In his 1953 classic The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk stresses what he sees as the remarkable similarity in political thinking between Edmund Burke, the “Father of Western Conservatism,” and John Adams, often referred to as the first great American conservative. Kirk asserts that “it is difficult to draw any clear line of demarcation” between the two, further declaring that, in fact, they “occupy common ground.” Others, including Yuval Levin, have come to similar conclusions. Nevertheless, it would be a blatant oversimplification to suggest that these two great eighteenth-century statesmen and political thinkers were joined at the hip when responding to the significant events and issues of the day. It is true that both Burke and Adams found themselves on the same side in the American crisis and the French Revolution, but they arrived at their respective positions from entirely different perspectives. This essay will explore areas where the two thinkers agreed and, most importantly, disagreed in an effort to show that conservatism in the eighteenth century was far from a monolithic entity and that the British and American versions arose independent of one another given the significant differences in cultural context.
Burke and Adams on the American Revolution
Edmund Burke, who entered the House of Commons in 1765, was, from the beginning, one of Parliament’s leading critics of British policy toward America. He opposed all forms of taxation upon the colonists, arguing that any forced taxes would result in resistance and, ultimately, separation. Allowing the individual colonial legislatures to maintain their right to impose internal taxes, Burke argued in two important 1774 speeches, was the only policy that would ensure loyalty to the motherland. While his position placed Burke squarely on the side of the American Whigs, his argument in support of it differed dramatically from that of the colonists, something that revolutionaries such as Jefferson and Paine did not seem to understand.
For Burke, tradition, custom, and emotional attachment were as important as, if not more important than, reason when determining government policy. The fact that the colonial legislatures had had autonomy in determining internal matters such as taxation for 150 years needed to be respected by Parliament. To suddenly legislate for the colonies was courting disaster, for it ignored the traditions and customs to which the Americans had become accustomed. Such action would surely arouse the anger and strong opposition of a people jealous of their liberties. Burke’s argument had nothing to do with the constitutionality of Parliament’s action. In fact, in his “On Taxation” speech on the floor of the Commons on April 19, 1774, Burke made it clear that Parliament had sovereignty over the colonies in all matters whatsoever. However, by asserting that right, Parliament was undermining its relationship with the Americans. The only way to retain the colonies was to affirm the colonists’ right to make their own decisions based on more than a century of tradition. All policy must be founded on prescription, which meant for Burke the respecting of a people’s past and the strong attachments that individuals had to traditional institutions.
Unlike Burke, John Adams never developed an explicit philosophical defense of tradition. Like many American Whigs, he was concerned with the fundamental rights granted to British America by the English constitution. Following in the footsteps of James Otis, Jr., whose 1761 speech against writs of assistance before the Massachusetts Superior Court was considered by him the real beginning of the American independence movement, Adams argued that Parliament’s assertion of its right to tax the colonies was an infringement upon the Americans’ liberties and thus an unconstitutional and illegitimate act. In his Novanglus Essays, Adams drew upon legal arguments to demonstrate that Parliament had no right to impose taxes on people who were without representation. As early as the Stamp Act crisis, and throughout the conflict with Britain, Adams maintained that the colonists’ basic rights as Englishmen were being denied them and that, for this reason, separation was the only logical outcome. For Adams, precedent and tradition were not the underlying factors in wanting independence. It was a constitutional matter that led the Braintree attorney to take a leading role in the opposition movement.
Burke and Adams on the American Constitution
As the independence movement became stronger in the early months of 1776 following the publication of Paine’s Common Sense, a sense of urgency regarding the creation of independent republican state governments swept over Congress. No one was more involved in the matter than Adams. In fact, he took the lead in putting together a fundamental outline of what such government should look like. As early as November 15, 1775, in a letter to Virginia congressman Richard Henry Lee, Adams outlined the basic components of a republican government. This outline was amplified in the spring of 1776 in his Thoughts on Government, which was to play a significant role in the drafting of constitutions in Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, and, of course, Massachusetts, whose 1780 Constitution was drafted almost entirely by Adams. What should be noted is how closely Adams followed the British model, which, in his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, he deemed to be the greatest example of mixed government—joining together the One, the Few, and the Many—that the world had yet seen. By separating the elite and the representatives of the people in different chambers while giving the executive an absolute veto, Adams replicated the British constitution. The delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 certainly had before them the various state constitutions, especially that of Massachusetts, as well as the first volume of Defence, which was available for purchase in the United States in April 1787. The final draft of the Constitution, with its emphasis on separation of powers, independent judiciary, and strong executive, reflects the influence that Adams, and the British constitution, had on the delegates.
Burke himself viewed the American Constitution in much the same way that Adams did, as the natural continuation of the British constitutional tradition and not, as radicals such as Jefferson and Paine asserted, as a new beginning based on abstract natural rights principles. It is instructive that Burke seldom referred to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, with its eloquent assertion of “the Laws of Nature,” self-evident Truths, and “unalienable Rights.” Burke was no Lockean who embraced social contract theories and the protection of natural rights. We are born into a society with fixed institutions and traditions. It is up to us to adjust to what has been established and not to make the world anew. Reform may be called for, but not radical change. Indeed, here one can see an important difference between Burke and Adams, for the New Englander was not averse to referring to man’s natural rights in writings such as A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law and felt the exhilaration of creating a new government based on such rights as he noted to George Wythe in a 1776 letter. Burke was thus even more a realist than Adams, attuned to society as it was and unimpressed, indeed downright appalled, by attempts to remake the world to fit a more idealistic worldview that emphasized natural rights, egalitarianism, and the right of citizens to change government that they regarded as oppressive.
Burke and Adams on the French Revolution
In an 1814 letter to his friend Adrian Van Der Kemp, Adams boasted that it was his Discourses on Davila, a series of 32 essays appearing weekly in John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States from April 28, 1789, to April 27, 1790, that led Burke to take a hard stand against the French philosophes and their supporters and inspired him to write his great rebuke of the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution on France, published in late 1790. In fact, Burke had thrown down the gauntlet in a fiery speech in Commons in February 1790, stunning his Whig colleagues who had embraced the Revolution. Although Adams was clearly mistaken about his influence upon Burke, he did get it right that, in the English-speaking world, Burke and he stood almost alone in the early stages of the French Revolution in their harsh critique of what was happening in France. Nevertheless, as was the case regarding the American Revolution, the two political thinkers came to similar conclusions from very different perspectives.
The fact that Burke, Parliament’s most ardent defender of the American cause, strongly opposed the French Revolution caught both Paine and Jefferson by surprise. In Europe seeking financial support for his iron bridge invention, Paine had a front row seat to the beginning of the Revolution. Excited over the prospect of the American success enkindling the spirit of revolution throughout Europe, the author of Common Sense reached out to Burke, hoping to enlist him to elicit support in Great Britain for the revolutionaries. Paine was shocked when he found out that the British statesman was a staunch opponent of what was happening in France. It was in response to Burke’s Reflections that Paine wrote his two-part Rights of Man, thus initiating one of the most important debates in the history of Western liberalism. In the meantime, Jefferson, upon hearing of Burke’s unexpected position on the French Revolution, wrote to Benjamin Vaughan in May 1791 that “The Revolution of France does not astonish me so much as the revolution of Mr. Burke.”
In reality, Burke’s positions on the American and French Revolutions were quite consistent when one considers his fundamental view of human psychology and society. As we have already noted, Burke believed that tradition and customs are important components of a society’s fabric, more important than any theoretical notion of natural rights and egalitarianism. When the National Assembly moved to nationalize the churches and to rid the aristocracy of its privileges in the name of equality and fraternity, Burke knew immediately the ramifications. To tear away the very institutions that had given normalcy to the lives of the people and stability to society was courting danger. His Reflections eerily portends what France was about to experience, from riots and chaos to a reign of terror to the ascension of a military dictator who would place all of Europe in peril. Just as Parliament had initiated the loss of an empire by clinging to its theoretical right of sovereignty over the colonies and denying the century-old tradition of American legislative independence, the National Assembly, in wanting to eradicate the long tradition of monarchy and hereditary aristocracy in the name of natural rights, was about to destroy the very foundation of European society.
While standing together with Burke in condemning the assault on France’s institutions, Adams voiced his concern from a constitutional perspective. As he made clear on several occasions, Adams was convinced that philosophes such as Turgot, Condorcet, and La Rochefoucauld had no concept of practical politics. Nevertheless, it was Condorcet and the followers of Turgot who were the driving force behind the radical reform movement and the republican constitution framed in the early years of the Revolution. What especially concerned Adams was the insistence on a unicameral legislature which would combine executive, legislative, and judicial functions. This flew in the face of everything that he had long believed based on his extensive research of ancient and modern regimes. It certainly stood in marked contrast to the majority of the state constitutions, including the Massachusetts Constitution, and the recently drafted American Constitution. In his two theoretical works, Defence and Discourses, Adams exhaustively detailed the error of framing a constitution that failed to separate powers and to take into consideration natural hierarchy. To assume that all men are socially and economically equal and to place them all within one chamber was political malpractice and courted disaster. This was why at an early stage in the Revolution Adams parted ways with the vast majority of his revolutionary colleagues and rebuked the philosophes as incompetent theoreticians who extolled ideologies that had no foundation in reality.
Burke and Adams: Relativist vs. Universalist
In his America and Europe in the Political Thought of John Adams, Edward Handler uses the terms “relativist” and “universalist” to contrast the political views of Burke and Adams, and there is validity in such an evaluation. As a relativist, Burke was interested in understanding the historical background of a particular society—its traditions and customs—before embarking on a critique of its constitution, which, for him, meant the entire framework of society and not only fundamental law. To speak generally of natural rights and egalitarianism had little meaning for Burke. What was important was what the people of the specific state were accustomed to, what they had been born into. A hierarchical structure, headed by a monarch and an established hereditary aristocracy, was the only constitution known to the French. Any disruption of this constitution would result in chaos and eventually tyranny, something far worse than what the people of France had experienced.
As one can glean from his writings, Adams, to use Handler’s term, was more of a universalist, extrapolating from his American experience and readings to make general assumptions about forms of government. This is evident in his running feud with Turgot and Condorcet. While Turgot’s experience as Finance Minister under Louis XVI had taught him that reform was impossible as long as the nobility held its own chamber, Adams, as we see in Thoughts on Government and Defence, argued that separating the aristocracy from the representatives of the people was the surest way to protect the rights of all. Thus, the philosophes, drawing upon their experience, pushed for a unicameral legislature and weakened monarch while Adams, relying on the British-American model, was convinced that separation of powers and a bicameral legislature were vital to effect stable government no matter the past history of the people.
Burke, Adams, and Aristocracy: A Final Comment
Despite their both possessing strong conservative credentials, Adams and Burke cannot be viewed as kindred spirits. In fact, in his later writings, Adams distanced himself from the British statesman. He was especially critical of Burke’s position on hereditary nobility. While his British counterpart spent much of his career defending traditional European aristocracy and opposing any infringement upon prerogatives of the nobility, Adams, despite the accusations of his political enemies, never supported a European-styled nobility. “It is a mistake,” writes Randall Ripley, “to view Adams as pleading for the aristocracy in any Burkean sense.”
A self-made man, Adams spoke of a natural aristocracy, made up of men of education, wealth, and reputation, that was not closed to people who could take advantage of the opportunities provided them. In this way, he was the consummate American who believed in the possibility of upward mobility because he himself had experienced it. As Richard Samuelson notes, “Adams was much more comfortable praising a middle-class regime than was Burke.”
Adams and Burke thus represented two contrasting cultural experiences, neither able to completely appreciate the other’s fundamentally different perspective. Both strongly held to the cultures out of which they had come and both were ready to defend their views in the face of increasing criticism from their own colleagues. Adams and Burke may have stood together at the forefront of eighteenth-century conservatism, but they differed dramatically in how they viewed the world, given their distinct societal backgrounds and prejudices.