John Adams and Rousseau

An inveterate arguer, John Adams made copiousand highly explosivenotes in many of his books now at the Boston Public Library. He was especially incensed against the philosophes, whom he held mainly responsible for the French Revolution. In a book on Adams, now in preparation, ZOLTAN HARASZTI brings together some fifty thousand words of these hitherto unpublished comments. They should be indispensable to historians. Mr. Haraszti is Keeper of Rare Books at the Boston Public Library and, since its inception, has been editor of More Books, the library’s monthly bulletin.



IN the ten-volume edition of John Adams’s Works, Rousseau’s name occurs only a few times, and even then in the company of others. Yet Rousseau’s philosophy — his conception of society and government, and especially his doctrine of equality — deeply occupied Adams all his life: he hardly ever ceased to fight it.

One of the earliest occasions on which he mentions Rousseau is in connection with the framing of the Constitution of Massachusetts, the draft of which he himself prepared. He was extremely proud of the work. “There never,” he wrote to a friend soon after the ratification in 1780, “was an example of such precautions as are taken by this wise and jealous people in the formation of theii government. None was ever made so perfectly upon the principle of the people’s rights and equality. It is Locke, Sidney, and Rousseau and De Mably reduced to practice, in the first instance.”

In his joy he forgot to mention that the principle of equality had been rather forced upon him. First he had tried to get around the issue by an ingenious use of the word “equal”. In his draft, the Declaration of Rights, the writing of which had been entrusted to him alone, began innocuously with “All men are born equally free and independent . . .” — a far cry from the bold statement of the Declaration of Independence. No one now knows how the revision was worked out; what, for instance, Samuel Adams had to do with it. But the Convention certainly changed the artful phrase to “All men are born free and equal . . .”

There was little in Adams to dispose him toward Rousseau. To be sure, Rousseau has often been called the Puritan of Geneva; and in a fundamental sense the epithet is deserved. Unfortunately, as readers of his autobiography will well remember, grace did not come to him as early as to his fellow

Calvinist in Boston: two books more dissimilar than Adams’s Diary and Rousseau’s Confessions would be difficult to imagine. With the French Revolution, Adams’s instinctive aversion turned into positive dislike—Rousseau became for him the symbol of everything that was destructive and dangerous.

“The Revolution in France,” he wrote to Dr. Price in April, “could not be indifferent to me; but I have learned by awful experience, to rejoice with trembling. I know that encyclopedists and economists, Diderot and D’Alembert, Voltaire and Rousseau, have contributed to this great event more than Sidney, Locke, or Hoadley, perhaps more than the American Revolution; and I own to you, I know not what to make of a republic of thirty million atheists.”

These, however, are only passing references. It is in his notes written on the margins of his books that Adams comes to grips with Rousseau. These notes, totaling over twenty-two hundred words, present a comprehensive picture, revealing his complicated reactions to the philosopher.

Having read and reread the Discours sur l’Inégalité, he jotted down on a blank page —

“The speculative Genius and unequalled Eloquence of this Writer has pulled down Systems; it has invalidated Errors; it has undermined Impostures: but it has not discovered Truth. It remains for others to erect new Systems which may be better or may be worse.

“Reasonings from a State of Nature are fallacious, because hypothetical. We have not facts. Experiments are wanting. Reasonings from Savage Life are not much better. Every Writer affirms what he pleases. We have not facts to be depended on.

“The State of Nature, the Savage Life, the Chinese Happiness have all been falsely celebrated and cried up, in order to lessen the Reverence for the Christian Religion and weaken the Attachment. to monarchical Government.”

This was his sober, considered opinion. But in the excitement of reading he gives vent to his more spontaneous feelings. He calls Rousseau a “Coxcomb,” a “Fool,” and a “Satyr,” whose reasoning at times appears to him “a Mass of Nonsense and Inconsistency.” He cannot understand “how he himself could believe his own Absurdity.” One outburst follows another. “Wild, loose, crude Talk!” he writes in obvious anger; “Mad Rant!” we read a few pages below; then, “How ignorant! how childish!” Sometimes the whole thing seems to him “ridiculous,” and we see the merry syllables “Ha! ha! ha!” dancing on the margin.

The larger number of comments he made on the Discours sur l’Inégalité, which he read in the first English translation. Much of Adams’s vexation may be explained by the fact that he waded through the book in 1794, during the worst period of the Terror. It would be an exaggeration, however, to say that his later comments, made during his presidency in 1800, are much milder. The notes follow one another so closely that a real dialogue ensues between author and reader. They are reproduced here—in part — precisely in that form, giving Adams’s words intact, with their original spelling and punctuation,


THEDiscours sur l’Inégalité, as may be recalled, was composed for a prize offered by the Academy of Dijon in 1753 for a dissertation on the question, “What is the origin of inequality among mankind, and is such inequality warranted by the law of nature?” Four years before, it was for a similar competition arranged by the same Academy that Rousseau had written his Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts, with which he won the contest, and which made him, an altogether obscure person, famous overnight.

Unfortunately, the new prize was given to someone else. Yet the Discours sur l’Inégalité remains one of Rousseau’s masterpieces. With lucidity and eloquence he records in it his ideas about the effects of civilization upon mankind. In the first part of the essay he describes man in the state of nature, and in the second, in the state of society. He does not claim that primitive man was happy or virtuous, but merely that he was “not unhappy” and “not vicious.” Between the conceptions of Hobbes and Locke—the one regarding primitive man as homo homini lupus and the other as an almost perfect Christian — Rousseau looks upon him as an unthinking animal, weaker than animals of prey and yet capable of defending himself. It was owing to various accidents that the family, the tribe, and finally society developed.

Rousseau’s evolutionary view of society, with all its false science, was remarkable for his time; and it is noteworthy that he himself emphasizes the hypothetical character of his interpretations. No doubt, a good deal of poetry was mingled with his anthropology, especially in his vision of the Golden Age. However, it was precisely this mysticism which captured the imagination of his contemporaries and, still more, of succeeding generations. The revolt against society and convention, to which the book gave such moving expression, was, as Adams well recognized, one of the prime forces of the Revolution.

The preliminaries of the Discours are long, but the essay itself starts out like a manifesto. “I conceive two kinds of inequality among man,” Rousseau announces, “one which I call natural or physical inequality . . . and the other, which may be termed moral or political inequality.” It would be absurd, “unworthy of free men,” to inquire whether there might not be some connection between the two. “This Question instead of being absurd is very natural, reasonable and important. The Answer is indeed so obvious and certain that it cannot long be doubted,” was Adams’s opinion.

How was primitive man able to preserve himself and his offspring, to assure his food and safety against the attacks of other animals? Nature intended that we should always enjoy good health. Man did not need to think. “I almost dare to affirm,” the author makes his famous dictum, “that a state of reflection is a state against nature, and that the man who meditates is a depraved animal. . . .”

Rousseau: There is a very specific quality that distinguishes men from beasts, namely the faculty of self-improvement.

Adams: The Question is concerning the Difference between Man and Man; not Man and Beast.

R.: Whereas a beast is at the end of a few months all that it ever will be. . . .

A.: Dancing Dogs, Learned Piggs, Scientific Birds had not been educated, when this was written. Experiments have not yet been made on the Capacity of Beasts, Birds or Fishes, eno’ to determine the Extent of it.

R.: It would be shocking to have to praise for his beneficence the man, whoever he was, that first suggested to the Orinoco Indians the use of those boards which they bind on the temples of their children, and which secure to them at least a part of their natural imbecility and happiness.

A.: Savages are happier than Citizens, and Brutes are happier than Savages! Voila the Sum of J. J. Rousseau’s Philosophy! A poor Atonement for such poisonous Stuff is made by all the Divinity of his Eloquence. His Panegyricks on Nature, on Savages and Beasts: his Philippicks against Arts, Sciences, Society and Civilization contributed, however, to make Europe uneasy under their Religion and Government and promoted the Revolution that it begun.

R.: It is through our passions that our reason improves; the passions, in turn, owe their origin to our wants. . . . But savage man knows no goods but food, a female, and rest; he fears no evils but pain and hunger; I say pain, and not death; for no animal will ever know what it is to die. . . .

A.: Death is certainly terrible to all Animals. It may be more so to Man than to others, from his Reflections and his Education.

R.: The moderate needs of savages are so easily supplied. . . .

A.: Not so easily. Savages find it difficult to get Food, Shelter, Covering, Physic.

Next Rousseau probes into the origin of languages. Man’s first speech was “the cry of nature”; but when his ideas began to multiply, the inflections of his voice multiplied too. The slight care which nature has taken in promoting the use of speech shows how little she has done towards making men social beings. “So then,” Adams remarked, “the distinction between a natural and an artificial Society is groundless. Nature never intended any Society. All Society is art. Nothing will do but a Paradox.” The compassion lavished on primitive man, Rousseau continues, is altogether gratuitous: —

R.: He had in his instinct alone everything he needed to live in a state of nature; his cultivated reason barely provides him with what is necessary to live in society.

A.: Millions in a State of Society are supported with less difficulty than Dozens in a State of Nature.

R.: There was no kind of moral relation between men in this state; they could not be either good or bad, and had neither vices nor virtues.

A.: Wonders upon Wonders. Paradox upon Paradox. What astonishing Sagacity had Mr. Rousseau! Yet this eloquent Coxcomb has with his Affectation of Singularity made Men discontented with Superstition & Tyranny.

R.: Savages are not bad, precisely because they don’t know what it is to be good; for it is neither the development of their understanding, nor the curb of the law, but the calmness of their passions and their ignorance of vice that prevents them from doing ill,

A.: Calmness of the Passions of Savages! ha! ha! ha!

R.: It is reason that engenders self-love, and reflection that strengthens it. . . .

A.: Reason begets Self Love! Another Wonder.

R.: It is philosophy that isolates a man from other men. . . .

A.: Alias Atheism.

R.: R is pity which, instead of that sublime maxim of reasoned justice “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” inspires all men with that other maxim of natural goodness, a great deal less perfect, but perhaps more useful: “Pursue your happiness with as little harm to others as possible.”

A.: A Maxim of eternal Justice to Creatures of the same Creator deriving equal Right from him. But a Maxim of Idiocy or Lunacy to Atheists.

R.: Let us begin by distinguishing between what is moral and what is physical in the passion of love.

A.: There are Inequalities in this Passion of Love, which produce other Inequalities in Society.

R.: A savage listens solely to the inclination implanted in him by nature, and not to taste, which he could never acquire; and any woman answers his purpose.

A.: This is very questionable: tho he might not refuse any offered him Single; yet if Several were offered him, of different Figures, Colours, Beauty, would he have no Choice?

R.: As to the inferences which one may draw from the example of animals, we must exclude all those species in which the relative powers of the sexes are different from those existing among us. Thus from the battles of cocks we can form no conclusion about the human race.

A.: In a Cage of Canary Birds, if the Sexes are together, the Cocks will fight eternally. The Hanoverian Minister in Grosvenor Square shewed me his Cocks in one Cage and his Hens in another.

R.: If we compare the prodigious variety in the education and manner of living of the different classes in a civil state with the simplicity and uniformity of savage life . . . we shall easily understand how much smaller the difference between man and man must be in the state of nature than in the state of society.

A.: It is denied that the Difference is greater in Society than in Nature. On the contrary, there is more Equality in Society than in Nature. Age and Childhood are more equal to middle Age. The Sick are more equal to the Well.


THE second part of the essay begins with the declaration: “The first man who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, miseries, and horrors would that person have saved the human race who, pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches, had cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this impostor. . . .” Adams could hardly wait. Opposite the words This is mine he wrote, “True”; to the question “How many crimes . . .” he answered, “Not one, not one”; and at the end he jotted down in his largest letters: “He would have been a greater Impostor.”

The idea of property, Rousseau believes, took shape during the last phase of the state of nature. He tries to reconstruct the slow evolution which led up to it: —

R.: Among the various appetites of man, there was one that urged him to perpetuate his species; and this blind propensity, void of any feeling, produced only an act that was purely animal.

A.: He must have been worse than the Birds and than many Beasts.

R.: Their needs satisfied, the sexes took no further notice of each other. . . .

A.: He must have a perverted head or a cursed heart who could say this.

R.: Such was the condition of infant man. . . .

A.: Thou belyest thy Species, Satyr. Thou makest him worse than Swift’s Yahoo.

R.: But difficulties soon arose. . . . He had to learn to surmount the obstacles ol nature, to light if necessary with other animals.

A.: No doubt he was superlatively happy all this time.

R.: Bad harvests, long and severe winters, and scorching summers which parched everything demanded fresh exertions.

A.: He possessed the Sovereign Good all this t ime.

R.: The new lights resulting from this development increased his superiority to other animals and thus, by attributing first rank to his species, he prepared himself from afar to pretend to it as an individual.

A.: What a fool! There is not an Ox, nor an Horse, nor a Cow, nor a Sheep, there is not a Bird, Beast or Fish but pretends to it.

R.: These first advances enabled man to forge ahead with greater speed. The first epoch of revolution saw the establishment of family, the introduction of something like property, and the building of cabins. . . . The habit of living together gave birth to the sweetest sentiments known to man, to conjugal and paternal love.

A.: Had not the female the sweet. Sentiment of parental Love before Cabins were invented? It would be hard to deny to Woman the feelings of an Hen or a Robbin.

R.: Jealousy awakens with love; discord triumphs, and the sweetest of passions requires the sacrifice of human blood.

A.: And were there no Battles for a female before this improved State.? He makes Men more stupid than Horses or Dogs.

R.: He who sings or dances best; the handsomest, the strongest, the most dexterous, the most eloquent comes to be the most respected. . . .

A.: These are Sources of Reputation, Influence, and Dignity, which in every Stage of Society surpass Merit, in some Instances.

R.: . . . and this was the first step towards inequality, and at the same time towards vice.

A.: The first Step? Agriculture, Manufactures, Houses were Steps to Inequality long before.

R.: Men no sooner began to appraise one another and to know what esteem was, than each laid claim to it, and it was no longer possible to refuse it to another with impunity. . . .

A.: Love of Esteem is much earlier than this. The two first Men or Women who met felt, an Affection for each other.

R.: Though men had become less patient and natural pity had already suffered some alteration, this period of the development of human faculties, holding a just mean between the indolence of the primitive state and the petulant activity of selllove, must have been the happiest and most lasting epoch.

A.: This natural Compassion was precisely that of Cocks and Hens, Turkeys, Geese & Ducks, who will not hurt another if he does not stand in their way.

R.: Metallurgy and agriculture were the two arts whose invention produced this great revolution. For the poet, it is gold and silver, but for the philosopher, it is iron and corn that have civilized men and ruined mankind.

A.: Nonsense. Is it possible this Man could believe this?

R.: It is difficult to tell how men came to know and use iron. Mines are formed nowhere but in dry and barren places, as if nature had taken pains to keep this fatal secret from us.

A.: How ignorant! Iron mines are in Meadows, Swamps, Ponds! How childish!

R.: As to agriculture, its principle was known long before its practice was established. . . . From the tilling of the soil necessarily followed its division; and from property, once recognized, the first rules of justice.

A.: A Club, an Hatchet of Stone, a Bow, an Arrow was property before Land. So was the Lyons Skin of Hercules.

R.: Things in this state might have remained equal, if men’s talents had been equal. But the proportion was soon broken. The stronger performed a larger amount of work; the more dexterous turned it to better account. . . .

A.: An eternal Source of Inequality in many Stages of Society.

R.: . . . the more ingenious found out methods of lessening his labor; the husbandman required more iron, or the smith more corn; and although both worked equally, one earned a great deal, while the other got scarcely enough to live.

A.: Did not the most ingenious find out such Methods before Iron and Corn were known? Ingenuity gave him an Advantage in taking fish, fowls and all sorts of Game: so it did in climbing Trees for fruit: or excavating a Tree rotten at the heart for a house.

Already at this point in his development, Rousseau looks upon the establishment of the body politic as “a real contract” between the people and its leaders. He traces the degeneration of legitimate power into despotism, which in turn destroys civil society. How then should one answer the question propounded by the Academy of Dijon? “It is manifestly against the law of nature,” Rousseau concludes, “that a child should command an aged man, that an imbecile should lead a sage, and that a handful of people should gorge themselves on superfluities while the hungry multitude lacks even necessities.”

Adams read it all, marking almost every paragraph wilh the word “Note.” Here and there he underlined a sentence, but he stopped arguing.

One of the best-known witticisms of Voltaire is his remark about the Discount sur l’Inégalité. “Never before has so much wit been employed to turn us into beasts,” he wrote to Rousseau. “Reading your work, one has the desire to walk on all fours. . . .” Voltaire, himself addicted to marginalia, made numerous notes in his own copy. In the privacy of their studies readers are apt to fall into similar moods; it is remarkable how much Voltaire’s vocabulary resembles that of Adams, Comments like ridicule, faux, and pitoyable are mixed with exclamations like tarare, the French equivalent of “ fiddle-sticks.” Fou que tu es . . . , he once intimately addressed his friend. Malheureux Jean-Jacques . . . , he started out another time. At the end he gave it up: Tout cela est abominable. . . .


THE Discours sur l’Inégalité was not published until June, 1755, and while still reading the proofs, Rousseau was already preparing his Économie Politique for the fifth volume of the Encyclopédie.

The distance between the two works is great. If the former is a complete expression of Rousseau’s individualism, the latter sets forth his ideas about communal living. The first regards property as the cause of all evil, while the second declares it to be the foundation of civil society. Yet the break is not absolute; the Economie Politique contains many contradictions which show that Rousseau has not entirely renounced his former convictions. He acclaims the State as the embodiment of the corporate self (moi commun), and praises the law as the essence of the “general will”; he does not, however, maintain his lofty objectivity for long. The State, he emphasizes, is the instrument of the rich for the exploitation of the poor.

Adams was absorbed in the essay, underlining passage after passage. Rousseau asserts that limited associations should be subordinated to larger ones, for the general will is always the most just and the voice of the people is the voice of God.

Adams balked: “If the Majority is 51 and the Minority 49, is it certainly the Voice of God? If tomorrow one should change to 50 vs 50, where is the Voice of God? If two and the Minority should become the Majority, is the Voice of God changed?”

The first part of the treatise is devoted to the importance of the observance of the laws: —

R.: It is to law alone that men owe justice and liberty; it is this salutary instrument of the will of all that restores natural equably to its rightful place. . . .

A.: But who shall make & who will guard the Laws? The Guardians of the Laws are the desideratum. These can only be Something tantamount to King, Lords & Commons.

R.: If the head of the State wishes others to observe the law, he must do so all the more scrupulously himself. For his example is of such force. . . .

A.: What gives such force to his Example? the Oil? his Power exciting both Fear & Gratitude? his Pomp? his Wealth?

R.: Experience has long taught the people to prize their chiefs for all the harm that they do not do, and to adore them when they are not hated.

A.: Is there no medium between Adoration and Hatred? What is the Cause of this Adoration? Is this the Sin, Crime or Fault of the Chiefs?

R.: There is no doubt that peoples are in the long run what the government makes out of them: warriors, citizens, men, when it desires; rabble and canaille, if it likes. . . .

A.: The Government ought to be what the People make it. Why is it not?

Rousseau exalts the love of country as a hundred times more keen and more delicious than that of a mistress. “Hyperbole,” Adams decided like an expert. Rousseau makes a nostalgic plea — one of the most original and valuable parts of the essay — for general education: if children were brought up in common, if they were imbued with the laws of the State and the precepts of the general will. . . . Adams, however, was skeptical:

“This Spartan Education is not the Thing.” Rousseau even recommends that retired magistrates devote their old age to teaching: illustrious warriors should preach courage and honest judges should inculcate justice, thus transmitting to succeeding generations their experience and talents. “Very good for what I know,” Adams conceded, “but these would be costly Schoolmasters.”

In some respects the last portion of the Economie Politique is the most challenging. In it Rousseau advocates the right to work, maintaining that it is the duty of the State to secure the livelihood of its citizens. Adams passed this over in silence. Then, in the discussion of inheritance, he found a passage which he esteemed “worth a Volume.” It should be the spirit of the laws, Rousseau suggests, that from father to son, and from relative to relative, family property be alienated as little as possible, for nothing is more fatal to morals than the continual shift of fortunes from one hand to another. Adams was pleased with this “deep Sense.”

However, it is the Contrat Social that contains the final embodiment of Rousseau’s doctrines of the sovereignty of the State. The law of the social order is “sacred,” but it does not derive from nature; it is founded on conventions and we have to learn what these conventions are. This is the prelude. Far from giving up his ideas about the origin of society, Rousseau makes the powerful indictment: “Man was born free, yet he is everywhere in chains. . . .”

Adams was especially critical of the analysis of the various legislative systems, which, according to Rousseau, should have two principal objects, liberty and equality: —

R.: As regards equality, we are not to understand by this term that the degrees of wealth and power must be absolutely the same; but that power should never be exercised contrary to the laws, and that no citizen should be rich enough to buy another, or so poor as to be obliged to sell himself.

A.: But when or where did such Moderation ever exist?—absolutely never, where Riches existed.

R.: Do you wish to impart strength to the State? Narrow down the distance between the two extremes as much as possible; tolerate neither rich nor beggars.

A.: What becomes of the Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”? Must you steal from rich Men their Property and give it to Beggars? — Property, Property! that is the Difficulty. Without Property, there would be no rich Men to be sure. But there would not be fewer Beggars for that.

Yet Rousseau allows that the institutions should be adapted to the characteristics of the country: Do the wines of the sea lash your inaccessible rocks? Then remain barbarous fish-eaters; you will live more at ease, will be more virtuous perhaps, and certainly happier. But Adams resisted the lure: “The Ease is doubted and the Virtue and Happiness derived.”


IT IS a charming picture — John Adams sitting back in an armchair with a copy of the Nouvelle Héloïse.

His notes are few, but enough to show that he really knew the book. In the first volume he repeated the word “honneur” on the margin of a letter from Saint-Preux to Julie, perhaps mocking the man’s incessant protestation of his noble sentiments; for that letter was written after the seduction had taken place. At the beginning of the second volume Mylord Édouard tells Claire about the troubled state of affairs between Julie and her lover, owing to the intervention of her cruel father. “Let rank be determined by merit and the union of hearts by their own choice; this is the proper social order,” he writes. “Sing-song,” Adams pronounced. “Those who regulate it by birth or wealth are the real disturbers of this system,” the Englishman goes on. Adams added the suggestion “ou par beauté de visage ou figure,” continuing in English: “Peoples, Nations, not Individuals, are guilty of this. Riches and fame are Chimaeras too.”

Julie marries an elderly nobleman, M. de Wolmar, and bids farewell to her lover “forever.” Saint-Preux contemplates suicide. He tries to justify his plan to his English patron: People say that God has placed us in this world and therefore we have no right to leave it without permission; but he has placed us also in our city and yet we need no permission to leave that. “Excellent Sophistry if the word ‘excellent’ may be used,” Adams considered the proposition. Once the weariness of life conquers the horror of death, Saint-Preux meditates, life becomes intolerable. “Rather better,” the Old Man at Quincy thought.

In any case, Saint-Preux decides to live, and with the help of his friend procures a commission on an English ship of war and sails the seven seas for years. By the time of his return, Julie has several growing children. At the invitation of her incomparable husband, Saint-Preux goes to live with them (even as Rousseau was living, at the time of his writing the novel, with Mme. d’Houdedot and Saint-Lambert). From their home, he sends Mylord Édouard a glowing description of the household. It is a great error in domestic as well as in public economy, he argues, to try to combat one evil with another or to create a kind of equilibrium between them. . . . Adams was cautious:

“This requires Explanation, Limitation, Restriction.”

The ménage à trois proved successful. SaintPreux achieved a puzzled admiration for M. de Wolmar, whom he represents to Mylord Édouard as cold but without a touch of vice: “He lacks inner feeling, which enables him to resist all other feelings.” Adams underlined this. There is no sign as to what he thought of the rest, of the story — of Saint-Preux’s recurring weakness and Julie’s own desperate struggle against her love, which ends only with her semi-voluntary death.

The Nouvelle Héloïse exerted an enormous influence upon countless poets and novelists, from Goethe to Byron, and from George Sand to Chateaubriand. Its romantic exaltation started a new era in literature, to last for nearly a century. One may feel certain, however, that John Adams was immune to its raptures. He was well protected by his own wise system of “checks and balances.”