John Quincy Adams contra Patrick Deneen: Marriage, Family, and the Story of the American Founding- Professor Justin Dyer in Public Discourse

JWI Affiliated Scholar Justin Dyer,  in an essay for Pubic Discourse, contextualizes the pronounced decline in America’s social fabric, as a result of the collapse of marriage. Professor Dyer presents a set of diverse narratives that seek to establish the reasoning behind this breakdown of marriage. In the essay, Professor Dyer emphasizes the thoughts and ideas of John Quincy Adams on marriage, and his recognition of marriage as the cornerstone of society dating back to pre-governmental times. In his analysis of Adams, Dyer establishes Adams’s disdain for the new conceptualization of democracy, which emphasized the individual without considering the foundations of civil society that have always been a part of the human experience. Professor Dyer, ultimately, concludes his article by questioning the road ahead for the family unit, as a result of the conflict between the idea of the consent of the governed and the negative consequences this idea has had on the preservation of the family.

Excerpts from the piece.

“Hang around social scientists long enough, and you will hear one of them describe his thesis as the “story I am trying to tell.” This is as true of quantitative, numbers-oriented scholars as of those interested in ideas and historical development. The raw materials of scholarly inquiry do not mean much without a narrative that organizes and makes sense of them all. At the end of the day, we are storytellers.”

“According to recent Pew Research studies, the percentage of adults who have never married (20 percent), the percentage of parents who are unmarried (25 percent), and the number of adults who are cohabiting with a partner (18 million) are at all-time highs in the United States. One consequence of all of this is that only 65 percent of American children are now raised in homes with a married mom and dad. For black children, that number goes down to 36 percent, according to the government’s most recent population survey.”

“One story on offer is that this is simply what we should expect once the logic of liberalism has worked itself out over time. In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen offers a narrative of family decline that begins with the political philosophies of Hobbes and Locke and connects, ultimately, to the American founders. “As Hobbes’s philosophical successor John Locke understood,” Deneen writes, “voluntarist logic ultimately affects all relationships, including familial ones.” If our grounding philosophical assumption is that free and equal individuals in a state of nature take on social obligations only by voluntary choice, then we should not be shocked when the acid of liberal voluntarism washes over the family and substitutes “considerations of individual choice based on the calculation of individual self-interest” for “one’s obligations to the created order, and ultimately to God.”

“Thomas West, for example, devotes a whole chapter in The Political Theory of the American Founding to describing how the founders regarded life long monogamous marriage “as the fundamental condition of the social compact required by natural rights theory.” The culprits in West’s story are not the founders but the twentieth-century progressives who abandoned the founders’ natural-rights theory.”

“This residual, founding-era understanding of marriage as fundamental to the social compact comes out in John Quincy Adams’ 1842 address to the Franklin Lyceum in Providence, Rhode Island. ‘The argument of the Lecture,’ Adams later wrote as a preface to its publication, ‘is that the social compact, or body politic, founded upon the laws of Nature and of God, physical, moral, and intellectual, necessarily pre-supposes a permanent family compact formed by the will of the man, and the consent of the woman, and that by the same laws of Nature, and of God, in the formation of the Social Compact, the will or vote of every family must be given by its head, the husband and father.’”

“In Adams’s retelling of the origins of the social compact, there is no mention of a state of nature filled with solitary individuals. Instead, there is already in existence an identifiable people in a given territory ‘consisting of all human beings abiding upon it, men, women, and children, born or in the womb, natives or foreigners, bond or free.’ Social ties and obligations are already established prior to the advent of government.”

“In the mid-century rhetoric of democracy, inspired by his bitter political rival Andrew Jackson, Adams saw a worrisome reconceptualization of “the people” as simply an aggregate of individuals, and of democracy as rule of the people without the intermediary institutions of civil society, that would undermine the pre-political social obligations that lay at the base of the social compact, investing “the Multitude with absolute power.”

“Can we hold to the truths of the Declaration of Independence—foremost among them that we are endowed by our Creator with natural rights and that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed—without undermining respect for those natural duties and natural relationships that do not, or should not, depend on our consent?”