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How America’s Adams Family Inherited And Preserved The Pilgrim Mind


The following essay is part of The Federalist’s 1620 Project, a symposium exploring the connections and contributions of the early Pilgrim and Puritan settlers in New England to the uniquely American synthesis of faith, family, freedom, and self-government.

In his account of the 1620 voyage of the Mayflower, William Bradford wrote that “they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie.” This Augustinian distinction between the earthly and heavenly city — the profoundly Judeo-Christian sense of being strangers, wayfarers, pilgrims, exiles from the heavenly city of Jerusalem — is a haunting inheritance of American culture.

The Pilgrims are distinguished from the larger Puritan movement by their anti-Erastianism — they rejected Thomas Erastus’s insistence that the state is superior to the church. Against both Cavaliers and Roundheads — the High Church Episcopalians wanting the authority of the king’s appointed bishops or the congregationalist churches which accepted the Cromwellian Parliament’s control over ecclesiastical matters — Pilgrims insisted on the liberty of the church.

One hears this Pilgrim inheritance in the haunting song that Cecil Spring Rice wrote on seeing the funeral monument Henry Adams built for his wife, a figure in the pose of thoughtful reflection on immortality:

I vow to thee, my country all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

The Adams family were heirs of this Pilgrim distinction between the duties rendered to Caesar and the duties rendered to God.

We often think of the American Founding in terms of the “Virginia Dynasty” — Jefferson, Madison, Monroe — a series of slaveholding southerners who helped to transform the new republican nation into a democratic continental empire. But there is another “American Dynasty” more representative of a deep strain of Christian conservatism that preserved the American revolution from the political utopianism of the French Revolution of 1789 and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

The idea that the eighteenth century is an indiscriminate “Age of Revolutions” — that one can lump 1688, 1776, 1789 and all the successor revolutions in Latin America and across Europe until one meets up with the 1848 year of revolutions that inspired Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” — is a massive interpretive swindle on the American public.

In truth, “America’s First Dynasty,” the Adams family, stood athwart this interpretation of the American Founding since the beginning: Americans were first and foremost Pilgrims at heart, deeply imbued with a Lutheran conviction of the total depravity of man and the impossibility of building here any heavenly city. The Christian sense of sin — “a stain inherited from my greatest-grandmother’s birth,” as Henry Adams put it — constantly restrained the modern impulse to “immanentize the eschaton.”

As Jean Bethke Elshtain has shown repeatedly in her life’s work, an Augustinian skepticism about the City of Man ever achieving perfection runs throughout American culture and politics. Christian political realism has been challenged repeatedly by Unitarianism, Romantic Transcendentalism, and Progressivism, but it remains a powerful strain in American life that cannot be overlooked.

The heritage of the Mayflower was particularly strong in John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Charles Francis Adams, and Henry Adams who, across four generations, spans the first century of American history. As Henry Adams, great-grandson of the patriot founder, wrote in retrospect in “The Education of Henry Adams:”

The atmosphere of education in which he lived was colonial, revolutionary, almost Cromwellian, as though he were steeped, from his greatest grandmother’s birth, in the odor of political crime. Resistance to something was the law of New England nature; the boy looked out on the world with the instinct of resistance; for numberless generations, his predecessors had viewed the world chiefly as a thing to be reformed, filled with evil forces to be abolished, and they saw no reason to suppose that they had wholly succeeded in the abolition.

“The law of New England nature” in which he was “steeped from his greatest grandmother’s birth” was “the instinct of resistance to something,” “for numberless generations his predecessors had viewed the world chiefly as a thing … filled with evil forces to be abolished.” Russell Kirk took this “Adams Dynasty” to be the backbone of “The Conservative Mind“ in America, contributing in each generation a break on political utopianism.

John Adams Against The World

“My opinion is, and always has been, that absolute power intoxicates alike despots, monarchs, aristocrats, and democrats, and Jacobins, and sans-culottes,” wrote John Adams. David McCullough’s biography and HBO mini-series softens and makes amiable John and Abigail in a way that does them a disservice. In truth, Adamses all have a tendency to become angry blogger dudes in their old age, full of sharp intelligence and bitterness.

John Adams is not often read because his works are interminable Jeremiads (like the recent letters of Archbishop Vigano). Adams’s “Defence of the Constitutions” uses all ancient and modern republican constitutions as considered by all ancient and modern philosophers and historians (its “Table of Contents” is alone formidable) to refute repeatedly and ad nauseam every argument of Turgot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who favor a simple, straight-forward, democratic absolutism.

His “Discourses on Davila“ is a similarly long and detailed diatribe against the Marquis de Condorcet’s confidence in humanity’s natural benevolence, which can allow us to divest ourselves of constitutional restraints, checks, balances, and separation of powers. His series of letters to Thomas Jefferson over the course of their retirement counter Jefferson’s enlightenment trust in democratic processes with the need for the conservation of a culture, a “we the people” prior to the political regime, of piety and virtue:

We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Gallantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net [Here’s lookin’ at you, Moby Dick!]. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Adams, like George Washington, believed that no polity could eradicate the sinfulness of man, so any man who disparaged the place of morality and religion in public life was a traitor.

John Adams and Jefferson dueled for decades over whether a Christian anthropology or a French Enlightenment anthropology underlay the American regime. It was a fight to the death over who would control history’s judgment on the American Founding, a replay of the great presidential election of 1800. Adams wrote monthly; Jefferson responded at  leisure — annually. In the end, it was a question of who would outlive whom.

Jefferson passed away in the morning of the Fourth of July, 1826 at Monticello — 50 years to the day from the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence. Adams died the same day, in the evening, whispering “Jefferson still lives,” not knowing that he had survived his intellectual and political adversary by hours.

In reality, Adams survived Jefferson by decades, in his son, his grandson, and his great-grandson. Only in 1947, would the Supreme Court’s Everson decision resurrect Jefferson’s idea of a “wall of separation” between church and state, just as Kirk made his great attempt to recover the Adams family tradition for American conservatives in his 1953 classic.

John Adams reaches his rhetorical climax when objecting to the idea that man is a mere materialistic clash of atoms — Lego blocks to be worked and reworked according to the purposes of the collective need (transgenderism, transhumanism) — with no form, soul, or nature to which the polity must conform itself:

Is there a possibility that the government of nations may fall into the hands of men who teach the most disconsolate of all creeds, that men are but fireflies, and that all this is without a father? … Is this the way to make man, as man, an object of respect? Or, is it to make murder itself as indifferent as shooting a plover, and the extermination of the Rohilla nation as innocent as the swallowing of mites on a morsel of cheese? If such a case should happen, would not one of these, the most credulous of all believers, have reason to pray to his eternal nature or his almighty chance … give us again the gods of the Greeks; give us again the more intelligible as well as more comfortable systems of Athanasius and Calvin; nay, give us again our popes and hierarchies, Benedictines and Jesuits, with all their superstition and fanaticism, impostures and tyranny. A certain duchess of venerable years and masculine understanding, said of some of the philosophers of the eighteenth century, admirably well, — ‘On ne croit pas dans le Christianisme, mais on croit toutes les sottises possibles ‘(Having ceased believing in Christianity, they believe in all possible nonsense.)

With a series of piled up rhetorical questions, Adams throws his opponents back, back, back, ending with a “Touché.” “Sot!”

In his objection to the idea of the fluidity and mutability of human nature, John Adams resonates with Czeslaw Milosz a century later, the Polish poet laureate who argues that the ultimate enemy of the Communist regime is not the propertied class, Kulaks, and capitalists, the nations and churches which prevent man from recognizing himself as purely proletariat worker, but “Man, This Enemy” — human nature itself, born anew in every generation, with its desire for truth and freedom, is the ultimate enemy of the totalitarian state.

The absence of any realistic account of human nature leaves the human mind vulnerable to be “captivated” by “ideology” — by histories that purport to tell of the evolution and progress of the human towards some final perfect state within time.

John Quincy Adams Against the World

Seeing how unpopular John Adams’s disdain for absolute democracy made him, John Quincy Adams tried desperately to conform himself to the modern democratic age in order to stay electable: he was the first American president to wear pants. The 18th-century gentleman, who “looked his land” in silk hose and breeches, and considered property essential to being a participating member of the “Publick,” had been put aside in favor of the Jacksonian democrats “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.”

The alliance between upstart southwestern planters and the property-less Irish of the booming cities of the north was unstoppable in presidential politics in the 1830s and 1840s. No Boston Brahmin, no patrician WASPs need apply. Working men’s garb, the sans-culottes of the French Revolution became the fashion in the 1830s.

But, at heart, John Quincy could never conform to the sheer voice of the majority: the Democratic Party that captured the nation was in his eyes the “Slave Power” and his old age was poisoned by his one-issue obsession with slavery. His wife, Louisa Catherine Adams, agonized in her diary that his political obsession — his angry blogger dude post-presidential career, the only American president who returned to the House of Representatives after his presidency, and persisted until he dropped on the floor of the House — would destroy their family and bring the country at last to civil war.

Perhaps John Quincy Adams’s most memorable post-presidential performance was his tenacious fight for the liberty of a group of mutinous slaves. In his majestic closing statement in the Amistad case, Quincy appeals to the judges’ “fear of the Lord” rather than their natural benevolence. He reminds them of all the Supreme Court justices who had died and been replaced during the long years during which the Amistad case had been before the courts, and bid them consider, whether at their deaths they too will hear from their Maker the final judgment: “Come, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.” Vox populi, expressed in either executive fiat or positive law, could not overrule “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” “Hic cestus, artemque reponat.”

John Quincy Adams portrays himself as old Entellus from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” an old warrior returned from his deathbed for one final duel, the Ents of Onodrim returned for the defense of Middle Earth. It is a persona, the literary pose of Jeremiah, that the Adamses embodied in every generation.

Charles Francis Adams Against the World

John Quincy Adams’s son is largely unknown, but Charles Francis Adams helped to found the Free Soil party, a third party that eventually helped birth the Republican Party. He acted as Abraham Lincoln’s “man in Havana” — ambassador to Great Britain throughout the American Civil War. Lincoln tasked him with preventing the British from entering the war on the side of the Southern Confederacy, as the cotton mills of northern England fell silent without American cotton.

As his son, Henry Adams wrote, the Adams family watched the Whig hope in political compromise with the Slave Power, watched the progression from Northwest Ordinance to Missouri Compromise, to Great Compromise of 1850, with skepticism. The Adamses, “saw no reason to suppose that they had wholly succeeded in the abolition.”

They were not shocked, surprised, or stunned by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott decision, and the ascendancy of the Slave Power in the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. They had never succumbed to the facile belief that “human nature worked for Good, and three instruments were all she asked — Suffrage, Common Schools, and Press. … Man needed only a correct knowledge of facts to reach perfection.”

Indeed, Charles Francis Adams launched the third-party movement that eventually broke the power of the Democratic city machine that had controlled American politics for three decades.

Henry Adams Against the World

Henry Adams found it impossible to be truly Bostonian — either Unitarian or Transcendentalist. He could not conform himself to Daniel Webster’s Whiggish belief in progress, nor the Hegelian dream of a utopian state of Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott. To him, as to his Puritan forebears, sin was metaphysical, not social. The remedy for sin was supernatural, not political:

The religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived, although one made in later life many efforts to recover it. That the most powerful emotion of man, next to the sexual, should disappear, might be a personal defect of his own; but that the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions he ever knew, should have solved all the problems of the universe so thoroughly as to have quite ceased making itself anxious about past or future, and should have persuaded itself that all the problems which had convulsed human thought from earliest recorded time, were not worth discussing, seemed to him the most curious social phenomenon he had to account for in a long life.

The faculty of turning away one’s eyes as one approaches a chasm is not unusual, and Boston showed, under Webster’s lead, how successfully it could be done in politics; but in politics, a certain number of men did at least protest. In religion and philosophy, no one protested.

Such protest as was made took forms more simple than the silence, like the deism of Theodore Parker, and of the boy’s own cousin Octavius Frothingham, who distressed his father and scandalized Beacon Street by avowing skepticism that seemed to solve no old problems, and to raise many new ones. The less aggressive protest of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was, from an old-world point of view, less serious. It was naïf.

The utopianism of either the Whig compromisers in national politics or of the small, local groups like the Oneida community and Concord Farm — variations on the Puritan vision of establishing “a city upon a hill” — did not suit the sharp vision of the ineradicable nature of sin. Such attempts were, in Adams’s judgment, “naive.”

Late in life, Henry Adams turned away from the bizarre dynamism of progressive revolutions creating ever more absolute and invasive governments in pursuit of social perfection. He observed the French 1901 Law of Associations and the 1905 Separation law establishing state secularism. The confiscation of church property in France, challenges to church control of the marriage law, or church preeminence in the field of education all drew comment from Adams.

He was consistently appalled at the naivete of the churches in thinking that they could survive being regulated by the state authorities. “I see, almost without noting it — so universal is the sensation — that the Holy Father is complaining bitterly of the same thing. He has now complained for some five hundred years, but it is queer that I should have caught up with him.”

At last, Henry Adams’s inner Pilgrim rebelled. Like the anti-Erastian John Henry Newman, he turned at last to the medieval devotion to the Virgin, Regina et Mater Ecclesia — a church independent of any national power. He acknowledged that it was the strangest place for an “American of the Americans, with who knows how many Puritans and Patriots in his lineage” to find himself, kneeling in an empty church praying his “mea culpas” after 500 years of protest.

But, he reassured himself, the Adamses were Normans, so it was his Norman ancestors who had built the cathedrals and fought the crusades. Like T. S. Eliot in the quiet chapel at Little Gidding: “In my end is my beginning.”

America’s Pilgrim Inheritance — The Liberty Of The Church

Paradoxically, as the Pilgrims of 1620 fled the control of the king’s authority over the church, many a Catholic and Jew fled the control of the state over the church in the 1920s and 1930s. The Bolshevik regime confiscated church property, sold chalices and chasubles on the black market, and infiltrated seminaries. The Nazis purged schools and churches of teachers and ministers who objected to their national socialist agenda.

Yet the wake of these horrible circumstances saw a new immigration of artists, philosophers, scientists, political thinkers, poets, ministers, and teachers — Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Albert Einstein, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, Czeslaw Milosz, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Eva T. H. Brann, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin. They came to American shores in the twentieth century seeking liberty to seek the truth; pilgrims who could never finally conform themselves to the Earthly City.