The Changing Political Thought of John Adams
People still in the early stages of maturity were apt to be simple and thrifty, industrious and honest-in short, imbued with the private virtues which republican theory and Calvinist doctrine declared to be good. More than this, the citizens of a youthful nation could be expected to be concerned about society as a whole; even, if need be, at their own personal expense. Young societies, simple both economically and demographically, were held tightly together by a common adherence to social virtue. This, Adams had believed to be characteristic of America during the 1770's.
As a society developed, however, changes occurred in its moral condition. People became more involved in their own material interests and tended to ignore their social responsibilities. Throughout history, every maturing society had experienced a gradual decline in public virtue. David Tappan, Hollis Professor of Divinity in Harvard College, spelled out the moral implications of social maturity in an address of 1798. 'Experience proves,' he declared,
that political bodies, like the animal economy, have their periods of infancy, youth, maturity, decay, and dissolution. In the early stages of their existence their members are usually industrious and frugal, simple and hardy, united and brave. Their feeble, exposed, and necesitious [sic] condition in some sort forces upon them this conduct and these habits. The practice of these virtues gradually nourishes them to a state of manly vigor. They become mature and flourishing in wealth and population, in arts and arms, in almost every kind of national prosperity. But when they have reached a certain point of greatness, their prosperity inflates and debauches their minds. It betrays them into pride and avarice, luxury and dissipation, illness and sensuality, and too often into practical or scornful impiety. These, with other kindred vices, hasten their downfall and ruin.As a nation grew in wealth and power, then, its moral strength declined. 'The History of All Ages and Countries,' Adams explained,' are uniform, that Luxury grows with Population Wealth and Prosperity.' And luxury was the cancer that destroyed republican moral fibre.
Adams faced a dilemma similar to one that had confronted his Puritan forebears. He urged Americans to apply themselves to the economic tasks of this world, yet he at the same time feared the material consequences of their endeavors. 'Will you tell me how to prevent riches from becoming the effects of temperance and industry?' he asked Jefferson. 'Will you tell me how to prevent riches from producing luxury? Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, Vice and folly?' This was the problem Adams faced. Industry seemed incompatible with the equally important virtues of frugality and simplicity.
Adams was not an advocate of economic indigence for America. To expect the people to be long content under the stringent conditions imposed by the Revolution, he believed, was foolish. 'The love of poverty' was 'a fictitious virtue that never existed.' Such harsh discipline might be good for the character of the American people, but they loved commerce 'with its conveniences and pleasures' too much to tolerate privation any longer than necessary.
Luxury, Adams had warned while still abroad, had 'as many and as bewitching charms' in America as in Europe. Wealth alone, he recognized, made possible the enjoyment of many fine things: painting, beautiful homes, literature, and music. He had seen the truth of this in France, and anticipated something like it for America. His role, he explained to Abigail, was to study war and politics so that his sons might have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, commerce and agriculture, and his grandsons the right to pursue painting, and music, architecture and poetry.
Yet wealth inevitably brought luxury, and luxury corrupted. 'Luxury, wherever she goes,' he had warned, 'effaces from human nature the image of the Divinity.' It spurred the wealthy classes into a rage for material possessions, the marks of social status, and the poor into jealous dissatisfaction with their own lot. Adams' final conclusions about Europe had borne this out. In France, wealth provided the instrumentalities to 'inform the understanding' and 'refine the taste'; yet wealth served even more to 'seduce, betray, deceive, deprave, corrupt and debauch' the heart. The magnificence of France was a bagatelle, 'introduced by time and luxury in exchange for the great qualities and hardy, manly virtues of the human heart.' Commerce, luxury, and avarice, he explained to Benjamin Rush later on, in 1808, destroyed every republican government. The more wealth and elegance, the less virtue; this same formula held true in all times and places.