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  • One is the Loneliest Number Among the Few and the Many
  • James P. Ambuske (bio)
Richard Alan Ryerson. John Adams's Republic: The One, the Few, and the Many. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. xii + 555 pp. Notes, essay on sources, appendix, and index. $60.00.

Few scholars are more qualified to say something new about John Adams than Richard Alan Ryerson. The former editor-in-chief of the Adams Papers Project at the Massachusetts Historical Society spent years plumbing the depths of Adams's mind and political thought, and we are the better for it. Ryerson meticulously reconstructs Adams's republican ideology through a close reading of his writings and by mining the key texts that shaped Adams's historical and legal worldview. What he demonstrates in this exhaustive intellectual history is that Adams's contemporaries and modern historians have long misunderstood his republican philosophy. Adams hardly favored the One; he feared the Few.

Ryerson argues that beginning in the late 1770s Adams developed a resolute belief in the necessity of strong executive authority in response to his emergent fears of aristocracy. Adams believed that republican governments best promoted the happiness of its citizens by constraining the natural monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic forces in society. He revered the seventeenth century English Whig Constitution and wished to see it revived in America. Adams's brand of republicanism encompassed constitutional monarchies like Great Britain and elective republics like the United States. In his view, providing the One, the Few, and the Many with a share of national sovereignty and balancing these competing forces against one another in specific government branches with defined constitutional powers ensured political stability and protected citizens' rights. For Adams, aristocracy presented the greatest danger to republics. Although he never thought much about aristocracy before the American Revolution, Adams later developed a more skeptical view of human nature, one in which men of wealth, talent, and ambition sacrificed public virtue in the pursuit of self-interest. He championed a strong executive with an absolute veto to protect the people from the aristocracy's lust for power. [End Page 576]

Ryerson makes an important contribution to two different literatures. First, he intervenes in the historiography on early American republicanism and political thought by refining certain portions of the "republican synthesis." This school argues that seventeenth and early eighteenth century English Whig constitutional ideas motivated the Revolutionary generation to defy British authority to defend their rights. Ryerson has less of a quarrel with the existing literature than he has a desire to thicken it. His main point of departure is Gordon S. Wood's chapter on "The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams" in his classic 1969 study, Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Wood argued that in the early 1770s, Adams stood at the center of American republicanism. Yet within a decade his emerging ideas on executive authority and the danger of aristocracy to society became anathema. Ryerson accepts Wood's general conclusions, although he argues that Wood and other historians such as John R. Howe in The Changing Political Thought of John Adams (1966) did not adequately explain Adams's intellectual journey. By taking on that task Ryerson adds to a smaller literature on Adams's political philosophy.

John Adams's Republic is divided into two parts. Part One, "Adams Moves to the Center," traces Adams's intellectual development from his days as a young Harvard College student in the mid-1750s to the Declaration of Independence. Ryerson views Adams as the ultimate provincial. Born into a modest family in the small town of Braintree ten miles south of Boston, Adams encountered social ordering at Harvard. Like all institutions of higher learning in the period, Harvard ranked its classes by economic and social standing. Adams ranked fourteenth out of twenty-five students in the Class of 1755. Despite his middling standing, Adams cultivated friendships with his social betters. His father, Deacon John Adams, hoped his son would choose the ministry, but the more ambitious Adams decided in 1758 to pursue a legal career instead. He read law with James Putnam in Worchester and later set up his practice in Braintree to avoid the competitive Boston market...

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