- John Adams's Republic: The One, The Few, and the Many by Richard Alan Ryerson
Richard Ryerson's John Adams's Republic brings the author's considerable specialist knowledge, gained as a senior historian and former editor-in-chief of the Adams Papers, to bear in order to deliver an incisive intellectual history of John Adams. Ryerson provides meaningful contexts that both interpret and analyze the essentials of John Adams's political contributions. In doing so the reader can better assess Adams's sizable impact upon the young republic's political development.
John Adams's Republic supplements the extant and considerable Adams's biographical literature such as Page Smith's John Adams (Norwalk, 1962), and David McCullough's John Adams (New York, 2001). In addition, this work examines a wealth of earlier and pivotal Revolutionary interpretations such as Gordon S. Wood's instrumental The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill, 1969), and no doubt will furnish further insights for readers of Gordon Wood's Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (New York, 2017).
Ryerson's work is "an exploration in intellectual history centered on the political thought of one man, not an essay in political science based on the published work of one writer" (ix). What is of specific and critical interest is John Adams's evolving view of the changing nature of executive authority and its relationship with democratic and aristocratic elements, "which in his opinion was entirely compatible with both fully elective republics and hereditary constitutional monarchies" (ix). The author accomplishes this task through a detailed examination of Adams's use of "The One, The Few, and the Many" as a governing principle. This social and political construct reflects both Adams's worldview and the competing ideas at work in the Revolutionary era.
Ryerson carefully builds his case over 555 pages with a clear organizational landscape beginning with an Introduction: The Evolution of a Distinctive Republican Vision, followed by Part One which consists of five chapters under the heading: Adams Moves to the Center and a five chapter Part Two: Adams on his Own plus a lively Conclusion: Memory and Desire in America's Republican Revolution. This structure allows for an effective information flow that illuminates Adams's several changing frames of reference and his developmental mind during these tumultuous times. Times where [End Page 607] events, theories, and personalities moved rapidly in unpredictable directions, often with a final impact not known until men and historic events could combine to illuminate their own individual intellectual journeys.
For the author it is obvious that Adams's approach to the era's constitutional ideas opens an essential gateway to unraveling his deeper political observations and thought. In terms of focus this work concerns three general propositions: "(1) What was the essence of John Adams's constitutional thought, when that thought is stripped of the misunderstanding and exaggerations of his admirers and detractors alike? (2) How did his constitutional thought develop over the course of his career as a writer and public official? (3) Why did his constitutional thought ultimately take the distinctive form that it did?" (19–20). In exploring these questions, Ryerson observes Adams's intellectual rise from his modest provincial lawyerly roots in Braintree, Massachusetts to a later national and international prominence. Adams's intellectual legacy begins in his search for a cohesive understanding of republicanism in its many variations, starting with his detailed study of the British Constitution and its historic interpreters. This could by clearly seen from 1775 until July 1776 when "John Adams devoted the greater part of his intellectual energies to crafting a republican blueprint for the new nation that he saw emerging around him" (100). In time this created a growing interest in the formalities, relationships, and practical consequences of a tripartite system composed of executive, aristocracy, and democracy that functions together in a republican setting: in other words, his concepts of the One, Few, and Many that underlines this study. From such...