Posted by: Dr Churchill | March 28, 2018

Parallel Lives of John Adams and Adam Smith on Moral Economic and Philosophical Inquiries…

John Adams

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John Adams (1735-1826) was one of the principal framers of the American republic and the successor to Washington as president. Before the Revolution he wrote some of the most important documents on the nature of the British Constitution and the meaning of rights, sovereignty, representation, and obligation. And it was Adams who, once the colonies had declared independence, wrote equally important works on possible forms of government in a quest to develop a science of politics for the construction of a constitution for the proposed republic.

“Obsta principiis” nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.

John Adams uses the Latin phrase above, in order to warn his fellow colonists to put an end to the growing arbitrary power of the British crown: “obsta principiis” (or “nip it in the bud”). In 1774 they were close to taking the final step and seeking a separation from the Crown in an act of independence and revolt. One of the most dangerous aspects of arbitrary government, in Adams’ view, was that it created swarms of “pensioners” who lived off the tax revenues. These “pensioners” of the state revenue urge the government to increase the taxes in order to expand their own incomes as well as those of their “dependents and expectants” until they “swallow up the whole society”.

Here is the correspondence between John Adams (1735-1826) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) who maintained an antagonistic relationship all their lives, since both were Presidents of the United States and both died on the same day July 4th of 1824 within hours of each other, and exactly 50 years after the glorious revolution led to the creation of the country they led.

In their last years they corresponded about the future of Liberty and the role of revolution in bringing free societies into existence. We include here extracts from three letters which they wrote in August and September 1823 on this topic:

Adams to Jefferson, Quincy, 15 August, 1823: I am no king killer, merely because they are kings. Poor creatures! they know no better; they sincerely and conscientiously believe that God made them to rule the world. I would not, therefore, behead them, or send them to St. Helena to be treated like Napoleon; but I would shut them up like the man in the mask, feed them well, and give them as much finery as they please, until they could be converted to right reason and common sense.

Jefferson to Adams, Monticello, September 4, 1823: The generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified when called on to think and provide for themselves; and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often, in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides, to defeat their own rights and purposes. This is the present situation of Europe and Spanish America. But it is not desperate. … The kings and the rabble, of equal ignorance, have not yet received its rays; but it continues to spread, and while printing is preserved, it can no more recede than the sun return on his course. A first attempt to recover the right of self-government may fail, so may a second, a third, &c. But as a younger and more instructed race comes on, the sentiment becomes more and more intuitive, and a fourth, a fifth, or some subsequent one of the ever renewed attempts will ultimately succeed.

Adams to Jefferson, Quincy, 17 September, 1823: It is melancholy to contemplate the cruel wars, desolations of countries, and oceans of blood, which must occur before rational principles and rational systems of government can prevail and be established; but as these are inevitable, we must content ourselves with the consolations which you from sound and sure reasons so clearly suggest. These hopes are as well founded as our fears of the contrary evils. On the whole, the prospect is cheering. I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on Government There is a great difference in reading a book at four-and-twenty and at eighty-eight …

“John Adams on how absolute power intoxicates those who excercise that power (1814).”

John Adams (1735-1826) was prompted by John Taylor’s book An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (1814) to defend his idea of democracy:

“You say, sir, that I have gravely counted up several victims “of popular rage, as proofs that democracy is more pernicious than monarchy or aristocracy.” This is not my doctrine, Mr. Taylor. My opinion is, and always has been, that absolute power intoxicates alike despots, monarchs, aristocrats, and democrats, and jacobins, and sans culottes. I cannot say that democracy has been more pernicious, on the whole, than any of the others. Its atrocities have been more transient; those of the others have been more permanent. The history of all ages shows that the caprice, cruelties, and horrors of democracy have soon disgusted, alarmed, and terrified themselves. They soon cry, “this will not do; we have gone too far! We are all in the wrong! We are none of us safe! We must unite in some clever fellow, who can protect us all,—Cæsar, Bonaparte, who you will! Though we distrust, hate, and abhor them all; yet we must submit to one or another of them, stand by him, cry him up to the skies, and swear that he is the greatest, best, and finest man that ever lived!”

John Adams was stung by criticism from John Taylor that he had argued that democracy was more “pernicious” than other forms of government such as monarchy. Here, he takes pains to defend democracy which he does in very strong terms concluding that “Democracy must be respected; democracy must be honored; democracy must be cherished; democracy must be an essential, an integral part of the sovereignty.” Yet he is also aware that democracies, like all forms of government, can result in abuses of political power. In making this point Adams comes up with a formulation which equals the famous one by Lord Acton that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In Adams phrasing of the problem of power he states “My opinion is, and always has been, that absolute power intoxicates alike despots, monarchs, aristocrats, and democrats”.

Author: Revolutionary Writings
Author: The Works of John Adams, 10 vols.
Author: The Works of John Adams, vol. 1 (Life of the Author)
Author: The Works of John Adams, vol. 2 (Diary, Notes of Debates, Autobiography)
Author: The Works of John Adams, vol. 3 (Autobiography, Diary, Notes of a Debate in the Senate, Essays)
Author: The Works of John Adams, vol. 4
Author: The Works of John Adams, vol. 5 (Defence of the Constitutions Vols. II and III)
Author: The Works of John Adams, vol. 6
Author: The Works of John Adams, vol. 7 (Letters and State Papers 1777-1782)
Author: The Works of John Adams, vol. 8 (Letters and State Papers 1782-1799)
Author: The Works of John Adams, vol. 9 (Letters and State Papers 1799-1811)
Author: The Works of John Adams, vol. 10 (Letters 1811-1825, Indexes)

John Adams argues that the British Empire is not a “true” empire but a form of a “republic” where the rule of law operates (1763)
John Adams predicts a glorious future for America under the new constitution and is in “reverence and awe” at its future prospects (1787)
John Adams thought he could see arbitrary power emerging in the American colonies and urged his countrymen to “nip it in the bud” before they lost all their liberties (1774)
John Adams on how absolute power intoxicates those who excercise that power (1814)
Adams and Jefferson reflect on the Revolution and the future of liberty (1823)

Adam Smith

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Adam Smith (1723-1790) is commonly regarded as the first modern economist with the publication in 1776 of The Wealth of Nations. He wrote in a wide range of disciplines such as moral philosophy, jurisprudence, rhetoric and literature, and the history of science. He was one of the leading figures in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Smith also studied the social forces giving rise to competition, trade, and markets. While professor of logic, and later professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, he also had the opportunity to travel to France, where he met François Quesnay and the physiocrats; he had friends in business and the government, and drew broadly on his observations of life as well as careful statistical work summarizing his findings in tabular form.

He is viewed as the founder of modern economic thought, and his work inspires economists to this day. The economic phrase for which he is most famous, the “invisible hand” of economic incentives, was only one of his many contributions to the modern-day teaching of economics.

On his book “Theory of Moral Sentiments and Essays on Philosophical Subjects” of 1869, Adam Smith talked about “rank” rather than class and thought the former came about as a result of the accumulation of both political power and economic wealth. However, in passages like this one he is aware that there are significant differences between how one goes about acquiring wealth and reputation peacefully, through market activity and how one acquires political power and the wealth which often comes with that, through the same means.

It is in this pivotal book, the “Theory of Moral Sentiments and Essays on Philosophical Subjects” where Adam Smith contrasts, how “the middling and inferior stations of life” have to live within the law, that is to respect the property rights of others and not engage in fraudulent activities, whereas those who belong to “the highest stations”, that is senior political and military leaders, face no such limitations on their behaviour. They can and do rise to positions of power by means of “fraud, falsehood, intrigue, murder, assassination, rebellion and civil war.”

Smith also notes in the previous chapter the perverse fact that people in “the middling and inferior stations of life” show extraordinary deference and respect to their monarchs and others in “high station” even when this is not deserved on the grounds of justice.

In many governments the candidates for the highest stations are above the law; and, if they can attain the object of their ambition, they have no fear of being called to account for the means by which they acquired it. They often endeavour, therefore, not only by fraud and falsehood, the ordinary and vulgar arts of intrigue and cabal; but sometimes by the perpetration of the most enormous crimes, by murder and assassination, by rebellion and civil war, to supplant and destroy those who oppose or stand in the way of their greatness.

As an economist, Adam Smith (1723-1790) contrasts how people from “the middling and inferior stations of life” acquire their reputations and their fortune with those from “the superior stations of life”

Adam Smith argued that the “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” was inherent in human nature and gave rise to things such as the division of labour (1776)
Adam Smith argues that the Habeas Corpus Act is a great security against the tyranny of the king (1763)
Adam Smith notes that colonial governments might exercise relative freedom in the metropolis but impose tyranny in the distant provinces (1776)
Adam Smith observes that the true costs of war remain hidden from the taxpayers because they are sheltered in the metropole far from the fighting and instead of increasing taxes the government pays for the war by increasing the national debt (1776)
Adam Smith claims that exorbitant taxes imposed without consent of the governed constitute legitimate grounds for the people to resist their rulers (1763)
Adam Smith argues that retaliation in a trade war can sometimes force the offending country to lower its tariffs, but more often than not the reverse happens (1776)
Adam Smith on the natural ordering Tendency of Free Markets, or what he called the “Invisible Hand” (1776)
Adam Smith on the Dangers of sacrificing one’s Liberty for the supposed benefits of the “lordly servitude of a court” (1759)
Adam Smith on the “Wonder, Surprise, and Admiration” one feels when contemplating the physical World (1795)
Adam Smith on the Sympathy one feels for those Vanquished in a battle rather than for the Victors (1762)
Adam Smith on the rigorous education of young Fitzmaurice (1759)
Adam Smith on how Government Regulation and Taxes might drive a Man to Drink (1766)
Adam Smith on the greater productivity brought about by the division of labor and technological innovation (1760s)
Adam Smith on how governments learn from each other the best way of draining money from the pockets of the people (1776)
Adam Smith on the ridiculousness of romantic love (1759)
Adam Smith on how “furious monopolists” will fight to the bitter end to keep their privileges (1776)
Adam Smith on compulsory attendance in the classroom (1776)
Adam Smith on social change and “the man of system” (1759)
Adam Smith debunks that idea that when it comes to public debt “we owe it to ourselves” (1776)
Adam Smith on the need for “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice” (1755)
Adam Smith on the “liberal system” of free trade (1776)
Adam Smith on why people obey and defer to their rulers (1759)
Adam Smith on the dangers of faction and privilege seeking (1759)
Adam Smith thinks many candidates for high political office act as if they are above the law (1759)

The book “Theory of Moral Sentiments and Essays on Philosophical Subjects” by Adam Smith, far surpasses his known economic work that launched his career: “The Wealth of Nations” although by all accounts this book, “the Theory of Moral Sentiments and Essays on Philosophical Subjects” is by far the superior and utterly correct work amongst all of his writings.

Dr Churchill


These two seemingly very different men saw political & economic life in remarkably similar ways, because their moral philosophy was aligned to the good as they both saw fit.

And indeed, when they met each other at the time that Adams served as the Minister to the Court of St James in London — they discussed these subjects and came to a positive agreement about all things, but above all else about their deep and unwavering FAITH to a Good God and to the Christian Promise of a better life after our sojourn of service on this earth.

They kept friendship but as they lived across the pond in very different style and professional occupation — they never saw each other again.

Yet the libraries of both men contained all of the other’s tracts, books, and written pamphlets.

Well Done.

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