Crotona & Pythagoras: Adams ‘Defense’ No. 49

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 49

Ancient Aristocratical Republics: Crotona. Pythagoras


My dear Sir,

PYTHAGORAS, as well as Socrates, Plato, and Xenophon, were persuaded that the happiness of nations depended chiefly on the form of their government: they were fully sensible of the real misery, as well as dangerous tendency, both of democratical licentiousness and monarchical tyranny; they preferred a well-tempered aristocracy to all other governments. Pythagoras and Socrates, having no idea of three independent branches in the legislature, both thought, that the laws could neither prevent the arbitrary oppressions of magistrates, nor turbulent insolence of the people, until mankind were habituated by education and discipline to regard the great duties of life, and to consider a reverence of themselves, and the esteem of their fellow-citizens, as the principal source of their enjoyment. In small communities, especially where the slaves were many, and the citizens few, this might be plausible; but the education of a great nation can never accomplish so great an end. Millions must be brought up, whom no principles, no sentiments derived from education, can restrain from trampling on the laws: orders of men, watching and balancing each other, are the only security; power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest. Pythagoras found this by experience at Crotona, where the inferior ranks, elated with the destruction of Sybaris, and instigated by an artful ambitious leader, Cylon, clamoured for an equal partition of the conquered territory: this was denied them, as inconsistent with an aristocratical government; a conspiracy ensued against the magistrates, who were surprised in the senate-house, many put to death, and the rest driven from their country. Pythagoras was one of the banished, and died soon afterwards, in extreme old age, at Metapontum. The Crotonians had soon cause to repent their insurrection; for they were defeated, with all their forces, by the Locrians and Rhegians, with smaller numbers.

The other Greek cities of Italy, which had imitated the example of Crotona, in deposing their magistrates, were harassed with wars against each other, and against their neighbours. In consequence of these distresses, the disciples of Pythagoras again recovered their reputation and influence; and about sixty years afterwards, Zaleucus and Charondas, the one in Locris, and the other in Thurium, revived the Pythagorean institutions. In forty years more, a new revolution drove the Pythagoreans entirely from Italy, and completed the misery of that beautiful country. Thus experience has ever shewn, that education as well as religion, aristocracy as well as democracy and monarchy, are, singly, totally inadequate to the business of restraining the passions of men, of preserving a steady government, and protecting the lives, liberties, and properties of the people. Nothing has ever effected it but three different orders of men, bound by their interests to watch over each other, and stand the guardians of the laws. Religion, superstition, oaths, education, laws, all give way before passions, interest, and power, which can be resisted only by passions, interest, and power.

It is no wonder that Mr. Turgot should have entertained very crude conceptions of republican legislation; it is a science the least understood of any in the whole circle: all other orders of men of letters in Europe, as well as physicians, for a long time, have thought it “litteræ nihil sanantes.” It is a kind of erudition which neither procures places, pensions, embassies, chairs in academies, nor fame nor practice in the pulpit, at the bar, nor in medicine. A minister of state, of great abilities and merit, as well as reputation, advanced to the head of the affairs of a respectable monarchy, by one of the greatest princes that has ever lived, I mean the Baron de Hertsberg, has within a few years set an example, in a royal academy of sciences, of enquiry into this subject. In a learned and ingenious discourse, delivered by himself, he has attempted to show the advantages of simple monarchy over all kinds of republican governments, even that best species of them, limited monarchies: but did this worthy minister expect that any of his brother academicians would contest with him the merits of such governments? Men of letters are not fond of martyrdom in this age, nor of ruining their reputations. It is not, however, my design to discuss any questions at present concerning absolute monarchies, though the principles I contend for might be traced through the history of every monarchy and empire in Europe. Even in these there are orders, checks, and balances contrived, at least against abuses in administration, and for the preservation of the laws. The science of government has received very little improvement since the Greeks and Romans. The necessity of a strong and independent executive in a single person, and of three branches in the legislature instead of two, and of an equality among the three, are improvements made by the English, which were unknown, at least never reduced to practice, by the ancients. Machiavel was the first who revived the ancient politics: the best part of his writings he translated almost literally from Plato and Aristotle, without acknowledging the obligation; and the worst of the sentiments, even in his Prince, he translated from Aristotle, without throwing upon him the reproach. Montesquieu borrowed the best part of his book from Machiavel, without acknowledging the quotation. Milton, Harrington, Sidney, were intimately acquainted with the ancients, and with Machiavel. They were followed by Locke, Hoadley, &c. The reputation which is to be acquired by this kind of learning may be judged of by the language of Mr. Hume: “Compositions the most despicable, both for style and matter, such as Rapin Thoyras, Locke, Sidney, Hoadley, &c. have been extolled, and propagated, and read; as if they had equalled the most celebrated remains of antiquity.” Hume’s History of England, vol. viii. p. 323. — Such is the style in which this great writer speaks of writings which he most probably never read. But although the time is long since passed when such writings were extolled, propagated, or read, the contempt of them is as fashionable, as likely to procure places and pensions, and to make a book sell now, as it was when Mr. Hume wrote.

The facts in these letters relative to Venice, are taken from the Abby Laugier and Moor’s Travels; those relative to the ancient republics, excepting the authorities already quoted, are taken from Robertson, Montague, Potter, the Universal History, and especially from Mitford, Gillies, and Ferguson, three very valuable and elegant productions, which deserve to be carefully studied by all America. I have made free use of their expressions as well as reflections, without noting them; if you would see how much has been borrowed, you must read.

Mr. Turgot was as little conversant in this kind of erudition as Mr. Hume. The former, however, was a lover of liberty; but it was of that kind of liberty which he meditated to introduce into France, and could reconcile with a simple monarchy: he was too good a subject to think of introducing a free constitution of government into his own country. For the liberty of commerce, the liberty of religious sentiments, and the personal liberty of the subject, such as are established by the laws, in a monarchy, he was an enthusiast; and enthusiasm for liberty, the common cause of all mankind, is an amiable fervor, which is pardonable even when it is not according to knowledge: but he was neither an enthusiast for a free constitution of government, nor did he know in what it consisted.

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

Edited by Steve Montgomery: In Letter 49, 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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