John Adams was amongst the most hopeful about America’s prospects for the future. At the time of the Declaration of Independence and the years of the American Revolution, he believed America could avoid the pitfalls of the European nations.
But just ten years later, Adams was of a different mind. In 1787, he wrote his Defence of the Constitutions, where he concluded that “his countrymen were as corrupt as any nation in the world.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 181.
Adams assigned himself the task of showing his fellow Americans that Americans were “like all other people, and shall do like other nations.” Id. at 181-82. In other words, he denied the existence of America’s exceptionalism.
He believed that there were inherent inequalities in American society, there was a scramble for wealth, and a general lack of merit amongst those at the top in American society. See id. at 182-83.
Adams’ doubts about the success of America, and the shape it would ultimately take, seemed justified at that time. The America that endured the Revolution was already changing by just 1787. It was becoming a country that borrowed the best ideals and institutions from Europe, while also creating its own institutions.
The seemingly chaotic society that Adams resented would be the same society that Thomas Jefferson and others celebrated, as it symbolized a change from the colonial times.
The Founding Fathers’ hopes and aspirations for the future of the country diverged in many directions. The doubts and fears of some of the Founding Fathers, like Adams, proved to be misplaced. It would be unreasonable to expect the Founding Fathers to have been prescient and prophetic on every aspect of society.
While they were highly intelligent, studied, cultured individuals, they were not infallible. The reality is that even when the country goes into an unpredictable direction, one that may feel unrecognizable at times, progress and advancement have ensured the success of America for nearly two and a half centuries.
As modern Americans with two and a half centuries to analyze and reflect on, we have the benefit of making these conclusions. Adams, were he able to see what America would become, would hopefully not be so doubtful about the future of America.