Fear of the Few: John Adams and the Power Elite

JMC Fellow and 2014-15 Postdoctoral Fellow at the Political Theory Institute at American University Luke Mayville has published a new article in Polity, “Fear of the Few: John Adams and the Power Elite.” In this piece, he discusses the political philosophy of John Adams, arguing that the second president’s writings display a prescient and remarkable understanding of the threat that an elite of “wealth, birth, and beauty” posed to American democracy. Mayville writes:

Adams, unlike the most prominent writers and defenders of the Constitution, maintained that a powerful elite class persisted in America despite the abolition of formal distinctions. This disproportionately powerful class, he also argued, was the principal internal threat facing republics. Much of the Defense recounted historical episodes in which aristocratic offenses were (1) the distortion of the popular nature of government and (2) the undermining of executive authority, which obstructed the government’s ability to function.

The most blatant abuse was the undermining of popular representation in legislative assemblies. Adams viewed popular representation as the hallmark of republican government. The term republican designated “a government in which the people have collectively, or by representation, an essential share in the sovereignty.” He agreed with Harrington that the interest of the people was synonymous with the public interest, and that “where the public interest governs, it is a government of laws, and not of men.” For the public interest to govern, Adams believed it was necessary for the representative assembly to “mirror” the people’s sentiments and interests. As he had written years before in Thoughts on Government, the representative assembly “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them.” However, such representation, when established, had proven a fragile achievement because legislative assemblies were intrinsically vulnerable to aristocratic domination. Indeed, “the progressive march of all assemblies” was towards a consolidation of power in the hands of an oligarchy, as men of “a few noble families” pursued their own ambitious designs and eventually excluded the people from government all together.

For the full article, see here.