Seems Like Old Times

Reading through John Adams’ Defence of the Constitutions, (I am currently preparing an edition for Liberty Fund), several passages have brought me up short, as they shed much light upon our current circumstances.  Adams was among those who believed that, human nature being constant, history was a source of humane wisdom.  His “Discourses on Davila,” which Adams often called the fourth volume of the Defence begins with an epigraph from Aesop that translates roughly as “happy are those who can learn wisdom from the misfortunes of others.”  Elsewhere in Davila he noted “the same causes produce the same effects” among human beings no less than in the physical world.  That belief was the common element of humane learning from the ancient world to Adams’ day, even to our own.  Machiavelli said much the same thing, “good historians . . . wrote distinctly and in detail of certain cases, so that future people may learn how they have to defend themselves in similar incidents.”   The notion that history is “philosophy teaching by example” means roughly the same thing.  Many modern historians, believing that history is a story of the “historical process” of change over time, dismiss that notion.  Adams embraced it, but he saw that the “Prophets of Progress,” with their focus on human improvement blinded us to the truths of history.   (Adams also worried that there could be no rights of men if there is no human nature—absent human nature to what do the rights of men attach?)  On the other side, Adams’ friend Jefferson once wrote that “history, in general, only informs us what bad government is.”

Reacting to that trend, and to the folly it produced, in the early 1800s he produced “A History of the French Revolution, by a Society of Latin Writers,” in which he spliced together fragments from Livy, Tacitus and others to tell the narrative of the French Revolution.   In other words, as he wrote in the Defence, “’Such things ever will be,’ says Thucydides, ‘so long as human nature continues the same.’”  No one who understood human nature should have been surprised that the French Revolution produced a Napoleon.  In that spirit, herewith a few extracts from the first volume of Adams’ Defence.

From good laws and virtue to luxury, sloth, and political crisis:

Thessalians established themselves at Sybaris. They had not been there five years, when the Crotonians came and drove them out. Under Callimachus, archon of Athens, it was repeopled the third time, and had the name of Thurium. A populous colony was sent there, under Lampon and Xenocritus, who built a beautiful city for a capital, and twenty-five subordinate cities. But the inhabitants could not long live in good intelligence among themselves; they fell into dissensions, grew extravagant, luxurious, and effeminate to a proverb.

The political abuse of immigration:

Cassius had numbers on his side, and was so confident of success, that he betrayed too soon his ambitious design, by offering the freedom of the city to aliens, who, at his invitation, crowded from all parts to vote in the assemblies of the Roman people. This convinced all parties that his views were, by the means of aliens and indigent citizens, to usurp the government.

Power corrupts, among the masses no less than among the elites:

A popular party are apt to think that the rules of veracity and candor may be dispensed with, and that deceit and violence may, without any scruple, be employed in their own favor. With less honor and dignity to maintain than their adversaries, they are less afraid of imputations that detract from either; and their leaders, supported by the voice of the more numerous party, are less apprehensive of evil fame. In this contest, accordingly, fictitious plots and conspiracies were fabricated by the popular side, and fictitious designs against the liberties of the people were imputed to the patricians, in order to render them odious, and to deter them from appearing in support of their real pretensions.

Elite snobbery as a judgment of credentials and network rather than of merit and virtue, with the common voters tending to follow their “betters”:

The army, the navy, revenue, excise, customs, police, justice, and all foreign ministers, must be gentlemen, that is to say, friends and connections of the rich, well-born and well-educated members of the house; or, if they are not, the community will be filled with slander, suspicion, and ridicule against them, as ill-bred, ignorant, and in all respects unqualified for their trusts; and the plebeians themselves will be as ready as any to join in the cry, and run down their characters.

Partisanship versus the rule of law:

“But when he came to propose that the law should be read, he found that his opponents had procured M. Octavius, one of his colleagues, to interpose his negative, and forbid any further proceeding in the business. Here, according to the law and the constitution, this matter should have dropped.” But inflamed and unbalanced parties are not to be restrained by laws and constitutions.

And finally, from his extract from book 8 of Plato’s Republic, a reflection on the rise of democratic man:

Magistrates who resemble subjects, and subjects who resemble magistrates, are commended and honored, both in public and private; in such a city they of necessity soon go to the highest pitch of liberty, and this inbred anarchy descends into private families. The father resembles the child, and is afraid of his sons. The sons accustom themselves to resemble the father, and neither revere nor stand in awe of their parents. Strangers are equaled with citizens. The teacher fears and flatters the scholars, and the scholars despise their teachers and tutors. The youth resemble the more advanced in years, and rival them in words and deeds. The old men, sitting down with the young, are full of merriment and pleasantry, mimicking the youth, that they may not appear to be morose and despotic. The slaves are no less free than those who purchase them; and wives have a perfect equality and liberty with their husbands, and husbands with their wives. The sum of all these things, collected together, makes the souls of the citizens so delicate, that if any one bring near to them any thing of slavery, they are filled with indignation, and cannot endure it; and at length they regard not the laws, written or unwritten, that no one whatever, by any manner of means, may become their master. This is that government so beautiful and youthful, whence tyranny springs.

A postscript.  Don’t despair of the republic:

Zaleucus was of Locris in Italy, not far distant from Sybaris. He was a disciple of Pythagoras, of noble birth, and admirable morals. Having acquired the esteem and confidence of his fellow-citizens, they chose him for their legislator. Unfortunately, little remains of his laws but their preamble. But this is in a style so superior to that of all the other legislators, as to excite regret for the loss of his code. In this preamble he declares, that all those who shall inhabit the city ought, above all things, to be persuaded that there is a God; and, if they elevate their eyes and thoughts towards the heavens, they will be convinced that the disposition of the heavenly bodies, and the order which reigns in all nature are not the work of men nor of chance; that, therefore, they ought to adore the gods, as the authors of all which life presents us of good and beautiful; that they should hold their souls pure from every vice, because the gods accept neither the prayers, offerings, or sacrifices of the wicked, and are pleased only with the just and beneficent actions of virtuous men. Having thus, in the beginning of his laws, fixed the attention of his fellow-citizens upon piety and wisdom, he ordains, above all things, that there should never be among them any irreconcilable enmity; but, on the contrary, that those animosities which might arise among them, should be only a passage to a sure and sincere reconciliation; and that he who would not submit himself to these sentiments, should be regarded as a savage in a civilized community. The chiefs of his republic ought not to govern with arrogance nor pride; nor should the magistrates be guided in their judgments by hatred nor by friendship.

Reader Discussion

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on October 13, 2015 at 15:05:38 pm

Fascinating stuff.

I wonder what a similar writing by Jefferson would be like when contrasted with the works of Adams.

Here we have Adams, the Federalist, the champion of noble offices--President and Senate--that moderate the requests of the populist House.

And here we have Jefferson, the Republican, the champion of the all-populist government that was to transform the character of American government.

We can know what Adam's core philosophy of government was. But what was Jefferson's core philosophy that led him to champion all-populist Republican government over Adams' noble-populist Federalist government?

What were their core philosophical differences?

Was Jefferson simply anti-authoritarian, or was his Republicanism a reaction to Adams' responses to poorly constructed constitutional Federalism; responses in forms such as the Sedition Act?

I expect the later would be the case. The single quote given above suggests as much. I've never really grasped Jefferson's core political philosophy except that he reacted against bad government a lot.

Perhaps the lesson from Jefferson is that of a football player in that nothing binds a group of people together quite like having a common enemy. And the lesson from Adams is similar to that of a golfer in that your own weaknesses are your own greatest enemy. Of the two, Jefferson's hatred of others is the more powerful of the two forces since it brings a large group together for a common purpose, while Adams' personal moral sense does not bind people together as forcefully. Which implies that spiritual concerns, the betterment of one's self, must be the principal concern of governance.

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Scott Amorian
on October 13, 2015 at 16:37:55 pm

Prof. Samuelson:

Thanks for this nice piece. Adams was quite right: "history is philosophy teaching by example"

I suspect the problem today is that we neither teach history nor philosophy. In the midst of this ignorance we somehow believe that philosophy is the guide to history. After all, Obama has repeatedly asserted that he and his ilk are on the right side of history (read: philosophy).

And the young student aks: "Duhh!! like who is John Adams?

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Image of gabe
on October 13, 2015 at 16:41:25 pm


Interesting take on this.

Here is something to also consider about Jefferson:

He was a defender of an "agrarian" republic and some (much) of his philosophy may have been shaped by the same old agrarian - commercial rivalry.

Just a thought - but something to also consider.


Nice analogy with the golfer and Adams; although as a hacker, I would add that the greatest enemy is THINKING on the golf course.

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Image of gabe
on October 13, 2015 at 17:06:16 pm

Interesting reactions, thanks.
It might be worth noting that Jefferson was not opposed to prosecuting seditious libel at the state level:

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Richard S
on October 13, 2015 at 17:49:18 pm

'- The Lib-Dems who deny the constancy of human nature (and related historical lessons) seem to be largely disconnected from reality/rationality, and thus cannot be persuaded by objective fact or cogent argument. Yet they crave power over all Society... Stuck with the Irrationals, and no new continents, we really do need another New World to escape their tyranny. Is Mars ready yet?? I mean, seriously! These people are insufferable!!!

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Image of Michael
on October 13, 2015 at 20:34:28 pm

Thanks for the link - well worth the short read.

Jefferson was certainly a complicated man living in "interesting" times. One wonders, but is not surprised, how he could advocate such an apparent inconsistency, if only at the state level. Perhaps, it is because the *distant* Federal Government is not grounded, as are the States, in the local agrarian society?, in the particular "place," and thus its reach must be limited whereas the State and its people are to be allowed to control their own "place."

Then again, it may be an extension of the Imperial British colonial model where the "center" , by virtue of tradition, resource limitation, etc., controlled only certain areas but was prohibited from "binding in all cases whatsoever."

In any event, like your writings - kindly post more frequently.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.