John Adams: A Defense of the Constituitons of the United States, Letter 17

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Aristocratical Republics: REPUBLICS OF ST. GALL & GENEVA


My dear Sir, THE republic of St. Gall is a league and a half in circumference, and contains nine thousand souls. The inhabitants are very industrious in manufactures of linen, muslin, and embroidery, have an extensive commerce, and arts, sciences, and literature, are esteemed and cultivated among them. They have a remarkable public library, in which are thirteen volumes of original manuscript letters of the first reformers. To see the different effects of different forms of government on the human character, and the happiness and prosperity of nations, it would be worth while to compare this city with Constance, in its neighborhood.

This happy and prosperous, though diminutive republic, has its grand council of ninety persons, its little council of twenty-four, and three burgomasters. The little council consists of the three burgomasters, nine senators, and twelve tribunes. The grand council consists of all the little council, and eleven persons from each tribe; for the city is divided into the society of the nobles, and six tribes of the artisans, of whom the weavers are the principal.

Besides these there are, the chamber of justice, the chamber of five, and some others.


IN the republic of Geneva, the sovereignty resides in the general council, lawfully convened, which comprehends all the orders of the state, and is composed of four sindics, chiefs of the republic, presidents of all the councils; of the lesser council of twenty-five; of the grand council of two hundred, though it consists of two hundred and fifty when it is complete; and of all the citizens of twenty-five years of age. The rights and attributes of all these orders of the state are fixed by the laws. The history of this city deserves to be studied with anxious attention by every American citizen. The principles of government, the necessity of various orders, and the fatal effects of an imperfect balance, appear no where in a stronger light. The fatal slumbers of the people, their invincible attachment to a few families, and the cool deliberate rage of those families, if such an expression may be allowed, to grasp all authority into their own hands, when they are not controlled or over-awed by a power above them in a first magistrate, are written in every page. I need only refer you to Dr. d’Ivernois’s Historical and Political View of the Constitution and Revolutions of Geneva in the Eighteenth Century, which you received from the author, to convince you of this.

Let me add here, that the facts relating to the Swiss cantons, and their environs, mentioned in these letters, are taken from the Quarante Tables Politiques de la Suisse, par C. E. Faber, Bernois, Pasteur, à Bishviller, in 1746; with some additional observations from the beautiful Sketches of Mr. Coxe, which I send you with this letter; and which you will find as instructive as they are entertaining.

The petty council is indifferently called the council of twenty five, the petit council or the senate.

The council of sixty is a body elected by the senate, and meets only for the discussion of foreign affairs.

The grand council, and council of two hundred, are one and the same body; it is still called the council of two hundred, though it now consists of two hundred and fifty members.

The general council, called indiscriminately the sovereign council, the general assembly, the sovereign assembly, the assembly of the people, or the council general, is composed of all the citizens or freemen of twenty-five years of age.

At the time of the Reformation, every affair, important or trifling, was laid before the general assembly; it was both a deliberating and acting body, that always left the cognizance of details to four sindics: this was necessary, in that time of danger, to attach the affections of the citizens to the support of the commonwealth by every endearing tie. The city was governed by two sindics of its own annual election. The multiplicity of affairs had engaged each sindic to nominate some of the principal citizens to serve as assessors during his administration; these assessors, called counselors, formed a council of twenty-five persons. In 1457 the general council decreed, that the council of twenty-five should be augmented to sixty. This body, in 1526, was augmented to two hundred.

Thus far the aristocratical gentlemen proceeded upon democratical principles, and all is done by the general assembly. At this instant commences the first overt act of aristocratical ambition. — Warm in their seats, they were loth to leave them, or hold them any longer at the will of the people. With all the subtlety, and all the sagacity and address which is characteristic of this order of men in every age and nation, they prevailed on the people to relinquish for the future the right of electing counselors in the general assembly, and the people, with their characteristic simplicity, and unbounded confidence in their rulers when they love them; became the dupes, and passed a law, that the two councils should for the future elect, or at least approve and affirm, each other. This is a natural and unavoidable effect of doing all things in one assembly, or collecting all authority into one center. When magistrates and people meet in one assembly, the former will for ever do as they please, provided they proceed with any degree of prudence and caution.

The consequence was, that the annual reviews were a farce; only in a very few instances, for egregious faults, were any excluded: and the two councils became perpetual, and independent of the people entirely. The illusions of ambition are very subtle: if the motives of these magistrates, to extend the duration of their authority, were the public good, we must confess they were very ignorant. It is most likely they deceived themselves as well as their constituents, and mistook their own ambition for patriotism: but this is the progressive march of all assemblies; none can confine themselves within their limits, when they have an opportunity of transgressing them. These magistrates soon learned to consider their authority as a family property, as all others in general, in similar circumstances, ever did, and ever will.

They behaved like all others in another respect too: their authority being now permanent, they immediately attack the sindics, and transfer their power to themselves.

The whole history of Geneva, since that period, follows of course: the people, by their supineness, had given up all balances, and betrayed their own privileges, as well as the prerogatives of their first magistrates, into the hands of a few families.

The people of Geneva, as enlightened as any, have never considered the necessity of joining with the sindics, nor the sindics that of joining the people, but have constantly aimed at an impossibility, that of balancing an aristocratical by a democratical assembly, without the aid of a third power.

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