In the Summer of 1763 John Adams undertook the writing of an essay entitled “On Private Revenge.” The turmoil of the French and Indian War was only freshly over and the British Parliament in that same year adopted the Proclamation of 1763. The Proclamation granted control over the lands acquired through the Treaty of Paris to the British government, not the colonial governments. Within a decade the Parliament would go on to do more to seek retribution from the Colonies for the assistance England provided during the war. This enraged the passions of colonial Americans, specifically in New England in and around Boston. We must read Adams’ essay only in the light of these events. In his traditional style, Adams calls for law and order to persevere over chaos and anarchy.
The first paragraph of the essay sets up the plan Adams has laid out for his argument. In the Politics, Aristotle asserts that man outside of the city is either a beast or a god. Adams argues that man is distinguished from other animals because of his ability to unite and entire into society. The natural attributes of man are not enough to make him superior to other animals, but in fact Adams believes they would make man weakest of all other animals. What makes man superior is his ability to unite with others of his kind; thus agreeing with Aristotle partly by stating man outside of society is nothing more than a beast such as, “the bear or the tiger.” Within this man, like other animals, Adams argues, “As he comes originally from the hands of his Creator, self-love or self-preservation is the only spring that moves him.” Locke argues that the law of nature is only known through reason, with exception of the first law which is that of self-preservation. Hobbes too argues that within society the Magistrate is capable of ordering his subjects to do whatever he wishes, except if he desires to kill them in which case the law of self-preservation requires them to defy the Magistrate. And thus Adams has created his argument; man is superior to other animals because he is able to unite himself within society. However, like other animals man has implanted in his soul self-preservation, which calls upon man to defend his life against all threats. How does one preserve his life and at the same time allow himself to exist in society? The law of self-preservation appears to grant man the authority to execute the law of nature. Society limits this ability and grants that authority to an impartial third-party.
Adams description of a state of nature comes closer to the description provided by Rousseau. He describes that in this state man is propogated, food is found on “the banks of clams and oysters”, weapons for war are present, and animal hide become clothing. Yet this society is void of friendship, trade, and human bonding unless instinct calls for it. In essence, man is truly free and independent without any other above him or below him. Adams defines the virtues of the “savage state, courage, hardiness, activity, and strength.” Take these four virtues and compare them to the four classical virtues, “Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance.” Many view the virtue of courage as among the basest virtues, in fact Aristotle in the Ethics describes it almost immediately, indicating that it is the most base of all virtues. The man who is in charge in this society is the one who can kill the best, or run the fastest. This is the basis for tribal leadership, and possibly the roots of how one became king in ancient England, France, or Germany. This basis for determining who is superior will also result in the usage of revenge over justice; the man who perceives himself to be stronger and is beat by another will take it as an insult and attack the other man. Adams even argues that the idea of allowing a third-party to mediate the situation is indication the deficiencies of the savage state. It is clear that Adams views revenge as the hallmark of a savage state. New Englanders within a few years of this essay will attempt to overthrow the established system and seek revenge for the ills done to them by the British parliament. Adams, in a possible prophetic statement argues that when a horse treads over a gouty toe, our passions are so excited that we feel we must kill the horse. The horse is a symbol of Aristocracy in philosophy, which can lead one to see the prophetic nature of the comment. The horse represents the British Parliament, which does end up stepping on the gouty toe of the colonies, who never really recover from the French and Indian War. Adams finishes this section by saying:
For the great distinction between savage nations and polite ones, lies in this,—that among the former every individual is his own judge and his own executioner; but among the latter all pretensions to judgment and punishment are resigned to tribunals erected by the public; a resignation which savages are not, without infinite difficulty, persuaded to make, as it is of a right and privilege extremely dear and tender to an uncultivated nature.
A stark contrast between the savage state and the polite state is clear, in the one man is his own executioner while in the other he is not. Rousseau argues in the Social Contract:
The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces in man a very remakable change, by substituting in his conduct justice for instinct, and by giving his actions the moral quality that they previously lacked. It is only when the voice of duty succeeds physical impulse, and law succeeds appetite, that man, who till then had regarded only himself, sees that he is obliged to act on other principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations.
Rousseau’s sentiments are similar to Adams, in that when man passes into civil society he is expected to give up those habits which were present in him in nature.
This brings up the next point. If society should ever come to the point where we will give up our polite and noble nature, we will become worse than the Goths before becoming Christians. He compares the individual who believes that when offended one should draw his sword to that of the fowl, the bull, and stallion. The image of these three animals are simple, the bird can represent bloodshed, the bull destructive force, and the stallion life and death. It should be noted that he does not use horse, but rather stallion which indicates not the symbol of aristocracy specifically. Instead, the stallion represents the wild, unbridled passions of man and specifically can be seen as a symbol of life and death, which horses are known to symbolize. After initially using fowl, in his ending sentence of this paragraph Adams states, “But are cocks and bulls and horses the proper exemplars for the imitation of men, especially of men of sense, and even of the highest personages in the government!” The cock more specifically than fowl represents the underworld, passion and pride, and thus we arrive at how man is outside of nature: Prideful, passionate, destructive, and wild.
And finally Adams attacks the point that such images of gallantry have been argued from the military. Adams argument begins by stating that such images are not praised by the military, nor have they ever been. Instead, the dregs of society have idealized the Cock, Bull and Stallion as exemplars for man. He argues, “For every gentleman, every man of sense and breeding in the army, has a more delicate and manly way of thinking, and from his heart despises all such little, narrow, sordid notions.” Of these he mentions specifically Divines, Lawyers and Physicians. Divines represent religion, God; Lawyers represent the law; Physicians have a philosophic meaning behind them, in that whenever a Physician appears it represents healing of the body politic. In this instance, though it is much more likely that Adams is speaking that Physicians heal the body, Adams suggests that they praise themselves above all others such as Divines and Lawyers do. The other set of professions he mentions include: husbandmen, manufacturers, and laborers. They lack the virtue of magnanimity and are instead short-sighted, little minded individuals believing their professions are the best in the world. It is likely then, that soldiers of lower ranks are just as likely to believe themselves superior to any other order. They are, as a result, prone to the, “principles of revenge, rusticity, barbarity, and brutality…” which Adams described earlier as the principles upheld by the savage. However, soldiers who are superior in their senses recognize the authority not only of their superiors but also of the civil society. Once again, in a similar prophetic nature as before, these soldiers recognize the superior nature of English law. Moving away from calling them soldiers, it is evident at this point that Adams is specifically referring to men in general, not just those who serve in the Army. England, being an image of the polite society, is superior to the savage society; some of his fellow New Englanders wish to rebel against English rule, thus stooping to this level. A truly polite and decent man would recognize the doctrine of self-preservation as indignant.
Adams having completed his argument has demonstrated that man who seeks the doctrine of private revenge has no regard for civil society, and therefore is only as good as a tiger or bear. Only within civil society is man able to full perfect his nature, which is where Adams demonstrates the Enlightenment principle that nature is created imperfect. It is man’s responsibility to perfect nature by building upon it, making things, and this is only possible in society. Likewise, man is only able to be fully man within society under the constrains of law and order which is characterized by justice; whereas man outside of society and in total chaos is characterized by the doctrine of self-preservation, or revenge.