John (and Abigail) on education, the classics, and politics
Founders Online, maintained by the National Archives, is a terrific resource for non-experts to dip into the writings of the American Founders, from pamphlets and other public documents to personal correspondence, diaries, and unpublished scribblings. Thomas Ricks wrote a whole book based on Founders Online searches for the names of various classical authors and topics such as “virtue.” (My very short review of it appeared in the November First Things. See also Spencer Klavan’s review, with which I am in substantial agreement, in this past spring’s CRB.)
I’ve been peeking at Founders Online this semester while I teach two courses, one an overview of the history of political philosophy (Aristotle to Rousseau), the other an American humanities course (politics and literature alike: the Founders and Faulkner, Tocqueville and Twain, Madison and Melville). Searches for “Aristotle,” for example, reveal a great deal of interest on Jefferson’s part in the biological works of the Philosopher, as well as more familiar entries, such as Jefferson’s letter to Henry Lee on the “Declaration of Independance” as “an expression of the American mind” whose authority “rests on the harmonising sentiments of the day,” including those “elementary books of public right, Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney Etc.”
But I have been drawn, again and again, to John Adams. Ricks, who recounts how Washington looked variously to Cato, Fabius, and Cincinnatus for classical models, aptly describes Adams as a self-consciously Ciceronian American. Like Cicero, Adams was deeply concerned with rhetoric, with being (and appearing to be) greatly learned, and with education.
Search Founders Online for “Hobbes,” and you’ll find Adams’s letter to a ten-year-old John Quincy, impressing upon him the usefulness of “Thucidides” in the education of citizens and statesmen, exhorting John Quincy to keep at his Greek so that he might read Thucydides in the original, and recommending to him Hobbes’s “learned and exact” translation, while warning against the “mischievous Philosophy” found in Hobbes’s own writings.
I wish to turn your Thoughts early to such Studies, as will afford you the most solid Instruction and Improvement for the Part which may be allotted you to act on the Stage of Life.
There is no History, perhaps, better adapted to this usefull Purpose than that of Thucidides, an Author, of whom I hope you will make yourself perfect Master, in original Language, which is Greek, the most perfect of all human Languages. In order to understand him fully in his own Tongue, you must however take Advantage, of every Help you can procure and particularly of Translations of him into your own Mother Tongue.
You will find in your Fathers Library, the Works of Mr. Hobbes, in which among a great deal of mischievous Philosophy, you will find a learned and exact Translation of Thucidides, which will be usefull to you.
On at least two occasions, Adams plunders the same piece of gold from the Egypt of Hobbes’s Leviathan. From 1782: “One need not read Hobbes to learn that Reputation is Power.” And again, in 1786: “Reputation is Power according to truth, altho that Truth with others is to be found with many falshoods in that old rogue Hobbes.”
This principle, that one can find some “Truth” mixed in with “many falshoods” even in the writings of a “rogue,” is as true in the 1780s as it was in the 400s as it is now in the 2020s. With Hobbes in particular, I can’t help but think of his description of war, “which consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known.” Conservatives would do well to remember this truth in relation to the Culture War (or Culture Warre).
Stand by for a forthcoming essay that takes a close look at another Adams letter to JQA, in which the classical historians clarify the relation between civic and liberal education. For now, I’d like to highlight two other letters, each of which is packed, in a few paragraphs, with more wisdom than reams and reams of ed policy papers today.
The first, to Benjamin Rush in 1810, is an extended critique of Hobbes’s opposition to classical education. “Hobbes calumniated the Classicks, because they filled young Mens heads with Ideas of Liberty, and excited them to rebellion against Leviathan.” Adams goes on to sarcastically recommend a Hobbesian education that would include “Study[ing] the oriental Languages especially the Arabic, instead of Greek and Latin.” Adams’s point, made brilliantly and hilariously in the next paragraph, is that non-Western classics—e.g., the life of Tamerlane—would encourage the worst in men like Napoleon, who find only “faint Traces” of Tamerlane’s “Ambition of Universal Empire” in the lives of Alexander and Caesar.
In other words, the classics of the West are fairly well-suited to the cultivation of a republican citizenry. For Adams, the classics of the non-Western world, by contrast, are more likely to produce imperially despotic rather than liberally republican souls. By comparison to Adams’s blunt sarcasm, I made this point quite delicately in a review of Eric Adler’s Battle of the Classics (which I heartily recommend, despite this criticism):
[Adler] seems too confident that a multicultural syncretism would be enriching to students’ souls and good for the world, without any consideration of the social or political dangers that might come with a new syncretism. I admit I would likely enjoy teaching in such a program [of multicultural Great Books], and am curious to know what effect a great infusion of classical Chinese and Indian texts into the West would produce, in our souls and in our letters. I hope that it would all be for the best. But isn’t it plausible to assume that such an infusion would affect our society and political life as well, presumably by making them more like their cultures of origin? Why would that be desirable?
The second letter, to Abigail in 1775, is about the principles and goals of education. Adams begins by noting that “Human nature with all its infirmities and depravation is still capable of great things”; he asserts that education “makes a greater difference between man and man, than nature has made between man and brute”; and he points not only to “Newton and Locke” as examples of “deep sagacity” acquired by “long habits of thinking and study,” but also to the exceptional skill of “mechanics and artisans” who have made themselves masters of their trades. There is an admirable excellence in the watchmaker as well as the philosopher.
The whole (short) thing is worth reading. Here is the conclusion:
It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.
But their bodies must be hardened, as well as their souls exalted. Without strength and activity and vigor of body, the brightest mental excellencies will be eclipsed and obscured.
Adams was a lawyer, a scholar, a rhetor, a statesman, and a President. But he wasn’t just an ideas man, and neither he nor his contemporaries were subject to the fatal Cartesian dualism we might suspect when we read him in the context of the history of philosophy. To teach the American Founding simply as an episode in the history of political philosophy—as the incarnation of Lockeanism, or only for the ideas of the Declaration, Constitution, and Federalist Papers—is to fail to understand the Founders as they understood themselves.
Lest I be accused of forgetting the ladies, I’ll close with a 1783 letter from Abigail to John, in which she applies an insight from Machiavelli to the turbulence of America under the Articles of Confederation.
There is a position in Machiavel says a late elegant writer that a country should sometimes be without order, and over run with all sorts of calamities, that Men of great Genius may distinguish themselves by restoring it. We certainly see a country sufficiently disorderd, and embarrassed to satisfy any speculator in the utmost wantonness of his imagination. But where and to whom shall we look, for a restoration of internal peace and good order, so necessary for the preservation of that very freedom for which we have so long and so successfully contended[?]
There you have it. Abigail Adams, who never attended school, who was married at 19, who bore 6 children in 12 years, who never cast a ballot, deftly citing Machiavelli to illuminate the crisis, and the hoped-for solution, of the day. The stay-at-home, non-voting wives of our early statesmen were infinitely better educated and better equipped to rule than the most highly-credentialed “elites” of today.