Carthage: John Adam's "Defense," No. 35

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 35

Ancient Democratical Republics: CARTHAGE

My dear Sir,

IN order to shew the theory of Socrates, as reported by Plato, in a clearer light; and to be convinced, that he has not exaggerated in his description of the mutability in the characters of men, and the forms of government; we should look into the history of those ancient republics, from whence he drew his observations and reasonings. Although it is probable that Greece was his principal theatre, yet we may reasonably suppose that Carthage, and a multitude of other republics in Italy, besides that of Rome, were not unknown to him.

The history of Greece should be to our countrymen, what is called in many families on the continent a boudoir; an octagonal apartment in a house, with a full-length mirror on every side, and another in the ceiling. The use of it is, when any of the young ladies, or young gentlemen if you will, are at any time a little out of humor, they may retire to a place where, in whatever direction they turn their eyes, they see their own faces and figures multiplied without end. By thus beholding their own beautiful persons, and seeing at the same time the deformity brought upon them by their anger, they may recover their tempers and their charms together. A few short sketches of the ancient republics will serve to shew, not only that the orders we defend were common to all of them; that the prosperity and duration of each was in proportion to the care taken to balance them; and that they all were indebted, for their frequent seditions, the rise and progress of corruption, and their decline and fall, to the imperfection of their orders, and their defects in the balance.

As there are extant no writings of any Carthaginian philosopher, statesman, or historian, we have no exact information concerning the form of their commonwealth, but what appears in a few hints of Greek and Roman authors. Their commerce and riches, their empire of the sea, and extensive dominion of two thousand miles on the sea-coast, their obstinate military contests with Rome, and the long duration of their government, prove both that their population and power were very great, and their constitution good; especially as, for the space of five hundred years, their tranquility was never interrupted by sedition, nor their liberties attempted by the ambition of any of their citizens.

The national character was military, as well as commercial; and, although they were avaricious, they were not effeminate.

The monarchical power was in two suffetes, (1) the aristocratical in the senate, and the democratical was held by the people in a body. These are said to have been nicely balanced, but we know not in what manner. The chief magistrates were annually elected by the people. The senators were elected too, and, although it is not certain, it is most probable, by the people; but it appears, that three qualifications were indispensable in every senator — birth, merit, and wealth: this last requisite rendered commerce honorable, even in the first of the patricians and senators themselves, and animated the commercial genius of the nation. This government thus far resembles those of the United States of America more than any other of the ancient republics, perhaps more than any of the modern: but when we inquire for the balance, it is not to be found. The suffetes had not more authority than Roman consuls; they had but a part of the executive power and none of the legislative: much of the executive, and all the legislative, was in the senate and people. — The balance then could only be between these two. Now it is impossible to balance two assemblies, without introducing a third power; one or other will be most powerful, and, whichever it is, it will continually scramble till it gets the whole: in fact, the people here had the whole, as much as in any of our states; so that while the citizens were uncorrupted, and gave their votes honestly for suffetes and senators, all went well: and it is extremely remarkable, that with all their acknowledged eagerness for money, this people were so many centuries untainted with luxury and venality; and preserved their primitive frugality of manners, and integrity in elections. As to the Roman accusations of insincerity, there is no more reason to believe them, than there would be to believe a Carthaginian who should retort the reproach. This, as well as other instances, may lead us to doubt the universality of the doctrine, that commerce corrupts manners. There was another remarkable institution that the senate should always be unanimous; and if any one senator insisted upon his own opinion, against all the rest, there could be no decision, but by an appeal to the people.

— This again gave a strong democratical cast to the constitution. Such a tendency could only be balanced by the laws, which, requiring a large fortune for every senator and public officer, in order to support his dignity, and secure him against the temptations to corruption, confined the choice to the first families and abilities united.

— This was liable to great objection; because great abilities might often be possessed by men of obscurer original, and smaller property, who were thereby excluded. To this law, nevertheless, may be ascribed the duration of the republic.

Another remarkable check, which was perhaps the original model from whence the Venetian inquisition was copied, was a committee of one hundred and four members of the senate, appointed to watch the ambition of the great families. To this body all their admirals and generals were required to render an account of their conduct at the end of every year.

Out of this body were elected a sub-committee of five, who had very great power: their office was for life; and they filled up their own vacancies out of the one hundred and four, and all the vacancies, even in the one hundred and four, out of the senate; they had the supreme tribunal of criminal jurisdiction. This power must have been terrible to all; to the people, senate, and suffetes; yet it was the check which preserved the state from sedition and convulsions.

It grew unpopular; and the law which at last made it annual and elective, probably laid the foundation of the ruin of the commonwealth, by changing the balance, and introducing the dominatio plebis. The balances in this, the most democratical republic of antiquity, contrived by the people themselves to temper their own power, are extremely remarkable: the suffetes represented, like the consuls at Rome, the majesty of the commonwealth, and had a share of executive authority; the council of five had criminal jurisdiction, and inquisitorial power; the one hundred and four were a body chosen out of the senate, by the five, for their support; then comes the senate at large; and, last of all, the people at large. Here are five orders completely distinct, besides the necessary legal qualification of great wealth: yet all these checks, although they preserved the state five hundred years, could not prolong its period above seven hundred; because, after all, the balance was not natural, nor effectual. The executive power was not separated from the legislative; nor the different parts of the legislature properly divided or balanced: the executive power and judicial were both chiefly in legislative hands.

The noble families, thus secured in possession both of legislative and executive power, could not be restrained by all the ligaments which had been contrived to preserve the equipoise between them and the people: they divided into two factions, with the family of Hanno at the head of one, and that of Barcas of the other; first attacked the council of five, whose power was unpopular, as well as odious to the nobles; easily procured a law to make that annually elective, or, in other words, an instrument always in the hands of the prevailing faction, as such a small body, so changeable, must ever be; and overturned the constitution. The Romans had all the advantage of these dissensions in the war, by which they finally destroyed their rival power so effectually, that scarce a trace of it remains to be seen, even in ruins. Their virtues were not extinguished to the last, and some of the greatest examples of patriotism and heroism were exhibited even in their expiring agonies.


1. Suffete: One of two elected magistrates in ancient Carthage.

Review Questions for Educators and Students, by Steve Farrell

  1. The prosperity and duration of the Greek Republics was in proportion to what, said Adams? Why do you suppose that is so?
  2. For the space of how many years was the tranquility of Carthage uninterrupted by sedition or the ambition of any of its citizens.
  3. State Adams’ reasons for this, and add some of your own as to what makes for a long healthy republic?
  4. Do you agree that the ancient maxim “commerce corrupts manners” is, in truth, a maxim? Defend your position with a well reasoned argument and at least two examples from history or contemporary affairs.
  5. Is there an advantage, as the history of Carthage, and Adams suggests, to a Senate that is aristocratical (propertied) in nature, over a Senate, such as developed in the United States, where wealth was not a requirement for election? Using Madison’s Notes on the Federal Convention and the Federalist Papers (both available in our Founder’s Corner Library) describe the purpose of the U.S. Senate. There is evidence that it was supposed to serve as a check against socialism or schemes for the forced redistribution of the wealth. How does their election by State Legislatures (as originally designed in the Constitution) vs. a House of Representatives elected directly by the people, help secure that check? Would you repeal the 17th Amendment and why?
  6. According to John Adams, changing the election of the suffettes to every year expedited the overthrow the Constitution of Carthage. There were some during the debates for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution that claimed that annual elections and liberty were synonymous. Yet the Founders rejected that idea, opting instead for a House elected every two years, a Senate elected every six (and by 1/3 rotation), a President every four years, and a Supreme Court appointed for life or good behavior. Why did the Founders prefer these longer terms and mixed approach? What strengths do you see in Adam’s position? What weaknesses, if any?

Table of Contents: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, by John Adams

Formatting, font, spelling modernizations, explanatory footnotes, and review questions for this version of John Adams’ “A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States,” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell. Copyright for the original version of this book is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired.

The Moral Liberal recommends David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize Winner: John Adams