Friday, September 30, 2016

John Adams Rejects the Concept of the Hebrew Republic

One of the challenges in trying to articulate what "the Founders" believed is that they often differed. In fact, as I've often noted, there were different strains of thought that made up a "synthesis." And those strains were in tensions with one another. Whig thought though presented the synthesis as a unified whole. As in "all American Whigs thought alike, etc."

One sentiment which united the Whigs was "republicanism" was the best if not only viable form of government. Certainly it was preferable to monarchy.  The notion of republicanism traces to Western Civilization's Greco-Roman heritage. And the Founders who wrote the Federalist Papers, adopting the surname Publius, imagined themselves as revived Roman republicans. Noble pagans, if you will.

There was another stream of thought which argued that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." Eric Nelson's magnificent work traces the intellectual lineage of such sentiment. We see this sentiment represented in sermons such as Rev. Samuel Langdon's The Republic of The Israelites An Example To The American States, (June 5, 1788) and even in Thomas Paine's Common Sense.

I remember reading John Adams' rejection of Paine's argument that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." American Creation commenter Lex Lata reminded me. As Adams wrote in his autobiography:
"I told him further, that his Reasoning from the Old Testament was ridiculous, and I could hardly think him sincere. At this he laughed, and said he had taken his Ideas in that part from Milton: and then expressed a Contempt of the Old Testament and indeed of the Bible at large, which surprized me."
Yes, as Eric Nelson discovered, John Milton was one of those figures who posited the concept of a Hebraic republic.

21 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

What we need is Adams' public opposition to the concept of a Hebrew republic. His private thoughts--and Paine's--are of academic interest only; they bear little historical significance.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I can only recall Paine relying on Scripture in order to attack the concept of monarchy. Can someone refresh my memory of his claims regarding the Republican nature of ancient Israel?

Lee ewell said...

Hey Jon-- I too have appreciated Lex Lata's observations on the paucity of references to a Hebrew republic by the founders. That does not mean of course that the idea did not exist. As you wrote in the previous post . . . "If the Christian religion was to be venerated by the people, it had to be made to "fit" with such sentiments. That's what we see Paine doing. That he turned out to be no Christian is no surprise in this sense." Any good polemicist (and Paine was a good one) will use whatever he has at his disposal. It seems that the Bible was used mostly in a negative way--in opposition to monarchy (see the context of Paine's "kind of republic" comments). And getting back to the Lutz study, quality of the quotes of scripture are most important that quantity. I doubt the Bible was cited much in the way of political theory. There are, however, plenty of passages about wicked kings for the use of revolutionaries.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Bill,

Tom reproduced this in our last thread.

Thomas Paine, "Common Sense" 1776

"Near three thousand years passed away, from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of Republic, administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts."

Bill Fortenberry said...

Thanks, Jon. I read the context of Lex Lata's quote from Adams and noted that it was in fact Paine's arguments against monarchy that Adams found so ridiculous and not his assertion that Israel was a republic. According to Adams:

"one third of the Book was filled with Arguments from the old Testiment, to prove the Unlawfulness of Monarchy ... His Arguments from the old Testiment, were ridiculous, but whether they proceeded from honest Ignorance, or foolish [Superstition] on one hand, or from willfull Sophistry and knavish Hypocricy on the other I know not."

Adams' primary objection to Paine's book seems to be that he thought Paine's plan of government was too democratic with none of the checks against the people that are provided by a republic.

"The other third part relative to a form of Government I considered as flowing from simple Ignorance, and a mere desire to please the democratic Party in Philadelphia ... His plan was so democratical, without any restraint or even an Attempt at any Equilibrium or Counterpoise, that it must produce confusion and every Evil Work."

The claim that Adams rejected the concept of a Hebrew republic is inconsistent with his apparent approval of that concept in his Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Where in "Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America" does Adams claim that he thought the Hebrews had a republic?

I don't read the context of Adams quotation the way you do. Adams specifically mentions Paine saying he got his ideas from Milton. Milton was notable as one of the European sources for the concept that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic."

Jonathan Rowe said...

"His plan was so democratical, without any restraint or even an Attempt at any Equilibrium or Counterpoise, that it must produce confusion and every Evil Work. I told him further, that his Reasoning from the Old Testament was ridiculous, and I could hardly think him sincere. At this he laughed, and said he had taken his Ideas in that part from Milton: and then expressed a Contempt of the Old Testament and indeed of the Bible at large, which surprized me. He saw that I did not relish this, and soon check'd himself, with these Words 'However I have some thoughts of publishing my Thoughts on Religion, but I believe it will be best to postpone it, to the latter part of Life.'"

Adams is saying he thinks Paine's plan was too "democratic." But his point on Paine's use of the Old Testament was a different one. As in "I told him further ...."

You are pulling the red herring trick again.

Paine's use of the Old Testament was in the context of arguing "against monarchy" while asserting, after Milton who probably sincerely believed it, Ancient Israel "was a kind of Republic."

The contexts of Adams quotation is that he rejects the entire sentiment. If Adams elsewhere said he thought the Ancient Hebrews had a republic I'm all ears.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Where in "Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America" does Adams claim that he thought the Hebrews had a republic?

Adams had great praise for Harrington's division of governments according to the balance of property among the people of he nation. He wrote:

Harrington discovered, and made out, as Toland hisbiographer informs us, that 'empire follows the balance of property, whetehr lodged in one, a few, or many hands.' A noble discovery, of which the honour solely belongs to him, as much as the circulation of the blood to Harvey, printing to Laurence Coster, or of guns, compasses, or optic grasses to the several authors. If this balance is not the foundation of all politics, as Toland asserts, it is of so much importance, that no man can be thought a master of the subject, without having well weighed it.

[According to Harrington,] "Domestic empire is founded upon dominion, and dominion is property, real or personal; that is to say in lands, or in money and goods ... as is the proportion or balance of dominion or property in land, such is the nature of the empire. If one man be sole landlord of a territory ... his empire is absolute monarchy. If the few, as a nobility and clergy, be landlords ... the empire is a mixed monarchy ... and if the whole people be landlords, or hold the lands so divided among them, that no one man, or number of men, within the compass of the few, or aristocracy, over-balance them, the empire is a commonwealth...

"This kind of law, fixing the balance in lands, is called Agrarian, and was first introduced by God himself, who divided the land of Canaan to his people by lot."


Adams later quoted Harrington identifying Israel as a commonwealth:

"All government is of three kinds: a government of servants, a government of subjects, or a government of citizens. The first is absolute monarchy, as that of Turky; the second aristocratical monarchy, as that of France; the third a commonwealth as Israel, Rome, Holland."

And shortly after this, Adams identifies the governments of America as being in the same class of commonwealth or republic as Israel:

In America, the balance is nine-tenths on the side of the people.

(All of this occurs between pages 159 and 168 at this link: https://books.google.com/books?id=aH0NAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA159)

Then there is also Adams' favorable quote of Sydney as saying:

And if I should undertake to say, there never was a good government in the world, that did not consist of the three simple species of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, I think I may make it good. This at the least is certain, that the government of the Hebrews, instituted by God, had a judge, the great Sanhedrim, and general assemblies of the people."

Lee ewell said...

"His Arguments from the old Testiment, were ridiculous, but whether they proceeded from honest Ignorance, or foolish [Superstition] on one hand, or from willfull Sophistry and knavish Hypocricy on the other I know not."

Adams learned after talking with Paine that it was the latter.

Paine apparently got his arguments from Milton's Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth which has a short account of the Hebrews rejecting their "commonwealth" for a monarchy.

Adams probably rejected not only Paine's reasoning, but the conclusion itself: that monarchy was an unlawful type of government.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I don't read the context of Adams quotation the way you do. Adams specifically mentions Paine saying he got his ideas from Milton. Milton was notable as one of the European sources for the concept that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic."

The statement: "Adams said that Paine said that Paine got his ideas from Milton" is not the same thing as "Adams said that Paine got his ideas from Milton." The former is the statement that you made. The latter is the statement that would need to be proven if the particular Adams quotation in question is to be considered as evidence in favor of your heading.

We know that Adams thought Paine's understanding of the Old Testament was deficient. Could he not have thought the same of Paine's comprehension of Milton?

Bill Fortenberry said...

while asserting, after Milton who probably sincerely believed it, Ancient Israel "was a kind of Republic."

How do you know that it was this specific assertion that Paine derived from Milton? Could Adams have been saying that Paine attributed his argument against monarchy to Milton?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Bill,

As to your last two comments you are splitting a single hair that's not meant to be split. Paine made his argument from the Old Testament against monarchy while noting before they got a king, Ancient Israel "was a kind of Republic."

Adams in 1776 calls this line of reasoning "ridiculous."

Milton, yes Harrington, and others in Europe argued something similar. I wonder whether you have read the portions of Paine's work that Adams references and you can tell me where he fails to properly understand the ideas of a hebraic republic that Milton, Harrington et al. earlier properly articulated.

He wrote "Defense" in 1787. I'll check the quotations for context. But a much simpler explanation is if Adams did think the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic" in that book, he changed his mind between 1776 and 1787 probably because he read or more carefully read Harrington (and others) in the meantime.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Actually, Adams viewed Israel as a republic long before 1787, for in a 1777 letter to Abigail, we see him placing Moses in the same category as Lycurgus and Solon:

Letter to Abigail - June 2, 1777

I rejoice to find, that the Town have had the Wisdom to send but one [Representative]. The House last Year was too numerous and unwieldy. The Expence was too great. I suppose you will have a Constitution formed this Year. Who will be the Moses, the Lycurgus, the Solon? Or have you a score or two of such? Whoever they may be and whatever Form may be adopted, I am perswaded there is among the Mass of our People a Fund of Wisdom, Integrity and Humanity, which will preserve their Happiness, in a tolerable Measure.


http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17770602jasecond

And just a year later, we find Adams stating explicitly in his autobiography that the Jews had a Republican form of government:

June 2, 1778

From all that I had read of History and Government, of human Life and manners, I had drawn this Conclusion, that the manners of Women were the most infallible Barometer, to ascertain the degree of Morality and Virtue in a Nation. All that I have since read and all the observations I have made in different Nations, have confirmed me in this opinion. The Manners of Women, are the surest Criterion by which to determine whether a Republican Government is practicable, in a Nation or not. The Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Swiss, the Dutch, all lost their public Spirit, their Republican Principles and habits, and their Republican Forms of Government, when they lost the Modesty and Domestic Virtues of their Women.


http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=A2_27

Adams clearly agreed with the idea that Israel had a republican form of government. Therefore, his disagreement with Paine's interpretation of the Old Testament must have to do with Paine's claim regarding the monarchy.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Therefore, his disagreement with Paine's interpretation of the Old Testament must have to do with Paine's claim regarding the monarchy."

Nope, this is still a non-sequitur. What Paine did in Common Sense was simply repackage arguments which were made earlier by Milton, Harrington and Sidney. And those argued against the concept of monarchy in the context of asserting the Hebrews had a republic.

It's an exegesis on I Samuel 8.

Adams when he wrote his biography rejects it as ridiculous. Below is the passage Adams rejects. Tell me how this gets Milton, Harrington or Sidney wrong:

"Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom. It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry. The Heathens paid divine honours to their deceased kings, and the Christian World hath improved on the plan by doing the same to their living ones. How impious is the title of sacred Majesty applied to a worm, who in the midst of his splendor is crumbling into dust!

"As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon, and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by Kings.

"All anti-monarchical parts of scripture have been very smoothly glossed over in monarchical governments, but they undoubtedly merit the attention of countries which have their governments yet to form. 'Render unto Cesar the things which are Cesar's' is the scripture doctrine of courts, yet it is no support of monarchical government, for the Jews at that time were without a king, and in a state of vassalage to the Romans.

"Near three thousand years passed away, from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of Republic, administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts. And when a man seriously reflects on the idolatrous homage which is paid to the persons of kings, he need not wonder that the Almighty, ever jealous of his honour, should disapprove a form of government which so impiously invades the prerogative of Heaven."

Lee Ewell said...

Adams does appear to have a reductionist view of what constitutes a republican form of government. In his "Thoughts on Government," he defines a republic as a "government of laws and not of men." That thought goes back to Aristotle and is a good start, but could include almost any government. And with that definition in mind, he adds:

Of Republics, there is an inexhaustable variety, because the possible combinations of the powers of society, are capable of innumerable variations.

And in his "Defense of the Constitutions of the United States," he looks at a couple of dozen republics, including some he describes as monarchical republics--confounding Aristotle's method of regime classification. Maybe on this point he defers to Montesquieu . . .

http://www.constitution.org/jadams/ja1_00.htm

Interestingly, in his survey of those two dozen or so republics, ancient and modern, he apparently did not think the Hebrew "commonwealth" important enough to warrant any attention. Or he thought that in a Christian country, everyone knew enough about it already . . .

Bill Fortenberry said...

Paine's statement regarding the republican nature of Israel's government was not his conclusion but rather a minor sub-point of his argument. Paine's conclusion was that the Old Testament proved monarchy to be inherently sinful. Adams objected to Paine's understanding of the Old Testament. Why should Adams' objection be attributed to a minor sub-point of Paine's argument and not to the conclusion of the argument itself - especially when we have Adams on record as agreeing with the sub-point on multiple occasions? Would it not be more reasonable to conclude that Adams agreed with Paine's assertion that Israel had a republican government but disagreed with his claim that the Old Testament proved monarchy to be inherently sinful?

Wouldn't this fit perfectly with the fact that Adams did not view republican government and monarchy as being contradictory to each other? Adams' definition of a republican government appears to be identical to that of Harrington's definition of a commonwealth, and both men viewed England and similar governments as monarchical republics.

We know that Adams viewed Israel as a republic. We also know that Adams did not view monarchy as antithetical to republican government. Could we not thus conclude that Adams' objection was to Paine's claim that monarchy is inherently sinful?

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm still looking into the context of Adams citing Sidney and Harrington. I do believe Adams revered the Jews for their morality and contributions to civilization and thought they and especially Jesus taught the morality necessary to sustain republics.

However, that the Ancient Hebrews had a republic is not a minor subpoint. Rather it's key to the argument.

I don't think you understand Harrington or perhaps you can explain to me. Where do Adams and Harrington claim that monarchy and republicanism are not mutually exclusive?

Because the point you say Adams objected to "the Old Testament proved monarchy to be inherently sinful" is exactly what Milton, Harrington and Sidney stood for (if I'm reading the record through Eric Nelson correctly).

Lex Lata said...

Hope you don't mind if I muddy the waters a bit by pointing out that we're not quite talking about Adams' conversation with Paine in 1776. Strictly speaking, we're talking about Adams' recollection of the conversation, transcribed a few decades later (possibly with the help of notes or a diary) and without the benefit of any corroboration. Who knows how the passage of time, coupled with professional and intellectual differences, might've colored the account we read in Adams' autobiography?

For my part, I'm not too hung up on whether Adams specifically and consciously rejected the Hebrew republic idea at one point or another in his life. What we can say with some confidence--indeed, Lee says it above--is that Adams made very little, if any, use of the notion in his writings explaining and justifying his vision of republican government. There's no mention of a Hebrew republic in his Thoughts on Government, and he doesn't discuss it in his Defence at any length, even though he spends nearly 200 pages (depending on the edition, I imagine) thoroughly exploring various "ancient republics" of the classical Mediterranean world.

Question for the esteemed academy: Does anyone know whether James Wilson wrote much about the Hebrew republic concept? My provisional sense is that he didn't, and that the ancient republics on his mind were overwhelmingly or perhaps exclusively Greco-Roman, but I could be missing something.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Lex,

Your comments are always welcomed here. I'd have to recheck the record on Wilson.

One thing that struck me about the idea of the Hebraic republic after reading Nelson -- something I've posted on before and will probably again -- is how it arguably appeals to a left of center (but nothing radical like a Marxist scheme to abolish private property) view on economic matters.

As I understand it Madisonian liberalism (which arguably comes from the Enlightenment, Locke, Smith) rejected the collectivistic view of economics of the commonwealth thinkers (Milton, Harrington, and Sidney). We may argue that Madison's vision prevailed.

Nelson claims that the Greco-Roman version of "republicanism" fairly closely mirrored Madison's vision of not being concerned about inequality of outcomes and hence no need for coercive redistribution.

But the Hebraic republican theorists broke with the Ancient Greco-Roman republicans in positing a more economically egalitarian policy.

In fact Nelson wants to give them credit for modern Western economic outcomes where we have simultaneously inequality of outcomes and private holdings, but also a government that steps in and decides how much is too much and taxes the rich more in order to redistribute.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Case in point, from our friend Mr. Fortenberry:

[According to Harrington,] "Domestic empire is founded upon dominion, and dominion is property, real or personal; that is to say in lands, or in money and goods ... as is the proportion or balance of dominion or property in land, such is the nature of the empire. If one man be sole landlord of a territory ... his empire is absolute monarchy. If the few, as a nobility and clergy, be landlords ... the empire is a mixed monarchy ... and if the whole people be landlords, or hold the lands so divided among them, that no one man, or number of men, within the compass of the few, or aristocracy, over-balance them, the empire is a commonwealth...

"This kind of law, fixing the balance in lands, is called Agrarian, and was first introduced by God himself, who divided the land of Canaan to his people by lot."

Bold face mine.

It's not just land we are talking about, but personal property and money. This is an argument for coercive economic redistribution of wealth. Rousseau would later pick up the ball (I think; I'm not expert in Rousseau). But where I've seen the argument that Rousseau is some kind of continental foreigner, and thus not part of the Anglo-American Christian Enlightenment experiment, Milton, Harrington and Sidney most certainly are part of that.

Lex Lata said...

Thanks, Jon. I haven't read Nelson's book yet, and wasn't aware of the connection between the Hebrew republic concept and nitty-gritty economic/property policy. That adds a new dimension (for me, at least) to the tension between the populist and elitist poles that influenced the development of laws and government at the time.