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Political Architecture: The Natural Order of the Many

columbusA full understanding of the passion for distinction requires that we look at man not only as the object of attention but also as the agent of notice, as he responds to other men who excel him in any of the qualities of fortune. Viewing men in this perspective, John Adams observed two quite different kinds of human response to the spectacle of superiority in others. Some men react to the glitter of others with envy. The sight of others who excel induces in these men a state of mortification at their own lower status and a desire to bring every outstanding individual down to their level, or to depress him below them. This response, Adams suggested, is especially likely in men who have known higher status but have fallen from it. Such a man experiences most keenly “the awful feeling of mortified emulation.”

His desire is disappointed; the pain of a want unsatisfied, is increased by a resentment of an injustice, as he thinks it. He accuses his rival of a theft or robbery, and the public of taking away what was his property, and giving it to another. These feelings and resentments are but other names for jealousy and envy; and altogether, they produce some of the keenest and most tormenting of all sentiments.[72]

The pain of such a fall from superiority, whether that fall is now real or only apprehended, is a major cause of combativeness and rivalry in society.

While apprehension and rivalry may be the responses of a man to the prospect of another’s superiority, they are not necessary responses. The passion for distinction can be successfully pursued only if those who possess disproportionately few of the blessings of fortune do not invariably view their condition as unjust. Indeed, the natural rise of the distinction of ranks depends not only on the absence of resentment but on the positive capability in most men of seeing superiority with admiration; they must be able to respond to another’s excelling with approbation, congratulation, and wonder. By implication, Adams suggested that such an admiring response is most likely to occur in those who have not yet tasted greatness. His fullest discussion of the response occurs in a passage characterizing the attitude of “the people” toward “the great.” The desire for distinction gives the many a “peculiar sympathy” with the satisfactions enjoyed by the great. The explanation for that sympathy can be stated as follows: All men desire to better their condition, not for the sake of ease or pleasure, but for the sake of vanity. When the many view the condition of the few who are great, they see it as “almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state.” As Adam Smith had said of that state, in the passage on which Adams relied so heavily in Discourses on Davila:

It is the very state which, in all our waking dreams and idle reveries, we had sketched out to ourselves as the final object of all our desires.[73]

That is, the people view the condition of the great as the perfection of that condition which is the object of their own efforts. The possibility that the great might actually be less happy than the common people is lost upon mankind, for when they view the condition of the great, the many consider it “in all those delusive colors, in which imagination can paint and guild it.”[74] It is the fact that the joys or presumed joys of the great are the objects of our own aspirations, but are elevated by imagination far above our actual powers of acquisition, that gives emulation the form of admiration rather than envy. Instead of causing us to view the possessions of the great as “theft and robbery,” our peculiar sympathy with their condition leads us to “favor all their inclinations and forward all their wishes.”

What pity, we think that any thing should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation! We could even wish them immortal; and it seems hard to us, that death should at last put an end to such perfect enjoyment. It is cruel, we think, in nature to compel them from their exalted stations to that humble, but hospitable, home, which she has provided for all her children…. To disturb, or to put an end to, such perfect enjoyment, seems to be the most atrocious of all injuries.[75]

A politically crucial corollary of the “disposition of mankind, to go along with all the passions of the rich and powerful” is the deference and subordination of the many to the few. What Adams referred to as “our obsequiousness to our superiors” does not arise out of considerations of utility, either private or social. Utilitarian considerations could, of course, lead to a calculated deference or obedience, but in such deference our reasoning about our own or the public’s interest would set limits to our submissiveness. But our deference to the great is so far from simply utilitarian that we “desire to serve them for their own sake, without any other recompense but the vanity or honor of obliging them.” We are eager to “assist them in completing a system of happiness that approaches so near to perfection” even though “their benefits can extend but to a few” and we may have little or no hope of being included in that number. Through the passion for distinction, then, “nature would teach us to submit to them [the great] for their own sake, to tremble and bow down before their exalted station.” Such submission forms the basis or underpinning for “the distinction of ranks and the order of society.”[76] Properly connected with political offices, the deference of the many to the few is also the only adequate support for law abidingness; it “alone commands effectual obedience to the laws, since without it neither human reason, nor standing armies, would ever produce that great effect.”[77]

A second politically significant corollary of admiration is the imitation of the few by the many. “It is commonly said, everything is regis ad exemplum; that the lower ranks imitate the higher; and it is true.” The power of example which parents exercise on children is replicated socially between the great and the populace. Politically, that imitation is the key instrument by which leaders activate the citizenry; it is the motive which, properly manipulated, excites “the ardor and virtuous emulation of the citizens.” But while the imitation itself is natural, the proper manipulation is not. “The wisdom of nations,” said Adams, “has taken note of the universal consideration paid to wealth;” but that wisdom has also discerned the tendency of such consideration to excite the passion of avarice in its citizens. Avarice has not produced “those virtues of patience, courage, fortitude, honor, or patriotism, which the service of the public required in their citizens in peace and war.” On the contrary, it tends to produce in the citizens, as in the wealthy themselves, treachery and cowardice. In fact, imitation of the wealthy ultimately leads the many to resent the moneyed few rather than to defer to it: Attention to wealth produces a “selfish, unsocial meanness” which puts the claim of the avaricious first and transforms all social relations into rivalry for monetary gain.[78] The relation of the laboring many to the few wealthy thus involves “imitation and something more—a desire not only to resemble, but to excel.” By contrast, nations have observed that “the general attention paid to birth has produced a different kind of sentiments—those of pride in the maxims and principles of religion, morals, and government, as well as in the talents and virtues, which first produced illustration to ancestors.”[79] The nobility’s distinctive claim to notice directs the attention of the many, not to the quantity of things possessed, but toward the qualities which have earned “national veneration for their names.” The nobility is thus removed “farther from vulgar jealousy and popular envy” than are the merely wealthy and is able to elicit from the many “some degree of emulation in knowledge and virtue.” Sound politics takes advantage of these imitative tendencies by employing one prejudice to counteract another: “the prejudice in favor of birth, to moderate, correct, and restrain the prejudice in favor of wealth.” To ignore all attention to noble families and set all the passions on the pursuit of gain would have a disastrous effect on the moral character and on the unity of a nation.[89] Adams thus found in the natural tendency of the human mind both a reason and a method for opposing the domination of the nation by the commercial spirit.

Political Architecture: The Problem of the One

In his discussion of the passion of emulation, Adams has given a partial account of the origin of the distinction of ranks in society. The distinctions, considered apart from legal titles, have a common root in the universal desire of man “to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows.” That common root has two different manifestations. Men are moved by this passion to accumulate those qualities of fortune which are the most effective means of attracting the notice of others; consequently, men engage in a constant process of comparison and competition as they attempt to distinguish themselves from their peers. Since “nature…has ordained that…no two men are perfectly equal in person, property, understanding, activity, and virtue, or ever can be made so,” men have unequal “means and opportunities” of gratifying their desire to be acknowledged as superior. Thus some men will inevitably be more successful than others in attracting the attention of mankind, and will be driven to even greater efforts to separate themselves from their peers as their passion for distinction increases with exercise.[81]

In Adams’ view, however, it is equally important to an understanding of the natural rise of the distinction of ranks to consider the fact that those who are poor in the gifts of fortune are not invariably led by the passion for distinction to view their condition as unjust and to react with resentment toward those who are more favored by nature. Men are often moved by this passion to sympathize with the joys of those whose condition represents the ideal to which they aspire; consequently, men frequently express deference toward those who have already attracted the attention of mankind. Only when this second aspect of the passion for distinction is taken together with the first does one have an accurate account of the natural rise of the distinction of ranks. Pride and popularity are the twin basis of social rank; the two have a common ground in the passion for distinction.

This discussion of social orders, however, is incomplete. It has proceeded as if the orders were two in number, while Adams in his political prescriptions almost invariably spoke of three rather than two social orders, usually denoting them “the one, the few, and the many” and describing them as “the natural division of mankind in society.”[82] Only when all three orders are properly incorporated into government can a sound political structure be maintained. We must therefore confront the issue of whether there is, in Adams’ analysis of man’s gregariousness, any natural basis for the third order, the order of “the one.”

The Adams scholar who examined this question most carefully came to the conclusion that there is no natural basis for the third order. Correa M. Walsh argued that the notion of “the one” was employed by Adams “almost always in connection with government” and was used interchangeably with the notion of king. The king, “while he is the one among the governors, has no class to represent, unless it be some special adherents and partisans or king’s friends, who may be drawn from any of the classes; which makes a break in the arrangement.” Thus, only when Adams desired “to provide an arbiter” between the two basic natural orders and therefore “needed a three-sided arrangement, so as to obtain a balance and an equilibrium,” did he speak “of the old threefold divisions, and was not scrupulous how he took them.”[83]

In two important respects Walsh’s conclusion regarding Adams’ understanding of “the one” is sound. First, while Adams attempted to provide an explicit analysis of the natural basis of the few and the many as social orders, he gave no comparable analysis of the natural basis of “the one” as a special class. Second, Adams almost always discussed “the one” in the context of governing, and frequently suggested that “the one” is a creation of politics rather than an inclusion in politics of an already existing social order. Yet, Walsh went too far in suggesting that there is no natural basis for “the one” and that the existence of the king or executive in politics is purely a result of human contrivance. There are at least two natural tendencies which support and even help create kingly power, although those tendencies do not yield a social order of “the one” distinct from government. First, Adams asserted that it “is strictly true, that there is a strong and continual effort in every society of men, arising from the constitution of their minds, towards a kingly power.”[81] That effort usually grows out of the conflict between the few and many, in which the many seek and support one man as a source of protection. But once the people have found their protector, their passions are quickly and easily transformed from feelings for their own utility to feelings of adulation. The “eternal fault” of the people is “too much gratitude to those who study their humors, flatter their passions, and become their favorites.” Moved initially by fear for their own safety, the people thus choose a protector and then transform him into a “golden idol” whom they “adore.”[85] Adams’ description of the general disposition of mankind to go along with all the passions of the rich and powerful thus becomes especially applicable to the relation of the many to the one. A second natural source of kingly power is the increasingly “furious” drive for superiority among those who are disproportionately in possession of the qualities of fortune. As indicated earlier, a major characteristic of emulation is the desire to be acknowledged by others as superior. That passion, like all passions, is by nature unlimited and even grows with exercise or use. Since the particular object of the passion for distinction is admiration, growth of the passion involves an escalation of the efforts by which one attempts to “draw the attention of more eyes.” Among most men, that escalation occurs within a comparative framework provided by the scale of social rank. But implicit in men’s desire for superiority, and the comparison and competition which it generates, is the longing to “stand in that situation which sets them most in the view of general sympathy and attention.” That implicit thrust toward superlative rather than comparative superiority becomes explicit among the few men who constitute “the tribe out of which proceed your patriots and heroes.”[86] These few have ascended the scale of comparative superiority, but their passion for distinction, growing with each success, now presses them to claim the one rank above all others. Their effort necessarily contains the seeds of kingly power in its most absolute form, for the desire of the man who aspires to the superlative rank is to have no rivals for the attention of the world, and the banishment of rivals requires absolute rule over others. The second natural source of kingly power is thus ultimately a second source of tyranny.

Walsh’s understanding of Adams’ analysis of the natural basis of social orders was, therefore, only partially correct. The natural workings of the passion for distinction, coupled with natural inequalities of fortune, lead to an actual distinction between two social groupings in every society, independent of politics. The same passion, however, contains the basis for a third order, preeminently political in its actualization. That basis lies in the passion as it operates in both the many and the few: in the former, as a tendency toward adoration of one “golden idol” above all other men; in the few, as the press toward superlative rather than comparative rank.

Adams’ social analysis laid a part of the basis for his understanding of the political importance of the monarchic element in government. Since there are strong natural tendencies which support the emergence of one preeminent man, every stable government will make a place for such an individual; any attempt by law to exclude such a person from preeminence would simply invite him to overthrow the established political order. Indeed, one of the major problems for political science is to stabilize the monarchic office in government so that the intense rivalry for that position among the few will not unsettle the whole political apparatus. This difficulty was at the root of Adams’ reservations about a popularly elected executive.[87] But Adams also saw that the “one” can serve a positive and necessary function in the regulation of the emulative passion. In order to bring unity out of the potential collision of many men who are all seeking distinction, the gradations of rank must be reduced to some order in society. This ordering can be effectively accomplished only if honors, are distributed by one individual.

This is the true reason why all civilized free nations have found, by experience, the necessity of separating from the body of the people, and even from the legislature, the distribution of honors, and conferring it on the executive authority of government. When the emulation of all the citizens looks up to one point, like the rays of a circle from all parts of the circumference, meeting and uniting in the centre, you may hope for uniformity, consistency, and subordination; but when they look up to different individuals, or assemblies, or councils, you may expect all the deformities, eccentricities, and confusion, of the Polemic system.[88]

The Task of Political Architecture

Adams’ constructive understanding of the task of political architecture can now be formulated in terms of his analysis of human nature. A well-ordered commonwealth is one which establishes a method of enacting and enforcing laws that must “of necessity be wise and equal.” That necessity depends on an arrangement of powers by which men are compelled “at all times to be real guardians of the laws.”[89] The central problem of the science of political architecture, then, is to discover those mechanisms of compulsion which are consistent with the criteria of legitimate or republican government, and so order the mechanisms of compulsion that they necessarily or inevitably yield republican results. Adams’ analysis of the “constitution of the human mind” provided him with the insight that the primary mechanism of human compulsion lies in the dominant human passion. The very passion on which most actual and proposed political solutions had foundered is in fact “a principal means of government;” indeed, in Adams’ view, it is the only adequate instrument of government, or the only workable method consistent with republican principles. That passion is ambition or the desire for distinction, which nature has “wrought…into the texture and essence of the soul” in such a way that it holds the place of the “great leading passion” in man. The passion for distinction is an irresistible goad which compels men to act in ways which transcend mere selfishness and can be directed toward a semblance of genuine virtue. The entire science of government may in fact be “all comprehended in the knowledge of the means of actively conducting, controlling, and regulating the emulation of the citizens.” In other words, the science of republican government is the knowledge of how to manipulate a natural and powerful movement of the soul so that it has the consequence of supporting rather than destroying republican principles. In terms of the preceding analysis, the task of political construction is to utilize natural human gregariousness so that it supports the dictates of natural law and thereby gives “authority to reason.”[90]

The first task of the wise legislator in his effort to regulate emulation is to actively conduct the passion toward politically useful objects and thereby place the passion “on the side of virtue.”[91] The attempt to direct the passion to right objects involves the legislator in manipulating the order of ranks and offices. It is by means of the subordination of ranks that a republic can secure obedience to the law. According to Adams, “all governments, even the most democratical, are supported by a subordination of office, and of ranks too;” without such subordination, no government “ever existed…but in a state of anarchy and outrage, in a contempt of law and justice, no better than no government.” Adams’ reasoning was that in order for law to rule, every citizen “must look up to the laws, as his masters, his guardians, and his friend.” Yet that “looking up to” or reverence for the law itself, considered solely as respect for the public good, is not to be expected of men. In its place, a semblance of reverence for law can be created in the citizen by connecting his natural, pre-political tendency “to go along with all the passions of the rich and powerful” to the political offices of the republic “according to their rank, station, and importance in the state.”[92] Ordered subordination in society “alone commands effectual obedience to laws” because it utilizes one of the most powerful internal compulsions in men to guide them to such obedience. Reliance on such subordination is, in fact, “in the true spirit of republics,” for to “such means as these, or to force and a standing army, recourse must be had for the guardianship of the laws.”[93]

Attachment and deference to political officers will, of course, simulate reverence for the laws only if the officers are seen as responsible to the laws or as spokesmen of the laws. Emulation as expressed through the subordination of ranks also contains the possibility of dealing with this problem by connecting merit with political office. Just as men ought to revere the law as their master, guardian and friend, so “real merit should govern the world; and…men ought to be respected only in proportion to their talents, virtues and services.” The difficulty “always has been, how can this arrangement be accomplished,” especially when “real merit is confined to a very few” but “the numbers who thirst for respect, are out of all proportion to those who seek it only by merit.” In Adams’ view, the wise legislator can at least approximate a solution to the difficulty. First, he must make political offices into “honors” which are worth human striving. He can accomplish this first task because “such frivolities” as marks, signs, a ribbon, a garter and a marshall’s staff all “bewitch mankind” and “attract the attention of mankind more than parts or learning, virtue or religion.”

They [these frivolities] are, therefore, sought with ardor, very often, by men possessed in the most eminent degree, of all the more solid advantages of birth and fortune, merit and services, with the best faculties of the head, and the most engaging recommendations of the heart.

“Trifling distinctions” will make offices “contended for with…eagerness in commonwealths and kingdoms.” But this is only a necessary and not sufficient condition for connecting merit with political office. In addition, the legislator must give “an intimation” in the titles which he establishes as marks of order and subordination, “not of personal qualities, nor of the qualities of fortune; but of some particular virtues, more especially becoming men in the high stations they possess.”[94] The stations themselves are honors which induce human striving, and the “designation” of those honors, or the intimation of the particular virtues which should attach to the stations, shapes the way in which men seek and exercise office, or the standards of normalcy and astonishment by which they attempt to distinguish themselves. The proper designation of political honors can thereby direct into politically useful channels man’s natural desire to excel others.

The regulation of the passion for distinction cannot, however, consist solely of actively conducting the passion toward political objects. As a passion, emulation is without any reliable limit internal to the actor. Indeed, the passion grows more furious with exercise, and that exercise is encouraged, not only by the world in general, but by the wise legislator. As it grows more furious, emulation generates rivalries which threaten society with anarchy on the one side or despotism on the other. The passion for distinction must therefore be controlled as well as actively conducted, and that control or check “must be in the form of government,” which is “intended to set bounds to passions which nature has not limited.”[95]

According to Adams, an accurate assessment of the passion for distinction not only points out the need for external checks on men, but also indicates those elements which can compose a form of government adequate to the task of restraining emulation within the bounds of good and equal laws.[96] Emulation is the basis for the fundamental division of society into “orders,” especially the division between the many, the few, and the one man of superlative rank. The second political task is not to eliminate the rivalries among these orders, but to embody the orders, with their rivalries, in government in such a way that they form a perfect balance.[97] Only when the three natural orders are balanced in government will the laws rule, for only then will men “compel each other at all times to be perfect guardians of the laws.”[98] Such a mixed government “produces and necessitates constancy in all its parts.”

The king must be constant to preserve his prerogatives; the senate must be constant to preserve their share; and the house theirs. Neither can go beyond its line, without being called back by the other. The legislative must be constant to preserve its rights, and the executive for the same end…. It is to this universal vigilance and constancy, which such a constitution renders necessary and unavoidable, that the laws owe their perpetual superiority, and are able to make kings, nobles, and commoners, ministers of state and religion, and judges too, bow with reverence to its decisions. To this constancy, therefore, is due that delightful tranquillity of mind, arising from a sense of perfect security in the protection of known laws for the enjoyment of life, liberty, honor, reputation, and property.[99]

The great danger, in Adams’ view, was that those committed to liberty would refuse to adopt “necessary means to necessary ends” or to use the human passions for republican purposes. After the American and especially the French revolutions, Adams saw many of the self-declared friends of liberty launch attacks on all distinctions of rank and propose to place all political authority in one representative assembly. Such efforts reminded him of a comparison made by Dr. Johnson:

Some philosophers have been foolish enough to imagine, that improvements might be made in the system of the universe, by a different arrangement of the orbs of heaven; and politicians, equally ignorant, and equally presumptuous, may easily be led to suppose, that the happiness of our world would be promoted by a different tendency of the human mind.

The modern champions of liberty were like Johnson’s fantastic astronomers, with this difference: fantastic astronomers are only foolish; fantastic politicians are pernicious.[100]

This is the fourth essay in a series of four essays. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Political Science Reviewer (Fall 1976).


[72] Adams, John Works, VI, 247 and 249.

[73] Smith, Adam Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part I, Section I, Chapter II. Italics mine. Compare Adams at Works, VI, 237-38 and 257.

[74] Adams, Work, VI., 257-57.

[75] Ibid., VI, 257.

[76] Ibid., VI, 259.

[77] Ibid., VI, 234.

[78] Ibid., VI, 95, 244 and 270-71.

[79] Ibid., VI, 267 and 271.

[80] Ibid., IV, 393 and VI, 271.

[81] Ibid., VI, 232, 285-86 and 271-72.

[82] Ibid., VI, 428. Italics mine.

[83] Walsh, Correa The Political Science of John Adams, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915), 50-51 and 54-55.

[84] Adams, Works, VI, 165. Italics mine.

[85] Ibid., VI, 123 and 130.

[86] Ibid., VI, 240, 262 and 248.

[87] Ibid., VI, 165. See also 56-7, 118, 124-25, 183, 249 and 255-56.

[88] Ibid., VI, 242 and 256. This was the deepest reason for Adams’ much maligned concern in the U.S. Senate that the President should not be addressed merely as “George Washington, President of the United States.”

[89] Ibid., IV, 413 and 462. Italics mine.

[90] Ibid., VI, 234, 246, 248 and 399.

[91] Ibid., VI, 241, 246 and 248.

[92] Ibid., VI, 288; IV, 462; VI, 258 and 243.

[93] Ibid., VI, 234 and 243.

[94] Ibid., VI, 249-50 and 241-42.

[95] Ibid., VI, 263 and 276.

[96] Ibid., VI, 91 and 208.

[97] See, for instance, ibid., IV, p. 354, where Adams speaks of three orders and a balance between them. Elsewhere he speaks interchangeably of three branches and a balance. See, for instance, ibid., IV, 284.

[98] Ibid., IV, 482.

[99] Ibid., VI, 157-58. Italics mine. Since the element in the balance with the weakest natural basis is “the one,” and since that element plays a special role in arbitrating conflict between the few and the many, Adams argued that the kingly power in government needs artificial strengthening. This view would underlay his major criticism of American constitutions, that they did not obtain an exact balance of the three branches because they did not give the executive an absolute veto on legislation. See, for instance, ibid., IV, 358-59 and VI, 430-31. Generally, on the issue of “perfect balance,” see chapter III of my doctoral dissertation, cited above.

[100] The quote, from Johnson, Samuel Adventurer, No. 45, was used as an epigraph to the third volume of the Defence.

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