John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 23

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Monarchical Republics: RECAPITULATION

My dear Sir,

AS we have taken a cursory view of those countries in Europe, where the government may be called, in any reasonable construction of the word, republican; let us now pause a few moments, and reflect upon what we have seen.

Among every people, and in every species of republics, we have constantly found a first magistrate, a head, a chief, under various denominations indeed, and with different degrees of authority, with the title of stadtholder, burgomaster, avoyer, doge, confalloniero, president, syndick, mayor, alcalde, capitaneo, governor, or king: in every nation, we have met with a distinguished officer: if there is no example in any free government any more than in those which are not free, of a society without a principal personage, we may fairly conclude, that the body politic cannot subsist without one, any more than the animal body without a head. If Mr. Turgot had made any discovery, which had escaped the penetration of all the legislators and philosophers, who had lived before him, he ought at least to have communicated it to the world for their improvement; but as he has never hinted at any such invention, we may safely conclude that he had none; and therefore, that the Americans are not justly liable to censures, for instituting governors.

In every form of government, we have seen a senate, or little council, a composition, generally, of those officers of state, who have the most experience and power, and a few other members selected from the highest ranks, and most illustrious reputations. On these lesser councils, with the first magistrate at their head, generally rests the principal burden of administration, a share in the legislative, as well as executive and judicial authority of government. The admission of such senates to a participation of these three kinds of power, has been generally observed to produce in the minds of their members an ardent aristocratical ambition, grasping equally at the prerogatives of the first magistrate, and the privileges of the people, and ending in the nobility of a few families, and a tyrannical oligarchy: but in those states, where the senates have been debarred from all executive power, and confined to the legislative, they have been observed to be firm barriers against the encroachments of the crown, and often great supporters of the liberties of the people. The Americans then, who have carefully confined their senates to the legislative power, have done wisely in adopting them.

We have seen, in every instance, another and a larger assembly, composed of the body of the people, in some little states; of representatives chosen by the people in others; of members appointed by the senates, and supposed to represent the people, in a third sort; and of persons appointed by themselves or the senate, in certain aristocracies; to prevent them from becoming oligarchies. The Americans then, whose assemblies are the most adequate, proportional, and equitable representations of the people, that are known in the world, will not be thought erroneous in appointing houses of representatives.

In every republic, in the smallest and most popular, in the larger and more aristocratical, as well as in the largest and most monarchical, we have observed a multitude of curious and ingenious inventions to balance, in their turn, all those powers, to check the passions peculiar to them, and to control them from rushing into those exorbitancies to which they are most addicted — the Americans will then be no longer censured for endeavoring to introduce an equilibrium, which is much more profoundly meditated, and much more effectual for the protection of the laws, than any we have seen, except in England: — we may even question whether that is an exception.

In every country we have found a variety of orders, with very great distinctions. In America, there are different orders of offices, but none of men; out of office all men are of the same species, and of one blood; there is neither a greater nor a lesser nobility — Why then are they accused of establishing different orders of men? To our inexpressible mortification we must have remarked, that the people have preserved a share of power, or an existence in the government, in no country out of England, except upon the tops of a few inaccessible mountains, among rocks and precipices, in territories so narrow that you may span them with an hand’s breadth, where, living unenvied, in extreme poverty, chiefly upon pasturage, destitute of manufactures and commerce, they still exhibit the most charming picture of life, and the most dignified character of human nature.

Wherever we have seen a territory somewhat larger, arts and sciences more cultivated, commerce flourishing, or even agriculture improved to any great degree, an aristocracy has risen up in a course of time, consisting of a few rich and honorable families, who have united with each other against both the people and the first magistrate; wrested from the former, by art and by force, all their participation in the government, and even inspired them with so mean an esteem of themselves, and so deep a veneration and strong attachment to their rulers, as to believe and confess them a superior order of beings.

We have seen these noble families, although necessitated to have a head, extremely jealous of his influence, anxious to reduce his power, and constrain him to as near a level with themselves as possible; always endeavoring to establish a rotation by which they may all equally in turn be entitled to the pre-eminence, and equally anxious to preserve to themselves as large a share of power as possible in the executive and judicial, as well as the legislative departments of the state.

These patrician families have also appeared in every instance to be equally jealous of each other, and to have contrived, by blending lot and choice, by mixing various bodies in the elections to the same offices, and even by the horrors of an inquisition, to guard against the sin that so easily besets them, of being wholly influenced and governed by a junto or oligarchy of a few among themselves.

We have seen no one government, in which is a distinct separation of the legislative from the executive power, and of the judicial from both, or in which any attempt has been made to balance these powers with one another, or to form an equilibrium between the one, the few, and the many, for the purpose of enacting and executing equal laws, by common consent, for the general interest, excepting in England.

Shall we conclude, from these melancholy observations, that human nature is incapable of liberty, that no honest equality can be preserved in society, and that such forcible causes are always at work as must reduce all men to a submission to despotism, monarchy, oligarchy, or aristocracy?

By no means. — We have seen one of the first nations in Europe, possessed of ample and fertile territories at home, and extensive dominions abroad, of a commerce with the whole world, immense wealth, and the greatest naval power which ever belonged to any nation, who have still preserved the power of the people, by the equilibrium we are contending for, by the trial by jury, and by constantly refusing a standing army. The people of England alone, by preserving their share in the legislature, at the expense of the blood of heroes and patriots, have enabled their kings to curb the nobility, without giving him a standing army.

After all, let us compare every constitution we have seen, with those of the United States of America, and we shall have no reason to blush for our country; on the contrary, we shall feel the strongest motives to fall upon our knees, in gratitude to heaven for having been graciously pleased to give us birth and education in that country, and for having destined us to live under her laws! We shall have reason to exult, if we make our comparison with England and the English constitution. Our people are undoubtedly sovereign — all the landed and other property is in the hands of the citizens — not only their representatives, but their senators and governors, are annually chosen — there are no hereditary titles, honours, offices, or distinctions — the legislative, executive, and judicial powers are carefully separated from each other — the powers of the one, the few, and the many, are nicely balanced in their legislatures — trials by jury are preserved in all their glory, and there is no standing army — the habeas corpus is in full force — the press is the most free in the world — and where all these circumstances take place, it is unnecessary to add, that the laws alone can govern.

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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