No Special Providence for Americans

John Adams. By: Mather Brown.

Despite the optimism surrounding the Revolution, John Adams had taken a different tact.

Adams began to believe that “Americans had ‘never merited the Character of very exalted Virtue,’ and it was foolish to have ‘expected that they should have grown much better.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 571 quoting Adams to James Warren, Jan. 9, 1787, Ford, ed., Warren-Adams Letters, II, 280. Adams began to believe that “[i]t was now clear that there was ‘no special providence for Americans, and their nature is the same with that of others.’ Once the hopes of 1776 were dissipated, Adams set for himself the formidable task of convincing his countrymen that they were after all ‘like other people, and shall do like other nations.’ In effect he placed himself not only in the path of the American Revolution but in the course of the emerging American myth.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 571 quoting Mercy Warren to Adams, July 28, 1807, recalling a comment of Adams made in 1788, Mass. Hist. Soc., Colls., 5th Ser., 4 (1878), 361.

Further, Adams believed that there were distinctions in society that were inevitably unequal, and those distinctions were “common to every people, and can never be altered by any, because they are founded in the constitution of nature.” Adams, Defence of the Constitutions, Adams, ed., Works of John Adams, IV, 392, 397. Adams believed that life for Americans “was a scramble for them, for wealth, for power, for social eminence, that hopefully would be immortal, passed on to one’s descendants.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 572.

According to Adams, this created a dynamic where the few at the top “would seek only to stabilize and aggrandize their position by oppressing those below them” and those “on the bottom of the society, meanwhile, driven by the most ambitious, would seek only to replace and to ruin the social leaders they hated and envied.” Id. at 573. This served as a basis for Adams’ belief that the “Crown was not, as many had believed, the source of corruption and factionalism after all. Social struggle and division were endemic to every society, and America possessed no immunity.” Id. at 574. Alexis de Tocqueville, decades later, would make nearly the same observation. See id.

Adams’ beliefs separated him from many of the other Founding Fathers, who maintained a strong belief in America after the establishment of the Constitution. As explained in Adams’ Doubts, Adams simply did not have the faith in American society that he once had. On some level, he was right, as Americans would not avoid every danger that arose in most other countries.

Nonetheless, Adams was overly pessimistic about the strength of American resolve. While the country had become divided on many issues and Americans had shown a propensity for dividing themselves in the same ways as other societies, Americans also had a keen awareness of what equality looked like and how it should be respected. As a general matter, it seemed that Americans’ realization that others were more prosperous than themselves fostered a competitive environment and an incessant itching to accomplish more. That should be familiar to modern Americans as well.

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