Was John Adams a Zionist?
Making Wisdom Popular
Over the years, I’ve been blessed to read basically every published word of great American Founders like John Adams—and what I have found is exceptionally interesting. Among those finds has been, at least with several of them, a great deal of Philo-Semitism—a love of “Semites,” or as they are more commonly referred to, the Jews.
Adams, in particular, had a love for “the Hebrews” I found fascinating. One could say that, were he alive today, he might even be a Zionist.
First, let’s start with some of his encomiums on the Jews as a whole.
Adams did not share the oftentimes deeply Anti-Semitic attitude of “enlightenment” philosophers—men like the Frenchman Voltaire, and the Englishman Bolingbroke.
“The Romans and their Empire were but a Bauble…”
In a letter to his friend Adriaan van der Kemp on December 31, 1808, he wrote about Voltaire’s anti-Jewish attitudes:
I have read this last fall half a dozen Volumes of this last wonderful Genius’s [Voltaire’s] Ribaldry against the Bible. How is it possible this old Fellow Should represent the Hebrews in Such a contemptible Light? They are the most glorious Nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a Bauble in comparison of the Jews. They have given Religion to three quarters of the Globe and have influenced the Affairs of Mankind more, and more happily than any other Nation ancient or modern.
“The most essential instrument for civilizing the nations…”
Addressing the anti-Jewish attitudes of both Voltaire and Bolingbroke, Adams wrote to van der Kemp again on February 16, 1809:
The two most powerful active and enterprising Nations that ever existed are now contending with Us [Britain and France]. The two Nations to whom Mankind are under more obligations for the Progress of Science and Civilization, than to any others except the Hebrews…I excepted the Hebrews, for in spite of Bolingbroke and Voltaire I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize Men than any other Nation. If I were an Atheist and believed in blind eternal Fate, I should Still believe that Fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential Instrument for civilizing the Nations. If I were an Atheist of the other Sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by Chance, I Should believe that Chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate, to all Mankind the Doctrine of a Supreme intelligent wise, almighty Sovereign of the Universe, which I believe to be the great essential Principle of all Morality and consequently of all Civilization. I can’t Say that I love the Jews very much neither. Nor the French nor the English nor the Romans nor the Greeks. We must love all Nations as well as We can, but it is very hard to love most of them.
Thus, while asserting he has no particular love of the Jews, Adams against asserts a unique admiration he has for them. He recognizes a unique providence that has guided their path through history, and the unique gift they have given the world in the form of ethical monotheism.
Liberty and Emancipation for the Jews
In 1818, Mordecai Noah, perhaps the most prominent lay American Jew of the early 19th century, sent Adams a letter containing an address delivered at the opening of a new synagogue in New York extolling the ideas of civil and religious liberty. He also praised Adams for his role in the establishment of such liberty in America:
It cannot but be gratifying to you to observe that perfect harmony existing in our Country between men of different faiths and the mildness and tolerance growing out of our national Institutions—and this gratification must be heightened in your mind when reflecting on the active agency you have had in the early stages of our revolution in producing this happy state of things—[I hope] that you may live long to enjoy the blessings of that Civil and religious liberty which you have been so instrumental in founding…
Adams responded with kind words toward the Jews, reflecting positively on their role in history, and expressing his wish that they no longer be oppressed:
I have had occasion to be acquainted with Several Gentlemen of your Nation and to transact Business with some of them, whom I found to be Men of as liberal Minds, as much honor, Probity, Generosity and good Breeding, as any I have known in any Sect of Religion or Philosophy.
I wish your nation [the Jews] may be admitted to all the Privileges of Citizens in every Country of the World. This Country has done much, I wish it may do more; and annul every narrow Idea in Religion, Government, and Commerce. Let the Wits yoke; the Philosophers sneer! What then? It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give Religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahometans [Muslims], the greatest Part of the modern civilized World.
On March 15, 1819, Adams wrote Noah again, this time complimenting him on the publication of the account of his travels in Europe and Africa. They were so well done, Adam said, that “I wish you had continued your travels into Syria, Judea, and Jerusalem.” He went on to express a wish for the re-establishment of Jewish independence in Judea:
If I were to let my imagination loose I Should wish…you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites indeed as well disciplined as a French army—and marching with them into Judea and making a conquest of that country and restoring your nation to the dominion of it—For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation. For as I believe the most enlightened men of it have participated in the ameliorations of the philosophy of the age, once restored to an independent government and no longer persecuted they would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians, for your Jehovah is our Jehovah and your God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is our God.
While Adams asserted his desire that Jews shed part of what made them uniquely Jewish (an arguably Anti-Semitic sentiment), he nonetheless does so in the context of explicitly affirming his desire that they be re-established among the nations as an independent power—a sentiment that is certainly Philo-Semitic, even Zionist in nature.
So what was Adams? Philo-Semitic? Anti-Semitic? Zionist? Most historical figures don’t fit neatly into our present categories, and the same is true of John Adams. But there can be no doubt that he was a great admirer of the Jews, and that he looked forward to the day when they would be re-established as a nation in their ancient homeland of Judea.
We, of the present, have seen Adams’ hopes fulfilled.