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John Adams's Machiavellian Moment

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 Drawing upon evidence found in an unpublished fragment, Part one argues that the political epistemology that Adams employed in the Defence can be traced to Machiavelli's new modes and orders.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.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1995

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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.

1. Fink, Zera S., The Classical Republicans: An Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England, 2nd ed. (Evanstan, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1962)Google Scholar; Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975)Google Scholar; Banning, Lance, The Jeffersonian Persuasion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978), pp. 2191.Google Scholar

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3. Adams, John to Vanderkemp, Francis Adrian, 9 08 1813, The Papers of John Adams, 8 vols. to date, ed. Taylor, Robert J. et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977)Google Scholar, Microlfilm Reel 95.

4. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, 10 vols., ed. Adams, Charles Francis (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 18501856), 4: 408, 410, 559Google Scholar; 5:95; 6: 4, 394, 396.

5. John Adams to Francis Van Kemp, 9 August 1813; Adams to Francis Van der Kemp, 19 March 1813, Adams Papers, Reel 95.

6. Adams, , Works, 6: 4Google Scholar; 5: 95; 4: 559.

7. Adams, John to Jefferson, Thomas, 25 08 1787, The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, ed. Cappon, Lester J., (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), 1:192.Google Scholar

8. For the purpose of the present study, I am treating Adams's, Discourses on Davila: A Series of Papers on Political History, By an American Citizen (1790–91)Google Scholar as the “fourth volume” of the Defence. Adams often referred to the Defence and the Davila essays as his four volumes on government and it was his intention that they be read as a single, unified work. That Adams intended the Defence and Davila to be read as a whole, see Works, 6:482Google Scholar; 10: 96, and Adams-Jefferson Letters, 2: 356,357.Google Scholar

9. Adams himself referred to the Defence as a “strange” book. See Adams, John to Cranch, Richard, 15 01 1787, Works, 1: 432.Google Scholar

10. Gordon, Wood has described the Defence as a “bulky, disordered, conglomeration of political glosses on a single theme.” Creation of the American Republic (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), p. 568Google Scholar; Shaw, Peter found the book absent in “form,” “repetitious,” inconsistent, and “disordered,” The Character of John Adams (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1976), p. 207Google Scholar; and J. G. A. Pocock has described the book as “the product of an obsession with disorder so pervasive that it becomes disorderly itself,” so much so that Pocock thought Adams “scarcely in control of his materials” (‘“The Book Most Misunderstood Since the Bible': John Adams and the Confusion about Aristocracy” [Paper presented at the Instituto di Studi Nordamericani - Firenze Capitale Europea della Cultura, Florence, Italy, 28–30 11 1787], p. 13).Google Scholar

11. “Literary Drafts and Notes,” Adams Papers, Reel 188.

12. For a fuller discussion of the relationship between this fragment and the organization of the Defence, see Thompson, C. Bradley, “John Adams and the Science of Politics” (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1993).Google Scholar

13. Adams Papers, Reel 188.

14. Aristotle, though a great empiricist, is generally not regarded as having employed an experimental method. Indeed, his views on final causation suggest that he was an anti-experimentalist. Some scholars have suggested that Aristotle could not have avoided using some kind of experimental method, particularly in his work in biology and anatomy. It is in this sense, I suspect, that Adams could write that Aristotle shared with Democritus a “taste” for dissecting animals, “in order to discover the Seat of Sensation and the origin of Motion” (Adams Papers, Reel 188). See Butterfield, Herbert, The Origins of Modern Science (Toronto: Clark, Irwin and Co., 1977), pp. 8083.Google Scholar

15. Adams Papers, Reel 188. It should be recalled at this point that Adams said of Machiavelli that he was the first to have “revived the ancient politics” and that the world was much indebted to him for “the revival of reason in matters of government.” For a pithy but excellent account of Bacon's scientific method and its relationship to that of the pre-Socratics, see Faulkner, Robert K., Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1993), pp. 89, 265–72.Google Scholar

16. Adams Papers, Reel 188.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid. See John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 28 June 1812, and Adams, to Jefferson, Thomas, 16 07 1814, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 2: 308311, 434–439.Google Scholar See also, Adams, to Rush, Benjamin, 19 09 1806, in The Spur of Fame: Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805–1813, ed. Schutz, John A. and Adair, Douglass (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1966), pp. 6566.Google Scholar Cf. Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. Selby-bigge, L. A. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), p. 174.Google Scholar

19. Adams, John to Taylor, John, 15 04, 1814, Works, 6: 492.Google Scholar

20. See Ibid. 4: 294–96, 435–45; John Adams to Samuel Adams, 18 October 1790, 6: 415.

21. Ibid., 5: 95 (Italics added).

22. Bacon, Francis, “The Advancement of Learning,” in The Works of Francis Bacon, 12 vols. ed. Spedding, J., Ellis, R. L., and Heath, D. D., (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1863), 6: 359.Google Scholar

23. Machiavelli, , Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius in The Prince and the Discourses, ed. Lerner, Max (New York: The Modern Library, 1950), Greeting; 1.Google Scholar Introduction; 3. xliii.

24. Cf. Aristotle, , Politics, 2. iGoogle Scholar; Polybius, , Histories, 1. i, xxxvi.Google Scholar

25. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, in The Prince and the Discourses, chap. 15.

26. Discourses, Introduction.

27. Discourses, 3. i, xi.Google Scholar

28. Ibid., 1. xxxix.

29. Ibid., 2. Introduction.

30. “Wise men say, and not without reason, that whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have been, and ever will be, animated by the same passions, and thus they must necessarily have the same results” (Discourses, 3. xliiiGoogle Scholar).

31. On the development of the historical sciences as a part of the empirical study of politics, see Becker, Carl, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932)Google Scholar; Cassirer, Ernst, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1951)Google Scholar; Davis, Herbert, “The Augustan Conception of History,” in Reason and Imagination: Studies in the History of Ideas, 1600–1800, ed. Mazzeo, J. A. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), pp. 213–29Google Scholar; Nadel, George H., “Philosophy of History Before Historicism,” in The Critical Approach to Science and Philosophy, ed. Bunge, Mario (New York: Free Press, 1964), pp. 445–70Google Scholar; Stromberg, R. N., “History in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas 12 (1951): 295304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32. For an interesting discussion of Machiavelli's influence on Bolingbroke's historical methodology, see Butterfield, , The Statecraft of Machiavelli (New York: Collier Books, 1962), pp. 135–65.Google Scholar

33. Saint-john, Henry, Bolingbroke, Lord Viscount, “Letters on the Study and Use of History,” in The Works of Lord Bolingbroke, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1841), pp. 193–94.Google Scholar

34. Ibid., pp. 229–30, 223,191,222.

35. That Adams was greatly influenced by Bolingbroke can be little doubted. In his Autobiography Adams mentions that when he went to Worcester in 1756 to begin teaching Latin at the local public school, he carried with him “Lord Bolingbroke's Study and Use of History, and his Patriot King.” The young Adams then lent his volumes to his teacher, James Putnam, who “was so well pleased with them he Added Bolingbrokes Works to his List, which gave men an Opportunity of reading the Posthumous Works of that Writer in five Volumes. Mr. Burke once asked, who ever read him through? I can answer that I read him through, before the Year 1758 and that I have read him through at least twice since that time” (Adams, , Diary and Autobiography, 3: 264Google Scholar). Adams's Diary is full of references to Bolingbroke (See Adams, , Diary, 1:11,12, 35, 36, 38, 40, 73,176, 200; 2: 386; 3: 272Google Scholar). See also, Adams, to Jefferson, , 25 12 1813, AdamsJefferson Letters, 2: 410.Google Scholar The influence is unmistakable.

36. Bolingbroke, , “Letters on the Study and Use of History,” 2: 229–30.Google Scholar See Iacuzzi, Alfred, John Adams, Scholar (New York: S. F. Vanni, 1952), p. 150.Google Scholar

37. Adams, , Works, 6: 232.Google Scholar

38. Bolingbroke, , “Letters on the Study and Use of History,” 2: 228–29.Google Scholar

39. Ibid., pp. 228–29; Paynter, John E., “The Ethics of John Adams: Prolegomenon to a Science of Politics” (Ph.D dissertation, University of Chicago, 1974), pp. 97101.Google Scholar

40. Adams, , Works, 5: 11.Google Scholar

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).

42. Adams, , Works, 6: 365; 5:11.Google Scholar

43. John Adams to Rev. De Walter, October, 1797, Adams Papers, Reel 119; Adams to Francis Adrian Vanderkemp, 20 April 1812, Adams Papers, Reel 118.

44. Adams, , Works, 4: 559.Google Scholar

45. Ibid., 6: 3–4.

46. Ibid., 6: 4; 4: 559.

47. Ibid., 5: 5,11, 9–10,5.

48. Ibid., 5: 11,19.

49. Ibid., 5: 66, 39–40,44. See also Discourses, 2. Introduction.

50. Adams, , Works, 5: 2930, 42–45, 48.Google Scholar

51. Ibid., 5: 29,45.

52. Ibid., 5:17–18, 26,18.

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

54. Adams, , Works, 5: 66, 82.Google Scholar

55. Ibid., 4: 284.

56. Ibid., 5: 90.

57. Ibid., 5: 45,44.

58. Ibid., 5: 67–68.

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.”

60. Adams, , Works, 5: 89.Google Scholar

61. See Discourses, 3. i, xxii, xxx.Google ScholarCf. Strauss, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1958), pp. 44, 165, 167, 247–52.Google Scholar

62. Adams, , Works, 4: 298, 587.Google Scholar

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.

64. Cf. Discourses, 1. ixGoogle Scholar and Adams, , Works, 4: 291–94.Google Scholar

65. Cf. Discourses, 1. xlix and 3. xxxix.Google Scholar

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

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