Adams Family Anachronisms

In re: Yarvin v. Rufo

“The nation was then governed by King, Lord and Commons; and its liberties were lost by a strife among three powers, soberly intended to check each other, and keep the scales even.

But while we daily see the violence of the human passions controlling the laws of reason and religion, and stifling the very feelings of humanity, can we wonder that, in such tumults, little or no regard is had to political checks and balance?


The best formed constitutions that have yet been contrived by the wit of man, have, and will come to, an end—because ‘the kingdoms of the earth have not been governed by reason.’ The pride of kings, of nobles, and leaders of the people, who have all governed in their turns, have disadjusted the delicate frame, and thrown all into confusion.”

-Samuel Adams, 1790.

We were recently treated to the Great Debate of our day by our friends over at IM-1776. Not Burke and Paine, but Yarvin and Rufo—the exchange you didn’t know you needed.

It was an illuminating—sometimes more heat than light, however—back and forth and well worth your time. I was less offended by Curits Yarvin being Curtis Yarvin (i.e., snarky) than others seem to have been. It’s part of his charm and is usually productive. What did Chris Rufo think he was getting into? But Rufo played this off well and likely won the rhetorical battle for hearts and minds, as it were. But, again, read it for yourself. The illumination for the new right (such as it is) provided is found less in any particular point made by the combatants and more in the combat itself.

What did offend me was Yarvin’s flippant and presentist treatment of another great (but forgotten) exchange between the Adams cousins, Samuel and John—his mishandling of the text. Rufo pointed out the anachronism of applying the left-right dichotomy, so we will not repeat it.

The error is deeper than that superfluous framing. He misses fundamentals of politics. Whilst John Adams is bemoaning disorder and thinks the world is ending, Samuel Adams is cutting through the noise to the heart of the matter, that which is present in any political system however old and admirable, including ours. John is obsessed with “principles of political architecture.” Samuel is sensitive to what moves men.  

Assuming our team sports designations applied by Yarvin to the late eighteenth century, what do they mean, anyway?

Yarvin’s usage seems to imply, embarrassingly, an attachment to forms and tradition—the bones—and an ignorance of the meat, the things underlying and ostensibly served by the forms. I had thought he was a real radical, not a seminar conservative. Very disappointing, and I’m not quite ready to clear pill on this one.

Is Thomas Hutchinson, the admittedly brilliant but all-around company man, “right wing” just because he doesn’t take the complaints of the colonists seriously, dismisses their legal arguments, and appeals incessantly to the alleged indetermination of the same? No doubt, he was one of the most learned men in the colonies, before he took his ball and went home. Bookishness doesn’t a statesman make. Granted, he was basically frog marched out.

In any case, the means and modes of political action are not defined by their procedural consistency, but by the ends to which they are fitted.

[More to the point, he gets the text in question wrong. Yarvin misses the issue(s) highlighted by Samuel Adams entirely. The righteous man may be in real trouble if the foundations fail, but what are foundations absent righteous—truly excellent and virtuous—men? As they say, personnel is policy.]

In the opening quote above, Samuel Adams describes a monstrous regime, analogous to the sense that Bartolus of Saxoferrato described it.

Namely, no part of the mixed regime can rule effectively; each part has become indistinguishable from the other, resulting in a horrid blob. Everyone got their turn, and everyone failed. The best constitutional constraints, the best structure, cannot stop this. Even the venerable, time-tested British constitution devolved into such an abominable creature. This is a perennial, inescapable law of politics, viz., that all regimes are finite. None will forever perform their constituting purpose, even if we are patient and gracious, which is the good of the governed. Even monarchist adherents to the British model from the century prior like Richard Baxter, who repeatedly denounced Richard Hooker for his popular sovereignty—very un-English—recognized all this in his Holy Commonwealth. (If Yarvin wants a true right-wing text, he should start there.) The marriage of imperium and subjection which generates the commonwealth, the nation, itself is duty-bound to the good of the nation itself. When any government fails to do this, it is illegitimate. Which is to say, it is finite and has run its course. New arrangements more conducive to that paramount end (i.e., the longevity of the commonwealth itself) must and will arise. When a form of government, the thing both Yarvin and Hutchinson seem inordinately attached to, becomes ill-fitted to a people, it necessarily cannot perform its prime purpose.

Again, politics 101, and populist sentiments aren’t necessary to recognize this universal fact which, as it happens, is now only recognized and affirmed on the right. Hutchinson’s partisanship is exposed in his refutation of the Declaration of Independence—a fun read, to be sure—by his intentional misreading of the “pursuit of happiness” bit. He could almost be blamed for stripping it of its classical import and instigating stupid assumptions of individual self-actualization that surround it today. Moreover, the opening lines of the Declaration, the parts that used to be memorized by middle schoolers, are the least interesting part. It is all boilerplate. The grievances announced to a “candid world,” which Hutchinson didn’t like either, supply the meat.

That’s another thing, remember that the Declaration was an international document and, whatever libertarian “scholars” think, tells us almost nothing about the American way of life at the time, the common convictions and motivations undergirding action. For that, go to sermons, not elite pamphlets. Yarvin chides Rufo for being incapable of thinking like an eighteenth-century person, but I saw no reference to the predominant—and it’s not even close—opinion-shaping media of the day.

Back to the Adams family.

What is to be done, per the elder Adams? Renovation, from the ground up. Begin with the younglings. Martin Bucer in his roadmap for reform addressed to Edward VI (De Regno Christi) discerns that whilst laws are necessary, all of them can be skirted. (And no, Curtis, wokeness is not traceable to the boy king.) The path to true, radical overhaul is catechesis of the youth, and self-evidently so. Republican virtues—the “exalted virtues of the Christian system”—like piety, patriotism, and “philanthropy” have to be, like voting, initiated early and often. Only this can temper the “turbulent passions of men” that John fears. In soberer moments, John himself famously recognized this. But in this exchange, he’s fixated on models. The Venetian, Polish, and Dutch are bad. Milton’s enthusiasms were deleterious alterations to the classical model. There is a reason the British had stopped using the term “republican” altogether. Simple monarchy would be better than the aforementioned types. But John doesn’t quite know what he wants, not exactly. His entire frame is captive to the British settlement even as he expresses in his Thoughts on Government that republicanism is more a mood than anything. What we do know is that John is angsty and Samuel is ambivalent. John wants excellence, true Aristotelian mixed form, a perfect balance, pure equilibrium, the stuff of fantasies as wild as Harrington’s Oceana. Only in heaven can such an undefiled science flourish.

Of course, both of the Massachusetts cousins had witnessed a political nirvana. Their reference point was New England itself, with its unprecedented local thickness and socio-political, not to mention religious, catechesis. Basically, they both wanted that. (A staple of Yarvin’s often insightful treatment of alternative founding era histories is his almost debilitating ignorance of the animating feature of early America, viz., Protestantism. Many such cases.)

Samuel venerated it more and was simply more willing to lean on it and proscribe the same remedy for all of Europe. The “last Puritan” was more presumptuous and confident than his Christologically heterodox interlocutor. (Query whether the guy who wrote under pseudonyms like “Cotton Mather” and “Puritan” castigating allegedly rampant Papism and peddling conspiracy of Jesuits trickling in from Quebec can ever be labeled a leftist by any sensible person. Where’s the pluralist tolerance in the Rights of the Colonists or the Suffolk Resolves for that matter?)

To his credit, John remained clearheaded enough to affirm that, at the end of the day, men must be governed by force this side of paradise. Samuel concurs but takes it a step further: even this won’t work if the people are awful, uneducated, selfish, ill-tempered, etc. In the end, Samuel is more the realist than his younger cousin, and this is why he is not hysterical about popular movements and hangs his hat on vectors of conditioning, the education (broadly conceived) of the raw material of any commonwealth, viz., the people.

Samuel is not about to sign up with John for the progressive-perfectionist quest for “true principles” substituted for governance. It’s a boondoggle. Samuel’s evident popular sovereignty aside, John is more “revolutionary” in his impulse to scrap aristocracy and subdue ruling class “families.” And Samuel, it must be said, has the best, if still errant, possible cases for a popular sovereignty basis for government: if government is fitted to natural anthropology and for the good of man—not a foreign incursion on his original state—then its authority arises from the same. Not so far from Johannes Althusius (Politica) is Samuel Adams here. Moreover, this popular basis is expressed, in the American context, through the states, not individuals as such—hardly raw populism or boundless liberalism.

Here a brief excursus is warranted given the recent outrage over Nate Fischer’s tweeting, already ably addressed by Nate Hochman. All the objectors are either self-professedly or easily categorized as “classical liberals,” a meaningless moniker, to be sure. And yet, the idea that a people would be justified in or capable of adjusting their frame of government to be more conducive to their present condition—all that Fischer expressed—is anathema to them. Presumably, they do not understand the incongruence of their own thoughtless position. But Nate’s position is not partisan. It recognizes perennial political realities, and this is what the good liberal cannot stand. The perfectibility of humanity and human systems cannot abide it. And yet, Samuel Adams: ‘But the son of an excellent man may never inherit the great qualities of his father.” All degenerates, that’s the point. Birthrights are sold cheaply by lesser men. Whatever the guarantees of primogeniture, the bottom eventually falls out, and the cycle continues. Whoever recognizes and affirms this fact of socio-political life is necessarily right wing insofar as his analysis is reality-based and his trust in autopilot “systems” minimal. This is not a way of saying that only a spiritual solution will do. The spiritual renewal must arise from and be chided by political solutions, humanly speaking. (Again, see Bucer.)

Principles, institutions, structures are well and good and may, for a time, cure or subdue great evil. But no system, however brilliant and balanced, can do so indefinitely absent sufficient, capable personnel fitted to the form itself. Indeed, the right form must spring from the nation and descendants must be conditioned for its perpetuation otherwise everything is off-kilter, awkward, fatal. This is another way of saying that all government, all constitutions, should be calculated to preserve a certain people. When it has been subverted and the two basic elements (pars imperans and pars subdita) are at odds, then the thing is dead. It literally is no longer animated insofar as it cannot channel the life of the people and is ill-suited for its purpose. In which case, the people must be led to virtue and their good by other means. Otherwise, what is all this for?

Samuel Adams believed the same. The constitution of his day, was “evidently founded in the expectation of the further progress and extraordinary degrees of virtue.” It thereby implicitly confirmed the need for continued conditioning of the people unto this highly proper end—no other end exists.

Of course, John Adams is right about us now. We prefer “ease, slumber, and good cheer to liberty”—the latter must be properly and particularly understood. We are poor watchmen governed by dolts. Our people is not the people of the early republic, and our constitution is not either, as Yarvin acknowledges.

Ultimately, education is a euphemism in Samuel’s usage for cultivation and selection of citizenry. What other means is there to renewal? The form has already been altered multiple times over. Adjusting it again is hardly radical; adjusting it to fit the current condition of the nation and lead it to virtue therefrom is hardly an earthshattering proposal. There’s nothing more conventional, really. As Samuel wrote, “The truly virtuous man, and real patriot, is satisfied with the approbation of the wise and discerning; he rejoices in the contemplation of the purity of his own intentions, and waits, in humble hope, for the plaudit of his final Judge.”

So, who is the real leftist? Samuel, the purveyor of perennial political wisdom and observer of common stirrings, or John, clinging cantankerously to his pure principles and procedures? Substance or form… which should be the first causal consideration?

More practically, which was it that fostered the type of regime change to which Yarvin aspires? The kind of radical alteration that Rufo is allegedly too small minded to enact. It was, by all contemporary accounts, friendly and unfriendly, Samuel, not John, who created it, almost by sheer will. Sometimes, a Boston Tea Party is required. But maybe he was just a leftist and we rubes today are too captive to propaganda to know it—curious given that John has received all the press. Samuel, the good rightwing operator he was, hid in plain sight in his own day and gets even less attention in ours.

Image Credit: The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor by N. Currier, 1846 (Library of Congress)

Print article

Share This

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

2 thoughts on “Adams Family Anachronisms

  1. I like both, but I certainly favor Rufo over Yarvin. If you look at who is producing concrete results, Rufo is running laps around every talking head. There is no shortage of rightwing “influencers” and thinkers writing articles and tweets, making videos and memes to educate the masses. But very few of them ever translate to action. I think Rufo is a realist, not an idealist. He has no utopian visions holding him back. It takes a realist to actually get things done.

    One thing Rufo is doing that is producing results is actually going to the elites. Rather than seeking to supplant them, as so many RW influencers seek to do, he seeks to convert them. Is it not easier to convince them of our cause than to overthrow the system altogether? The right has always been the supporters of hierarchy, which makes our current predicament so strange. The elites favor leftwing ideals that seemingly threaten their own power. I believe this is more due to social conditioning than any sober reflection on politics. Rufo recognizes this, and extends olive branches to the elite. I believe it was he who has actually written several articles about the elite and its evolution over time. This approach is actually bearing fruit.

    None of this is to say that Yarvin and other theorists like him aren’t useful, far from it. Rufo, like many now joining the right, is a disillusioned former liberal. It took men like Yarvin writing in obscurity to shatter the illusion. I believe that our movement is transitioning from the “theory” stage of political change to the “action” stage, which means that the movement has to go from idealism to practical realism. What can actually be done with the society we inhabit with the resources we have? As we make this change, men like Yarvin will fade out and men like Rufo will fade in.

  2. The argument presented above, as far as I can see, is that for a government to be self-perpetuating, it must produce people who are excellent and virtuous with being virtuous is measured by the presence of piety, patriotism, and philanthropy. And that is where we see the justifications for Christian Nationalism. For we are told that only Christian Nationalism, , can produce the people needed to keep the present form of government self-sustaining. Does that claim sound familiar? And if so, do birds of a feather flock together?

    But let’s take that last part of being virtuous: ‘philanthropy.’ If all that means is charitable giving, then we should read the following from Vlad Lenin:

    But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. Religion is opium for the people.’

    BTW, Marx saw another set of circumstances that caused him to say the same thing about religion. And so in other words, how is philanthropy a virtue if it is a cheap way used to appease the conscience for having exploited people? And were people exploited back in the days of the Puritans and our nation’s forefathers? The latter question is a rhetorical one.

    When Jesus talked about love, he was talking about a virtue. And when Jesus described love as a virtue, did He not say that the love that counts before God is the love for one’s enemies and for those who cannot repay a person for charity. Was that the kind of love which the Puritans or our nation’s forefathers practiced? If so, many would beg to differ including minorities and some fellow believers from different denominations.

    Also, why is piety a considered a virtue? After all, our nation’s forefathers were Christians, Deists, and Unitarians with the last two representing some kind of rejection of Jesus. In addition, being a true Christian didn’t stop one from believing in white supremacy as expressed in slave trading, slave owning, or taking land from Native Americans. Later on in American history, white supremacy was expressed in Jim Crow and imperial ventures such as our actions in Philippines.

    It seems that there is a lot of spiritual/moral judgment on the present time because of today’s sexual morals. And such judgment is either a denial or minimization of the horrendous sins of the past. Could it be that those sins of the past are not taken seriously enough because of how many of its victims were not white?

    And of course, there were whites who were exploited with the full knowledge of and approval from Christians. Foreign workers were exploited, as were white men, women, and children. They were all exploited for their labor and those working for rights for those workers had to often endure violence, and even state violence, to win concessions. Where was the Church during those battles?

    Where the argument for the article falls short is in its either inability or unwillingness to talk about the sins of the “golden” times of the past when what the article wants to exist now existed then. And yet, part of that time consisted of a Civil War. Does such an inability or unwillingness remind one of the parable of the 2 men praying?

    What we have today is dreadful. As always, our politicians reflect the population. And that is especially true for our Christian politicians. The problem is that those Christian politicians are not showing themselves to be above the pack.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *