is the author of "John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy" (Princeton University Press)
As a billionaire settles into the White House and income inequality widens, Democrats have grown fond of recalling Franklin Roosevelt's ominous description of the "economic royalists" of Depression-era America.
But fear of American oligarchy is much older than the modern Democratic Party. It was harbored by the most brilliant political mind of the Founding generation: John Adams. Unlike Roosevelt, who was chiefly a political practitioner, Adams was a profound student and theorist of the power of wealth, a political philosopher who analyzed the danger of oligarchy with subtlety and rigor.
Throughout his career of thinking and writing - a career that coincided with a life of political leadership - Adams sought to convince his fellow Americans that the power of wealth was among the chief threats facing the republican order.
The power of the rich is often understood in simple terms of financial transactions. It is well-known, for example, that the rich buy power by purchasing media space, funding lobbyists, and contributing to campaigns. John Adams believed that the power of wealth was far more complex and extensive.
Adams thought that the rich tended to be acquainted with men of professional success and high educational attainment, and that these talented and successful contacts "will be connected with them and attached to them." Will Conway, a presidential candidate in the TV drama House of Cards, defines power as "the people you collect." John Adams would add that wealth makes it much easier to collect people.
Apart from their powerful networks of peers, the rich also possess top-down, hierarchical networks. Rich people often sit atop a social pyramid, with many less well-off individuals dependent on them for material needs.
"It will be easily conceived," Adams wrote, "that all the rich men will have many of the poor, in the various trades, manufactures, and other occupations in life, dependent upon them for their daily bread."
Every rich man could claim to be a provider - or, in modern terms, a "job creator" - and this claim would add weight to his political opinions.
Most uniquely, Adams thought that wealth generates power because wealth glitters. A strange and unique feature of Adams' writings is his frequent mention of feminine beauty alongside wealth as a source of oligarchic power. He noted that Socrates had called beauty "a short-lived tyranny" and that Diogenes called it "the best letter of recommendation," and Adams argued that it was not only beautiful women who wielded power on account of their beauty but also, and perhaps especially, their male relations.
Adams discussed beauty alongside wealth because he was at pains to point out that wealth, like beauty, owed its power in large part to its glaring distinction. Like beauty, wealth is "acknowledged to glitter with the brightest luster in the eyes of the world." Adams feared that ordinary citizens would look with admiration upon the glaring wealth of the richest citizens, and that this admiration would be a potent source of oligarchic power.
In sum, the richest citizens - alongside those born into the best-known families - would wield a dangerous amount of power in America. They were, in Adams' words, "the most difficult animals to manage of any thing in the whole theory and practice of government."
Conservatives and progressives alike have characterized the Founding Fathers as preoccupied with the danger of populism. Conservative admirers have depicted a pantheon of dignified patricians who loved liberty but feared the untrammeled mob. Meanwhile, progressives have depicted a class of privileged elites who struggled to suppress the rising tide of popular democracy.
John Adams did fear populism, and he sought institutions that would contain the threat of demagoguery. But as much as he feared the specter of populism, he feared the specter of oligarchy more.
This fact makes his legacy all the more important in our time. If Donald Trump campaigned as a populist firebrand, he is governing as oligarch-in-chief, a billionaire who refuses to resolve conflicts of interest and who has appointed a cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires whose net wealth is greater than the combined GDP of the world's poorest 39 countries.
"One of the great concerns that I have," Bernie Sanders exclaimed a few days after the November election, "is that we are moving toward an oligarchic form of society." If that concern seems outside of the American mainstream, it is only because we have forgotten our history.