Corinth: Adams 'Defense' No. 45

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 45

Ancient Democratical Republics: CORINTH

My dear Sir,

MONARCHY remained in this emporium of Greece longer than in any other of the principal cities; but the noble families here could no better endure the superiority of a monarch, than others in all countries; and with numerous branches of the royal family (named Bacchidas, from Bacchis, fifth monarch in succession from Aletes) at their head, they accordingly put to death Telestes, the reigning monarch; and usurping the government, under an association among themselves, instituted an oligarchy. An annual first magistrate, with the title of Prytanis, but with very limited prerogatives, like a doge of Venice, was chosen from among themselves. Several generations passed away under the administration of this odious oligarchy; but the people at length finding it intolerably oppressive, expelled the whole junto, and set up Cuypselus as a monarch or tyrant. He had long been the head of the popular party, and was deservedly a popular character, possessed of the confidence and affection of his fellow-citizens to a great degree, or he never could have refused the guard which was offered him for the protection of his person against the attempts of the defeated oligarchy. His moderation and clemency are allowed by all; yet he is universally called by the Grecian writers Tyrant of Corinth, and his government a Tyranny. Aristotle, 1. v. c. 12, informs us that his tyranny continued thirty years, because he was a popular man, and governed without guards. Periander, one of the seven wise men, his son and successor, reigned forty-four years, because he was an able general. Psampsneticus, the son of Gorgias, succeeded, but his reign was short; yet this space of seventy-seven years is thought by Aristotle one of the longest examples of a tyranny or an oligarchy. At the end of this period the nobles again prevailed; but not without courting the people. The tyranny was demolished, and a new commonwealth established, in which there was a mixture of oligarchy and democracy, to prevent the first from running into excess of oppression, and the other into turbulence and license.

Here we find the usual circle: monarchy first limited by nobles only; then the nobles, becoming envious and impatient of the monarch’s preeminence, demolish him, and set up oligarchy. This grows insolent and oppressive to the people, who set up a favorite to pull it down. The new idol’s posterity grow insolent; and the people finally think of introducing a mixture of three regular branches of power, in the one, the few, and the many, to control one another, to be guardians in turn to the laws, and secure equal liberty to all.

Aristotle, in this chapter, censures some parts of the eighth book of Plato, and says, “That in general, when governments alter, they change into the contrary species to what they before were, and not into one like the former: and this reasoning holds true of other changes. For he says, that from the Lacedæmonian form it changes into an oligarchy, and from thence into a democracy, and from a democracy into a tyranny; and sometimes a contrary change takes place, as from a democracy into an oligarchy, rather than into a monarchy. With respect to a tyranny, he neither says whether there will be any change in it; or, if not, to what cause it will be owing; or, if there is, into what other state it will alter: but the reason of this is, that a tyranny is an indeterminate government; and, according to him, every state ought to alter into the first and most perfect: thus the continuity and circle would be preserved. But one tyranny often changed into another; as at Syria, from Muros to Clisthenes; or into an oligarchy, as was Antileos at Chalcas; or into a democracy, as was Charilaus’s at Lacedæmon, and at Carthage. An oligarchy is also changed into a tyranny: such was the rise of most of the ancient tyrannies in Sicily: at Leontium, into the tyranny of Panætius; at Gela, into that of Cleander; at Rhegium, into that of Anaxilaus; and the like in many other cities. It is absurd also to suppose, that a state is changed into an oligarchy because those who are in power are avaricious and greedy of money; and not because those, who are by far richer than their fellow-citizens, think it unfair that those who have nothing should have an equal share in the rule of the state with themselves, who possess so much: for in many oligarchies it is not allowable to be employed in money-getting, and there are many laws to prevent it. But in Carthage, which is a democracy, money-getting is creditable; and yet their form of government remains unaltered.”

Whether these observations of Aristotle upon Plato be all just or not, they only serve to strengthen our argument, by shewing the mutability of simple governments in a fuller light. Not denying any of the changes stated by Plato, he only enumerates a multitude of other changes to which such governments are liable; and therefore shews the greater necessity of mixtures of different orders, and decisive balances, to preserve mankind from those horrible calamities which revolutions always bring with them.

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

Edited by Steve Farrell: In Letter 45, spelling has been modernized and paragraphs broken up for easier reading. The original copyright of John Adams’ “A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States,” is in the Public Domain. As edited in this version: Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.

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