Saturday, March 22, 2008

John Adams--Ambition and Limited Government

The $100 million HBO mini-series on John Adams has prompted questions as to why this most-neglected of America's Founding Fathers has now suddenly become famous. I have personal reasons to agree with the conclusion in the recent issue of The Economist that "sometimes short bald men are right"!

But what was he right about? In Darwinian Conservatism, Adams is prominent in the chapter on "Limited Government." In that chapter, I suggest that in some ways, Adams was the deepest thinker among the American Founders. He was an intensely ambitious man. But he was also a well-read scholar and serious thinker who understood that the ambition of the sort of people who strive for power would become tyrannical if it was not properly channelled. He understood that in every society, there will be a rivalry for power between those few who want to be dominant, while the multitude of people will look to the leadership of the few, even as they resist being exploited by the ambitious few. Adams indicated that this structure of rule--the one, the few, and the many--could be found among many animals with dominance hierarchies. And in my chapter, I suggested that his political anthropology was confirmed by modern ethological studies of "chimpanzee politics."

From his reading of political philosophy--from Aristotle to Cicero to Machiavelli to Adam Smith--and from his own political experience, Adams rightly concluded that the best form of government was a "mixed regime" that allows the few to strive for dominance, with one person rising to the top, but with a system of divided powers balanced against one another so that no one person or group can become despotic. I argue that studies of primate politics confirms the practical wisdom of Adams' political thought.

If the HBS television series turns the attention of the public to Adams, and if it directs a few serious readers to read Adams writings (including the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780) and biographies of Adams like that by David McCullough, this could promote a renewed appreciation for Adams' argument for balanced government, which figures prominently in Darwinian conservatism.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Larry,
I agree with much of what you wrote about Adams. Historians love Adams because of his writing and his letters to Abigail. Adams was the most interesting, most religious, and most obnoxious of the founders. He was not subtle, he was did not tolerate fools, and he also allowed the Alien and Sedition acts. I was interested in your take on his importances to the idea of limited government.

Your friend and former student,