John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 7

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Democratical Republics: GLARIS

My dear Sir,

THE canton of Glaris is a mountainous country, of eight miles long and four wide, according to their own authors, perhaps intending German miles; but twenty-five miles in length and eighteen in breadth, according to some English accounts. The commerce of it is in cheese, butter, cattle, linen, and thread. Ten thousand cattle, and four thousand sheep, pastured in summer upon the mountains, constitute their wealth.

The inhabitants live together in a general equality, and most perfect harmony; even those of the different persuasions of Catholics and Protestants, who sometimes perform divine service in the same church, one after the other: and all the offices of state are indifferently administered by both parties, though the Protestants are more in number, and superior both in industry and commerce. All the houses are built of wood, large and solid, those of the richest inhabitants differing only from those of the poorer, as they are larger.

The police is well regulated here, as it is throughout Switzerland. Liberty does not degenerate into licentiousness. Liberty, independence, and an exemption from taxes, amply compensate for a want of the refinements of luxury. There are none so rich as to gain an ascendency by largesses. If they err in their councils, it is an error of the judgment, and not of the heart. As there is no fear of invasion, and they have no conquests to make, their policy consists in maintaining their independence, and preserving the public tranquillity. As the end of government is the greatest happiness of the greatest number, saving at the same time the stipulated rights of all, governments like these, where a large share of power is preserved by the people, deserve to be admired and imitated. It is in such governments that human nature appears in its dignity, honest, brave, and generous.

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Some writers are of [the] opinion, that Switzerland was originally peopled by a colony of Greeks. The same greatness of soul, the same spirit of independence, the same love of their country, has animated both the ancients and the moderns, to that determined heroism which prefers death to slavery. Their history is full of examples of victories obtained by small numbers of men over large armies. In 1388 the Austrians made an irruption into their territory, with an army of fifteen thousand men; but, instead of conquering the country as they expected, in attacking about four hundred men posted on the mountains at Næfel, they were broken by the stones rolled upon them from the summit: the Swiss, at this critical moment, rushed down upon them with such fury, as forced them to retire with an immense loss. Such will ever be the character of a people, who preserve so large a share to themselves in their legislature, while they temper their constitution, at the same time, with an executive power in a chief magistrate, and an aristocratical power in a wise senate.

The government here is by no means entirely democratical. It is true, that the sovereign is the whole country, and the sovereignty resides in the general assembly, where each male of fifteen, with his sword at his side, has his seat and vote. It is true, that this assembly, which is annually held in an open plain, ratifies the laws, lays taxes, enters into alliances, declares war, and makes peace.

But it has a first magistrate in a land amman, who is the chief of the republic, and is chosen alternately from among the Protestants and from among the Catholics. The Protestant remains three years in office; the Catholic two. The manner of his appointment is a mixture of election and lot. The people choose five candidates, who draw lots for the office. The other great officers of state are appointed in the same manner.

There is a council called a senate, composed of the land amman, a stadthalder, and sixty-two senators, forty-eight Protestants and fourteen Catholics, all taken from fifteen tagwen or corvees, into which the three principal quarters or partitions of the country are subdivided for its more convenient government. In this senate, called the council of regency, the executive power resides. Each tagwen or corvee furnishes four senators; besides the borough of Glaris, which furnishes six.

Instead of a simple democracy, it is a mixed government, in which the monarchical power in the land amman, stadthalder or pro-conful, the aristocratical order in the senate, and the democratical in the general assembly, are distinctly marked. It is, however, but imperfectly balanced; so much of the executive power in an aristocratical assembly would be dangerous in the highest degree in a large state, and among a rich people. If this canton could extend its dominion, or greatly multiply its numbers, it would soon find the necessity of giving the executive power to the land amman, in order to defend the people against the senate; for the senate, although it is always the reservoir of wisdom, is eternally the very focus of ambition.

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