J Tyler Syck is a Ph.D. candidate in American politics and political theory at the University of Virginia. He has also served as a fellow with the Bradley Foundation, UVA Democracy Initiative, and the Common Sense Society. Tyler received a B.A. from Morehead State University, where he studied government and history, and an M.A. from UVA.
Perhaps because of his largely unsuccessful presidency, John Quincy Adams’ compelling political thought has been forgotten in our day. Remembered as the man who lost to Andrew Jackson and the son of a more famous father, he is rarely given the serious treatment he deserves. This attitude has left American political thought without the lessons of one of its greatest thinkers. Throughout his career Adams proved himself to be a statesman and thinker deeply aware of the problems wrought by the Age of Enlightenment. More than any other figure in his lifetime he fought to preserve morality in the face of scientific materialism and individualistic democracy. This is not to say that Adams merely stood athwart history and yelled stop. He believed that serious opposition to the illnesses of modernity must have a positive vision of its own. His commitment to striving for virtue represents that vision. Adams understood that as difficult – perhaps impossible – as sustained human improvement might be, to give up would be to surrender to the worst angels of our nature.
Adams defined improvement in a very different way than many of us today. To him, improvement meant a striving for virtue. What is interesting – even for his own time – is that Adams believed that not only individuals but also communities, nations, and humanity generally had an obligation to “improve” by striving for virtuous perfection. Adams had no allusions that perfection is easy, or even possible. As he admitted, it is just obviously true that the “human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.”(1) But Adams also thought that “there is in man a spirit, and the inspiration of the almighty” that calls us to be better than our nature. (2) By this, he means that every human has an obligation to work to rise above our selfish instincts, and in pursuing this impossible quest we will find goodness. As he summarized in a letter to his son George: “as I know that it is my nature to be imperfect, so I know that it is my duty to aim at perfection.”(3)
The Constitution and Improvement
In a Fourth of July speech delivered in his last year as president, Adams articulated his vision of the constitution with more clarity than at any other point in his career. He argued that the Constitution of the United States had three stages until it would be complete. The first was the separation of England and the formation of a regime dedicated to natural rights whose spirit was best captured in the Declaration of Independence. The second great moment was uniting the various states under one national government and constitution which brought order to the otherwise chaotic principle of self-government.
These first two steps accomplished; Adams argued that it was time to look forward to the third stage of America’s constitutional development. He declared that Americans must work to “adapt the powers, physical, moral, and intellectual, of this whole union, to the improvement of its own condition: of its moral and political condition.” (4) In short, he argued that the constitution had established the primacy of natural rights and created the institutions that would protect those rights, but it now must work to improve the moral and economic security of the nation.
This goal was important in part because it would lead to prosperity but also because Adams doubted a republic could survive without a virtuous population. Departing from the Federalist’s emphasis on turning vices upon one another he argued that “Virtue is the oxygen, the vital air of the mortal world. Immutable and incorruptible itself.”(5) Though monarchies, aristocracies, and dictatorships can survive without virtue Adams’ contended that republics are different – they rely almost totally upon the character of public officials and private citizens alike.(6) Without virtue, republics are doomed to sink into hopeless despotisms consumed by avarice and corruption. The previous stages of constitutional development had left moral improvement to the states, but Adams thought it time to establish virtue as the heart of the constitutional order.
Improvement at Home
This commitment to virtuous self-improvement meant that for Adams social reform began with the human heart, not with political institutions.(7) However, he still placed great emphasis on political reform because it was only the remarkable human who could cultivate virtue without any help. Domestic improvement must be carried out by a commitment to improving the moral foundation of the nation and then to furnishing the economic needs of the people.
Adams thought that encouraging morality among the people was the province of social institutions such as reverence for tradition, tightly bound family existence, local community, and religion. These deeply communitarian institutions work to tie individuals to the broader culture and civilization to which they belong. Adams argues that through the cultivation of such ties people are brought outside of their selfish nature, and true self-restraint and freedom is made possible. Put another way, these parochial institutions taught men their duties to one another in addition to their political rights. This is best summarized by Adams’ declaration that “The sympathies of men begin with the relations of domestic life. They are rooted in the natural relations of husband and wife, of parent and child, of brother and sister; thence they spread through the social and moral propinquities of neighbor and friend, to the broader and more complicated relations of countryman and fellow-citizens.”(8)
It was Adams’ dedication to human improvement that made him such an ardent opponent of slavery. He argued that “it is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principles” denying slaves their ability to cultivate virtue and eroding the virtue of the free masters.(9) In Adams’ view, this makes slavery inevitably illegitimate. Whatever the mandates of written law, the total subjection of one human at the feet of another violates the law of God. (10) Even if the slave masters had forced their slaves to behave virtuously Adams would have found the institution vile. For he fully agreed with his hero Cicero that “an action intrinsically right is just only on the condition that it is voluntary.”(11)
As important as the ordered liberty of the private sphere remained for Adams, he thought that it was important humans not become too bound by these provincial institutions. He believed that like most things in life these social institutions could just as easily undermine human virtue as promote it. He offered the late medieval Church as the prime example of a well-meaning institution commandeered by the vices of fallen man. And so, society must be countered by a powerful government that could use its authority to encourage economic and intellectual improvement. To bring people forth from their local communities and give them something even bigger to be a part of.
Human Improvement and A Nationalism of Virtue
For most of his career, Adams was one of the nation’s most ardent defenders of the American nation. His economic policy reflected this, and as president, his supporters were monikered “national republicans.” However, Adams’ nationalism is most apparent in his foreign policy. As an ambassador he shamelessly advocated for American economic and political interests, believing it to be the duty of each nation to first and foremost take care of its own citizens. As Secretary of State, he aggressively fought for the expansion of the United States into the west, and as the author of the Monroe Doctrine made clear that Europe was no longer to interfere in the affairs of the Western hemisphere. He even retroactively sanctioned General Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida because he thought it important for America to appear strong to the world.
Adams’ nationalism derived – like the rest of his thought – from his dedication to virtue. Like family and local communities, the nation-state served an important role in drawing men away from their own selfishness. The nation gives us something bigger than ourselves that we can be a part of. Something we can fight and die for. While Adams admits that “The tie which binds us to our country is not more holy in the sight of God” than our common humanity, it is “more deeply seated in our nature.”(12) Adams believes that by appealing to our imperfect tribal instinct we can become patriotic in a way that makes us less selfish and more truly virtuous.
However, Adams’ commitment to virtue made him dubious of untrammeled nationalism. He thought that even patriotism could devolve into a brutalist defense of one’s own when it became commandeered by selfish desire. Adams argued that this was best demonstrated by the plight of Native Americans whose stark national differences conflicted with the “self-interest” and national pride of American citizens, who were thus driven to oppress them in the cruelest manner possible. In his later career, he reversed positions on the question of westward expansion largely for this reason. As he saw the settlement of the West increasingly as a product of human greed rather than noble patriotism, he felt he could no longer support it in good conscience. Adams thought that the solution to the problem of nationalism gone awry lay with reminding ourselves of the teaching of Christianity. That as important as moral rectitude is to a good life, and as fundamental as the love of our own is to our nature, at the end of the day our greatest calling is to love each other in spite of our differences.
John Quincy Adams’ Lessons for Today
All of this offers serious lessons for the crises of our time. In an age crippled by monopolistic capitalism, ideological extremism, and social isolation the idea that the constitution and the republic it orders must be rooted in virtue has much to offer. Such a dedication to virtue would undermine racism and the greedy pursuit of one’s own good at the expense of others in favor of promoting a gentler, more communal society. In addition, Adams’ important caveat that virtue can be encouraged but must be freely chosen would serve as an important corrective to those on the right who are happy to force their view of the common good on the world. In short, we must understand – as John Quincy Adams did – that the fight for virtue may not be easy but it should never be forsaken.
(1) May 6th 1827 in the Diary of John Quincy Adams.
(2) May 6th 1827 in the Diary of John Quincy Adams.
(3) John Quincy Adams to George Washington Adams, September 1811. It is this principle that makes his diary such a remarkable read. It is not only the chronicle of an unusually thoughtful statesmen, but the record of a man dedicating his life to being a better person than he is.
(4) John Quincy Adams, “Speech at the Groundbreaking of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal,” July 4th, 1828.
(5) John Quincy Adams, Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory: Delivered to the Classes of Senior and Junior Sophisters in Harvard University, Vol I. Printed by Hillard and Metcalf, 1810. Pg. 65.
(6) September 26th 1786 and March 12th 1795 in the Diary of John Quincy Adams. Though he thought these other regimes could survive without virtue, he would also have argued that without virtue they could not help but be tyrannical.
(7) A fact which puts him in stark contrast to Marxist theory.
(9) February 3rd, 1820 in The Diary of John Quincy Adams.
(10) As he declared in a poem written in honor of his father: “Who but shall learn that Freedom is the prize; Man still is bound to rescue or maintain; That Natures God commands the Slave to rise; And on the oppressor’s head to break his chain; Rolls, years of promise, rapidly roll around; Till not a Slave shall on this earth by found.” November 30th, 1826 in the Diary of John Quincy Adams.