John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 21

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Monarchical Republics: POLAND

My dear Sir,

THE king of Poland is the first magistrate in the republic, derives all his authority from the nation. — He has not the power to make laws, raise taxes, contract alliances, or declare war, nor to coin money, nor marry, without the ratification of the diet.

The senate is composed of the clergy and nobility; the third estate, or people, is not so much as known. The grand marshal, the marshal of the court, the chancellor, vice chancellor, and the treasurer, are the first senators.

The nobility, or gentry, possess the dignities and employments, in which they never permit strangers, or the commonalty, to have any participation: they elect their king, and would never suffer the senate to make themselves masters of this election. The peasants are slaves to the gentry; having no property, all their acquisitions are made for their masters, and are exposed to all their passions, and are oppressed with impunity.

The general diets, which are usually held at Warsaw or Grodno, are preceded by particular assemblies of palatinates, in which the deputies are chosen for the general assembly, and instructed: the deputies assembled in general diet, proceed to the election of a marshal, who has a very extraordinary power, that of imposing silence on whom he pleases; he is the chief or speaker of the assembly.

At the death, abdication, or deposition of a king, the primate calls the assembly of the electors to an open field near Warsaw. Here the electors take an oath, not to separate until they shall have unanimously elected a king, nor to render him when elected any obedience, until he has sworn to observe the Pacta Conventa, and the laws.

The candidates must let their gold glitter, and give splendid entertainments, which must be carried into debauch: the nobility are captivated, with the attractions of magnificence and Hungarian wine, and infallibly declare in favour of the candidate who causes it to flow in the greatest profusion. The ambassadors enter upon intrigues, even in public: the nobility receive their presents, fell their suffrages with impunity, and render the throne venal, but often behave with little fidelity to the candidate in whose interest they pretend to be engaged, and, forgetting the presents they have received, espouse the cause of a more wealthy competitor without hesitation. When the candidate has gained all the suffrages, he is declared king, and sworn to observe the Pacta Conventa, and the laws, and then crowned. The Poles are polite and friendly, but magnificence is the foible of the nobility, and they sacrifice all things to luxury: as they seldom see any person superior to them in their own country, and treat their inferiors with an air of absolute authority, they live in all the splendor of princes. This is the account of the Abbe des Fontaines in the year 1736; it is to be hoped things have since changed for the better, but if this account was then true, who can wonder at what has happened since.

Here again is no balance; a king, and an assembly of nobles, and nothing more: the nobles here discover their unalterable disposition, whenever they have the power, to limit the king’s authority; and there being no mediating power of the people, collectively or representatively, between them, the consequence has been, what it always will be in such a case, confusion and calamity.

Table of Contents: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States

Formatting, font, and spelling modernizations for this version of John Adams’ “A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States,” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell. Copyright for the original version of this book is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired.

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