Conservative Or Liberal?
March 2, 2022
“Was Adams a conservative?” I appreciate that this is likely an eighth grade history question but I went ahead and Google it anyway. Found these two interesting perspectives:
During the first decade of our nation’s history, the presidential contests of 1796 and 1800 were as clearly and coherently expressive of conservatism and liberalism as any elections since. The conservative and liberal parties—the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans, respectively—were led by two distinguished patriots, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the partisan campaigns waged by their parties were bitter and scurrilous. Adams and Jefferson started as friends, grew apart over their differences and then reconciled—demonstrating to their countrymen that the most extreme partisan passions could be moderated. That lesson is worth remembering today.
Adams and Jefferson met in the Continental Congress in 1775 and found that they shared an enthusiasm for declaring independence from Great Britain. In the 1780s, the two patriots were thrown together as ministers in Europe, where they and their families further cemented the bonds of friendship. They returned to the States, and after George Washington’s two terms as president, they ended up as the presidential candidates of the two emerging political parties.
Although the Federalist Adams squeaked into the presidency in 1796 by three electoral votes, he lost much more decisively to the Republican Jefferson in 1800. Adams, who had taken for granted his re-election as president, was deeply humiliated by his loss. The break between the two former friends seemed irreparable.
The two patriots were as different from one another as could be imagined. Jefferson was a radical 18th-century-style liberal who was as extreme in his views as a popularly elected official could be. In his attitude toward government, he didn’t resemble a modern liberal. He believed in minimal government, which was the progressive position at the time. Instead of the strong fiscal-military state that Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists wanted, Jefferson sought only “a wise and frugal government,” as he said in his inaugural address as president—one that kept its citizens from injuring one another but otherwise left them “free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.”
Like most liberals at the time, Jefferson had a magnanimous view of human nature. He believed literally in what he wrote in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal (in his case, only all white men) and that the obvious differences among individuals were due to the effects of the environment. In other words, nurture, not nature, was all-important. Consequently, like most Americans today, especially progressives, he put an enormous emphasis on education.
Jefferson invented the idea of American exceptionalism.
Like other liberals, Jefferson was optimistic and confident of the future. He thought that the educated American electorate would choose as its leaders only natural aristocrats, virtuous and talented men like himself. He believed that the world was getting better, becoming freer and more democratic, and that the new republic of the United States had a special role to play in fulfilling that future. America, he said, was “a chosen country” and “the world’s best hope.” Jefferson invented the idea of American exceptionalism. Despising monarchy, he became a true believer in the republican revolutions that he hoped would spread everywhere in the world. His support for the French Revolution was unbounded.
The Federalist Adams was a conservative, perhaps the most conservative president we have ever had. But Adams was anything but a Ronald Reagan -type conservative. He had a sour and cynical view of human nature. He was pessimistic about the future and a severe critic of the Jeffersonian conception of American exceptionalism. Adams said over and over that America was no different from other countries. Americans were just as vicious, just as sinful, just as corrupt as other nations. There was, he said, no special providence for the United States.
Adams was the ultimate realist.
Indeed, Adams was the ultimate realist, committed to “stubborn facts.” He challenged every American dream and myth, especially the belief that all men are created equal. He believed that we were all born unequal and that education couldn’t do much about the inherent differences among people. He didn’t know about genes and DNA, but he certainly was convinced that nature, not nurture, mattered most.
Society, Adams said, was inherently unequal, and unlike Jefferson, he believed that the aristocrats who would inevitably rise to the top in republican America wouldn’t necessarily be the best and wisest men. They were more apt to be the richest, the most attractive, the most ambitious and the wiliest.
In contrast to Jefferson, Adams didn’t disparage big government, but he did fear the unrestrained power of government. In perhaps the most profound statement he ever made, and surely his greatest contribution to American constitutionalism, he declared “that power must never be trusted without a check.”
Adams had little confidence in democracy and the virtue of people, and consequently he was willing to borrow some of the elements of the English monarchy to offset the populism of American republicanism. He thought that sooner or later America’s elections would become so partisan and so corrupt that we would have to turn to having officeholders serve for life. Eventually, Adams said, we would have to make the president and the Senate hereditary.
Despite these obvious differences between the two political opponents, their bonds of friendship ultimately made their reconciliation possible. In 1812, their fellow Founding Father Benjamin Rush encouraged the two men to write to one another and become friends again, appealing to the importance of their reconciliation to the nation. “Posterity will revere the friendship of two ex-presidents that were once opposed to each other,” Rush wrote to Jefferson.
Over the next 14 years, Adams and Jefferson exchanged more than 150 letters, with Adams writing three times as many as Jefferson. Jefferson’s characteristic courtesy and politeness, and his aversion to any sort of confrontation, saved the relationship.
Although James Madison could never understand what his closest friend Jefferson saw in Adams, Jefferson realized that Adams was a man of “rigorous honesty” and realistic judgment. Jefferson claimed that under Adams’s crusty surface, the irascible Yankee was as warm and amiable as a person could be. Jefferson tolerated better than most Adams’s facetious and teasing manner.
The two men valued their correspondence too much to endanger it, so they tended to avoid controversial topics, especially slavery. But in their exchange of letters, the two men came to realize that they both equally and deeply loved their country. They had always been polite to one another, and that civility made their reconciliation possible. They knew that their combination of idealism and realism had helped create the country, and that realization was enough to sustain the revival of their friendship. It is a good lesson for our constitutional government, in any age.
—Dr. Wood is a professor of history emeritus at Brown University. His latest book, “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson,” will be published Oct. 24 by Penguin Press.
In his essay to the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Gordon Wood provided an interesting intellectual lens to frame the political views of Thomas Jefferson. As a modern-day Democrat that draws inspiration from the ideals of Thomas Jefferson, Wood’s characterization of Jefferson was not only informative, but welcomed. In today’s political dialogue, liberals have largely abandoned Jefferson for Alexander Hamilton, and conservatives moved towards embracing Jefferson. The transformation by both ideologies completely ignores historical context. While it is true that Jefferson favored smaller government, as Woods notes, that “was the progressive position” of the era. Discounting the politics of the time period makes it easier to fit historical figures squarely into our political discourse, but it marginalizes and mischaracterizes what they represent.
The article draws distinctions between the “liberal” Thomas Jefferson and “conservative” John Adams that, in more cases than not, justifies the labels assigned. Jefferson was “optimistic and confident of the future," believing that the educated electorate would select “natural aristocrats, virtuous and talented men like himself." He believed in a world that was progressing towards freedom and democracy, with the United States leading the way as “the world’s best hope." Wood credits Jefferson with inventing the idea of American exceptionalism. He describes Jefferson as the elected radical, the liberated philosopher, and the virtuous patriot.
In a stark contrast with Jefferson, Wood defines Adams as the conservative realist that expressed pessimism about the future and cynicism about human nature. Although ultimately a friend of Jefferson, Adams was a “severe critic of the Jeffersonian conception of American exceptionalism." This depiction of Wood, although seemingly critical of Adams, is just an alternative philosophy that is still used in modern politics.
I found this article to be pleasant because it described a friendship between two ideological opposites that were former presidential rivals. The intent of the article was to foreshadow and promote the release of his book on the friendship of the two. More importantly than its pleasantry was the inspiration I drew from the article. The descriptors surrounding Jeffersonian ideals were accurate and articulate, and they come at a time when so much surrounding the Founding Fathers is misconstrued. At a time when some Democrats are isolating Thomas Jefferson for his sins, I am recommitting not only to the refined Jeffersonian principles of equality, freedom, and optimism for the nation, but also to his liberated philosophy and virtuous patriotism. The Democratic Party would be wise to join me.