John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 20

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Monarchical Republics: ENGLAND

My dear Sir,

POLAND and England. The histories of these countries would confirm the general principle we contend for: the last especially. But who can think of writing upon this subject after De Lolme, whose book is the best defense of the political balance of three powers that ever was written.

If the people are not equitably represented in the house of commons, this is a departure in practice from the theory. — If the lords return members of the house of commons, this is an additional disturbance of the balance: whether the crown and the people in such a case will not see the necessity of uniting in a remedy, are questions beyond my pretensions: I only contend that the English constitution is, in theory, the most stupendous fabric of human invention, both for the adjustment of the balance, and the prevention of its vibrations; and that the Americans ought to be applauded instead of censured, for imitating it, as far as they have. Not the formation of languages, not the whole art of navigation and ship building, does more honour to the human understanding than this system of government. The Americans have not indeed imitated it in giving a negative, upon their legislature to the executive power; in this respect their balances are incomplete, very much I confess to my mortification: in other respects, they have some of them fallen short of perfection, by giving the choice of some militia officers, &c. to the people — these are however small matters at present. They have not made their first magistrates hereditary, nor their senators: here they differ from the English constitution, and with great propriety.

The Agrarian in America, is divided into the hands of the common people in every state, in such a manner, that nineteen twentieths of the property would be in the hands of the commons, let them appoint whom they could for chief magistrate and senators: the sovereignty then, in fact, as well as morality, must reside in the whole body of the people; and an hereditary king and nobility, who should not govern according to the public opinion, would infallibly be tumbled instantly from their places: it is not only most prudent then, but absolutely necessary, to avoid continual violence, to give the people a legal, constitutional, and peaceable mode of changing these rulers, whenever they discover improper principles or dispositions in them. In the present state of society, and with the present manners, this may be done, not only without inconvenience, but greatly for the happiness and prosperity of the country. In future ages, if the present states become great nations, rich, powerful, and luxurious, as well as numerous, their own feelings and good sense will dictate to them what to do: they may make transitions to a nearer resemblance of the British constitution, by a fresh convention, without the smallest interruption to liberty. But this will never become necessary, until great quantities of property shall get into few hands.

The truth is, that the people have ever governed in America: all the weight of the royal governors and councils, even backed with fleets and armies, have never been able to get the advantage of them, who have always stood by their houses of representatives in every instance, and carried all their points; and no governor ever stood his ground against a representative assembly; as long as he governed by their advice he was happy; as soon as he differed from them he was wretched, and soon obliged to retire.

Format, font, and spelling modernizations of this version of John Adam’s, “A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States,” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell. The original copyright of A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States is in the Public Domain.

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