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John and Abigail Adams | Article

Adams Unbound

When Mary Wollstonecraft's book on recent French political events was published in 1794, John Adams already knew first-hand about revolution. He read the book for the first time in 1796, and disagreed with many of Wollstonecraft's ideas. He wrote comments on nearly every page.

"John Adams' favorite form of conversation was an argument. He thought that arguments were the only form of conversation that really forced you into truth..." — Historian Joseph Ellis.

Courtesy: Boston Public Library

Icon This PDF is generated from John Adam's copy of Mary Wollstonecraft's An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution. (5.9 MB)


John Adams worked hard to establish the new American government with its system of checks and balances. He believed it kept institutions and people from becoming too powerful and ignoring the needs of the powerless. So Adams found Mary Wollstonecraft's idea that government caused problems like social injustices infuriating.

"[Wollstonecraft believed] that the primary accomplishment of any revolution should be to remove government... Adams could barely contain [his criticism]."— Historian Joseph Ellis

When should a new nation write a constitution?
On May 15, 1776, the delegates to the Continental Congress passed John Adams' resolution "to declare the United Colonies free and independent states." In July 1776, they went to work on the country's first Constitution, called the Articles of Confederation, which created a federal government with no chief executive, independent judiciary, or authority to collect taxes.

Wollstonecraft: After the wreck of a government the plan of a new constitution ought to be immediately formed, that is, as soon as circumstances will possibly admit, and presented to the citizens for their acceptance; or rather the people should depute men for that purpose, and give them a limited time for framing one.

Adams: I had preached this doctrine a whole year in Congress in 1775 and 1776 before I could prevail upon that Body to pass my Resolution of the 15th of May 1776 recommending that Measure to the People of the States.

Will people love a new Constitution right away?
John Adams knew how hard it was to design a political system. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in May 1787, but took until September of that year to craft a document they all agreed upon.

Wollstonecraft: A constitution is a standard for the people to rally round. It is the pillar of a government, the bond of all social unity and order. The investigation of it's principles makes it a fountain of light; from which issue rays of reason, that gradually bring forward the mental powers of the whole community."

Adams: How was it possible to bring twenty five Millions of Frenchmen Who had never known or thought of any Law, but The Kings will to rally round any free Constitution at all? A Constitution is a Standard a Pillar and a Bond when it is understood approved and beloved. But without this Intelligence and attachment it might as well be a Kite or Balloon, flying in the air.

Should a constitution be subject to change once it has been adopted?
During the French Revolution, differences among revolutionary groups prevented the people from universally accepting a constitution and new government. John Adams knew very well that it took citizens a long time to approve a new constitution, let alone love it. Between 1787 and 1788 the states took nine months to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

Wollstonecraft: And whenever the wheels of government, like the wheels of any other machine, are found clogged, or do not move in a regular manner, they equally require alteration and improvement: and these improvements will be proportionably perfect as the people become enlightened.

Adams: These Machines called Constitutions, are not to be taken to Pieces and cleaned or mended so easily as a Watch.

How long should it take to set up a new government?
John Adams refers to Miguel de Cervantes' novel about an old man who believes he is actually a knight, Don Quixote de La Mancha. Adams read Wollstonecraft twice in his life, once in 1796 while president and again after his retirement at Quincy. This comment comes from his later reading.

Wollstonecraft: The authority of the national assembly had been acknowledged nearly three months previous to this epocha, without their having taken any decided steps to secure these important ends.

Adams: Did this Lady think three months time enough to form a free Constitution for twenty five Millions of Frenchmen. 300 years would be well spent in procuring so great a Blessing but I doubt whether it will be accomplished in 3000. Not one of the Projects of the Sage of La Mancha was more absurd, ridiculous or delirious than this of a Revolution in France... I thought so in all the intermediate Time, and I think so in 1812.

How much power should a nation's chief executive have?
After the Reign of Terror in France in 1795, a new legislature was formed. Many factions tried to overthrow it, but by 1804, an ambitious general, Napoleon Bonaparte, had seized power. He simplified French law, won recognition from the Vatican, and declared himself Emperor. John Adams had feared just such an end: a bloody revolution of this sort, he had argued, would lead not to democracy but despotism.

Wollstonecraft: When kings are considered by the government of a country merely as ciphers, it is very just and proper, that their ministers should be responsible for their political conduct: but at the moment when a state is about to establish a constitution on the basis of reason, to undermine that foundation by a master-piece of absurdity, appears a solecism as glaring as the doctrine itself is laughable, when applied to an enlightened policy.

Adams: The Supreme Head of the Executive of a great Nation must be inviolable or the Laws will never be executed... The Absurdity consisted in establishing an hereditary Executive as a Balance to a vast Legislature in one National Assembly. You might as well constitute an Army, to determine every Movement by a vote of an 100,000 Men and give the General a Veto upon each vote. A Gladiator in a Pit, without arms to defend himself against an hundred dragons.

How can government prevent tyranny?
Mary Wollstonecraft's enthusiasm for making government simpler seemed to John Adams to be a dangerous mistake. Adams believed that granting universal power would not create the "perfection of the science of government." This anarchistic philosophy, he argued, would only create more of the tyrants that France fought to destroy.

Wollstonecraft: And this sovereignty of the people, the perfection of the science of government, only to be attained when a nation is truly enlightened, consisted in making them tyrants; nay the worst of tyrants, because the instruments of mischief of the men, who pretended to be subordinate to their will, though acting the very part of the ministers whom they execrated.

Adams: Tyrants they will ever be made to be, while they exert their Sovereignty by Simple Majorities, whether collectively or by Representation.

Human Nature

In John Adams' view, man was not good by nature and would always try to gain power over others. A simple majority would naturally become a tyranny. The role of government, he felt, was to "restrain the passions of all orders of men."

"[Wollstonecraft presumed] that, if there was social injustice... governments were the major causes of the problem... Adams... believed that the source of the problem existed inside human beings -- their jealousy and passion for distinction."—  Historian Joseph Ellis

Can citizens agree on political truths?
As the French Revolution progressed, people became increasingly divided over the new government's purpose. The four disputing parties could not agree on a single "political truth." John Adams counseled all the parties against the danger of a government that is structured without limits on power. This philosophy is evident in the constitution Adams wrote for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which proposed not only executive and legislative branches but also an independent judiciary.

Wollstonecraft:  France had already gained her freedom; the nation had already ascertained certain, and the most important, political truths...

Adams: How were these Truths ascertained? Forty nine fiftieths of the Nation knew no more about them than the Kings Menagerie. Among the remaining Fiftieth Part, there were ten thousand different opinions, about the meaning, Limitations, Restrictions and Exceptions with which they were to be understood. Besides, very few of them appear to have had any Idea of one of the most essential Truths of all, the Drunkenness of absolute Power...

Can a king and a legislature co-exist?
The French Revolution had begun as an attempt to create a constitutional monarchy. The Constitution of 1791 abolished the king as a political power, and made him answerable to the elected government. On September 12, 1792, the National Convention abolished the remainder of the monarchy after learning that the king was planning a counter-revolutionary attack.

Wollstonecraft:  These fears, perhaps, were the secret cause, combined with the old habit of adoring the king, as a point of honour, and loving the court, as an affair of taste, that induced them to preserve the shadow of monarchy in the new order of things.

Adams: This is wicked Misrepresentation. The Nation could do nothing at this time but in the Name of the King. After all her Censures of the Assembly She allows that their Conduct might be politically necessary.

Do citizens have a deeply rooted love of royalty?
French society and government were unstable in the years following the Revolution. To John Adams, the French seemed bent on the total destruction of the existing system of law. He believed they were acting out a classic pattern of mob rule, violence, terror, and the establishment of a despotic government, ruled by a single person, Napoleon.

Wollstonecraft:  A design formed very early, and systematically pursued, was probably rendered entirely abortive by the obstinacy of the court; who still persisted to cherish the belief, that the public opinion was changed only for the moment, and that their deeply rooted love of royalty would bring them back to what they termed their duty, when the effervescence excited by novelty had subsided.

Adams: The Court misjudged the Character of the Nation as much as the Assembly did. Both were the Dupes of their hopes and their Credulity.

Freedom of the Press

As a young lawyer and revolutionary, John Adams had often published political tracts in local newspapers, but his opinion of the press changed when he won the presidency. In 1781 He signed the Sedition Act. It was designed to punish writers of "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the U.S. government, but today is viewed as a suppression of the very liberties for which Adams had fought.

"Wollstonecraft's naïve assumption [was] that the ultimate purpose of government was to 'get out of the way.' The ultimate purpose of government, [Adams] insisted, was not to release individual energies but to constrain and balance them." — Historian Joseph Ellis

Should the press be allowed to oppose the government?
During Louis XVI's reign, the press was censored. No criticism of the King's policies was allowed. At the onset of the French Revolution, the press was given complete freedom, and introduced harsh critiques of the government. In America, revolutionary leaders exploited the British government's lack of censorship and published newspapers and pamphlets that fed the fervor for independence.

Wollstonecraft: The liberty of the press, which had been virtually established, at this period, was a successful engine employed against the assembly.

Adams: Is it not astonishing, that The National Assembly did not foresee that the Press would be employed against them? that their own Creatures would uncreate their Creators? That their own Tools would cut their own Throats? That their own Devils would become their Tempters first and Tormentors afterwards?

Can a law against libels be effective in revolutionary times?

John Adams' suggestion that libel, if repressed by the government, would multiply is interesting in light of his own battle several years later with a slanderous Republican press. When he signed the Sedition Act, President Adams believed that he was protecting both the office of the president and the fledgling country from revolutionaries who were agitating for war with France.

Wollstonecraft: ... it would have been impossible, perhaps, to have restrained the temper of the times, so strong is the intoxication of a new folly, though it would have been easy for the assembly to have passed a decree respecting libels.

Adams: And yet, the Nation had ascertained the most important Political Truths! A Decree against Libels would not have restrained the Temper of the times. Libells would have been multiplied by it.

What is the role of the press in a democracy?

The British censored the press in their colonies much less than they did at home. Ironically, President John Adams did more to undermine American freedoms by signing the Sedition Act.

Wollstonecraft: But so ardent was become their passion for liberty, that they were unable to discriminate between a licentious use of that important invention, and it's real utility.

Adams: Is there any Nation that will distinguish between the Licence and the Freedom of the Press? Not the English. Not the American most certainly. Neither Government can do it and the People will not.

he Rights of Man

While Mary Wollstonecraft believed that humans were fundamentally good, and needed little government, John Adams took a darker view of human nature, and felt that the only way to ensure people received their due rights was through writing and enforcing laws.

Adams spell[ed] out... why he opposed all modern efforts at radical or revolutionary social change. As was his custom, Adams spent much of his time and energy hurling epithets without explaining the basis for his disagreement. —  Historian Joseph Ellis.

Can a declaration of rights have an immediate practical effect?
Approved by the National Assembly in 1789, France's "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" outlines the citizen's rights and prevents a group or person from exercising authority without the nation's consent. John Adams' point is that declaring rights is very different from granting them in reality.

Wollstonecraft: ... But it is nevertheless to be presumed, that, the liberty of Frenchmen having been previously secured by the establishment of the Declaration of Rights ...

Adams: How was Liberty secured by the declaration of Rights? No more than their Innocence and Obedience by the Decalogue, i.e., the ten Commandments. Besides there were not two Men in Fifty who believed in those Rights. There were in France twenty times as many who believed in the Kings divine Right.

What is the relationship between human rights and good government?
Mary Wollstonecraft was deeply religious and was often caught between the desire to see human rights implemented, and the belief that there is virtue in suffering. John Adams disagreed entirely. In his  Thoughts on Government, he wrote that "the happiness of society is the end of government" and "the happiness of the individual is the end of man."

Wollstonecraft: It is the pillars of a building, which indicate it's durability, and not the minor beams that are inserted through them, in order to rear the structure. The natural, civil, and political rights of man are the main pillars of all social happiness; and by the firm establishment of them, the freedom of men will be eternally secured.

Adams: I would rather call the Natural, civil and political Rights of Man the foundations than the Pillars. If they are Pillars they must stand upon a firm foundation, Is a Declaration then a foundation? No more than a heap of Sand or a Pool of Water. They stand as firmly without a Declaration as with, if nothing more is done. Laws and Gardians of Laws must be made and Guardians to watch one another.

Are laws needed to ensure that citizens get their rights?
Once the French Revolution had begun, its leaders no longer had to stir the people up -- the momentum for change was in place. During and after the Reign of Terror, however, even leaders could not control the angry mob. As a young lawyer in Boston two decades earlier, John Adams had passionately condemned mob violence. He deeply felt that the mob assembled on the night of the Boston Massacre had been a serious threat to the rule of law -- as was the bloody revolution in France.

Wollstonecraft: The cabinet had not sufficient discernment to perceive, that the people were now to be led, not driven; and the popular promoters of anarchy, to serve their private interest, availed themselves, unfortunately, but too well of this want of judgment.

Adams: Nor had the Assembly discernment to perceive that the People were neither to be led nor driven.

Thanks to the Boston Public Library Rare Books Department for sharing their images of, and their knowledge about, Adams' presidential library of more than 3,000 books.

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