Luke Mayville is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for American Studies at Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy (Princeton University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy?
LM: As a graduate student reading texts in the tradition of Western political philosophy by writers like Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and Machiavelli, I was struck by the extent to which such writers paid such careful attention to the problem of “oligarchy”—or political domination by social and economic elites. This was striking given my own preconceived idea that major writers in the Western tradition prior to Marx were not especially interested in issues of class and inequality.
I was particularly intrigued by the way these philosophers tried to manage the problem of oligarchy by establishing “mixed” institutions that would balance the power of social-economic elites (“the few”) with the power of ordinary citizens (“the many”). A fear years into my graduate studies I learned that John Adams was a powerful purveyor of this tradition of thought. Even as the classical distinction between “the few” and “the many” was quickly fading during his lifetime, Adams continued to insist on a class-based understanding of society and politics. My hunch that Adams had something interesting to say about elites and the power of wealth was confirmed when I discovered that C. Wright Mills, the great 20th-century sociologist and author of the The Power Elite, once invoked John Adams as a founding-era predecessor with a shrewd understanding of elite power.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy?
LM: The argument of the book is that the danger of oligarchy was a central concern for Adams. Furthermore, over the course of his prolific writing career he articulated theories about wealth and power that remain relevant today.
JF: Why do we need to read John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy?
LM: We are accustomed to the idea that our Founding Fathers thought deeply about timeless issues such as religious liberty, constitutional checks and balances, and the danger of majority tyranny. Less well known is the extent to which they reflected on economic inequality and its effects on our political life.
In the writings of John Adams, we find both sustained reflection on inequality and also a unique explanation of the immense political power of wealth. According to Adams, wealth is powerful not merely because it buys votes or purchases influence in other ways, but also because citizens in commercial societies such as ours admire the rich and follow them out of a peculiar kind of sympathy. Perhaps Adams can help us explain how billionaires sometimes command influence in our politics without spending a dime.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LM: My training is in political science, not history, and so at heart I am a student of political theory first and an American historian second. That said, I began focusing on the ideas of Americans when I first learned, early in graduate school, the extent to which the American experience is rich in political thought—that even as they were immersed in debates and struggles of their own times, Americans from John Adams to W.E.B. Du Bois to Reinhold Niebuhr have grappled with enduring questions of political philosophy. I was fortunate as a graduate student to study with political science and political theory professors who took American ideas very seriously.
JF: What is your next project?
LM: As I mentioned before, I first became interested in John Adams when I came to understand him as an inheritor of an old tradition of thinking about politics—a tradition that can be called classical republican—that understood the danger of oligarchy to be among the chief problems of political life and of constitutional design.
As I move away from my recent project on John Adams, I am interested in zooming out and exploring the broader classical republican tradition of writing on oligarchy. My hunch—supported by scholarship by John McCormick, David Lay Williams, Gordon Arlen, and others—is that republican writers from Aristotle to Machiavelli to Harrington had insights about wealth and power that have not been fully appreciated by contemporary analysts and critics of inequality.
JF: Thanks, Luke!