What Can We Learn About Democracy From John Adams?


Somebody once advised me that one of the best ways to learn history is to read biographies, and I’ve found that to prove generally helpful advice. The particular is the path to the universal: you set out to learn about a person, and you end up being sucked up into the larger world in which they lived. For instance, you read a biography of Augustine, and you can’t help but learn about the intellectual life of Carthage, the impact of the fall of the Roman Empire on Christianity, and so forth; or you read Marsden’s history of the first two decades of Fuller Seminary, and you get a window into the larger drama of 20th century American evangelicalism.

517oIyvrNDLOne of the most readable and enjoyable biographies I’ve ever read is David McCullough’s John Adams. I read it about 6 years ago, and I still have vivid memories of particular pages, and even spots on those pages. What I found, as with other biographies, is that learning about Adams provides a window into the larger realities of his world—particularly the difficulty of attaining independence, and the nature of the system of government our founders were seeking to create once we had attained it.

The other day, after renting and watching some of the HBO TV series from the public library (which is also quite good), I picked the book up off the shelf again and took some time to leaf through it. Three reflections about democracy came to mind.

1) Democracy is based upon a pessimistic, not optimistic, view of human nature.

Some people have the idea that, of all the various systems of government on the market, democracy is one of the more sunny, optimistic ones. Learning about Adams, however (who was not a particularly sunny personality to begin with), gives you exactly the opposite conception. In treatises like Thoughts on Government (1776) and A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787), as well as in his letters to Abigail, Adams repeatedly grounded democracy on the claim that human nature is inherently self-interested and exploitative. He would reference Rousseau’s description of “that hideous sight, the human heart,” and warn that no system of government would stop the human tendency to grasp for more and more power. “The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.”

For Adams, the entirety of human history was one gigantic object lesson in the painful truth that power corrupts, and any just system of government must account for this fact. In their letter correspondence, both John and Abigail would quote Daniel Defoe’s line, “all men would be tyrants if they could,” and Abigail would remind him, “man is a dangerous creature, and power … is inherently grasping.” The whole motivation for separate executive, judicial, and (bicameral) legislative branches was to provide checks and balances that would counterbalance the inherent human tendency toward self-interest.

If Thomas Sowell was right that the most basic difference between conservative and liberal ideologies is a “constrained” versus an “unconstrained” view of human nature, then Adams’ views are all the more relevant to our current political and cultural setting. (The unconstrained view regards human nature as essentially good; the constrained view regards human nature as essentially unchanging and self-interested.) Many people today see democracy within a thoroughly unconstrained view, and interpret its coming into existence as one phase of a more general, inexorable advance of freedom and individualism in which systems of oppression fade away and human beings are liberated to reach their potential.

Our founders, however, had pretty much an opposite view of democracy. Democracy came about precisely because they didn’t believe human nature was essentially good. In other words, the motivation behind democracy for people like Adams was not “all people should vote because they are all good,” but rather “all people should vote because people are so bad that power must be divided into the smallest possible units.” The merit of democracy was not so much that it efficiently promotes good, but that it necessarily slows down and restrains evil. Democracy was not seen as an ideal of human virtue, but a necessary evil to accommodate human weakness. Churchill put it humorously and well: “democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried.”

2) Democracy is neither a strictly Christian nor a strictly secular phenomenon.

Democracy is like the light bulb, or Einstein’s theories, or the internet: a thing not only unknown to the vast majority of human beings throughout history, but unimaginable, unthinkable. Things like the separation of church and state, popular sovereignty, and a system of checks and balances in governmental power—these were new, experimental ideas. Democracy may have been tried on a smaller scale in Greek city-states or small Swiss cantons, but nobody before in history had ever tried to make it work on a larger, national level.

What led to the peculiar eccentricity we know as democracy was a very specific combination of ideas stemming from both Christianity and the Enlightenment. It is the fruit of Christianity + modernity, or more accurately, some broadly Christian ideas about God, humanity, and justice refracted and refined through the philosophy of political theorists like John Locke and Francis Hutcheson and others. Some of the founders of our nation were Christians, others were deists, and a good chunk were somewhere in between. Adams was a good example of that. He has been called a “theistic rationalist.” He believed in God, miracles, providence, and prayer, which makes him more than strict deist, but was not really an orthodox Christian, either (he was raised Congregationalist, but was probably a Unitarian by the end of his life).

This historical backdrop checks two simple popular-level ideas commonly advocated in our polarized culture. On the one hard, many religious people seem to think that democracy is a specifically Christian form of government, and occasionally you hear the corollary claim that American was founded as a Christian nation. That is simply not historically accurate. Adams, for instance, put it plainly in 1797:

“The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

At the same time, it is also false that democracy is a fundamentally “secular” reality. The ideas upon which it is girded are the kind of quasi-Christian, broadly theistic ideas you tend to find in that middle ground between Deism and Protestantism where Christianity and the Enlightenment meet. For instance, the Declaration of Independence opens by explicitly grounding our fundamental ideals (liberty and equality) in a “Creator” endowing each individual with them. An “endowing Creator”–that is fundamentally a religious claim.

Or take the notion of the separation of church and state: many secular voices today want to construe that notion as intending the removal or religious influence on government, or the absence of support for general religious sentiment by the government. That was not at all the founders’ intent. If it were, they would probably not have printed “in God we trust” on our coinage, or called for a national day of prayer the day after they passed the first amendment (which prohibits the making of “any law respecting an establishment of religion”)! What they were concerned about was one religious sect or denomination holding power over and persecuting others (as had so often occurred in prior generations back in Europe).

Generally, the founding fathers thought religion, and Christianity in particular, was necessary for democracy to be viable. Adams, for instance, claimed, “our Constitution was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” He also worried that “human passions unbridled by morality and religion…would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.”

Thus while it is not accurate to say that democracy is a specifically Christian idea, it remains accurate to say that the ideas that led our form of democracy have a massive Christian influence behind them. It is a great irony today that, just as many people use democracy to advocate a kind of “freedom” that is actually at odds with what led our founders to the idea of democracy in the first place, so also many people associate the rise of democracy with secularization, when in reality democracy as we know it has a huge religious influence behind it, and was seen to be inadequate without religion in the populace.

3) Democracy is only as good as people make it.

Sometimes people today assume that a democratic nation is a free nation, or that there is something about democracy that inherently and automatically protects liberty. By contrast Adams was quite solemn about democracy’s power and prospects. In his mind, democracy always and necessarily leads to a precarious, fragile status. It does not guarantee freedom, but requires being put to use by people who are both wise and moral.

That is why he urged education as indispensable to democracy, in addition to religion. He claimed, “liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people,” and in his earliest political writings, advocated that “laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

Even with education and religion, however, Adams felt that democracy was ultimately doomed to die. In an amazing 1814 letter to John Taylor, Adams wrote:

Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.

This is one of the reasons why I think it is dangerous to link up democracy and Christianity at the hip. What happens if democracy collapses in the 21st century? Christianity can and will go on. And we cannot assume that democracy won’t collapse. Why shouldn’t it? Not even our founders believed that democracy will always lead to peace and prosperity.

To construct my own metaphor: democracy is like a gun. In the hands of a good and wise person, it can be put to use to protect liberty and life. In the hands of a foolish and/or bad person, it can be put to use to destroy liberty and life. But in itself it does nothing. It is simply a tool.

So also democracy does not automatically yield justice. At best it creates partial conditions in which people can fight for relative justice. Like any other tool, democracy can ultimately be as good or as bad a thing as we make it out to be. It simply depends on how we put it to use.

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  1. LOVE bios and David McCullough is among the best — have you tried Walter Isaacson? He has written about Einstein, Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs (others, too, I’m sure, but those are the three I’ve read so far).

  2. Which is exactly why Adams, Madison, Washington and the overwhelming majority of the founding fathers intentionally did not create a democracy. They created a constitutional federal republic. There are aspects of democracy that are utilized, although fewer than have been injected since the founding. Probably the most damaging of which is the direct election of senators by the electorate.