All Americans tend to look at the nation either as disciples of Jefferson or as disciples of Adams: Jefferson told Americans what they wanted to hear; Adams told Americans what they needed to know…


I was having a beer with a couple of other graduate students. We were looking out onto State Street, enjoying the warm air and kibitzing about our classes during Week One at Michigan. The man across the table swilled his beer and then said, with apparent satisfaction, “There are no more conservative professors in Ann Arbor.”

“Oh, that’s not true,” I shot back. “I had lunch with him.”

That comeback may have gotten a laugh, but it pointed to a real problem: the anemic state of ideological diversity among academics in 1987. Not just at Michigan but across the nation, faculty in the social sciences and humanities were overwhelmingly liberal and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Political diversity was noticeably absent in Rackham Graduate School, the home unit of history graduate students at the university. Tonsor informed me that he knew of only one other professor in U of M’s history department who voted Republican, and with more than sixty profs, our history department was arguably the largest in the U.S.

I hasten to add that, although the other profs I would encounter at Michigan were liberal, my experience in Ann Arbor was not as horrid as what was being reported on many American campuses. Perhaps I chose my classes wisely and had a little luck, but my profs were fair. They challenged but never docked me on ideological or religious grounds, nor did I sense there was ever a political litmus test to win grants or earn good grades. David Hollinger, Raymond Grew, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Tom Tentler, David Bien, Kathleen Canning, Jim Turner, Victor Miesel, Linda Neagley—I never saw them politicize history in their lectures, classrooms, or seminars. Indeed, it was they who taught me that academic rigor requires intellectual diversity.


The next morning, a Tuesday, I arrived at Tonsor’s office in Haven Hall to tell him about an upcoming trip that would require me to miss one of his classes. He was not yet in for office hours, so I looked at the material he’d posted on his door. You can tell a lot about a person by what they post on their door. What caught my eye was a cartoon from the New Yorker. It showed a baseball scorecard of two teams, the Realists and Idealists. In each of the nine innings, the Realists had scored a run or two, while the Idealists had been shut out. Yet the final score was Realists 0, Idealists 13. It made a good laugh all the better knowing who posted the cartoon on his door.

“Hello, Mr. Whitney,” said Tonsor as he neared his office. I was beginning to learn his tone of voice, that note of deliberation characteristic of his greeting. It was as though he awaited the unwrapping of a pearl. As he flopped his satchel down on the desk, I sat briefly to tell him about my upcoming trip to Washington, DC, in observance of Constitution Day. I could tell that he was genuinely pleased for me, as I had won first place in a national essay contest on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

“Visiting the monuments to American leaders and ideals is de rigueur, of course, but at this stage in life, I prefer the art museums—the Corcoran, National Portrait Gallery, and American Art Museum. I do not linger outside in the shadows of all those cold marble exteriors, but stay as long as possible inside our temples dedicated to art. It is where I find ’emotion recollected in tranquility.'”

“Speaking of marble,” I said, “I’m excited to make a pilgrimage to the Jefferson Memorial, but I was wondering if you knew of a memorial to John Adams.”

“Yes, but it’s not in marble. It’s in the parchment of the Constitution of 1787. As you know, Adams was not in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention. He was in London. But he had drafted the oldest extant constitution in the U.S., the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, and his intellectual architecture provided the scaffolding for the framers in Philadelphia.

“An interesting study in contrasts, Jefferson and Adams. Jefferson told Americans what they wanted to hear. Adams told Americans what they needed to know.”[1]

I looked at Tonsor quizzically.


“All Americans,” he replied, “tend to look at the nation either as disciples of Jefferson or as disciples of Adams. To the Pollyannas, Jefferson wrote what they wanted to hear, that we were a good and exceptional people. He was sunny, optimistic, a philosophe of the Enlightenment, a Republican as radical as Paine, an ideologue in sympathy with the Jacobins who really did think all men were more or less equal at birth. His Lockean intellectual and moral formation made him emphasize not nature but nurture. It was experience and institutions that shaped the man. This is why he put such great emphasis on reform and education, even on the necessity of bloody revolutions to make institutions more enlightened.

“Adams, on the other hand, was the spokesman for us skeptics with a tragic sense of life. He was dour, pessimistic, a man of Augustinian temperament, though doctrinally a Unitarian. In his eyes, America was not exceptional for the reason that Americans were just as evil, covetous, and lecherous as people anywhere else in the world. Constitutionally a Burkean, Adams revered the achievement of the British Constitution and Common Law to forestall ambitious men grasping at power. Through observation, he concluded that men were not equal at birth, and thus he believed nature more powerful an influence than nurture. He had great fear that American democracy would descend into demagoguery, disorder, and decline. The passage of time has vindicated him.

“Were Plutarch alive today, he might have made an interesting study in contrasts between Jefferson and Adams. Such a study would invite Americans to decide who got it right, or whether either got it fully right. For myself, I am much more inclined toward Adams than toward Jefferson. In fact, I am occasionally told by his biographers that I am temperamentally and intellectually similar to Adams. He understood history and human nature better than Jefferson did. But what about you, Mr. Whitney? Are you not more—?”

“I honestly do not yet know,” I said, sensing that Tonsor was about to indict me for being more Jeffersonian. “I have a lot more reading to do. At this point, I know more about Jefferson and like thinking about him as a person. Adams is less approachable to me—too dark and excitable.”

Tonsor sat silently in his chair like a block of marble, looking at me with expressionless eyes. I felt judged.


After an awkward moment, Tonsor admonished me: “Do not become corrupted by the Imperial City. It’s where scholars go to die. As for the conservative movement—well, it died when it put on a blue suit and went to Washington.”[2]

Now that—that last sentence—illustrates how Tonsor tossed out seemingly effortless aperçus that left me vexed. I was under the impression that conservatives were enjoying their heyday with Ronald Reagan in the White House. Before I could ask for elaboration, he returned to the matter at hand, and said that we could arrange to discuss the material in History 416 that I’d miss. That was considerate of him—not every professor was so accommodating.

On my way out the door, I remarked with a smirk that Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment was as tough as its billing.

With an arch smile and a waggle of the head, Tonsor replied, “Among intellectual histories of the Enlightenment, it’s Moby Dick. There are easier whales to harpoon, but they wouldn’t be as much fun to pursue.”

This essay is also published on Dr. Whitney’s personal website and is part of a series of conversations with the late Stephen J. Tonsor, who was Professor of History at the University of Michigan

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] This formulation is also Gordon S. Wood’s in talks and in Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (New York: Penguin, 2017), Chap. 1.

[2] Even though he enjoyed access to the art and to the Library of Congress, Tonsor did not particularly care for Washington, DC. In one of his letters he wrote upon his return from a two-week stint in DC, “I am so pleased to be home. Washington is not my place…however kind everyone was to me.” Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, June 16, 1980, p. 1; letter in GW’s possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

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