History remembers John Adams, America's second president, as a philosopher, a man perhaps more interested in scholarly meditation on politics than in the practice of politics. Adams was no stranger to sensational quotes, from the extreme, “In politics the middle way is none at all,” to the controversial, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.” The famous assertion that democracy never lasts long did indeed come from Adams' mouth -- or his pen -- but it must be examined in its full context in order to be truly understood.
John Taylor of Caroline, Virginia, spurred Adams' surprising words on democracy. This republican lawyer and member of the state legislature published numerous political books from 1814 to 1823, much of them using colorful language to point out Taylor's perceived flaws of the ruling government. He also used the opportunity to critique Adams' “Defence of the Constitutions of the United States.” Adams' quote is a response to the lines Taylor wrote in his 1814 book, “An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States,” which stated that Adams “might have exhibited millions of plebeians sacrificed to the pride, folly, and ambition of monarchy and aristocracy.”
The Full Quote
Adams was quick to respond to Taylor's criticism with an 1814 letter. He wrote, to quote the passage entirely, “I might have exhibited as many millions of plebeians sacrificed by the pride, folly, and ambition of their fellow-plebeians and their own, in proportion to the extent and duration of their power. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation.”
Of course, only Adams himself can answer the question of “why” he said what he did; others can only speculate and interpret. In the same letter, Adams seems to sum up his beliefs on the matter with one crucial statement following his quote on democracy: “Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.” This statement recognizes man's intellectual and moral capabilities as an individual, but notes that when individuals come together as a government, these qualities falter. Hence, no democracy can “last long.”
Although Adams' words appear pessimistic on the surface, this is not necessarily the case. After his initial statement, he lists examples of the historical imperfections and follies of democracy in Athens and France, claiming their ambitions were strictly vested in self-propagation and blaming democracies for bloodshed and war. Finally, however, Adams notes that this is no different than other forms of government, such as monarchy. In this, he reveals that his statement is perhaps more ideological than it is political; as much as it condemns government, it affirms the individual. This philosophy reflects another of Adams' more positive historical quotes: “To believe all men honest is folly. To believe none is something worse.”