The Intellectual Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy: Republicanism, the Class Struggle, and the Virtuous Farmer

Douglass G. Adair, 2000

Adair was apparently a legendary professor who mentored a generation of historians. I first ran into him in the introduction to Daniel Sisson’s published dissertation. Sisson pretty much discovered his thesis, it turns out, in Adair’s introduction. But Adair was much more careful in his original statement of the issue than Sisson turned out to be in his extrapolation of it. This 2000 book was Adair’s dissertation from 1943, which was unpublished for decades but the list of borrowers of the original document at Yale is supposedly a who’s who of history (at least in the minds of the borrowers). Many of Adair’s graduate students seem to have found hints and ideas in it that they were able to pursue in their own studies.

Adair began by situating his study as a post-Beard analysis of Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s political ideas. He asked whether something more should be added to Beard’s economic analysis to explain why, although Alexander Hamilton and James Madison’s economic ideas were “practically identical,” Madison, “the great anti-party philosopher of the Constitutional Convention, went into opposition and helped organize a highly effective party with Jefferson—supposedly Hamilton’s direct antithesis in economic doctrine”?

The answer, Adair said, was that Jefferson and Madison shared a political outlook informed by the classical traditions that went all the way back to Aristotle. Hamilton was also a student of the classics, Adair said, but his scholarship was shallower and he failed to adapt what he learned in the ancient texts to the conditions in early America. Hamilton was too much of an idealist.

This is an interesting argument, and intuitively it’s very satisfying. Elite education in the eighteenth century was classical and all three men (as well as John Adams and the rest of the members of the Constitutional Convention) shared a common language. Adair argued that the founders didn’t just come up with their political philosophy by watching their neighbors in the Virginia piedmont, as some Turner-influenced historians had apparently claimed. But the question of specifically how each man was able to adapt this shared classical heritage into their various plans for the American republic is left largely unanswered.

Adair leaned heavily on Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, especially David Hume, as progenitors of the founding fathers’ world view. He listed the books Madison studied under (the Scot) John Witherspoon at Princeton. In addition to Leibniz, Newton, and Descartes, Madison had read Shaftesbury, Locke, Hume, Hutcheson, Mandeville, and Adam Smith. The inclusion of Smith suggests the Republicans were not the economic illiterates that supporters of Hamilton make them out to be. Fisher Ames described Madison as “a thorough master of almost every public question that can arise, or he will spare no pains to become so.” In a note, Adair mentioned that by the 1850s, the prominence of continental political classics in school curricula was decreasing, resulting in an observed decrease in references to the ancients in political speeches. But all evidence suggests Madison and Jefferson (and their serious contemporaries) arrived on the scene at the peak of classical scholarship.

Adair said Jefferson’s most powerful influence was Aristotle and that the hope that a class of virtuous yeomen could stabilize a republic was lifted directly from the Politics. He described Shays's Rebellion as a debtors’ revolt, echoing an interpretation based on politically motivated contemporary sources like Knox’s letters to Washington. Leonard Richards’s study of the members of the rebellion contradicts the traditional story. Adair said the “ominous event” (quoting Madison) sent the founders rushing back to their shelves for answers in “Thucydides, Xenophon, and Aristotle.” Maybe this was part of the solution, but maybe dependence on these sources also limited the effectiveness of the final solution. The two missing pieces of Adair’s puzzle seemed to repeatedly be, how did regular people react to all this classically-inspired politics and how accurately did the founders really understand their situation, before they fit it to the models written by the masters two millennia earlier?

Adair hinted at the possible danger of over-applying classical analogies, but only among Jefferson and Madison’s adversaries. He described Hamilton as brilliant, but with a shallow understanding of the classics. Adams’s use of Thucydides’s account of the sedition at Corcyra in his “Defence of the Constitutions of the United States” was shown to be not only “the most tenuous” of analogies, but also to miss the point that Shays and his rebels were behaving symbolically rather than trying to take over the State of Massachusetts. Adair argued that because the principals in the debates believed these analogies were significant, we should consider their relationship to the events. This is probably true with respect to Adams’s paranoia and may be an approach to assessing not only the strengths (as Adair suggests), but the weaknesses of the founders’ vision.

Gouverneur Morris’ posthumous opinion of Hamilton was quoted at length, and probably contains the seeds of a book or two: "Our poor friend Hamilton bestrode his hobby to the great annoyance of his friends, and not without injury to himself. More a theoretic than a practical man, he was not sufficiently convinced that a system may be good in itself, and bad in relation to particular circumstances. He knew well that his favorite form [monarchy] was inadmissible, unless as the result of a civil war; and I suspect that his belief in that which he called an approaching crisis arose from a conviction, that the kind of government most suitable, in his opinion, to this extensive country could be established in no other way."

“For nearly a generation American political thinkers had shared Locke’s exclusive concern,” Adair said, “with curbing the powers of kings. But now in the summer of 1787, the Convention delegates were almost unanimously agreed that the people themselves presented an additional problem.” And perhaps the delegates’ nearly unanimous opinion highlights yet another problem. Ironically, after arguing that Beard had ignored politics and ideas, Adair blamed Hamilton for economic policies that “divided the American people into sharper cleavage than had existed since 1776.” The reduction of the Confederacy’s problems to Hamilton’s national financial schemes and the reduction of Hamilton to “a victim of his Plutarch and his Tacitus,” was the book’s greatest weakness. Adair even quoted Woodrow Wilson saying Hamilton was “a very great man, but not a great American,” to which a previous reader wrote in the margin, “TOSH!”

Adair said Hamilton’s reductive mistake was his assumption of class struggle, that ultimately “faction [would] pivot entirely upon the conflict of haves and have-nots.” Madison saw past this Hobbesian error after long review of his classics, Adair said, and “challenged the basic postulate upon which the ancient mixed government depended for its justification; and in so doing he exploded the justification for a permanent will in the community to keep the immutable strife of the few and the many within bounds.” But he never really explained what those other elements of factionalism were, or how Madison had proposed to keep them in check or play one against the other to stabilize his system. This is where a look back at Turner, whom Adair threw out in the preface, might have been helpful. Both Jefferson and Madison had experienced the frontier, and when the Louisiana Purchase was completed Madison breathed a sigh of relief and added a generation onto his expectation for America’s survival. But Madison did the math and decided that by 1930, Americans would “necessarily [be] reduced by a competition for employment to wages which afford them the bare necessities of life. The proportion being without property…cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its right to be safe depositories of power over them.” Adair concluded, “It would be impossible to base a republican government on a minority, without creating ‘a standing military force, dangerous to all parties and to liberty itself.’” Madison’s classics apparently held no answer; he simply hoped when the time came “the wisdom of the wisest patriots” in a future generation would pull them through (quoting from his “Notes on Suffrage” written during the Virginia Convention of 1829-30). This seems a somewhat tenuous basis for building a nation.