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The Founder of True Conservatism in America

John Adams isn’t on Mount Rushmore. Presidential rankings typically don’t put him anywhere near the “great” category. Adams could be pompous, thin-skinned, and severe.

So why, in this presidential issue, is the IR featuring John Adams as a Freedom Hall hero?

Because Adams reminds us that adhering to the timeless truths that shaped our nation is better than following trends to gain popularity. And because, as Russell Kirk observes in his seminal book The Conservative Mind (1953), he was “the founder of true conservatism in America.” Adams stood for federalism, ordered liberty, and prudential change, and warned against the dangers of radicalism.

In 1770, not long into his career, Adams showed his ability to put principle above passion when he served as the defense lawyer for the British soldiers who fired on a mob in the Boston Massacre. While hotter heads used the incident to drum up animosity toward the Crown, Adams’s articulate case saved the soldiers from jail time.

His defense of the British soldiers by no means indicated a lack of patriotism. When the time came for deliberate action, Adams pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor in the cause of American independence.

Adams distinguished himself as a political thinker. According to Kirk, his body of work “exceeds, both in bulk and in penetration, any other work on government by an American.” Adams understood that his attacks on radicalism made him the subject of “immense unpopularity”; he stood by his positions nonetheless. 

As president, Adams expressed apprehension about the public’s tendency to make celebrities of political leaders. Given his refusal to pander to the people or sacrifice his principles, Kirk notes, “it’s surprising that he ever could attain a popularity sufficient to make him president of the United States.” 

But the current generation might do well to take John Adams as its role model, instead of the braggarts and media magnets so visible today.

Great Quotes by John Adams

A Blessing

“I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on [the White House] and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

Letter to his wife, Abigail Adams, November 2, 1800

Character

“The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved.”

Notes for an Oration at Braintree, Massachusetts, spring 1772

Courage

“The true source of our sufferings has been our timidity. We have been afraid to think. . . . Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”

“A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” 1765

Morality

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Message to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, October 11, 1798

The Riddles of Life

“The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know. . . . Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough.”

Letter to his granddaughter Caroline de Windt, January 24, 1820


Complement with the student’s guide to American political thought, Ben Sasse on the American idea and why it matters, and Russell Kirk on the core beliefs of conservatism.

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