What is the duty of the American scholar? John Adams adopted a classicist approach, believing thorough study of the classics would enable scholars to preserve the legacy of the American Revolution. Ralph Waldo Emerson, on the other hand, rejected classicism in favor of an individualist outlook. He urged scholars to embrace their own authenticity, arguing that otherwise the American spirit would flounder. Despite Emerson’s enduring popularity, Adams’s classicism remains a pointed critique of individualism’s inadequacy.
The Classicism of Adams
As a young man, John Adams developed a lifelong interest in classical philosophers, especially Cicero. The principles he learned from classical philosophy helped inspire his dedication to the American Revolution. In addition to his practical work in politics, Adams became a key figure in the American Enlightenment, producing a distinct political theory. He encouraged American scholarship even before there was a United States of America, stating in 1765:
Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write… Let us study the law of nature; search into the spirit of the British constitution; read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome; set before us the conduct of our own British ancestors, who have defended for us the inherent rights of mankind against foreign and domestic tyrants and usurpers, against arbitrary kings and cruel priests, in short against the gates of earth and hell.
Adams was not dreaming of beginning the world anew through scholarship, but of preserving the traditions of law and liberty. These traditions conveyed certain truths which Adams held dear: the imperfectability of man, the importance of mixed government, the necessity of impartial statesmanship. His reverence for authority did not entail blind obedience to King George III. In fact, Adams earned the moniker “Atlas of Independence” for his speeches in the Second Continental Congress.
In the post-revolutionary era, Adams’s classicism led to a well-deserved reputation as a proponent of political conservatism. Due to his criticism of Jeffersonian egalitarianism, Adams’s views became highly controversial. Nevertheless, he persisted, encouraging the next generation of Americans to follow in his footsteps:
Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity, or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction, that, after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit, in general, to be transmitted, to your posterity, than those you have received from your ancestors.
Adams had studied the principles and institutions of the past in order to preserve American liberty; he expected America’s youth to do the same. In his twilight years, he was visited by one such youth: Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The Individualism of Emerson
About a decade after Adams passed away, Ralph Waldo Emerson fervently rejected his classicism. Emerson, a clergyman, had left his ministry to become a scholar after questioning Christian doctrines. Even prior to formalizing his individualist philosophy, Emerson was searching for authenticity. In 1837, Emerson beckoned to a new frontier, free from domineering authorities. Far from providing guidance, he argued, these authorities were preventing creativity:
…Instantly the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant. The sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of Reason, having once so opened, having once received this book, stands upon it, and makes an outcry if it is disparaged.
American scholarship had become superficial. Americans may not have been ignorant, but they were close-minded. While they had gained political independence from Great Britain, the American mind remained dependent on traditional authorities. Emerson insisted that scholars should instead rely on their own experiences and instincts. He became an apostle of individualism, asserting that innovation would invigorate the national mind and avert stagnation:
We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds… A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.
Outside of his scholarship, Emerson occasionally demonstrated naivete. He sympathized with the utopian experiment of Brooke Farm, infatuated with its merry anarchy. Due to its rudderless nature and financial mismanagement, it collapsed. Emerson’s idealism later made him an apologist for political violence when John Brown, a would-be revolutionary, raided Harper’s Ferry. Emerson elevated Brown into a messianic figure, heightening the sectional tensions that led to the Civil War. In the war’s aftermath, Emerson passed away, recognized as an icon of American scholarship.
An Era of Instability
If Adams himself were to defend his position, he might begin by firmly rejecting the notion that he was encouraging complacency. Studying the classics led to understanding and action, not immobility. The Atlas of Independence had not lived a life of conformity; he had lived a life of principle and built an enduring legacy. His classicism enabled him to help forge a nation, whereas Emerson’s individualism yielded inspiring dreams.
Emerson would reply that he did not argue that scholars should ignore authority. On the contrary, he believed that some geniuses could borrow nobly. One can imagine him suggesting that Adams fell into this pattern of originality coexisting with tradition. Furthermore, Emerson might respond that he had not endeavored to create laws. Instead he intended his message to strengthen individuals.
In the contest between classicism and individualism over the American mind, individualism has triumphed. The present moment testifies to the limitations of Emerson’s philosophy, however. The American mind is not lost in indolent tranquility but engaged in a frenzy of iconoclasm. Traditional books are not tyrannical in this context; they are deconstructed and denounced. Opinions are not shaped by precedents and inherited ideals. Instead, it is more fashionable to base assertions on lived experience. This atmosphere certainly encourages confidence in one’s own instincts; it likewise encourages intemperate idealism and unhinged rhetoric. Instead of each individual partaking in inspiration, the scene more closely resembles the collapse of Brooke Farm.
While Emerson’s idealistic individualism is praiseworthy in some aspects, such as his opposition to slavery, Adams’s classicism is more fitted for this moment. Adams’s intellectual approach prepared him for practical political leadership, equipping him to build lasting structures. In an era of instability, Adams points us to a rock against contemporary chaos.