Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2009
John Adams was unique among the Founding Fathers in that he actually read and took seriously Machiavelli's ideas. In his Defence of the Constitutions of the United States, Adams quoted extensively from Machiavelli and he openly acknowledged an intellectual debt to the Florentine statesman. Adams praised Machiavelli for having been “the first” to have “revived the ancient politics” and he insisted that the “world” was much indebted to Machiavelli for “the revival of reason in matters of government.” What could Adams have meant by these extraordinary statements? The following article examines the Machiavellian ideas and principles Adams incorporated into his political thought as well as those that he rejected. Drawing upon evidence found in an unpublished fragment, Part one argues that the political epistemology that Adams employed in the Defence can be traced to Machiavelli's new modes and orders. Part two presents Adams's critique of Machiavelli's constitutionalism.
The author wishes to thank Brendan McConville, Peter Schramm, Sidney Taylor and the anonymous reviewers of this journal for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.
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41. Given this methodological standard—the heavy emphasis on experience and history as opposed to rationalism and philosophy—some may wonder why Adams would quote in the Defence so approvingly from Plato's Republic. The vast bulk of Adams's quotations from Plato are drawn from the eighth and ninth books. It is here that Plato describes the rise and fall of all pure forms of government into their corrupt forms. What impressed Adams was not Plato's unique, non-cyclical theory of regime change, but rather his account of the reasons, the underlying causes of this change: “Plato has given us the most accurate detail of the natural vicissitudes of manners and principles, the usual progress of the passions in society, and revolutions of governments into one another” (Adams, , Works, 4: 448Google Scholar).
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53. Ibid., 5: 29–30, 48–49. Adams's interpretation of the Florentine Histories should be read in the light of what Machiavelli says in the Discourses of the cause and effect relationship between the Roman constitution and that city's good laws, good education, and good examples. See Discourses on Liny, 1. iv.Google Scholar
59. See, for instance, Discourses, 1. xlixGoogle Scholar: “The progress of the Roman republic demonstrates how difficult it is in the constitution of a republic to provide necessary laws for the maintenance of liberty.”
63. Ibid., 4: 384–85. Adams was quoting from Swift's A Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and Commons of Athens and Rome.
66. At one point in The Prince, Machiavelli even suggests that human nature might be conquered by a new kind of ruler: “And in examining their life and deeds it will be seen that they owed nothing to fortune but the opportunity which gave them matter to be shaped into what form they thought fit; and without that opportunity their powers would have been wasted, and without their powers the opportunity would have come in vain…. These opportunities, therefore, gave these men their chance, and their own great qualities enabled them to profit by them, so as to ennoble their country and augment its fortunes” (The Prince, chap. 6).
67. One possible source for Adams's critique of Machiavelli's political science and his emphasis on the notion of a constitutional founding is James Harrington. In his Oceana, Harrington attempted to construct a “perfect and (for ought that in human prudence can be forseen) an immortal Commonwealth.” Harrington, James, The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics ed. Pocock, J. G. A. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See Rahe, , Republics Ancient and Modern, pp. 409–40.Google Scholar