John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 2

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

My dear Sir,

MR. Turgot is offended, because the customs of England are imitated in most of the new constitutions in America, without any particular motive. But, if we suppose that English customs were neither good nor evil in themselves, and merely indifferent; and the people, by their birth, education, and habits, were familiarly attached to them; was not this a motive particular enough for their preservation, rather than endanger the public tranquillity, or unanimity, by renouncing them? If those customs were wise, just, and good, and calculated to secure the liberty, property, and safety of the people, as well or better than any other institutions ancient or modern, would Mr. Turgot have advised the nation to reject them, merely because it was at that time justly incensed against the English government? — What English customs have they retained which may with any propriety be called evil? Mr. Turgot has instanced only in one, viz. “that a body of representatives, a council, and a governor, has been established, because there is in England a house of commons, a house of lords, and a king.” It was not so much because the legislature in England consisted of three branches, that such a division of power was adopted by the states, as because their own assemblies had ever been so constituted. It was not so much from attachment by habit to such a plan of power, as from conviction that it was founded in nature and reason, that it was continued.

Mr. Turgot seems to be of a different opinion, and is for “collecting all authority into one center, the nation.” It is easily understood how all authority may be collected into “one center ” in a despot or monarch; but how it can be done, when the center is to be the nation, is more difficult to comprehend. Before we attempt to discuss the notions of an author, we should be careful to ascertain his meaning. It will not be easy, after the most anxious research, to discover the true sense of this extraordinary passage. If, after the pains of “collecting all authority into one “center,” that center is to be the nation, we shall remain exactly where we began, and no collection of authority at all will be made. The nation will be the authority, and the authority the nation. The center will be the circle, and the circle the center. When a number of men, women, and children, are simply congregated together? there is no political authority among them; nor any natural authority, but that of parents over their children. To leave the women and children out of the question for the present, the men will all be equal, free, and independent of each other. Not one will have any authority over any other. The first “collection ” or authority must be an unanimous agreement to form themselves into a nation, people, community, or body politick, and to be governed by the majority of suffrages or voices. But even in this case, although the authority is collected into one center, that center is no longer the nation, but the majority of the nation. Did Mr. Turgot mean, that the people of Virginia, for example, half a million of souls scattered over a territory of two hundred leagues square, should stop here, and have no other authority by which to make or execute a law, or judge a cause, but by a vote of the whole people, and the decision of a majority! Where is the plain large enough to hold them; and what are the means, and how long would be the time, necessary to assemble them together?

More from John Adams: John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1775-1783 (Library of America, No. 214)

A simple and perfect democracy never yet existed among men. If a village of half a mile square, and one hundred families, is capable of exercising all the legislative, executive, and judicial powers, in public assemblies of the whole, by unanimous votes, or by majorities, it is more than has ever yet been proved in theory or experience. In such a democracy, the moderator would be king, the town-clerk legislator and judge, and the constable sheriff, for the most part; and, upon more important occasions, committees would be only the counsellors of both the former, and commanders of the latter.

Shall we suppose then, that Mr. Turgot intended, that an assembly of representatives should be chosen by the nation, and vested with all the powers of government; and that this assembly shall be the center in which all the authority shall be collected, and shall be virtually deemed the nation. After long reflection, I have not been able to discover any other sense in his words, and this was probably his real meaning. To examine this system in detail may be thought as trifling an occupation, as the laboured reasonings of Sidney and Locke, to shew the absurdity of Filmar’s superstitious notions, appeared to Mr. Hume in his enlightened days. Yet the mistakes of great men, and even the absurdities of fools, when they countenance the prejudices of numbers of people, especially in a young country, and under new governments, cannot be too fully confuted. You will not then esteem my time or your own misspent, in placing this idea of Mr. Turgot in all its lights; in considering the consequences of it; and in collecting a variety of authorities against it.

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