"Bound Fast and Brought Under the Yokes": John Adams and the Regulation of Privacy at the Founding
"Bound Fast and Brought Under the Yokes": John Adams and the Regulation of Privacy at the Founding
Allison L. LaCroix
Recommended Citation Allison L. LaCroix, "Bound Fast and Brought Under the Yokes": John Adams and the Regulation of Privacy at the Founding, 72 Fordham L. Rev. 2331 (2004). Available at: http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/flr/vol72/iss6/3
"BOUND FAST AND BROUGHT UNDER THE
YOKE": JOHN ADAMS AND THE
REGULATION OF PRIVACY AT THE
Alison L. LaCroix*
The announcement of the United States Supreme Court in 1965
that a right to privacy existed, and that it predated the Bill of Rights,
launched a historical and legal quest to sound the origins and extent of
the right that has continued to the present day.' Legal scholars
quickly grasped hold of the new star in the constitutional firmament,
producing countless books and articles examining the caselaw
pedigree and the potential scope of this right to privacy. Historians,
however, have for the most part shied away from tracing the origins of
the right to privacy, perhaps hoping to avoid the ignominy of
practicing "law-office history."' Instead, some historians have
engaged in subtle searches for markers of privacy-such as an
emphasis on family,3 a notion of the home as an oasis,4 or a minimal
* Doctoral candidate, Department of History, Harvard University.
University; J.D., Yale Law School; A.M., Harvard University. The author thanks
Morton J. Horwitz and James T. Kloppenberg for their comments on an earlier draft
of this Article. The author also thanks William Birdthistle.
1. Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S 479 (1965) (holding unconstitutional a state
law prohibiting the use of contraceptives by married couples). Scholarly interest in
the right to privacy originated in 1890, with the publication in the Harvard Law
Review of Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis's seminal article, The Right to Privacy.
Samuel D. Warren & Louis D. Brandeis, The Right to Privacy,4 Harv. L. Rev. 193
(1890). Although Warren and Brandeis put forth a compelling argument for the long
lineage of the right in English common law, privacy did not gain recognition as a
fundamental right for another seventy-five years. After 1965, the right to privacy
steadily expanded its ambit, extending governmental protection to abortion as well as
other reproductive decisions. See, e.g., Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) (holding
that a woman has a constitutional right to abortion); cf. Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S.
438 (1972) (striking down on equal protection grounds a state law prohibiting the use
of contraceptives by unmarried persons).
2. The phrase "law-office history" refers to "the selection of [historical] data
favorable to the position being advanced without regard to or concern for
contradictory data or proper evaluation of the relevance of the data proffered."
Alfred H. Kelly, Clio and the Court: An Illicit Love Affair, 1965 Sup. Ct. Rev. 119,
3. See, e.g., Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic
Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England 173 (rev. ed. 1966) (describing New
degree of criminal prosecution'-as a means of understanding how
Americans have viewed the various spheres of activity that have
constituted their world. Rather than searching for the origins of a
right to privacy, these scholars broaden the inquiry in an attempt to
understand the nature of a realm of human activity that they
characterize as "private," in contrast to a corresponding "public"
Yet the very ambiguity surrounding these terms, with their
immense resonance for modern American life, complicates the
historiographical project. Does the use of privacy as an analytic tool
compromise the historian's ability to separate the term's modern
connotations from its historical ones? Can early uses of the words
"private" and "privacy" ever be understood as the speakers meant
them, or has the Supreme Court's pronouncement that a right to
privacy has existed all along simply lulled us into believing that the
meaning of these words remains unchanged, and that a stable notion
of "privacy" has endured and been celebrated throughout American
history? In short, the concept of privacy has not lent itself to easy
historical application. Consequently, many historians seem to have
abandoned privacy as both an analytical framework and a topic of
Nowhere is this reluctance to grapple with the myriad layers of
privacy more marked than in the historiography of the nation's
founding. The relative dearth of scholarly attention paid to notions of
privacy in the 1770s and 1780s is startling; after all, the era that birthed
the very Constitution that became the basis of a national valorization
of privacy seems a promising candidate for an intellectual history of
the idea. Indeed, according to the Griswold Court, the colonists
carried the notion of privacy with them from the English common law,
planting it along with their earliest crops in the rocky soil of the New
World and enshrining it in the founding texts of the new nation. In
this celebratory view of seventeenth-century events, the germ of a
belief in privacy-that is, individual autonomy and freedom from
collective scrutiny-inhered in the Anglo-American consciousness,
England Puritans' shift toward viewing children and family as a wellspring of affection
rather than as the locus of communal order and salvation); Daniel Blake Smith, Inside
the Great House: Planter Family Life in Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake Society
285-89 (1980) (arguing that the late eighteenth century witnessed a "heightened
intimacy within the conjugal family" of southern planters).
4. See, e.g., Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790, at 303-05
(1982) (identifying a late-eighteenth-century tendency to view the home as a
sanctuary); Jan Lewis, The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson's
Virginia 210 (1983) (noting that in the era following the American Revolution, "the
pursuit of happiness took men and women home").
5. See, e.g., David H. Flaherty, Privacy in Colonial New England 248 (1972)
(citing the existence of a privilege-albeit limited-against self-incrimination as
evidence of a right to privacy in colonial New England).
essentially unchanged from 1607 to 1965 and beyond.6 This view has
met challenges from such scholars of early American history as John
Demos and Edmund Morgan, who characterize colonial communities
as committed to an overarching social organization based on the
connections among individual grace, divine salvation, and communal
welfare.7 Far from the libertarian paradise that the Griswold Court
envisioned, colonial New England is for these scholars a tightly knit
community, the survival and salvation of which depended on constant
public monitoring of what we would now consider quintessentially
private behavior, such as childrearing, spirituality, and sexual activity.
Despite disagreements about the extent to which privacy was a
value (much less a right) in early America, very few scholars have
focused on eighteenth-century notions of privacy. Instead, many
historians have avoided the term altogether, concentrating instead on
the development of certain aspects of politics and society that they
associate with the emergence of a modern, nineteenth-century
worldview based on differentiated private and public spheres.8 This is
an unfortunate trend, for it ignores the many early Americans who
thought and wrote extensively about the interaction between private
activity and public life in the early Republic. If legal scholars have
been too quick to take the Griswold Court at its word and accept
privacy as a foundational American value, historians seem equally
hasty in their willingness to treat privacy as a fundamentally modern
idea, and therefore to use it only as a lens through which to view early
America rather than as a legitimate subject of inquiry. In almost
every case, privacy is celebrated as the fruit of Enlightenment reason,
a marker of a fully modern society and an unmitigated social good.
People who value privacy are in some way "like us"; people who do
not are at best not yet ready for modernity and at worst potential
pawns of a totalitarian state.9
The writings of John Adams demonstrate, however, that at least
6. At least one scholar has found an "unwritten" right to privacy in colonial
America, which he explicitly connects to the Griswolddecision. See id. at 248-49.
7. John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (2d
ed. 2000); Morgan, supra note 3. Nancy Cott has made a related argument in the
context of divorce law. See Nancy F. Cott, Divorce and the ChangingStatus of Women
in Eighteenth-CenturyMassachusetts,33 Wm. & Mary Q. 586 (1976).
8. See, e.g., Helena M. Wall, Fierce Communion: Family and Community in
Early America (1990). As Hendrik Hartog has argued in the context of the law of
municipal corporations, the nineteenth century was the high tide of formal separation
between public and private spheres. See Hendrik Hartog, Public Property and Private
Power: The Corporation of the City of New York in American Law, 1730-1870, at 3
9. See, e.g., David W. Marcell, Privacy and the American Character, 66 S.
Atlantic Q. 1 (1967); Thomas H. O'Connor, The Right to Privacy in Historical
Perspective,53 Mass. L.Q. 101 (1968). Marcell's and O'Connor's views of privacy as
the beneficial and necessary consequence of modernity typify the prevailing attitude
in the years immediately following the Griswolddecision.
one member of the founding generation devoted substantial time and
ink to considering the problem of privacy. Adams's writings confirm
that privacy was not always among the chief goals of the American
republic. On the contrary, Adams displayed a marked suspicion of
privacy and the private life. Although he rarely employed the term
"privacy," Adams's highly developed political theory assumed the
existence of both a public and private realm, arguing consistently that
the "private" (a word he frequently used) realm of individual activity
comprised only selfish passions and human weakness. Adams
therefore premised his theory of government on what he considered a
realistic view of human nature, replacing the classical republican ideal
of the identity between individual virtue and civic virtue with a
systemic solution to humans' tendency toward vice. By severing the
connection between the virtue of the citizen and that of the state,
Adams drove a wedge between private and public activity, arguing
that the private passions for reputation and luxury had to be subdued
and controlled by the institutions of government in order for the
Republic to function. Adams thus gave up on the private sphere as a
source, by itself, of republican virtue and order. As his writings
demonstrate, his was among the most developed conceptions of the
role of privacy in a republic.
Adams's political theory was not wholly pessimistic with respect to
human nature, however. On the contrary, his resistance to the notion
of private life stemmed from a basic belief that republican
governments required constant scrutiny by citizens, and that citizens
should therefore not be permitted to withdraw into the comfortable
realm of private interests and pursuits. Rather than constraining
individuals' activities, this arrangement would make every citizen "in
some degree a statesman," granting an individual the authority "to
examine and judge for himself the tendency of political principles and
measures."'" Adams's optimism stemmed from his insistence that this
realignment of individuals away from selfish pursuits and toward the
welfare of all was possible.
While Adams disdained the' activities of the private realm
throughout his writings, he never questioned the realm's existence or
power. Indeed, his entire system of government was structured to
control passion, the private realm's principal component. In contrast
to the Griswoldian image of the founders as devoted to individual
freedom to live beyond the long arm of the state, Adams argued that a
nation of citizens engaged only in private pursuits sapped democracy
of its strength and subjected unwary citizens to the risk of tyranny.
For Adams, privacy clearly existed in early America, but he did not
view it as the benign source of autonomy and rights that it would
10. John Adams, On Self-Delusion, in The Revolutionary Writings of John
Adams 11 (C. Bradley Thompson ed., 2000).
become in the twentieth century." Unlike his contemporaries James
Madison and Adam Smith, Adams was not willing to believe that the
cumulative effect of many private impulses could be harnessed for
social good. 2 Madison's and Smith's view may have ultimately
prevailed and even paved the way for Griswold's embrace of an
affirmative right to privacy. But Adams's refusal to accept private
vice as a necessary evil was a crucial step in the transition from
classical republicanism based on a virtuous populace to liberal
republicanism based on a political structure that sought to cabin the
worst human tendencies while redirecting others to beneficial ends.
This Article focuses on John Adams's writings on privacy, which
remained remarkably consistent throughout a career spanning more
than seven decades. Adams was still discussing political theory with
various correspondents, most notably Thomas Jefferson, a few days
before he died at the age of eighty-nine on July 4, 1826. Although
Adams's reputation has, as he feared, not ascended to the level of
such Revolutionary peers as Madison, Jefferson and George
Washington, he was one of the most prolific political theorists of his
time and has been called "the master psychologist" of American
political thought.13 His major writings, A Dissertationon the Canon
11. Throughout this Article, I will use the terms "privacy," "private life," and "the
private realm" more or less interchangeably, with each of them referring to a notion
of a realm of human activity that exists apart from an accompanying public realm of
politics and civic discourse. The phrase "right to privacy" will be used as a term of art
for the constitutional right recognized in Griswold v. Connecticut and its predecessor
rights at common law.
12. The most famous statement of Madison's philosophy on this point is, of
course, The FederalistNo. 10, in which Madison argued that the evils of faction could
be cured by setting those factions loose in a large republic, which would in turn
provide maximum freedom and stability to its citizens. The Federalist No. 10, at 64
(James Madison) (Jacob E. Cooke ed., 1961); see also Lance Banning, The Sacred
Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic 204
(1995). Similarly, in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith posited that moral as well as
economic benefits on an aggregate scale could result from individual choices:
But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is
in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more
likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them
that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them....
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that
we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We
address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk
to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations I ch. 2 (Alfred A. Knopf 1991) (1776); see also
Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political
Thought 333 (1960) (describing Smith's "unseen hand" idea as a "theory of individual
moral behavior: both the moral good of society and its material well-being had their
origins in instinct, desire, and passion; and neither was the result of action intended to
advance the good of society as a whole"); cf. Garry Wills, Inventing America:
Jefferson's Declaration of Independence 232 (1978) (arguing that Smith emphasized
"providential harmonies within society" and characterizing Smith a "communitarian"
who was "conscripted to individualist uses by nineteenth-century liberalism").
13. Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams 47
and FeudalLaw (1765), the Novanglus letters (1774-75), A Defence of
the Constitutionsof Government of the United States of America
(178687), and the Discourses on Davila (1790-91), canvass the history of
republican government from classical to modern times and assess the
prospects of success for the embryo republic founded in 1776 on the
western rim of the Atlantic Ocean. But they also contain remarkable
insight into human nature, bringing a pragmatic perspective to the
difficult project of establishing a new government of a type that had
not been seen for more than a thousand years.
This Article tracks some of the major themes of Adams's writing on
privacy, discussing the impact of his Puritan background on his
thought and then moving to the broader issues that most interested
him: virtue, passion, decay, and public life. Each of these concepts
provided Adams with fodder for contemplating the nature of privacy,
and each became a component of his overall vision of the relationship
between public and private life. Analyzing these concepts together
allows reexamination of Adams's legacy and theory, pulling together
the strands of his suspicion of privacy and his deep conviction that the
private realm was no place for American citizens to spend the
majority of their time.
For an individual who left remarkably complete records of his
activities and thoughts, Adams has generated a considerable amount
of dispute among historians. One major area of debate has been the
impact of Adams's Puritan heritage on his political
philosophyspecifically, the degree to which the Puritan ethos of worldly austerity
and the faith's close association of political and spiritual life
influenced Adams's thinking about the formation of republics. Born
to a long line of Massachusetts smallholders, the son of a deacon,
Adams received an education that inculcated in him the precepts of
Calvinism. Adams seriously considered studying for the ministry,
spending the year after his graduation from Harvard fretting about his
fitness for the profession and ultimately deciding to pursue a career in
law. In his intellectual biography of Adams, C. Bradley Thompson
attributes Adams's decision not to enter the ministry to a theological
controversy that took place in Adams's hometown of Braintree while
he was at Harvard, which ended in the public censure of a clergyman
whose views had strayed too close to Arminian doctrines of free will.
Shortly thereafter, Adams rejected several foundational tenets of
Calvinism, adopting instead what Thompson calls a "religion of civic
(1993). Adams's contemporaries referred to him as "the Atlas" and the "colossus" of
independence. David McCullough, John Adams 127, 163 (2001) (quoting Richard
Stockton, New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress, and Thomas Jefferson,
morality" influenced by Lockean and Newtonian thought as well as
the writings of several liberal English theologians. 4
Despite Adams's youthful protestations against Calvinism,
reformed Christianity clearly remained important in his thought. At a
minimum, it harmonized with his political philosophy, providing a
theological underpinning for his theories. Writing in 1796, Adams
observed that a "great Advantage" of Christianity was that it taught
the "Duties and Rights of The Man and the Citizen." Promises of
"future Life are thus added to the Observance of civil and political as
well as domestic and private Duties."' 5 Moreover, on several
occasions the young Adams draped himself in the mantle of
seventeenth-century Puritan worthies, engaging in 1767 in a spirited
exchange of articles under the name "Governor Winthrop" with an
interlocutor calling himself "Governor Bradford." The articles had
nothing to do with religion, focusing on a controversy in the
Massachusetts House of Representatives and urging the people of
Massachusetts not to allow the repeal of the Stamp Act to dissuade
them from their newfound American patriotism. Yet Adams's
identification with the leader of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay
Colony was motivated by more than simple expedience. The very
language that Adams employed sounded the century-old Calvinist
themes of decadence and renewal, connecting the health of the
individual body with that of the civic body: "Calamities are the
caustics and cathartics of the body politic. They arouse the soul. They
restore original virtues. They reduce a constitution back to its first
principles."' 6 Haranguing his fellow colonists not to allow British
overtures to lull them into "such a tame, torpid state of indolence and
inattention, that the missionaries of slavery are suffered to preach
their abominable doctrines,""7 Adams borrowed the rhetoric of what
Edmund Morgan calls "the Puritan Ethic," embracing adversity as an
opportunity to test the mettle of one's faith. 8
Puritanism therefore had a profound influence on Adams, as it did
on many members of the Revolutionary generation. 9 Certainly,
Puritan theology and Adams's Revolutionary thought shared at least
one characteristic: distrust of a too-private life, with its potential to
detach individuals from the Puritan commonwealth or the republican
state. To stave off such offenses to the polity, Puritan communities
engaged in elaborate surveillance and prosecution of deviant behavior
and issued jeremiads against corruption and decline. Adams, for his
part, engaged in his own laments of human nature, as when he railed
in 1774 against Bostonians' boundless greed for imported British tea:
What numbers there are in every community, who have no
providence or prudence in their private affairs, but will go on
indulging the present appetite, prejudice, or passion, to the ruin of
their estates and families, as well as their own health and characters!
How much larger is the number of those who have no foresight for
the public, or consideration of the freedom of posterity! ... Must
the wise, the virtuous and worthy part of the community, who
constituted a very great majority, surrender their liberty, and involve
their posterity in misery, in complaisance to a detestable, though
scmomalpl,anpyarotfy foooflsk?n2a°ves, and a despicable, though more numerous,
Would the wise, the virtuous, and the worthy be degraded into the
same dependence on imported luxuries that afflicted the knaves and
fools? Or would the knaves and fools realize the wickedness of their
ways and reform in time to save their entire community? Adams's
critique explicitly linked "private affairs" with the "public" and with
"posterity," spelling out the dire consequences of the unwholesome
"appetite, prejudice, or passion" that he saw in his fellow citizens.
The nature of the distress was clear: Private choices caused public
hardship and rendered the town vulnerable to further British
exploitation. But Adams's diatribe contains far more than this simple
statement of cause and effect. As his Puritan forbears had done,
Adams condemned the private weaknesses that endangered the entire
community. Like his ancestors' Puritan zeal, which linked "[p]ersonal
salvation and national reformation" in a "highly collective emotion,"
Adams's revolutionary rhetoric deplored private interests and
selfinvolved citizens.21 The two strains of thought thus shared a language
based on the quest for virtue, the inevitability of corruption, the
remoteness of salvation, and the enervating effects of worldly luxury.
As Edmund Morgan has argued, the colonial boycott movements
represented "a way of reaffirming and rehabilitating the virtues of the
Puritan Ethic," in particular the idea that "adversity provided a spur
to virtue. '22 Virtue, however, would prove more elusive in the 1770s
and 1780s than it had for any previous generation, leading Adams to
conclude that private virtue could not sustain a republic.
20. John Adams, Novanglus, No. VI, in The Revolutionary Writings of John
Adams 213 (C. Bradley Thompson ed., 2000).
21. See Walzer, supra note 19, at 170, 12.
22. Morgan, supra note 18, at 8.
THE REGULATION OFPRIVA CY
In addition to the Puritan Ethic, the Revolutionary generation was
deeply affected by the ideals of the classical republican (or civic
humanist) tradition, which J.G.A. Pocock has described as "anchored
in the Florentine Renaissance, Anglicized by James Harrington,
Algernon Sidney, and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, but
looking unmistakably back to antiquity and to Aristotle, Polybius, and
Cicero. '2' 3 The essential element of classical republicanism was its
reliance on citizen virtue to maintain the fragile balance between
tyranny (defined as an excess of monarchy) and anarchy (defined as
an excess of democracy). A republic, therefore, demanded what
Gordon Wood terms "extraordinary moral character" of its people, in
that "each man must somehow be persuaded to submerge his personal
wants into the greater good of the whole. 214 This public virtue would
stem from individuals' private virtue, in a process of aggregation and
cumulation of acts of virtue between citizens.
By the 1780s, however, the promises of classical republicanism
appeared to many Americans as nothing more than empty
blandishments. Under the relatively weak structure of the Articles of
Confederation, state legislatures seemed to have run amok, passing
and then rapidly repealing laws, engaging in irresponsible paper
money schemes, passing debtor-friendly legislation that hindered
collection by creditors, and abandoning themselves to the type of
"democratic despotism" that Adams and others had once viewed as a
contradiction in terms.25 In late 1786, the rebellion led by Daniel
Shays in western Massachusetts, which protested high taxes and
demanded additional debtor relief, provided vivid evidence of the
defects of the Confederation. To the emerging Federalist camp,
which counted Adams among its more independent members, the
conclusion was clear: The people's virtue provided an insufficient
foundation on which to build the national edifice. The very
institutions of government would have to be reconstituted in order to
bolster capricious citizen character with steady, systemic structures.
As Wood puts it, the Federalists "hoped to create an entirely new and
original sort of republican government-a republic which did not
require a virtuous people for its sustenance." Because American
character had proved insufficiently virtuous to support the republic,
the republic would have to be reformed so as to "moderate the effects
of its viciousness., 26
23. J.G.A. Pocock, Virtue and Commerce in the Eighteenth Century, 3 J. Interdisc.
Hist. 119, 120 (1972).
24. Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, at 68
25. Id. at 404.
26. Id. at 475. J.G.A. Pocock has charged Wood with exaggerating the magnitude
of the shift that occurred in republican thought in 1787-88, arguing that a balanced
Adams, who approved of the new Constitution that emerged out of
the postwar desire for structure, consistently warned against relying
solely on individual virtue, which he considered "the effect of the well
ordered constitution, rather than the cause., 27 Unfortunately for his
contemporaries and for posterity, however, Adams observed the
postRevolutionary crisis from England, where he served from 1785 to 1788
as the Republic's first minister to the Court of St. James. He could
not contribute his considerable expertise on the subject of human vice
and virtue to the Constitutional Convention, which met in
Philadelphia from 1787 to 1788. Despite his distance from his nascent
nation, however, the indefatigable Adams busied himself between
visits to the frosty Hanoverian court by penning his three-volume
Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America. True to
its name, the Defence undertook to rebut the claim of French radical
Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot that the bicameral constitutions
adopted by virtually all the American states, including Adams's own
Massachusetts constitution, merely reproduced the outmoded and
anti-democratic structure of the British constitution. Yet Adams's
interest in defending the states' tripartite "mixed governments" did
not prevent him from including his views on virtue in the Defence.
According to Adams, virtue and its components, such as the love of
liberty, were insufficient-and possibly unnecessary-elements of
republican government. Indeed, Adams expanded the Federalist
anxiety about the inadequacy of virtue, fearing not only that a lack of
private virtue would prove unable to counterbalance government
corruption but also that private corruption might replace virtue and
gnaw away at the republic from within. In other words, Adams found
in virtue another reason to distrust citizens in their capacity as private
individuals. "The numbers of men in all ages have preferred ease,
slumber, and good cheer to liberty, when they have been in
competition," Adams wrote. "We must not then depend alone upon
the love of liberty in the soul of man for its preservation., 28 As in the
early days of the war, when he had lambasted his fellow citizens as
"knaves" and "fools" for failing to curb their thirst for tea and thereby
ensuring the colony's dependence on British trade, Adams argued in
the 1780s and 1790s that a government could not rely on its citizens to
possess the discipline or will to choose the virtuous course of action
republic of one, few, and many need not be the only arena for classical virtue. See
Pocock, supra note 23, at 133. As Adams's writings make clear, however, the
founders had by the 1780s abandoned classical virtue as a realistic basis on which to
build a nation.
27. John Adams, 3 A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United
States of America (1786-87), reprinted in 6 The Works of John Adams, Second
President of the United States: With a Life of the Author 1, 219 (Charles Francis
Adams ed., 1851).
28. Letter from John Adams to Samuel Adams (Oct. 18, 1790), reprinted in The
Political Writings of John Adams 664, 668 (George W. Carey ed., 2000).
for themselves or their country. Absent this private will, therefore,
Adams called on organized, public entities to step in and take charge.
Reflecting on the state of the nation in a 1790 letter to Samuel
Adams, then-Vice President John Adams wrote:
"The love of liberty," you say, "is interwoven in the soul of man."
So it is ... in that of a wolf; and I doubt whether it be much more
rational, generous, or social, in one than in the other, until in man it
is enlightened by experience, reflection, education, and civil and
political institutions ....
With his readiness to give up on virtue altogether as a source of
political order, Adams essentially severed the classical causal link
between private behavior and public result. In its place, he offered a
systemic solution that, unlike the Federalist Constitution, established
a public realm of balanced government and checks on power that
explicitly sought to control the "[s]elf-interest, private avidity,
ambition, and avarice" that he viewed as the dominant threats to the
stability of the new republic.3" Unlike Madison, who believed that
public benefits could be reaped from private defects (e.g., the desire
to form factions) if those defects were properly harnessed, Adams
refused to believe that private impulses could be rehabilitated and
insisted that they had no place in a healthy government.
Moreover, Adams believed that government ought to bind citizens
together and encourage them to become invested in the
commonwealth. To this end, he argued that government should
"compel all to respect the common right, the public good, the
universal law, in preference to all private and partial considerations."'"
This goal stands in sharp contrast to that of the English-derived
"Country ideology" that J.G.A. Pocock associates with Revolutionary
thought. In Pocock's view, Country ideology envisioned a man "so
independent of other men and their social structures that his
dedication to the res publica could be wholly autonomous. 3 2 To
Adams, the risk that men and women left alone would surrender to
their private vices was simply too great to rely on anything except the
controlling power of public authority. The inevitability of vice (or, to
use the Puritan term, sin) was a major premise of Adams's conclusion
that private drives had to be subordinated to public objectives. The
notion that citizens possessed a "right to be let alone" would have
struck Adams as mere sophistry, a clever justification for a lack of
prudence and restraint.33
Once virtue had lost its primacy in republican political theory, there
remained one source of private influence on public affairs: the
passions. For Adams and his contemporaries, the term "passion"
encompassed varied human desires, such as the desire for reputation,
for wealth, and for all other forms of gratification. Although some
scholars, such as Albert Hirschman, have argued that
earlyeighteenth-century thought transformed the passions from a
destructive and sinful force to a creative and beneficial one, many of
the founders-and Adams in particular-remained influenced by the
older notion of passions as harmful, selfish, and fundamentally
irrational.' Indeed, in the minds of Adams and his contemporaries,
the passions represented the primary impediment to private virtue,
and therefore the primary incitement to bad behavior. By the time he
was twenty years old, Adams had developed the perspective on
passion that would inform his political theory for the rest of his life:
He is not a wise man, and is unfit to fill any important station in
society, that has left one passion in his soul unsubdued.... These
passions should be bound fast, and brought under the yoke.
Untamed, they are lawless bulls; they roar and bluster, defy all
control, and sometimes murder their proper owner. But, properly
inured to obedience, they take their places under the yoke without
noise, and labor vigorously in their master's service.35
Like vice, passion inhered in human nature; unlike vice, however, it
could be controlled and used in the service of public order.
Thirty-two years after Adams advocated yoking private passion to
the service of the common weal, reformers such as Madison made a
similar case for their new Constitution. As part of their effort to
replace a government that depended on the people's virtue with one
that incorporated the people's shortcomings in its very structure,
Madison and the other drafters produced a Constitution that, in the
words of Gordon Wood, "cut through the structure of the states to the
people themselves and yet was not dependent on the character of that
people. ' 36 In essence, the Constitution "depended for stability, not on
virtue, but upon the counterbalanced energies of competing private
interests."37 The relatively benign-sounding "interest" concealed a
fallen out of favor. Brandeis and Warren described privacy as "the right to enjoy
life,-the right to be let alone." Warren & Brandeis, supranote 1, at 193.
34. See Albert 0. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments
for Capitalism Before Its Triumph 47 (rev. ed. 1997).
35. John Adams, Diary: With Passages from an Autobiography (June 14, 1756),
in 2 The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life
of the Author 3, 22
(Charles Francis Adams ed., 1850)
36. Wood, supranote 24, at 475.
37. Christopher Grasso, A Speaking Aristocracy: Transforming Public Discourse
in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut 361 (1999).
neat legerdemain, insofar as it was a euphemism for a passion that
could be deliberately controlled and deployed against another, more
destructive passion.3 8 In The FederalistNo. 51, Madison articulated
the revolutionary idea that the very architecture of government could
direct the passions toward productive ends:
This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of
better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human
affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in
all the subordinate distributions of power; where the constant aim is,
to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that
each may be a check on the other; that the private interest of every
individual may be a centinel over the public rights. These inventions
of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the
supreme powers of the state.39
Realizing that ungoverned passions could only sink the Republic in
the quagmire of personal desires and squabbles, Madison argued that
the structure of the Constitution allowed it to check the passions'
destructive effects and even extract benefits from them by pitting
interest against interest.
Adams concurred in the need for the state to act as what Hirschman
calls "a transformer, a civilizing medium."4 0 Yet Adams did not share
even the guarded optimism of The FederalistNo. 51, for he placed no
trust in the ability of private interests to stand guard over public
rights. On the contrary, he firmly believed that only the public realm
of the state possessed the necessary architecture to act as a sentinel.4
For Adams, government's primary purpose was regulating the
passions. Indeed, he feared that ignoring the passions or pretending
that they did not exist would lead to the kind of tyranny that had
gripped revolutionary France-a futile search for human perfectibility
that would inevitably lead to violence and destruction. While Adams
was serving as vice president, he exhorted the French people to use
government as a check on passion rather than as an excuse to
surrender to baser interests. "Frenchmen! Act and think like
yourselves!," Adams implored in Discourses on Davila, his series of
letters published in the Gazette of the United States between 1790 and
1791. "Consider that government is intended to set bounds to
passions which nature has not limited; and to assist reason, conscience,
justice, and truth in controlling interests which without it would be as
unjust as uncontrollable."42 The public realm of government,
therefore, would necessarily possess a monopoly on the power to
"restrict the public expression of passions inimical to the cultivation of
man's reason."43 If passions represented the private side of life,
reason exemplified the virtues of the public realm-the realm that
Moreover, contrary to the charges of his many critics, Adams
believed that passions influenced interactions at all levels of society
and were not simply confined to the binary of the few versus the
many.45 For Adams, the most disruptive passions were also the most
envy, all of twhheicrhelhaetedattdriebsuirteesd otof tehmeu"la[sti]opne,ctaemmbuirtiaogne,njdeoa"loiumspyu,lsaend46
(literally, "Let us be seen in action"),47 which Adams considered "the
great principle of activity for the good of others."48 This "passionfor
distinction" infected all men, for the "desire to be observed,
considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows is
one of the earliest as well as keenest dispositions discovered in the
heart of man. 49
Needless to say, this passion required a social realm to provide an
arena for the ritual display and affirmation of individuals' reputation.
Something more was needed, however, to transform the social arena
from a mere theatre of personality to a genuinely public realm
devoted to the people's welfare (salus populi). Adams insisted that
only government could curb the destructive nature of the passion for
distinction and extract some small benefit. "It is a principal end of
government to regulate this passion," Adams wrote in Davila, "which
in its turn becomes a principal means of government. ' 5' Keenly aware
of the dangers of either leaving the passions unregulated or simply
ignoring them, as he felt the French revolutionaries had, Adams
feared the corruption and degeneracy that awaited an insufficiently
vigilant government and a citizenry engrossed in the pursuit of private
passions. In contrast to the attitude of post-Griswold Americans,
Adams saw only chaos resulting from the belief that individual
autonomy represented an end in itself.
The threat of social decay lurked close to the surface of Adams's
thought, as it did for virtually every member of the founding
generation. Chief among the founders' fears was the prospect that all
nations-including their own infant one-might be bound to an
immutable biological progression of birth, maturity, decay, and
death.5' Far from a vague forecast of events that might occur in
subsequent centuries, the prognosis provided clear signposts for
monitoring the health of one's nation. Adams, for example, inveighed
against the indicia of refinement that late-eighteenth-century
Americans increasingly adopted, associating such fripperies as "balls,
assemblages, cards, equipage, tea, and elegance of every kind with
monarchy" and other noxious forms of late-stage civilization. 2
Anxious that the life cycle of the Republic might have already
commenced, Adams and his contemporaries searched constantly for
harbingers of social collapse.
Inevitably, they turned to their fellow citizens, seeking clues to the
fate of society in individual behavior. And oftentimes, Adams and his
associates found their contemporaries wanting, in thrall to the
spectemur agendo as well as the more prosaic temptations of luxury
items such as coffee, sugar, and imported manufactured goods. Such
shortsightedness infuriated Adams as much in the 1790s as it had in
1774, when he had accused Bostonians of truckling to British
commercial interests by continuing to consume imported tea. Adams
consistently viewed such actions as a selfish retreat into privacy, an
irresponsible refusal to recognize the public, political consequences of
individual decisions. His disapproval of such myopia was
compounded by his belief that it was all too common. Adams
50. Id. at 178.
51. See Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in
Jeffersonian America 33 (1980).
52. Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities
193 (1992). Bushman focuses specifically on Adams's reaction to the spread of
genteel culture, describing Adams as an "outspoken" but ambivalent critic of
refinement and noting that both John and Abigail Adams enjoyed the cosmopolitan
delights of Parisian society when they lived there between 1783 and 1785. Id. at 197.
therefore approached the problems of luxury and decadence much as
he had the problem of passion: He advocated designing institutional
structures that would compensate for the dangerous proclivities of
private citizens and encourage them to view private behavior as
intimately connected to the fate of the Republic.
This "paradigm of virtue and corruption," to use J.G.A. Pocock's
term, encouraged Adams and his contemporaries in their belief that
individual decadence-on the part of both leaders and citizens-could
spread into public life, thereby infecting the social and political fabric
of the nation. 3 In 1770, Adams confided to his diary his fears of social
decay and its effect on government:
In times of simplicity and innocence, ability and integrity will be the
principal recommendations to the public service, and the sole title to
those honors and emoluments which are in the power of the public
to bestow. But when elegance, luxury, and effeminacy begin to be
established, these rewards will begin to be distributed to vanity and
folly; but when a government becomes totally corrupted, the system
of God Almighty in the government of the world, and the rules of all
good government upon earth, will be reversed, and virtue, integrity,
and ability, will become the objects of the malice, hatred, and
revenge of the men in power, and folly, vice, and villany will be
cherished and supported.54
Adams's diary entry painted a bleak picture of a government
sapped of fortitude and a society bereft of character. As a young man
witnessing the first struggles for independence, he envisioned the
creep of corruption originating with the people and spreading to the
state, easily making the leap from private to public decadence.
Writing to his wife, Abigail, in 1776, Adams enumerated the elements
of a corrupt society-"Vanity, and Gaiety, a Love of Pomp and Dress,
Furniture, Equipage, Buildings, great Company, expensive
Diversions, and elegant Entertainments"-and could only conclude,
"[T]here is no knowing where they will stop, nor into what Evils,
natural, moral, or political, they will lead us. '55 These misgivings
about human nature, which Adams considered simple realism,
remained with him throughout his life. 6
THE REGULA TION OFPRIVA CY
Yet Adams's unflattering characterization of the American
character should not be taken as evidence of thoroughgoing
pessimism about the fate of the Republic. On the contrary, as a young
man and in his latter years, Adams believed that the institutional
structure of government could provide a mechanism for harnessing
passion and putting it to work in the service of the public. In keeping
with the Federalist shift away from the classical politics of virtue,
Adams "believed that a virtuous citizenry could be generated by
channeling the passions through a well-balanced constitution. 5 7 Once
again, Adams looked hopefully toward public, institutional solutions
to private, individual problems. As he wrote to Mercy Otis Warren in
1776 and reiterated a decade later in A Defence of the Constitutions,
"the Form of Government... gives the decisive Colour to the
Manners of the People, more than any other Thing."58 The problem,
therefore, was "to find a form of government best calculated to
prevent the bad effects and corruption of luxury, when, in the
ordinary course of things, it must be expected to come in." 59
Notwithstanding the ostensibly tonic effects of the Constitution on
republican morality, Adams constantly worried that the success of the
American endeavor might condemn the young nation to treading the
same gilded path as its debauched elder sisters in Europe. Just as he
feared that underestimating the destructive capacity of private passion
might doom the United States to French-style anarchy, Adams
warned his contemporaries that giving in to fashion and greed might
lead to the "luxury, effeminacy, and venality" that had "arrived at
such a shocking pitch in England."6 Adams thus explicitly connected
the moral corruption of private individuals with the decay of public
virtue. "I fear that human nature will be found to be the same in
America as it has been in Europe, and that the true principles of
liberty will not be sufficiently attended to," he wrote in 1776.61
Retreat to the secluded confines of fine carriages and fashionable
drawing rooms would constitute abandonment of the republican
project. Worse, a mass surrender to luxury would drain the public
realm of its lifeblood, replacing vigorous, civic morality with lax,
selfish indulgence. Even the most carefully crafted system of balanced
government might not be able to compensate for such a vacuum of
private integrity. With this fear in mind, Adams in Davila exhorted
his fellow citizens to marshal their republican mettle in the face of
mounting aggression abroad and party conflict at home:
Americans! ... .Instead of following any foreign example, to return
to the legislation of confusion, contemplate the means of restoring
decency, honesty, and order in society by preserving and completing,
if anything should be found necessary to complete, the balance of
your government. In a well-balanced government, reason,
conscience, truth, and virtue must be respected by all parties, and
exerted for the public good.62
Corruption on an individual level led directly to confusion and
disorder in the public realm. The most feasible solution was to bolster
the institutions of government and hope that they could contain the
soporific effects of luxury.
V. PUBLIC LIFE
Despite Adams's preoccupation with the consequences of human
weakness, at no point did he completely despair of the potential of the
American people to shake off their torpor of vice, passions, and
luxury and to throw themselves into the project of self-government.
His distrust of the private side of life did not lead him to endorse the
kind of invasive, totalitarian state that modern observers typically
associate with societies that do not recognize a right to individual
privacy. On the contrary, Adams believed that people must act as
engaged citizens first, and individuals only secondarily, to avoid
political enslavement and achieve liberation. For Adams, unlike for
his post-Griswold descendants, privacy was not a right that an
individual claimed against the state but a condition that prevented
citizens from engaging in self-government. Arguments for privacy,
therefore, sounded to Adams and his contemporaries suspiciously
close to calls for citizens to withdraw from the realm of government
and society and to bury themselves in the pursuits of reputation,
wealth, and comfort. Such a scenario characterized the tyrannical
governments of the Old World, where palace intrigues and court
machinations unfolded far from the lives of everyday subjects. In
these societies, a vast gulf separated the private lives of individuals
from the realm of public authority. Adams, however, insisted that
republican government required an enlightened citizenry that would
emerge from the private realm of home and work to monitor,
question, and inform the work of government in a kind of
Habermasian "public sphere in the political realm."63 Thus, Adams
trusted the private individual only when he or she was willing to enter
the public zone.
On a practical level, then, Adams subscribed to the belief that
"selfimmersion" in the comforts of life would inevitably endanger
republican government by distracting citizens from civic
responsibility.64 As he wrote to Mercy Otis Warren in 1776, the new
republic would require "a positive Passion for the public good, the
public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of
the People." This public passion therefore had to be "Superiour to all
private Passions." In short, Adams wrote, "[A]ll Things must give
Way to the public."'65 Specifically, he argued that citizens must
constantly scrutinize the affairs of government, putting aside their
private pursuits in order to shine a cleansing light on the public realm.
Passive acquiescence in the decisions of government did not befit
citizens of a republic, Adams believed. At no time was he more proud
of his fellow citizens than when they first came together to resist the
Stamp Act. "The year 1765 has been the most remarkable year of my
life," he confided to his diary.
The people, even to the lowest ranks, have become more attentive
to their liberties, more inquisitive about them, and more determined
to defend them, than they were ever before known or had occasion
to be.... Our presses have groaned, our pulpits have thundered, our
legislatures have resolved, our towns have voted; the crown officers
have everywhere trembled, and all their little tools and creatures
been afraid to speak and ashamed to be seen.66
Nevertheless, Adams ruefully concluded that determination alone
would not ensure liberty. "This spirit, however, has not yet been
sufficient to banish from persons in authority that timidity which they
have discovered from the beginning. 6 7 Also necessary was
thoroughgoing vigilance on the part of citizens, such that their rights
could not be threatened in the first place. In short, private life would
have to be subordinated to public life in order to draw citizens into the
political realm and keep them there. "[T]he spirit of liberty is and
ought to be a jealous, a watchful spirit," Adams wrote in the guise of
Governor Winthrop. "Obsta Principiis [resist the first beginnings] is
her motto and maxim; knowing that her enemies are secret and
cunning, making the earliest advances slowly, silently, and softly."68
This jealous watchfulness would prove salutary to citizens as well as
the state; moreover, it would bring private passions to bear on the
public realm of government. Convinced that "citizens neither could
nor should act selflessly," Adams and his fellow Revolutionaries put
selfishness to work by asking citizens to enter the political fray and
defend their liberties against government encroachment.69
Indeed, even the famous writs of assistance case of 1761, in which
James Otis argued that the general search warrants issued to customs
officers violated the natural rights of Englishmen and were therefore
void, can be viewed not simply as a precursor to the Fourth
Amendment search-and-seizure rules but also as a statement of a
particularly eighteenth-century vision of privacy. Adams's
autobiography suggests that he viewed the controversy as a dispute
about the rights of the citizenry to live unmolested by the long arm of
the British Crown rather than the rights of a single citizen to be free
from the inquiries of customs surveyor general Thomas Lechmere:
England proud of its power and holding Us in Contempt would
never give up its pretentions. The Americans devoutly attached to
their Liberties, would never submit, at least without an entire
dLeivveass.t7a1tion of the Country, and a general destruction of their
Years later, Adams struck a similarly grand note in describing the
scene in the Council Chamber of Boston's Town House: "Every Man
of a crowded Audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to
take Arms against Writs of Assistance. Then and there was the first
scene of the first Act of Opposition to the arbitrary Claims of Great
THE REGULA TION OFPRIVACY
Britain. 7 2 Notwithstanding the likelihood that Adams indulged in a
few ex post rhetorical embellishments, the tenor of the comments
suggests that Adams viewed the writs of assistance case as involving a
kind of common, public privacy-the shielding of the citizenry from a
particular overweening government, not the defense of individuals
from intrusions in general. Adams's celebration of the case thus
comported with his overarching belief that citizens ought to be
encouraged to enter the public sphere and protected when they did so.
For Adams and many of his contemporaries, then, the public realm
determined the nature, content, and extent of the private realm.7 3
Adams's statement to Warren that "all Things must give Way to the
Public" suggested that he espoused what Quentin Skinner has called
the essence of the neo-roman theory of the state: namely, "that it is
only possible to be free in a free state."74 In other words, the
conditions of individuals' private lives stemmed directly from the
condition of their government. Still more abstractly, Adams's
statement suggests a fully developed vision of differentiated public
and private spheres, and a consequent quest to submerge private
desires and passions in the larger project of building the Republic.
This point is both historical and historiographical, for it relates to
what one scholar terms the "convergence of public sphere theory and
the history of private life."75 That is, there exist many theories of the
public sphere and perhaps still more histories of private life. Yet very
few historians have proposed theories of the private sphere, despite
the obsession of post-Griswoldjurisprudence and political theory with
individual privacy. Has the twentieth-century valorization of privacy
in the form of personal autonomy prevented historians from
examining the intellectual history of the concept? Quite possibly. As
Adams's writings demonstrate, however, many eighteenth-century
Americans thought extensively about privacy, believed that it existed,
72. Id. at 55 (quoting Adams). For a complete account of the trial and Adams's
involvement, see 2 Legal Papers of John Adams 106-47
(L. Kinvin Wroth & Hiller B.
Zobel eds., 1965)
73. This is the most profound point of disagreement between the Adams view and
the Brandeis-Warren view. Brandeis and Warren based their newly discovered right
to privacy on a vision of individual autonomy, which they saw as the basis of an
enlightened civilization: "[T]he protection of society must come mainly through a
recognition of the rights of the individual. Each man is responsible for his own acts
and omissions only." Warren & Brandeis, supranote 1, at 219-20. At least one legal
scholar has pointed out that Brandeis and Warren's purported common law right to
privacy, which they claimed had evolved in Anglo-American law, was "not... a
picture of the law as it was, but of the law as they believed (or hoped) it should be."
Ken Gormley, One Hundred Years of Privacy, 1992 Wis. L. Rev. 1335, 1347-48.
74. Quentin Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism 60 (1998). Skinner's
"neoroman" theory is essentially analogous to the republican or civic humanist tradition.
75. Dena Goodman, Public Sphere and Private Life: Toward a Synthesis of
Current HistoriographicalApproaches to the Old Regime, 31 Hist. & Theory 1, 12
(1992). Goodman's primary focus is the Old Regime in France, but her analysis is
equally applicable to the early American republic.
but ultimately concluded that it was slippery stuff not to be trusted
except in controlled conditions.
The concept of privacy has not been altogether absent from the
historiography of the early Republic. A few scholars agree that the
founders took a dim view of privacy. According to Gordon Wood, the
Federalists charged the Articles of Confederation with permitting
greed and speculation to run rampant, leading to large-scale social and
political disintegration: "The wholesale pursuits of private interest
and private luxury were, they thought, undermining America's
capacity for republican government. They designed the Constitution
in order to save American republicanism from the deadly effects of
these private pursuits of happiness."76 Grant Mindle, meanwhile, has
argued that the founders disparaged privacy, exiling it to the realm of
passion and offering it limited protection under the rubric of
"property."77 Insofar as they suggest that the founders did not
embrace the concept of privacy, both historians paint a picture of the
founding generation that is decidedly at odds with the Griswold story
of the-right-that-was-there-all-along, a story that Adams's writings
also call into question. Yet Wood's instrumental, causation-focused
argument suggests that the founders' true motivation was a fear of
popular politics more than of privacy per se, and Mindle's insistence
on contrasting the founders with the Brandeis-Warren and
twentiethcentury visions of privacy possesses overtones of the asymptotic
search for original intent. Moreover, Wood attributes the founders'
privacy anxiety solely to the events of the Confederation years. As
Adams's writings demonstrate, however, the origins of the founders'
preoccupation with the evils of privacy ran far deeper than either of
these accounts suggests. Indeed, only a broader, more cultural
reading of the role of privacy truly captures the extent to which the
concept influenced the attitudes of the founding
generationespecially Adams-concerning several of the most significant issues of
contemporary political theory: virtue, passion, decay, and public life.
To leaf through Adams's abundant writings is to be struck by the
number of pages devoted to plumbing the depths of both friends and
strangers' motivations, desires, and disappointments. Throughout his
life, Adams paid close attention to human nature on a large scale,
bringing his vast knowledge of law and history to bear on his equally
THE REG ULA TION OFPRIVACY
vast experience in the world of people. A few points seemed clear to
him: (1) all people felt the impulse toward vice, passion, and comfort;
(2) left to themselves, the majority of people would follow those
impulses; and (3) the work of government was to harness these
impulses and put them to productive use, subordinating personal
drives and selfish motives to an overarching institutional system.78
Indeed, no founder understood the need to suppress personal desires
more fully than the second President of the United States, who
constantly upbraided himself for his own character flaws and mistakes
of judgment.79 To a modern reader, Adams's deep suspicion of the
private realm underpins his anxious comments on virtue, passion,
decay, and public life. Moreover, the very words "private" and
"public" formed a kind of refrain in his writings, suggesting that the
author himself may have been conscious that his views stemmed from
an overarching suspicion of privacy.
Yet the suspicion of privacy that Adams had so forthrightly
articulated during his lifetime, and that many of his contemporaries
appeared to share, somehow vanished from the landscape after his
death. Rather than hailing Adams as one architect of a system that
put private desires to work in the service of the common weal, many
Americans of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries awarded this
distinction solely to Madison, associating Adams with old regimes of
monarchy and aristocracy based on a misreading of his Defence of
Constitutions and Discourses on Davila.° Moreover, they forgot his
warnings against vice, passion, and decay as well as the distrust of
privacy that lay beneath those warnings. As Joseph Ellis has argued,
Adams's views simply did not comport with the liberal vision that
came to dominate nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, for
represents a cluster of political principles that do not fit comfortably
within the framework of our national political mythology.
Memorials will only be erected to him, according to this train of
78. In a related vein, Joanne Freeman has argued that honor politics, especially
dueling and other reputation-based practices, formed "a regulated force of
government, the ultimate check in an intricate system of checks and balances."
Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic xix
79. Adams's diary seems to have provided the chief receptacle for this stream of
self-criticism. "Vanity I am sensible, is my cardinal Vice and cardinal Folly," read one
chastisement, "and I am in continual Danger, when in Company, of being led an ignis
fatuus Chase by it, without the strictest caution and watchfulness over my self." Ellis,
supranote 13, at 49-50 (quoting Adams).
80. Gordon Wood and Joyce Appleby have each argued that Adams was-and
was seen as-increasingly out of touch with the liberalization of America after the
1790s. One chapter in Wood's Creationof the American Republic bears the title "The
Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams." Wood, supra note 24, at 567-92; see also
Joyce Appleby, The New Republican Synthesis and the Changing Political Ideas of
John Adams, 25 Am. Q. 578,579-80 (1973).
thought, when the rhetoric of Jeffersonian liberalism ceases to
dominate mainstream American culture; when the exaltation of "the
people" is replaced by a quasi-sacred devotion to "the public". ... 81
Just as Adams had feared throughout his life, his longtime rival and
friend Jefferson-whose soul Adams had once described as "poisoned
with ambition"-outstripped him in the race to claim posterity.82
Most startling, however, has been the power of the liberal,
Jeffersonian vision to blot out any memory of the second president's
lifetime contemplation and suspicion of privacy. As Griswold and the
progeny of that fecund case have demonstrated, the private realm, not
the public one, captured the imaginations of twentieth-century
American political and legal theorists, culminating in the addition of
the right to privacy to Jefferson's list of self-evident truths. Although
privacy has certainly established itself in modern America, Adams's
writings remind us that events might have turned out differently. In
contrast to Griswold's view of privacy as a frail flower needing
constant protection from the destructive force of the state, Adams saw
privacy as pervasive and omnipresent, and private interests as
tenacious weeds that managed to work their way into every crevice of
human interaction. To the public, with its duties, not to individuals,
with their privileges: this was Adams's deepest allegiance. Adams
found worrisome signs of privacy-such as vice, passion, and
decayat every turn, but he remained confident throughout his life that its
harmful effects could be contained by a vigorous public realm.
14. C. Bradley Thompson , John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty 6-13 , 23 ( 1998 ).
15. Id . at 23 (quoting 3 Diary and Autobiography of John Adams 240- 41 (L.H . Butterfield ed., 1962 )).
16. John Adams, Governor Winthrop to Governor Bradford, in The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams 60 (C. Bradley Thompson ed., 2000 ).
17. Id .
18. Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Ethic and the American Revolution , 24 Wm . & Mary Q. 3 ( 1967 ).
19. See id.; see also Richard L. Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut , 1690 - 1765 ( 1967 ) ; Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Atheneum 1976 ) ( 1965 ).
29. Id .
30. John Adams, 3 A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, reprintedin The Political Writings of John Adams: Representative Selections 105 , 150 (George A. Peek , Jr. ed., 1954 ).
31. Id . at 147.
32. Pocock , supranote 23 , at 122 , 129 .
33. By 1890, however, Adams's distrust of unchecked human nature had clearly
38. See Hirschman, supra note 34 , at 20-21.
39. The Federalist No. 51 ( James Madison ), supra note 12 , at 349. As Lance Banning has noted, however, it is a mistake to read The Federalist No. 51 as a complete departure from the British republican tradition . See Banning, supra note 12 , at 214-19.
40. Hirschman , supra note 34, at 16.
41. Adams set forth his vision of private interests kept in check by the state in an 1813 letter to Jefferson, in which Adams described the place of aristocracy in a mixed government .
If I could prevent its deleterious influence I would put it all into 'The Hole' of Calcutta: but as this is impossible, as it is a Phoenix that rises again out of its own Ashes, I know no better Way than to chain it in a 'Hole by itself,' and place a Watchfull Centinelon each Side of it . Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (Dec. 19 , 1813 ), in 2 The AdamsJefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams 409 ( Lester J . Cappon ed., 1959 ) (emphasis added).
42. John Adams, Discourses on Davila ( 1790 - 91 ), reprinted in The Political Writings of John Adams: Representative Selections 190 - 91 (George A. Peek , Jr. ed., 1954 ). In a footnote dated 1813 , Adams commented, "Frenchmen neither saw, heard, nor felt or understood this . " Id. at 191 n.15.
43. Grant B. Mindle , Liberalism, Privacy, and Autonomy, 51 J. Pol . 575 , 577 ( 1989 ).
44. See id. at 576-77.
45. The most notable modern proponent of this view is Gordon Wood, who has argued that Adams viewed politics as a contest between the interests of democracy and those of the aristocracy . See Wood, supra note 24 , at 576. Adams's most vociferous contemporary critic was John Taylor of Caroline, whose 1814 Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States aimed to rebut Adams's Defence of the Constitutionsof Government . Taylor claimed to have spent more than twenty years composing his five-hundred-page tome .
46. Adams , supra note 30, at 178.
47. Thompson , supranote 14 , at 154.
48. Adams , supra note 30, at 178.
49. Id . at 176.
53. J.G.A. Pocock , Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century 48 ( 1985 ).
54. John Adams, Diary: With Passages from an Autobiography (Aug . 22 , 1770 ), in 2 The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author 250-51 (Charles Francis Adams ed ., 1850 ).
55. Bushman , supra note 19, at 199 (quoting Adams). Shortly after his inauguration as president in 1797, Adams himself felt compelled to resist the allure of European-style equipage when he learned that Abigail, who was at home in Quincy, Massachusetts, had had the family coat of arms painted on her carriage. He immediately asked her to have the device painted out, commenting, "They shall have a republican President in earnest." McCullough, supranote 13, at 468.
56. On this point, Idisagree with the conclusion of several historians who posit a dramatic shift in Adams's attitude toward the morality of the American people between the 1770s and the 1790s . Notable among this group is John R. Howe, Jr. See John R. Howe , Jr., The Changing Political Thought of John Adams ( 1966 ).
57. Thompson , supranote 14 , at 199.
58. Letter from John Adams to Mercy Otis Warren (Jan. 8 , 1776 ), in 3 The Papers of John Adams 397-98 (Robert J. Taylor et al. eds., 1979 ).
59. Adams , supranote 27 , at 94.
60. John Adams, Novanglus, No. II, in 4 The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author 28 (Charles Francis Adams ed ., reprint 1969 ) ( 1850 ). A gloomy Adams reiterated this point in a letter to Jefferson written in 1787, when war with France seemed imminent: The War that is now breaking out will render our Country, whether she is forced into it, or not, rich, great and powerful in comparison of what she now is, and Riches Grandeur and Power will have the same effect upon American as it has upon European minds. We have seen enough already to be sure of this. A Covent Garden Rake will never be wise enough to take warning from the Claps caught by his Companions. When he comes to be poxed himself he may possibly repent and reform . Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (Oct. 9 , 1787 ), in 1 The AdamsJefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams 203 ( Lester J . Cappon ed., 1959 ).
61. Letter from John Adams to Joseph Hawley (Aug. 25 , 1776 ), in The Political Writings of John Adams 654 (George W. Carey ed., 2000 ).
62. John Adams, Discourses on Davila ( 1790 - 91 ), reprinted in The Political Writings of John Adams: Representative Selections 191 ( George A. Peek , Jr. ed., 1954 ).
63. Jiirgen Habermas , The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society 30 (Thomas Burger & Frederick Lawrence trans ., MIT Press 2000 ) ( 1990 ). For a discussion of the role of the "bourgeois public sphere" in the context of early Republican print culture, see Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America ( 1990 ).
64. Lance Banning , Some Second Thoughts on Virtue and the Course of Revolutionary Thinking , in Conceptual Change and the Constitution 194 , 200 ( Terence Ball & J.G .A. Pocock eds., 1988 ).
65. Letter from John Adams to Mercy Otis Warren (Apr. 16 , 1776 ), quoted in Howe, supranote 56 , at 31-32.
66. John Adams, Diary: With Passages from an Autobiography (Dec . 18 , 1765 ), in 2 The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author 154 (Charles Francis Adams ed ., 1850 ).
67. Id . at 154-55.
68. John Adams, Governor Winthrop to Governor Bradford ( 1767 ), reprinted in 1 Papers of John Adams 200 ( Robert J. Taylor et al. eds., 1979 ) (emphasis added).
69. See Banning, supranote 64 , at 199.
70. See generally William Cuddihy & B. Carmon Hardy , A Man's House Was Not His Castle: Origins of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution , 37 Win . & Mary Q. 371 ( 1980 ) (discussing the writs of assistance case).
71. John Adams: A Biography in His Own Words 53 (James Bishop Peabody ed., 1973 ) (quoting Adams) .
76. Gordon S. Wood , Interests and Disinterestedness in the Making of the Constitution , in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity 69 , 81 (Richard Beeman et al. eds., 1987 ). Michael Sandel cites Wood to support his claim that the United States has become a "procedural republic" and is therefore unable to address deep moral questions . Michael J. Sandel, Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy 108 , 129 ( 1996 ).
77. Mindle , supra note 43, at 583.