Freedom and Dependence in John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy
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How to Cite

Freedom and Dependence in John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy. (2018). The Political Science Reviewer, 42(1), 315-320.


John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy.
By Luke Mayville. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
232p $29.95 hardcover.

It is both a pleasure and a real source of distress to read this book given that it takes up the enduring threat of oligarchy at a time when our own democracy seems to be in so much peril due to precisely the kinds of forces that Adams fretted over so presciently two hundred and fifty years ago and which are so eloquently and lucidly elaborated by Mayville. Mayville’s comprehensive treatment of Adams’ thought and its evolution—including his helpful engagement with Adams’ correspondence—makes clear that, in contrast to the common caricature of Adams as aristocrat, the second president was both deeply troubled by the psychological effects and political consequences of the vast and increasing economic inequality he saw around him following the American Revolution and deeply invested in lobbying for those political institutions (like a bicameral legislature and honorifics attached to high political offices) that might address the problem. Adams was unique among self-proclaimed egalitarian republicans in America (and among Federalists, I think) in recognizing the political need to refocus the public’s gaze toward more meritorious elites at the same time that elites’ power-seeking impulses should be checked through institutional means. But Mayville also shows time and again throughout the book that Adams is refreshingly pessimistic about human nature and especially about the corrupting influences of wealth and power (which I say as someone most familiar with Adams’ contemporary James Wilson, who was sometimes frustratingly optimistic about our moral-psychological prospects). Adams’ measured mix of pessimism and pragmatism is in some ways reminiscent of Rousseau’s in the Social Contract and some of his other practical political writings: both argue that wealth corrupts our economy of esteem and recognition, both worry about the exploitation of the poor by rich through political means, and both are interested in reviving classical republican institutions that inspire honor in democratic populaces threatened by inequality and its pernicious material and psychological consequences. Of course, Mayville likens Adams more to the Scots and to Adam Smith—and I’ll return to this comparison in a moment— but I think Adams’ parallels with Rousseau are worth mentioning at the outset because they capture something of the radical nature of his thought that I think Mayville is interested in bringing to the fore.

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