Bound Fast and Brought Under the Yoke: John Adams and the Regulation of Privacy at the Founding
24 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 2006
The announcement of the United States Supreme Court in 1965 that a right to privacy existed, and that it predated the Bill of Rights, launched a historical and legal quest to sound the origins and extent of the right that has continued to the present day. Legal scholars have produced countless books and articles examining the history and scope of the right to privacy. Many historians, however, have steered clear of the debate, concentrating instead on the emergence of a modern, nineteenth-century worldview based on differentiated private and public spheres. Despite disagreements about the extent to which privacy was a value - much less a right - in early America, few scholars have focused on eighteenth-century notions of privacy. This is an unfortunate trend, for it ignores the many early Americans who thought and wrote extensively about the interaction between private activity and public life in the revolutionary and early republican periods. The writings of John Adams demonstrate that at least one member of the founding generation devoted substantial consideration to the problem of privacy. Adams's writings suggest that privacy was not always among the chief goals of the American republic. On the contrary, Adams displayed a marked suspicion of privacy and the private life. Adams argued that the private passions (e.g., for reputation and luxury) had to be subdued and controlled by the institutions of government in order for the Republic to function. Adams thus despaired of the private sphere as a source, by itself, of republican virtue and order. This article traces some of the major themes of Adams's writings on privacy, discussing the impact of his Puritan background on his thought and then moving to the broader issues that most interested him: virtue, passion, and decay, and their consequences for public life.
Keywords: privacy, private, public, John Adams, founding, eighteenth century, legal history, constitutional history
JEL Classification: N41, N00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation