Education, History, Philosophy, recent

John Adams and the Search for a Natural (and Needed) American Aristocracy

In 1787, two years before he was elected vice president of the United States—a role in which he served until 1796, when he was elected president—John Adams completed a massive multivolume treatise titled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States. He supplemented it with a further series of essays later published in 1805 as Discourses on Davila.

When the Discourses were written, America was seized with the question of how to view the French Revolution. On one side were those who enthusiastically endorsed its egalitarian principles and wished to see them extended to the United States. Thomas Jefferson was their champion.

On the other were those opposed to the leveling demands of the French Revolution. In their view, these represented a dangerous species of lawlessness. Against it they defended the values of tradition and hierarchy. In Europe, their most forceful spokesman was Edmund Burke. On this side of the Atlantic it was John Adams, who is sometimes called America’s Burke.

The Discourses on Davila cover a great deal of ground in a wandering style. But there can be no doubt regarding Adams’ central message. It is that human beings are driven by what he calls “the passion for distinction”; that distinction is a fact of life with many different sources, including beauty, brains, upbringing and wealth; that the love of distinction is not objectionable in itself but dangerous if it gets out of hand; and that a principal function of government is to ameliorate the competition for honor and recognition in a way that preserves its good effects while suppressing its bad ones. To this end, Adams urges the advantages of a “mixed” government that contains elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy over those that are devoted to one of these exclusively.

According to Adams, human beings have a natural “affection for the good of others; but alone it is not a balance for the selfish affections.” To the passion for “benevolence,” nature “has kindly added…the desire of reputation, in order to make us good members of society.” Together these two passions counterbalance the drive for “self-preservation,” which, left to itself, results in anarchy and ruin. But that is only if the second—the longing for distinction—is suitably directed toward a productive end. At its root, this longing is the desire not to be “out of the sight of others, groping in the dark.” It is the desire to be “seen.” A man can escape from obscurity through bad deeds as well as good ones. If the passion for recognition is to strengthen rather than dissolve the bonds of social life, it must therefore be welded to genuine “merit.”

Wealth and a family name bring distinction. Depending on the circumstances, it may be an honorable one. The same is true of “beauty, elegance, and grace.” Adams does not discount any of these as sharply as some do. But the only enduringly good reputation, he says, is one based on “intellectual and moral qualities.” Citing a long line of philosophers reaching back to the Greeks and Romans, Adams calls virtue “the only rational source and eternal foundation of honor.” It is the only truly reliable basis of distinction.

“There is a voice within us, which seems to intimate, that real merit should govern the world,” Adams writes. But this raises an obvious question: “How shall the men of merit be discovered?”

The problem is twofold.

On the one hand, “real merit is confined to a very few.” But the people at large cannot be trusted to make the selection. They are subject to “intrigues and maneuvers.” They also are subject to the most seductive “deception” of all: the argument that “real” merit is a pretense, a device for shielding the privileges of the rich and wellborn, and that no man possesses more of it than any other.

This is the doctrine of “levelling.” It is what “the self-styled philosophers of the French Revolution” teach. But their teaching runs counter to nature. While “every man and woman” has “equal rights,” nature assures that some possess a degree of virtue others lack. For those who are less distinguished, this is a hard truth to accept. It is a source of envy and jealousy. And it makes them vulnerable to demagogues who preach the perfect equality of all human beings.

On the other hand, if the best are defined by an identifiable marker, like wealth, title or the possession of land, the problem of selection is solved, but there is no guarantee that those who possess these attributes will be individuals of “real merit.” In aristocracies, a gap eventually appears between the outward signs of aristocratic bearing and the true virtue of those who exhibit them. The divergence between the two is a perennial source of democratic opposition to all fixed orders of rank and privilege.

Adams grants that children born to privilege, with a family name to uphold, may be more likely than those in obscure circumstances to acquire a virtuous character. But their privilege is no guarantee. Many become vicious instead. Nature itself—a “voice within”—tells us that the best men ought to “govern the world.” But Adams vehemently rejects the idea that the problem of selecting them can be solved by adopting any European form of nobility. None, in any case, could grow in America’s egalitarian soil. Yet, if this solution is no good, the problem still remains, and must be solved in some fashion if we are not to descend to the unnatural and destructive equality proclaimed by the champions of the French Revolution.

Adams’s solution is a negative one. There is no way of guaranteeing that “power,” as distinct from “rights,” will be concentrated in the right hands. But if power is dispersed, that can at least help to prevent its concentration in the wrong hands—in particular, those who constitute only a “mob.” In Adams’s view, this is the principal function of America’s constitutional government, which divides one power from another through a system of checks and balances.

But a further question remains. Where are the men—and, today, women—of real merit that our form of government allows to come to the fore? They constitute a “natural” aristocracy, as Adams repeatedly says. An aristocracy of this sort differs from the artificial one constituted by lineage. But how is it formed and sustained? Natural aristocrats are known by their character and works, not their names.

John Adams was a vain man. His idea of how to build and support a natural aristocracy was based on his own experience and achievements. Some may carp, but America has had few models so good. In material terms, he came from modest but honorable beginnings. His family was neither rich nor poor. It was at Harvard College that Adams first began to study, in a disciplined way, the works that were to have a profound effect on his views about political life.

An education of the sort Adams received requires leisure. This inevitably gives it an aristocratic tenor, since “leisure for study must ever be the portion of the few.” It follows that “the laboring part of the people can never be learned.” Adams concludes that “knowledge will forever be monopolized by the aristocracy.” Indeed, “the moment you give knowledge to a democrat,” he declares rather extravagantly, “you make him an aristocrat.”

Hence, Adams says, “the more you educate, without a balance in the government, the more aristocratical will the people and the government be. There can never be, in any nation, more than one fifth—no, not one tenth of the men, regularly educated to science and letters.” An education of this sort gives its possessors “no peculiar rights in society.” But it deepens their understanding of human nature and political strife. This justifies our giving their more learned views a special “weight.” It confers a “distinction” and “privilege” upon them.

“There is no necessary connection,” Adams concedes, “between knowledge and virtue.” But Adams remarks that in his “humble opinion,” “knowledge, upon the whole, promotes virtue and happiness.” And the intellectual process of learning tends to encourage those affective qualities of moderation, decency and fairmindedness in which a virtuous character at least partly consists.


Anthony Townsend Kronman is a Sterling Professor at Yale Law School. This essay is adapted, with permission, from The Assault on American Excellence, published by Free Press, 2019.  

Featured Image: Unfinished oil sketch by Benjamin West, American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement with Great Britain, 1783-1784, London, England. From left to right: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens and William Temple Franklin. 


  1. An interesting article. Given the material constraints on lifestyle and the available agriculture, as well as the lack of factories, I can see why he would say that only a small group of people should really be educated. The the fact that we can do it today, devote time to educating all of our young people, is really an impressive achievement for humanity.

    One thing that might have informed John Adams had not really been discovered yet, and that is the widespread use of genetics, especially population genetics, in analyzing society. One of the things that has been noted is that a stable aristocracy can run itself into serious trouble without regular outbreeding. Witness some of the problems running up to World War 1 with a very inbred European aristocracy. Anyone up for some haemophilia?

    Also, one of the other things that has been noted is that very very few family-run businesses tend to survive past a few generations. 3 generations is often mentioned as a sort of saying when discussing this. This is not due entirely to genetics, I should point out. This, in fact, is due to a number of environmental factors, as well as not raising the younger generation to such a mindset as they can adapt what the older generation built for them and keep it going in a changing world. It’s a very tricky thing to do.

    What this means is that the American aristocracy, or the gifted and extremely talented if you want to put it that way, is going to change from generation to generation. As long as we honor that, keeping away from trying to form dynasties and instead seeking out and providing opportunity to as many people as possible, we can find those people and allow them to rise. They can be our aristocracy, for a generation or two. Then they will fall from the heights, perhaps down to a more middling stature, or perhaps to the very bottom of society. Others will rise in their place, and life will continue.

  2. This has actually been proven now. In one of the Scandinavian countries, I read that a study had recently been done in which paired participants were given Maths questions, rewarded for those they got right and then asked to divvy out the rewards to those they thought deserved them. Contrary to expectations, the participants did not simply divide the spoils proportionally, with an equal amount for each correct question. Instead they disproportionately rewarded those who got the most answers right and punished those who got them wrong.

    To see that these results were obtained in one of the most egalitarian societies on the face of the planet, shows just how deeply ingrained the urge for meritocracy lies buried within us. It’s the foundation for all hierarchies, even if the hierarchies themselves become ossified and subject to corruption over time. Parallels can also be found in the model of the Kibbutz, in micro-societies where everything is divided equally, other means of unequal compensation emerge, with the most productive males rewarded with disproportionate offers of sex, as recompense for their daily toil.

    I think the solution to the problem lies in ensuring that access to equality of opportunity, lies at the root of all successful hierarchies. Trust is after all the basis of all human interaction and the power that derives from it. So if we sow systems of distrust by inherently favouring one group over another, be it by class, race or gender, especially as it relates to influence networks or preferential treatment, then we also sow the seeds of any successful hierarchies collapse, as the perception of unfairness quickly degrades any hope of operational functionality, regardless of whether the institution lies in the public or private domain.

    One of the ways I’ve thought of in which unfairness may operate, as an alternate hypothesis to unconscious bias, is does the act of consciously trying to be fair, actually bias us to become more critical? The search for fairness in our judgement may predispose us to seek justification for our decisions, in advance of actually making the decision- which in turn, could prejudice our decision-making process.

    I put this forth as a proposition because if you are an aspiring writer, it is almost impossible for friends and family to read a piece of writing, without checking grammar and spelling. Women entrepreneur are apparently asked how they are going to protect their existing customer base, instead of how they are going to win new business, which is the default question for male entrepreneurs. Perhaps it would be better to tell senior managers and HR departments to trust their gut-feelings and establish trust with potential employees (rather than to become hyper-conscious of race and gender requirements and potentially default to reluctance), in the service of achieving fairer results.

    Ultimately though, I think it is important to look back to the feeder systems the produce individuals of varying abilities in the workforce, that are not innate. Are these systems fair? In education, there is growing evidence that a more traditional model of didactic education, with strictly enforced low-level discipline (such as detentions), is the only thing that can level the playing field between the children of the wealthy, and the children of the poor. Dr Raj Chetty, has found that fathers are incredibly important in determining social mobility, but critically a child raised in a single parent family in a neighbourhood with a high proportion of fathers is more likely to succeed, than a child raised to a two parent family in a neighbourhood with a low proportion of fathers. So fathers seem to act as social immunisers at a community level.

    The West is in crisis. The destructive, non-conciliatory nature of the Culture War is damaging our institutions and our businesses. A more constructive approach to public policy, in which representatives from both sides of the political spectrum meet behind closed doors, to discuss ‘wicked’ problems, may be the only solution to healing the rift caused by political polarisation. In the current climate, neither side will truly ever win, or even make lasting progress on their most cherished goals, as the other side will always be waiting in the wings, ready to undo their legacy.

    Even when one party wins on a particular issue, the solution is always sub-optimal and never serves the public as fully intended. Because without the exposure of policy to private scrutiny and criticism every problem is only ever half-answered. The failure lies in the nature of ideology, because as with the scientific method itself, progress is only made when bad ideas are disconfirmed.

  3. Aristocracy gets a bad rap, but as mentioned in this article, it simply wasn’t possible for most of human history for more than a small segment of the population to be educated enough to rule. The natural inequalities of society had the beneficial effect of allowing a small subset of the wealthiest to pursue the ideas (or throw money at the right people to pursue the ideas) that moved society forward.

    This continues to exist today, with much of the highest reaches of government occupied by lawyers, often trained in the same few prestigious schools. But American values leaves room for another kind of virtue: that of the self-made person who overcomes great adversity to reach extraordinary heights. I’d say that’s Americans’ favorite kind of aristocrat, which is why entrepreneurs tend to be more highly esteemed than government officials.

  4. “As long as we honor that, keeping away from trying to form dynasties”

    But how? In the States, if some 5th generation Kennedy should attempt to become king Rat, his/her name alone is half the battle, no? In Canada, Trudeau The Younger was elected on the strength of his name. And of course all aristocracies attempt to entrench themselves. Not to change the subject, but one of the reasons I support taxing the rich is because money also tends to entrench itself and that is to be resisted. But how to ‘tax’ aristocratic status? That is, how to continually retest that the aristocrats deserve their status and prune and graft as appropriate?

  5. “access to equality of opportunity, lies at the root of all successful hierarchies”

    They say that one of the keys to Napoleon’s success was that he promoted on merit – most of the marshals were of lower middle class origin. In contrast, In Austria, if you were a duke you were a general irrespective of the fact that you were a inbred drooling idiot.

    “Trust is after all the basis of all human interaction and the power that derives from it.”

    That’s why I can’t agree with the hard righties. TFM concentrates money and is inherently unstable (tho the just-so narrative of the righties says otherwise), and huge numbers of people end up being left out. But unless almost everyone trusts that their society is fair, that society must collapse eventually because the majority do not support it.

    Thus in the States during the Vietnam War, things got close to the breaking point as poor blacks wondered out loud why they should go killing and dying for rich whites who’s own sons got deferments. One thing you have to give monkeys is that they do have a very developed sense of fairness and they become quite outraged if it is violated. Grapes for all who complete the test, please.

  6. Very well said sir. You come across as very intelligent but not at all snobbish or condescending. You are not a performer.

    “Or to know practical skills that the elitists dismiss, like how to fix practically anything. I love people who can do that.”

    I am far prouder of the fact that I can fix almost anything than I am of my intellect, which is not highly educated, but not inferior, either. If I have little in common with the common working fella, but I respect him. If I have to throw my hat into the ring, I side with the Deplorables over the Victims.

  7. John Adams was a snob and he was also something of a twit who tracked somewhere on the Asperger’s end of the autism spectrum. He was a narrow minded misanthrope who was excessively in love with his own opinions; a blend of Edmund Burke and H L Mencken.

    Adams’s greatest weakness was that he, unlike his cousin Samuel, did not really understand the culture he was he was born into. He was a creature torn between appeasing the British crown’s appointees and the Boston Town Meeting, which was controlled by his cousin Samuel. His natural position in that culture was as a native intermediary between the emerging British American raj and his unwashed restive countrymen.

    But it gets worse, in his writings John Adams seems to have no understanding of how unique his native culture was. He conflated education with merit simply because education was the way he rose in the essentially puritan merchant adventurer class that had dominated New England politics since the Restoration.

    But that class represented less than 10% of New England society in 1770. What Adams failed to incorporate into his schemes was that the basic political unit in republican New England was the town and the towns had been autonomous from the provincial government in a broad array “local” matters since 1632 and from the royal governor since 1689. Further, since 1700, the the Boston Town Meeting was disliked and distrusted by the vast majority of the other town meetings in the province.

    In New England, the towns operated under the open town meeting form of government. Every lawful resident of the town had an equal vote at town meeting and the majority decision was always final. The towns controlled the militia and each town sent two deputies to the provincial legislature. In matters of particular interest to the town, their deputies were given instructions on how to vote. If the deputy failed to follow their instructions, the deputy was removed.

    The town meeting leveled taxes, elected the town moderator, selectmen, clerk and treasurer. The selectmen then nominated all of the inferior town officials, from constables to the hog warden and fence viewer, and the town meeting fined those who refused to answer the town’s call to public office.

    The success of the town depended on the quality of the persons the town elected and selected. The towns were a never ending source of citizens of proven ability who had demonstrated that they possessed in some measure the qualities of a natural aristocrat independent of education at a grammar school or latin school or university.

    Sadly, John Adams worst idea, life tenure for judges, was his most widely adopted idea.

  8. John Adams is an excellent example of one who stayed true to his principles. Despite opposing British rule he remained true to the rule of law and defended the British soldiers accused in the Boston massacre. Today’s woke culture would consider Adams a traitor and electronically lynch him.

    Learned people who remain true to time tested high ideals make the best political leaders. Unfortunately they are usually unelectable as they often call for doing what is hard over what is popular.

  9. I have a problem with ‘‘equality of opportunity’’ arguments. This is not because I want to keep anyone from succeeding, but because I think the desideratum here is unmeasurable. The biggest problem is that we insist on this notion that we can’t possibly have equality of opportunity unless all the good jobs and positions in society are proportionally filled with members of the left’s favoured tribes du jour. So the nobel aim of equality of oportunity soon becomes distorted into equality of outcome.
    I would be happier if everyone excepted that equality of opportunity just meant that no-one is barred from achieiving anything that they deserve to achieve. But we know that our eftoid friends will never accept that. They will never get over the need to find ‘‘oppressed’’ people they can turn into clients in their own quest for power.
    If the left would only shut up about bigotry, they’d find that the only realy significantl bigotry out there is there own oikophobia. They would also find that the so-called barriers they say are holding back the oppressesed and marginalised would disaappear like morning mist if they stopped harping on about our differences and instead focussed upon our similarities.

  10. My view is difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome at the population level, are best addressed by looking at the feeder systems that produce disparate outcomes. This means fathers. It also means more traditional schools, with all the learning efficiency gains that come from the didactic method and the teacher imparting knowledge.

    It’s also worth noting, that within white populations opportunities are unevenly distributed towards the top- something that the modern Left completely fails to take into account is that the top 10 or top 20% of the income distribution, effectively raise their kids in ‘hothouse’ conditions that are more analogous to those of Ashkenazi Jews or the Han Chinese. In Britain we are storing up huge social problems with the white working class poor. The easiest way to correct this imbalance at the top, would probably be to ban ADHD drugs, for all but the most severely affected kids. Drill and didactic teaching methods do seem to engage kids more, so perhaps the problem is not with the kids.

  11. @ Peter


    In NYC there are selective public high schools for high functioning kids who can not afford private or boarding schools. Admittance is achieved by scoring high on a placement test. Most graduates of these schools go onto Ivy League caliber schools. Many graduates have impressive personal achievements. A success story right? The mayor of New York has just declared war on these schools. Why? Because the student body contains too many Asians. I would venture to guess most of the students are Asian followed by Jews the non-Jewish whites, Latinos then blacks. In other words the team photo doesn’t look right or isn’t balanced. Leftists’ desire for equality of outcomes is at war with nature. Everyone plateaus but not everyone plateaus at the same level, that is a simple fact of nature. I would not have gained admission to one of these public high schools. Nor would have I been admitted to an Ivy League caliber school. My posts are not as eloquent as others. Because people plateau at different levels, equality of outcomes can not be guaranteed. So the Leftist only recourse is to hold back the achievers in favor of those less capable. To the Leftist using government to hold back achievers is not oppression because the Leftist is supposedly motivated by well meaning intentions. The result is irrelevant only the intentions matter. However this alleged altruistic behavior has its limits. You will never see a Leftist relinquish his or achieved status in favor of a declared under privileged. There are not scores of Ivy Leaguers marching into Community College to make room at elite schools for the under privileged. Sacrifice is always for the other guy.

  12. Quite coincidentally, what I read this morning in an American pre-war novel on family life in the Mid West: -The two belonged to a tradition and were Democrats, but in their hearts both men cherished a sense of being more intelligent, more cultivated, more discerning, and more sensitive than the other citizens of the County-.
    I think, this what is meant with the real aristocracy, it’s not on rich, famous and successful, on the elite of entrepreneurs and politicians, but just on these traditional values and virtues, because- neither the one nor the others have ever made good manners or fineness of thought or of feeling-. Yes, this is aristocracy!

  13. Bush actually had better SAT and Grades than Gore. That’s why the media never made an election issue over their college performance.
    Not saying I am a fan of the Bushes though.

  14. I read ‘Life at the Bottom’. You could sense the reality of his anguish as his leftie idealism slowly got beaten into the dirt.

    “I don’t know if the left is consciously attempting to ensure that there is a permanent proletariat that can be used as means to obtain power through pathological altruism”

    There is that state of mind we don’t have a word for but Orwell described it in 1984 as Doublethink. Or maybe even that’s not exactly right. It’s sorta like ‘plausible deniability’ – you make a point of not knowing something. Like the Germans who didn’t know about the holocaust and worked very hard not to know about it. If the plantation owners don’t know what they are doing then they are working hard not to know it and I’m not inclined to be charitable.

  15. Well put once again.

    However, I would submit that what you’ve labelled as “opportunity” here is in fact “outcome”. After all, who has filled what jobs is the outcome, is it not? The opportunity would have been manifested as their chance at applying for those jobs.

    And this is the fine point I take issue with, for those (typically on the right) who at least recognize the need for equality of opportunity. It is that they confine the definition to its most literal, common denominator step. If someone said “visible minorities need not apply”…well yeah, that’s pretty obvious to anyone. But just because they will take your application doesn’t mean you have an actual equal opportunity to the job…because your qualifications, and all the myriad factors that contribute to your attained qualifications at that point ( including your own hard work and blood/sweat/tears) come to bear.

    That is not to say that equality of opportunity does not exist unless everyone can be rocket scientists, or movie stars, or lawyers like you. As you or someone else suggested, everyone has their inherent potential top level, and nothing more, and that top level, be it genetics, good health, or the randomness of birth place and birth family, boils down to good fortune. That’s life.

    But what I mean by equality of opportunity is the opportunity to have attained the highest level your inherent potential allows, such that when you apply, you were given the chance to be the best applicant you could possibly have ever been. After that, may the best people win. But I see many barriers now to even what I consider to be said equality. I don’t feel people to the right of me take that concept into consideration even when they accept equality of opportunity as a valid goal.

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