A Boy of Fifteen Who Is Not a Democrat is Good for Nothing, and He Is No Better Who Is a Democrat at Twenty

John Adams? Thomas Jefferson? John Ewing? John Hurt?

Dear Quote Investigator: Surprisingly, one of the founding fathers of the United States was skeptical about the long-term viability of democracy. The statesman believed that the proponents of democracy were philosophically immature. He was sympathetic to a young person of fifteen who found the system attractive, but he felt that someone over twenty should view a democratic system with suspicion. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: John Adams was a central figure in the birth of the United States. He helped to draft the Declaration of Independence together with Thomas Jefferson. To temper the impulses of the electorate, Adams argued for the separation of powers. The legislative, executive, and judicial powers should be distinct, so that they could constrain one another.

Adams was skeptical of direct democracy. He favored a representative republic structure in which the people elected representatives to a legislature. Adams was the second president of the U.S. from 1797 to 1801. The papers of Thomas Jefferson included an interesting anecdote that occurred during Adams’s presidency. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

January, 1799. In a conversation between Doctor Ewen and the President, the former said one of his sons was an aristocrat, the other a democrat. The President asked if it was not the youngest who was the democrat. Yes, said Ewen. Well, said the President, a boy of fifteen who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at twenty. Ewen told Hurt, and Hurt told me.

Thus, this story was transmitted through two intermediaries before it reached the ears of Jefferson. A footnote accompanying this passage which is available at the “Founders Online” website of the U.S. National Archives identifies the intermediaries. 2 “Ewen” was an alternative spelling of “Ewing”, and “Dr. Ewen” referred to John Ewing. John Hurt was a former chaplain of Virginia who was a political supporter of Jefferson.

The Quote Investigator website has a separate article about a thematically pertinent expression: “If You Are Not a Liberal at 25, You Have No Heart. If You Are Not a Conservative at 35 You Have No Brain” Here is a link to that item.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1814 John Adams wrote a letter to John Taylor containing his strong opinion about the fragility of democracy: 3

Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy. It is not true in Fact and no where appears in history. Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty.

A four volume edition of the papers of Thomas Jefferson was published in 1829, and in 1830 a reviewer in “The London Literary Gazette” reprinted the quotation attributed to Adams: 4

“The President asked if it was not the youngest who was the democrat? ‘Yes,’ said Ewen. ‘Well,’ said the President, ‘a boy of fifteen who is not a democrat is good for nothing; and he is no better who is a democrat at twenty.’”

In 1870 the “Southern Republican” newspaper of Demopolis, Alabama printed an instance: 5

We are told that at one time John Adams cried “Damn ‘em.’ you see that an elective government will not do,” and that at another he complimented a little boy who was a Democrat, saying, “Well, a boy of fifteen who is not a Democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a Democrat at twenty.”

In 1974 the remark continued to circulate with an ascription to Adams. A book titled “Leftism” included the following passage: 6

Jefferson tells us about a conversation between Dr. Ewen and John Adams during which the doctor informed the President that he had a younger son who was a “democrat” and an older one who was an “aristocrat.” “Well,” said the President, “a boy of fifteen who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at twenty.”

In 2006 the quotation appeared in “The Yale Book of Quotations” with an ascription too Adams and a citation to Jefferson’s journal. 7

In conclusion, there is evidence that John Adams made this remark although the supporting testimony was indirect. Adams spoke the line to John Ewing who told John Hurt who repeated the comment to Thomas Jefferson. Subsequently, Jefferson recorded it in his journal. The viewpoint attributed to Adams was consistent with some of his other writings about democracy.

Image Notes: Detail from the painting titled “American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement with Great Britain” by Benjamin West circa 1783. Image has been cropped and resized. The painting image is in the public domain.

(Thanks to Fred R. Shapiro who placed this remark in “The Yale Book of Quotations” and crosslinked it to related saying, “Not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.” In addition, thanks to MD Otley and Giorgi Edilashvili who pointed out the relevance of this quotation to the discussion of the “republican at twenty” saying.)

Notes:

  1. 1829, Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Edited by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Volume 4, Entry date: January 1799, Quote Page 509, F. Carr and Company, Charlottesville, Virginia. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. Website: Founders Online, Title: Notes on Comments by John Adams, [1–14 January 1799], Footnote for “Dr. Ewen”. Website description: In 2010, the U.S. National Archives entered into a cooperative agreement with The University of Virginia Press to create this website and make freely available online the historical documents of the Founders of the United States of America. (founders.archives.gov accessed on June 2, 2021) link
  3. Website: Founders Online, Letter from: John Adams, Letter to: John Taylor, Letter date: December 17, 1814, Website description: In 2010, the U.S. National Archives entered into a cooperative agreement with The University of Virginia Press to create this website and make freely available online the historical documents of the Founders of the United States of America. (founders.archives.gov accessed on June 2, 2021) link
  4. 1830 January 2, The London Literary Gazette, (Review of Jefferson’s Memoirs and Correspondence, Volumes 3 and 4), Start Page 4, Quote Page 4, Column 3, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1870 September 28, Southern Republican, The Crisis, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Demopolis, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1974, Leftism: from de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Part 2: Leftism in History, Chapter 6: Nascent America, Quote Page 67, Arlington House Publishers, New Rochelle, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: John Adams, Quote Page 5, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified with hardcopy)