Passion for Distinction

John Adams. By: John Trumbull.

In the early years of the Republic, John Adams commented on the various classes of American society: “the rich and the poor, the laborious and the idle, and the learned and the ignorant.” John Adams Letter to James Warren, January 9, 1787. He also observed that Americans had a certain “passion for distinction,” much as Alexis de Tocqueville would observe decades later in his visit to America. See Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, 214. For example, a man would see his neighbor with a “better coat, house, or horse,” and he could not “bear it.” Wood, Empire of Liberty, 214.

Adams’ view for harnessing these uniquely American traits was to have the bicameral legislature, the House of Representatives and the Senate, representing the many versus the few, respectively, with the president serving as a mediator. Wood, Empire of Liberty, 214.

Over two centuries later, it is profound how much of Adams’ observations are true, but also how much has changed.

Of course, with the passage of the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1913, the very nature of the Senate changed. Rather than each state’s legislature electing senators, “the many” would be empowered with both electing representatives and senators to the United States Congress.

However, the observation of John Adams, and later Alexis de Tocqueville, that Americans had a passion for distinction appears to remain mostly unchanged. Some may speculate that as consumerism has grown over the past century in America, the desire to match other individuals’ status symbols has grown as well, but Adams’ and de Tocqueville’s observation seem to undercut that speculation.

What is it about Americans that draws us to compete against each other to want the best, have the best, and do the best? Some would say it is part of the unique American spirit. Others may contend that this is a mere anecdote and should not be taken to be generally true of Americans.

Anecdote or not, there does appear to be an ounce of truth to it.

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