Book Reviews for JMC Fellow Luke Mayville’s “John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy”

What John Adams Saw When He Looked to the Future

By Jay Cost in the The Weekly Standard


Though civic education among the public has sunk to embarrassing levels, there has of late been an explosion in scholarship on the Founding Fathers. The intellectual giants of the revolutionary era are again all the rage among literary types, academic and otherwise.

Thomas Jefferson—the American sphinx, as Joseph Ellis calls him—is hardly en vogue these days, but his role in the founding is so extraordinary that antipathetic scholars cannot help but reckon with him. James Madison, Jefferson’s political lieutenant but hardly his intellectual subordinate, has enjoyed a renaissance in our times, as his description of relentless factional conflict seems to capture the essence of contemporary interest-group politics. Alexander Hamilton, long castigated as the defender of economic privilege, is enjoying a current bipartisan respectability. Conservatives have long admired his visionary understanding of how “trickle-down economics” can generate prosperity for all; liberals—increasingly animated by identity politics—have a newfound appreciation for this possibly mixed-race immigrant from the Caribbean.

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John Adams’ Rules for Dealing with American Oligarchy

By Diana Schaub in the Library of Law and Liberty


The verdict of history can be hard to overturn, even when patently unjust. Luke Mayville, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for American Studies at Columbia University, is a young scholar pursuing his own version of the Innocence Project. The beneficiary of his researches is John Adams, who despite his revolutionary bona fides and his manifold services to the new nation, was tagged a “monocrat” and a reactionary apologist for aristocracy by Thomas Jefferson and his partisans. Mayville’s fine first book, John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy, almost completely clears Adams of these old, but remarkably persistent, anti-democratic charges. Through a close reading of Adams’ major works of political theory and his late-in-life correspondence with his frenemy Jefferson, Mayville shows Adams to have been deeply worried about the power of privilege. By a twist of fate, an obsession with the oligarchic threat to popular government led to diagnosis being misconstrued as defense.

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