrounding two figures central to eighteenth-century political thought, John Adams and Mary Wollstonecraft. In roughly a decade, Adams has stepped forward to take his place alongside Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin among the intellectual giants of the American Revolutionary and Founding eras. This newfound interest in Adams has functioned at the popular level, in the form of two best-selling biographies1 and John Patrick Diggins's interpretation of the relationship between Adams's political thought and presidency,2 as well as at the level of the scholarly monograph, including most notably C. Bradley Thompson's defense of him as a serious and innovative political theorist.3

Over the same time period, Mary Wollstonecraft has become the first female member of the canon of Western political thought. Since the publication of Virginia Sapiro's book on Wollstonecraft,4 the proliferation of scholarly work on the woman generally regarded as the founder of modern feminism has been truly remarkable.5 And, as with Adams, the newfound interest in Wollstonecraft seems destined to cross over into popular discourse with the appearance of a celebrated new biography.6

Strikingly, however, no one has paid any serious scholarly attention to Adams's direct intellectual engagement with Wollstonecraft. This took the form of the commentary Adams penned in the margins of his copy of Wollstonecraft's An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution; and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (1794). Adams read Wollstonecraft's French Revolution through at least twice, making marginal comments in 1796, and again in 1812. These marginalia total roughly 12,000 words, more than Adams wrote in any other book in his extensive library. More than 500 pages of his copy of Wollstonecraft's text (out of a possible 522!) bear his editorial marks, and Adams's notes sometimes equal, and occasionally dwarf what Wollstonecraft wrote on a given page. Nevertheless, few scholars have made more than passing reference to the very existence of Adams's marginalia, and then usually to say only that he seemed to disagree with her at every turn.7

The exception to this rule is Zoltán Haraszti's book, John Adams and the Prophets of Progress." Haraszti's accurate assessment of Adams's notes is that, "They add up to his own version of the Revolution."9 However, Haraszti's transcription is not a complete one.10 More importantly, Haraszti's purpose was clearly to make Adams's notes available in a largely unadorned fashion. He added contextual or historical details to provide narrative continuity, but intentionally did not submit the "dialogues" he transcribed between Adams and his interlocutors to any sustained theoretical analysis.11

This article draws on the first complete transcription of Adams's marginalia in Wollstonecraft's French Revolution.12 Its purpose, however, is not to fill in the historical record by producing the balance of those notes in Wollstonecraft's text that do not appear in John Adams and the Prophets of Progress.13 Rather, my goal is to analyze the profound theoretical disagreement between one of America's most important intellectual architects and the most important modern feminist over the meaning of the French Revolution, the event considered foundational for late political modernity. In this regard, the unplumbed marginalia I am interested in represent as much of a gap in the literature on Wollstonecraft as in that on Adams. Adams's reading of her French Revolution reveals how one of Wollstonecraft's leading contemporaries understood her theoretical project, and this goes some way towards helping us to understand that project better ourselves. Thus the question I am interested in: based on the "dialogue" between Adams and Wollstonecraft carried out in the pages of this text, what is the theoretical basis for their very different evaluations of the French Revolution's significance? …

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