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John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy$
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Luke Mayville

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780691171531

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691171531.001.0001

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Dignified Democracy

Dignified Democracy

(p.124) Chapter Four Dignified Democracy
John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy

Luke Mayville

Princeton University Press

This chapter draws from Adams' writings to argue that the most effective means of diverting admiration from wealth might be to create and maintain offices and stations that, by virtue of the honor they bestow, enjoy the admiration of the public. Meritocratic judgeships and high elected offices, when honor is attached to them, might compete with the grandeur of wealth for public admiration. It is shown that the spirit of Adams' political thought warns against the democratic impulse to knock down honorable institutions. A democratic political community might believe it is equalizing conditions by electing judges and secretaries of high office rather than appointing them, or by regulating political offices with highly restrictive limits on the duration and number of terms, but the unintended consequence of attempts to bring offices closer to the people might be the elimination of the only markers of social distinction that can compete with wealth for the admiration of the public. Adams captured the point succinctly in his notes on Mary Wollstonecraft's An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution.

Keywords:   John Adams, oligarchy, wealth, democracy, public admiration, political thought, Mary Wollstonecraft

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