Sam Adams: On Republics, Natural Aristocracy, & the Effects of a Proper Education on All Men

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Samuel Adams to John Adams

Boston, November 20, 1790

Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams

LATELY received your letter of the 18th of October. The sentiments and observations contained in it demand my attention. A republic, you tell me, is a government in which ” the people have an essential share in the sovereignty.” Is not the whole sovereignty, my friend, essentially in the people? Is not government designed for the welfare and happiness of all the people? and is it not the uncontrollable, essential right of the people to amend and alter or annul their Constitution, and frame a new one, whenever they shall think it will better promote their own welfare and happiness to do it? That the sovereignty resides in the people, is a political doctrine which I have never heard an American politician seriously deny. The Constitutions of the American States reserve to the people the exercise of the rights of sovereignty by the annual or biennial election of their governors, senators, and representatives; and by empowering their own representatives to impeach the greatest officers of the State before the senators, who are also chosen by themselves. We the people, is the style of the Federal Constitution: they adopted it; and, conformably to it, they delegate the exercise of the powers of government to particular persons, who, after short intervals, resign their powers to the people; and they will re-elect them, or appoint others, as they think fit.

The American Legislatures are nicely balanced. They consist of two branches, each having a check upon the determinations of the other. They sit in different chambers, and probably often reason differently in their respective chambers on the same question: if they disagree in their decisions, by a conference their reasons and arguments are mutually communicated to each other; candid explanations tend to bring them to agreement; and then, according to the Massachusetts Constitution, the matter is laid before the First Magistrate for his revision. He states objections, if he has any, with his reasons, and returns them to the legislators, who, by larger majorities, ultimately decide. Here is a mixture of three powers, founded in the nature of man, calculated to call forth the rational faculties, in the great points of legislation, into exertion, to cultivate mutual friendship and good humor, and, finally, to enable them to decide, not by the impulse of passion or party prejudice, but by the calm voice of reason, which is the voice of God. In this mixture you may see your ” natural and actual aristocracy among mankind,” operating among the several powers in legislation, and producing the most happy effects. But the son of an excellent man may never inherit the great qualities of his father; this is a common observation, and there are many instances of its truth. Should we not, therefore, conclude that hereditary nobility is a solecism in government? . . . Much safer is it, and much more does it tend to promote the welfare and happiness of society, to fill up the offices of government, after the mode prescribed in the American Constitutions, by frequent elections of the people. They may, indeed, be deceived in their choice; they sometimes are. But the evil is not incurable, the remedy is always near; they will feel their mistakes and correct them.

I am very willing to agree with you in thinking that improvements in knowledge and benevolence receive much assistance from the principles and systems of good government. But is it not as true that, without knowledge and benevolence, men would neither have been capable nor disposed to search for the principles or form the system? Should we not, my friend, bear a grateful remembrance of our pious and benevolent ancestors, who early laid plans of education, by which means wisdom, knowledge, and virtue have been generally diffused among the body of the people, and they have been enabled to form and establish a civil Constitution calculated for the preservation of their rights and liberties? This Constitution was evidently founded in the expectation of the further progress and extraordinary degrees of virtue. It enjoins the encouragement of all seminaries of literature, which are the nurseries of virtue, depending upon these for the support of government, rather than titles, splendor, or force. Mr. Hume may call this a “chimerical project;” I am far from thinking the people can be deceived by urging upon them a dependence on the more general prevalence of knowledge and virtue. . . .

“It is a fixed principle that all good government is, and must be, republican.” You have my hearty concurrence; and I believe we are well enough acquainted with each other’s ideas to understand what we respectively mean when we “use the word with approbation.” The body of the people in this country are not so ignorant as those in England were in the time of the Interregnum Parliament. They are better educated. … So well assured are they that their liberties are best secured by their own frequent and free election of fit persons to be the essential sharers in the administration of their government, and that this form of government is truly republican, that the body of the people will not be persuaded nor compelled to ” renounce, detest, and execrate” the very word republican,” as the English do.” Their education has “confirmed them in the opinion of the necessity of preserving and strengthening the dikes against the ocean, its tides and storms;” and I think they have made more safe and more durable dikes than the English have done. . . .

“The people who have no property feel the power of governing by a majority, and ever attack those who have property.” “The injured men of property recur to finesse, trick, and stratagem to outwit them.” True: these may proceed from a lust of domination in some of both parties. Be this as it may, it has been known that such deceitful tricks have been practised by some of the rich upon their unsuspecting fellowcitizens, to turn the determination of questions so as to answer their own selfish purposes. To plunder or filch the rights of men are crimes equally immoral and nefarious, though committed in different manners. Neither of them is confined to the rich or the poor; they are too common among both. The Lords as well as the Commons of Great Britain, by continued large majorities endeavored by finesse, tricks, and stratagems, as well as threats, to prevail on the American Colonies to surrender their liberty and property to their disposal. These failing, they attempted to plunder our rights by force of arms. We feared their arts more than their arms. Did the members of that hereditary House of Lords, who constituted those repeated majorities, then possess the spirit of nobility? Not so, I think. That spirit resided in the illustrious minorities in both Houses.

But “by nobles,” who have prevented “one hideous despotism as horrid as that of Turkey from falling to the lot of every nation of Europe,” you mean, “not peculiarly an hereditary nobility, or any particular modification, but the natural and actual aristocracy among mankind,” the existence of which I am not disposed to deny. Where is this aristocracy found? Among men of all ranks and conditions. The cottager may beget a wise son; the noble, a fool. The one is capable of great improvement; the other is not. Education is within the power of men and societies of men; wise and judicious modes of education, patronized and supported by communities, will draw together the sens of the rich and the poor, among whom it makes no distinction; it will cultivate the natural genius, elevate the soul, excite laudable emulation to excel in knowledge, piety, and benevolence; and finally it will reward its patrons and benefactors by shedding its benign influence on the public mind. Education inures men to thinking and reflection, to reasoning and demonstration. It discovers to them the moral and religious duties they owe to God, their country, and to all mankind. Even savages might, by the means of education, be instructed to frame the best civil and political institutions with as much skill and ingenuity as they now shape their arrows. Education leads youth to “the study of human nature, society, and universal history,” from whence they may “draw all the principles” of political architecture which ought to be regarded. All men are “interested in the truth;” education, by showing them “the end of all its consequences,” would induce at least the greatest numbers to enlist on its side. The man of good understanding, who has been well educated, and improves these advantages as far as his circumstances will allow, in promoting the happiness of mankind, in my opinion, and I am inclined to think in yours, is indeed “well born.”


Source: Samuel Adams. Letter to cousin John Adams, November 20, 1790.


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