Commentary: Education and vigilance can guard against oligarchy

Richard Alan Ryerson

is the author of "John Adams' Republic: The One, the Few, and the Many" (Johns Hopkins Press)

America's Founding Fathers, the political leaders who wrote our Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, were tireless writers. They penned thousands of thoughtful letters to family, friends, political allies, and foreign leaders. They dashed off countless essays to newspapers in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Four of them were engaged in composing 18th-century America's two longest, most learned political works: the Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, and John Adams' Defence of the Constitutions of the United States (both appearing in 1787-88).

Of all the Founders, Adams wrote the most and was the most concerned for the future of America's new republican governments. The difficulties that he foresaw bear directly on the current state of American politics.

Adams expressed his first disagreement with his Revolutionary colleagues even before the Declaration of Independence. He supported the same republican architecture - a two-house legislature, an executive branch, and an independent judiciary - shared by most American leaders, but with an important distinction. He was firmly opposed to the executive councils that several states substituted for the imperial governors whom they had just expelled from office.

So committed was Adams to the necessity of a single strong executive that in 1775 he labeled Britain's constitutional monarchy a republic, in which the king was simply "the first magistrate." He finally got his chance to show America's new state governments how executive power ought to be expressed by creating a powerful governor, annually elected by all voters and with a veto over all legislation, in his finest creation, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. This document, the most similar of the early state constitutions to the U.S. Constitution that followed it, is now the oldest functioning written constitution in the world.

Adams' second major difference with his countrymen developed more slowly but came to dominate his political writings from the 1780s until his death.

Before the Revolution, Adams had given little thought to the political role of America's provincial aristocracies, but the War for American Independence created unprecedented opportunities for a few men to make fortunes by supplying the war effort. Adams soon became alarmed at the ambition and avarice of many of these wealthy men. This led him to three broad conclusions: Aristocracies of birth, wealth, and talent existed in every society; the ambition of many aristocrats threatened the political stability of every republic; and the talents of aristocrats could be safely employed by republics that developed ways to control their natural avarice and ambition.

Looking to the future, Adams vacillated between predicting disaster for an American republic that refused to recognize and control its aristocracy and hoping that America could develop this essential control. Most of his Revolutionary colleagues, including Jefferson, Madison, and even Washington, denied that the new American republic, whose federal constitution forbade the creation of titles of nobility, still had an aristocracy, or that they, no matter how many slaves or acres of land they owned, were aristocrats. Adams knew better, but his constitutional solutions - making America's president stronger to counter aristocratic power, and making the Senate, which he saw as the natural center of aristocratic power, weaker - would probably have been unequal to the challenge.

Moving to the present day, one can readily imagine that of all the Founders, Adams would be the least surprised - and Jefferson the most - to see the citizens of our republic become so vastly unequal in wealth, as men of great fortunes have come to dominate the executive branch, the Senate, and even the House of Representatives. This has happened before in America, in the late 1800s and again in the 1920s, and each time political action effectively resisted this development. But since the 1970s America's aristocracy of wealth has become as powerful as ever.

Adams probably would be surprised to see how thoroughly the executive branch, which he hoped would be America's principal guardian against aristocracy, has become increasingly enmeshed in that same power. But he would still teach us that there are only two broad defenses against this perennial threat: as effective and universal a system of public education as we can possibly devise; and eternal vigilance against the powers of an aristocracy - whether we call it an oligarchy, a plutocracy, or a power elite - that most Americans still refuse to acknowledge.