Jefferson and Adams: A Clash of Conservative Ideals

This week, I read Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis. Overall, it was a pretty average look at the decades following the establishment of the Constitution. However, it’s greatest strength was in pointing out the ideological and philosophical tensions underlying the views of the various members of the founding generation. The final chapter looks at the legendary friend to enemy and back to friend relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. As I read this chapter, I thought more about the differences in temperament and philosophy that stood between these patriots. These differences belie simple labels as “liberal” or “conservative”

For instance, John Adams was certainly in favor of a larger government and particularly a robust executive.  For instance, he believed that the President needed to have the trappings of power such as titles and ostentation. He also supported industrial development through the foundation of a national bank and assumption of state debt. Yet, Adams embraced a truly conservative political philosophy and world view. He feared the excesses of populism and the democratic process run amok. He saw the French Revolution as an excess which the new American Republic needed to guard against. While he wasn’t averse to change – even radical change such as the American Revolution itself – when change was needed, he was also cynical about the potential for human rationality and self-perfection absent a strong moral and social foundation

Jefferson on the other hand can be seen as a small government conservative in his mistrust of centralized power and his focus on the rights of the various states. He saw a strong executive as a potential despot that would take away the rights of the people. Yet, Jefferson also had great trust in the democratic process and that arbitrary differences such as social class were abolished, that people would be inclined towards good. Ultimately, Jefferson saw the world as divided between the righteous masses and the wicked elite that sought to put down the people. As such, he saw the French Revolution as a righteous people’s revolt for liberty. Jefferson saw the American Revolution as the first step towards a world wide revolution that would invariably sweep the globe.

Thus, both Jefferson and Adams had tendencies that we would label as liberal and conservative. Yet, the true divide between the two was not so much based on role of government, but a deeper disagreement on the nature of mankind. Because Adams saw government as the protector of liberty against excess, he sought to impose order on the chaos that surrounded him and to resist the impulses of partisanship and populism. On the positive side, this attitude led Adams to be willing to stand up to the masses clamoring for war against England and France and to pursue a salutatory policy of neutrality. On the other extreme, Adam’s focus on order could lead to repressive legislation such as the Alien and Sedition Acts (though Adams was at best a reluctant supporter whose hand was forced by radicals in his party).

 Jefferson saw the people as the ultimate sovereign and a centralized government as a danger to the will of the people. Positively, this view led Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party to be more responsive to the will of the people and to focus on supporting the more responsive states. On the other hand, Jefferson’s idolization of the French Revolution led him to turn a blind eye to the revolutionary excesses and to nearly lead the country to war with England. Likewise, his view of humanity as divided between the righteous people and the selfish elites led Jefferson to be unwilling to compromise with his opponents and willing to outright lie and slander to get his way. He didn’t see shades of grey, and tended to assume the worst of his opponents.

These strands of tension: populism v. restraint, centralization v. federalism, liberty v. order that Jefferson and Adams embodied are still with us. Conservatives must seek to find the proper balance on these tricky issues. Neither populism taken to excess, nor an obsession with law, order and restraint are right. Either when taken to excess can endanger the values of our Republic. From the founding generation, we can learn that conservatives must embody all of these ideals.

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One thought on “Jefferson and Adams: A Clash of Conservative Ideals

  1. Adams is rightly considered the father of American conservatism.

    Jefferson was in no sense a conservative. He was a classical liberal, and a fairly radical one at that, and it was a blessing he was in France at the time of the Constitutional Convention and subsequent ratification debate.

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