JMC Fellow on John Adams

JMC Fellow Luke Mayville talks about John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy.

Luke Mayville is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for American Studies at Columbia University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science in 2014 from Yale University, with a dissertation entitled “The Oligarchic Mind: Wealth and Power in the Political Thought of John Adams.” His book John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy will be published by Princeton University Press in October (pre-order here). Mayville talked to Emily Sneff about John Adams’ fears, “the few” versus “the 1%”, and varied definitions of “natural aristocracy”.

Luke Mayville’s doctoral dissertation on the political thought of John Adams began with a much broader topic. In the course of closely reading texts in the tradition of Western political philosophy—Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Machiavelli—he was struck by the extent to which these figures considered issues of class and inequality to be central to politics. A key consideration was oligarchy, or political domination by social and economic elites. Mayville was intrigued by the way these classical thinkers tried to manage oligarchy by establishing “mixed institutions” that would counterbalance the power of social-economic elites (“the few”) with the power of ordinary citizens (“the many”).

This is where Adams entered the picture. “I argue in the book,” Mayville explains, “that John Adams is probably the most profound analyst and critic of oligarchy in American history.” (Mayville substantiates this claim, in part, by pointing to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, a book that would also contend for the title of most profound analysis of oligarchy. Mills viewed Adams as a predecessor for his own analysis.) Adams’ writings about oligarchy are interesting, of course, because of his importance in the foundation of this country. But his writings are especially interesting and relevant because the classical concept of the few and the many faded in his lifetime as the more modern concept of a single, classless citizenry became popular. The modern concept is designated in the United States Constitution, for example, by the phrase, “We the People” (not “We the Many” or “We the Few”). Mayville found that commentaries from Gordon Wood, Joseph Ellis, Judith Shklar, and others all recognized Adams as “this really peculiar figure who continued to insist upon a classical understanding of the few and the many even while the modern idea of a unified people was ascendant. So,” he continues, “Adams was right at the pivot point between classical and modern understandings of society.” As Mayville notes, once he started writing about Adams, he never stopped.

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