John Adams’ Discourses on Davila

Over the past few months, I have been investigating John Adams’ Discourses on Davila, a series of articles that he published anonymously in 1790 and 1791. Early in the series, Adams’ Discourses were billed as direct translation of Enrico Caterino Davila’s  Historia delle guerre civili di Francia (1631), in which the Italian historian recounted the sixteenth-century French Wars of Religion. Slowly, however, the Discourses morphed from a translation of Davila to a commentary on Davila; here, in his remarks on French history, Adams presented a historical defense of mixed government and Burkean traditionalism. Specifically, Adams argued against Condorcet, Turgot and the French revolutionaries of his own day, who preferred a unicameral democratic political system to the bicameralism and checks-and-balances of the American government, and who vilified tradition and precedent obstacles to be overcome, rather than sources of wisdom to be studied and respected.

On their own, the Discourses are an interesting document of political philosophy from an important early-modern statesman, and later president. But just how important were the Discourses in the early-1790s? One of the ways that historians establish the relevance of a particular text is to show that it was widely studied, so I spent a good deal of time looking up readership statistics on the Gazette of the United States, the magazine in which Adams’ essays first appeared. As it turns out, the Gazette was one of America’s most popular newspapers in the 1790s, especially among New England Federalists. In fact, George Washington himself was likely a reader of Adams’ Discourses: he was a faithful subscriber to the paper during his time as president, from 1788 to 1796. Adams published his Discourses while he was Washington’s sitting Vice President, so it is interesting to wonder whether the President knew of Adams’ authorship in 1790. We can’t be certain: there are no letters between the two that decide the question one way or another. Regardless, it is very likely that the anti-Jacobin tenor of the Discourses convinced Washington to maintain American neutrality during the French Revolution (even though the French had supported the American War for Independence just a few decades earlier). In the course of time, this decision would turn out to be one of the wisest of his presidency.

Look forward to seeing everyone at the Spring Conference next week!

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About jonathanallengreen

Northwestern University, Class of 2012 American Studies, German double-major "John Adams' Discourses on Davila"
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