John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 25

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Ancient Republics, and Opinions of Philosophers:  BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

My dear Sir,

AS it is impossible to suppose that Mr. Turgot intended to recommend to the Americans a simple monarchy or aristocracy, we have admitted, as a supposition the most favorable to him, that, by collecting all authority into one center, he meant a single assembly of representatives of the people, without a governor, and without a senate; and although he has not explained, whether he would have the assembly chosen for life, or years, we will again admit, as the most benign construction, that he meant the representatives should be annually chosen.

Here we shall be obliged to consider the reputed opinion of another philosopher, I mean Dr. Franklin: I say reputed, because I am not able to affirm that it is really his: it is, however, so generally understood and reported, both in Europe and America, that his judgment was in opposition to two assemblies, and in favor of a single one, that in a disquisition like this it ought not to be omitted. To be candid with you, a little before the date of Mr. Turgot’s letter, Dr. Franklin had arrived in Paris with the American constitutions, and among the rest that of Pennsylvania, in which there was but one assembly: it was reported too, that the doctor had presided in the convention when it was made, and there approved it. Mr. Turgot, reading over the constitutions, and admiring that of Pennsylvania, was led to censure the rest, which were so different from it. — I know of no other evidence, that the doctor ever gave his voice for a single assembly, but the common anecdote which is known to every body. It is said, that in 1776, in the convention of Pennsylvania, of which the doctor was president, a project of a form of government by one assembly, was before them in debate: a motion was made to add another assembly under the name of a senate or council; this motion was argued by several members, some for the affirmative, and some for the negative; and before the question was put the opinion of the president was requested: the president rose, and said, that “Two assemblies appeared to him, like a practice he had somewhere seen, of certain wagoners who, when about to descend a steep hill, with a heavy load, if they had four cattle, took off one pair from before, and chaining them to the hinder part of the wagon drove them up hill; while the pair before, and the weight of the load, overbalancing the strength of those behind, drew them slowly and moderately down the hill.”

The president of Pennsylvania might, upon such an occasion, have recollected one of Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, viz. “that re-action must always be equal and contrary to action,” or there can never be any rest. — He might have alluded to those angry assemblies in the Heavens, which so often overspread the city of Philadelphia, fill the citizens with apprehension and terror, threatening to set the world on fire, merely because the powers within them are not sufficiently balanced. He might have recollected, that a pointed rod, a machine as simple as a wagoner, or a monarch, or a governor, would be sufficient at any time, silently and innocently, to disarm, those assemblies of all their terrors, by restoring between them the balance of the powerful fluid, and thus prevent the danger and destruction to the properties and lives of men, which often happen for the want of it.

However, allusions and illustrations drawn from pastural and rural life are never disagreeable, and in this case might be as apposite as if they had been taken from the sciences and the skies. — Harrington, if he had been present in convention, would have exclaimed, as he did when he mentioned his two girls dividing and choosing a cake, “Oh! the depth of the wisdom of God, which in the simple invention of a carter, has revealed to mankind the whole mystery of a commonwealth; which consists as much in dividing and equalizing forces; in controlling the weight of the load and the activity of one part, by the strength of another, as it does in dividing and choosing.” Harrington too, instead of his children dividing and choosing their cake, might have alluded to those attractions and repulsions, by which the balance of nature is preserved: or to those centripetal and centrifugal forces, by which the heavenly bodies are continued in their orbits, instead of rushing to the sun, or flying off in tangents among comets and fixed stars: impelled, or drawn by different forces in different directions, they are blessings to their own inhabitants and the neighboring systems; but if they were drawn only by one, they would introduce anarchy wherever they should go. There is no objection to such allusions, whether simple or sublime, as they may amuse the fancy and illustrate an argument: all that is insisted on is, that whatever there is in them of wit or argument, is all in favor of a complication of forces, of more powers than one; of three powers indeed, because a balance can never be established between two orders in society, without a third to aid the weakest.

All that is surprising here is, that the real force of the simile should have been misunderstood: if there is any similitude, or any argument in it, it is clearly in favor of two assemblies. The weight of the load itself would roll the wagon on the oxen, and the cattle on one another, in one scene of destruction, if the forces were not divided and the balance formed; whereas by checking one power by another, all descend the hill in safety, and avoid the danger. It should be remembered too, that it is only in descending uncommon declivities that this division of strength becomes necessary. In traveling in ordinary plains, and always in ascending mountains, the whole team draws together, and advances faster as well as easier on its journey: it is also certain, there are oftener arduous steeps to mount, which require the united strength of all, with all the skill of the director, than there are precipices to descend, which demand a division of it.

Let us now return to Mr. Turgot’s idea of a government consisting in a single assembly. — He tells us, our republics are “founded on the equality of all the citizens, and therefore “orders” and “equilibriums,” are unnecessary, and occasion disputes.” — But what are we to understand here by equality? Are the citizens to be all of the same age, sex, size, strength, stature, activity, courage, hardiness, industry, patience, ingenuity, wealth, knowledge, fame, wit, temperance, constancy, and wisdom? Was there, or will there ever be, a nation, whose individuals were all equal, in natural and acquired qualities, in virtues, talents, and riches? The answer, of all mankind must be in the negative. — It must then be acknowledged, that in every state, in the Massachusetts for example, there are inequalities which God and nature have planted there, and which no human legislator ever can eradicate. I should have chosen to have mentioned Virginia, as the most ancient state, or indeed any other in the union, rather than the one that gave me birth, if I were not afraid, of putting suppositions, which may give offense, a liberty which my neighbors will pardon: yet I shall say nothing that is not applicable to all the other twelve.

In this society of Massachusettensions then, there is, it is true, a moral and political equality of rights and duties among all the individuals, and as yet no appearance of artificial inequalities or condition, such as hereditary dignities, titles, magistracies, or legal distinctions; and no established marks, as stars, garters, crosses or ribbons: there are, nevertheless, inequalities of great moment in the consideration of a legislator, because they have a natural and inevitable influence in society. Let us enumerate some of them: 1. There is an inequality of wealth: some individuals, whether by descent from their ancestors, or from greater skill, industry, and success in business, have estates both in lands and goods of great value; others have no property at all; and all the rest of the society, much the greater number, are possessed of wealth, in all the variety of degrees, between these extremes: it will easily be conceived, that all the rich men will have many of the poor, in the various trades, manufactures, and other occupations in life, dependent upon them for their daily bread: many of smaller fortunes will be in their debt, and in many ways under obligations to them: others, in better circumstances, neither dependent nor in debt, men of letters, men of the learned professions, and others, from acquaintance, conversation, and civilities, will be connected with them, and attached to them. Nay farther, it will not be denied, that among the wisest people that lives, there is a degree of admiration, abstracted from all dependence, obligation, expectation, or even acquaintance, which accompanies splendid wealth, ensures some respect, and bestows some influence. 2. Birth. Let no man be surprised, that this species of inequality is introduced here. Let the page in history be quoted, where any nation, ancient or modern, civilized or savage, is mentioned, among whom no difference was made between the citizens, on account of their extraction. The truth is, that more influence is allowed to this advantage in free republics, than in despotic governments, or than would be allowed to it in simple monarchies, if severe laws had not been made from age to age to secure it. The children of illustrious families, have generally greater advantages of education, and earlier opportunities to be acquainted with public characters, and informed of public affairs, than those of meaner ones, or even than those in middle life; and what is more than all, an habitual national veneration for their names, and the characters of their ancestors described in history, or coming down by tradition, removes them farther from vulgar jealousy, and popular envy, and secures them in some degree the favor, the affection, and respect of the public. Will any man pretend that the name of Andross, and that of Winthrop, are heard with the same sensations in any village of New England? Is not gratitude the sentiment that attends the latter, and disgust the feeling excited by the former? In the Massachusett’s then, there are persons descended from some of their ancient governors, counselors, judges, whose fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers, are remembered with esteem by many living, and who are mentioned in history with applause, as benefactors to the country, while there are others who have no such advantage. May we go a step farther — Know thyself, is as useful a precept to nations as to men. Go into every village in New England, and you will find that the office of justice of the peace, and even the place of representative, which has ever depended only on the freest election of the people, have generally descended from generation to generation, in three or four families at most. The present subject is one of those which all men respect, and all men deride. It may be said of this part of our nature, as Pope said of the whole:

Of human nature, wit her worst may write,
We all revere it, in our own despite.

If, as Harrington says, the ten commandments, were voted by the people of Israel, and have been enacted as laws by all other nations; and if we should presume to say, that nations had a civil right to repeal them, no nation would think proper to repeal the fifth, which enjoins honor to parents: if there is a difference between right and wrong; if any thing can be sacred; if there is one idea of moral obligation; the decree of nature must force upon every thinking being, and upon every feeling heart, the conviction that honour, affection, and gratitude are due from children, to those who gave them birth, nurture, and education. The sentiments and affections which naturally arise, from reflecting on the love, the cares, and the blessings of parents, abstracted from the consideration of duty, are some of the most forcible and most universal. When religion, law, morals, affection, and even fashion, thus conspire to fill every mind with attachment to parents, and to stamp deep upon the heart their impressions, is it to be expected that men should reverence their parents while they live, and begin to despite or neglect their memories as soon as they are dead? This is in nature impossible; on the contrary, every little unkindness and severity is forgotten, and nothing but endearments remembered with pleasure.

The son of a wise and virtuous father, finds the world about him sometimes as much disposed as he himself is, to honour the memory of his father; to congratulate him as the successor to his estate; and frequently, to compliment him with elections to the offices he held. A sense of duty, his passions and his interest, thus conspiring to prevail upon him to avail himself of this advantage, he finds a few others in similar circumstances with himself; they naturally associate together, and aid each other. This is a faint sketch of the source and rise of the family spirit: very often the disposition to favour the family is as strong, in the town, county, province, or kingdom, as it is in the house itself. The enthusiasm is indeed sometimes wilder, and carries away, like a torrent, all before it.

These observations are not peculiar to any age; we have seen the effects of them in St. Marino, Biscay, and the Grisons, as well as in Poland, and all other countries. Not to mention any notable examples, which have lately happened near us, it is not many months since I was witness to a conversation between some citizens of Massachusett’s: one was haranguing on the jealousy which a free people ought to entertain of their liberties, and was heard by all the company with pleasure; in less than ten minutes the conversation turned upon their governor; and the jealous republican was very angry at the opposition to him. “The present governor,” says he, “has done us such services, that he ought to rule us, he and his posterity after him for ever and ever.” Where is your jealousy of liberty? demanded the other. “Upon my honor,” replies the orator, “I had forgot that; you have caught me in an inconsistency; for I cannot know whether a child of five years old will be a son of liberty or a tyrant.” His jealousy was the dictate of his understanding: his confidence and enthusiasm the impulse of his heart.

The pompous trumpery of ensigns, armorials, and escutcheons, are not indeed far advanced in America. Yet there is a more general anxiety to know their originals, in proportion to their numbers, than in any nation of Europe; arising from the easier circumstances and higher spirit of the common people: and there are certain families in every state, as attentive to all the proud frivolities of heraldry. That kind of pride which looks down on commerce and manufactures as degrading, may indeed, in many countries of Europe, be a useful and necessary quality in the nobility: it may prevent, in some degree, the whole nation from being delivered up entirely to the spirit of avarice: it may be the cause, why honor is preferred by some to money: it may prevent the nobility from becoming too rich, and acquiring too large a proportion of the landed property. In America, it would not only be mischievous, but would expose the highest pretensions of the kind to universal ridicule and contempt. Those other hauteurs, of keeping the commons at a distance, and disdaining to converse with any but a few of a certain race, may in Europe be a favor to the people, by relieving them from a multitude of assiduous attentions and humiliating compliances, which would be troublesome; it may prevent the nobles from caballing with the people, and gaining too much influence with them in elections and otherwise. In America, it would justly excite universal indignation; the vainest of all must be of the people, or be nothing. While every office is equally open to every competitor, and the people must decide upon every pretension to a place in the legislature, that of governor and senator, as well as representative, no such airs will ever be endured. It must be acknowledged still, that some men must take more pains to deserve and acquire an office than others, and must behave better in it, or they will not hold it.

We cannot presume that a man is good or bad, merely because his father was one or the other; and should always inform ourselves first, whether the virtues and talents are inherited, before we yield our confidence. Wise men beget fools, and honest men knaves; but these instances, although they may be frequent, are not general. If there is often a likeness in feature and figure, there is generally more in mind and heart, because education contributes to the formation of these as well as nature. The influence of example is very great, and almost universal, especially of parents over their children. In all countries it has been observed, that vices, as well as virtues, run down in families, very often, from age to age. Any man may run over in his thoughts the circle of his acquaintance, and he will probably recollect instances of a disposition to mischief, malice, and revenge, descending, in certain breeds, from grandfather to father and son. A young woman was lately convicted at Paris of a trifling theft, barely within the law, which decreed a capital punishment. There were circumstances, too, which greatly alleviated her fault; some things in her behavior that seemed innocent and modest: every spectator, as well as the judges, was affected at the scene, and she was advised to petition for a pardon, as there was no doubt it would be granted. “No,” says she, “my grandfather, father, and brother, were all hanged for stealing; it runs in the blood of our family to steal, and be hanged; if I am pardoned now, I shall steal again in a few months more inexcusably: and therefore I will be hanged now.” — An hereditary passion for the halter is a strong instance, to be sure, and cannot be very common: but something like it too often descends, in certain breeds, from generation to generation.

If vice and infamy are thus rendered less odious, by being familiar in a family, by the example of parents, and by education, it would be as unhappy as unaccountable, if virtue and honor were not recommended and rendered more amiable to children by the same means.

There are, and always have been, in every state, numbers possessed of some degree of family pride, who have been invariably encouraged, if not flattered in it, by the people. These have most acquaintance, esteem, and friendship, with each other, and mutually aid each other’s schemes of interest, convenience, and ambition. Fortune, it is true, has more influence than birth; a rich man of an ordinary family, and common decorum of conduct, may have greater weight than any family merit commonly confers without it. 3. It will be readily admitted, there are great inequalities of merit, or talents, virtues, services, and, what is of more moment, very often of reputation. Some, in a long course of service in an army, have devoted their time, health, and fortunes, signalized their courage and address, exposed themselves to hardships and dangers, lost their limbs, and shed their blood, for the people. Others have displayed their wisdom, learning, and eloquence in council, and in various other ways acquired the confidence and affection of their fellow citizens, to such a degree, that the public have settled into a kind of habit of following their example and taking their advice. 4. There are a few, in whom all these advantages of birth, fortune, and fame are united.

These sources of inequality, which are common to every people, and can never be altered by any, because they are founded in the constitution of nature; this natural aristocracy among mankind, has been dilated on, because it is a fact essential to be considered in the institution of a government. It is a body of men which contains the greatest collection of virtues and abilities in a free government; is the brightest ornament and glory of the nation; and may always be made the greatest blessing of society, if it be judiciously managed in the constitution. But if it is not, it is always the most dangerous; nay, it may be added, it never fails to be the destruction of the commonwealth. What shall be done to guard against it? Shall they be all massacred? This experiment has been more than once attempted, and once at least tried. Guy Faux attempted it in England; and a king of Denmark, aided by a popular party, effected it once in Sweden; but it answered no good end. The moment they were dead, another aristocracy instantly arose, with equal art and influence, with less delicacy and discretion, if not principle, and behaved more intolerably than the former. The country, for centuries, never recovered from the ruinous consequences of a deed so horrible, that one would think it only to be met with in the history of the kingdom of darkness.

There is but one expedient yet discovered, to avail the society of all the benefits from this body of men, which they are capable of affording, and at the same time to prevent them from undermining or invading the public liberty; and that is, to throw them all, or at least the most remarkable of them, into one assembly together, in the legislature; to keep all the executive power entirely out of their hands as a body; to erect a first magistrate over them, invested with the whole executive authority; to make them dependent on that executive magistrate for all public executive employments; to give that first magistrate a negative on the legislature, by which he may defend both himself and the people from all their enterprises in the legislature; and to erect on the other side of them an impregnable barrier against them, in a house of commons, fairly, fully, and adequately representing the people, who shall have the power both of negativing all their attempts at encroachments in the legislature, and of withholding both from them and the crown all supplies, by which they may be paid for their services in executive offices, or even the public service carried on to the detriment of the nation.

We have seen, both by reasoning and in experience, what kind of equality is to be found or expected in the simplest people in the world. There is not a city nor a village, any more than a kingdom or commonwealth, in Europe or America; not a horde, clan, or tribe, among the negroes of Africa, or the savages of North or South America; nor a private club in the world, in which such inequalities are not more or less visible. There is then a certain degree of weight, in the public opinion and deliberations, which property, family, and merit will have: if Mr. Turgot had discovered a mode of ascertaining the quantity which they ought to have, and had revealed it to mankind, so that it might be known to every citizen, he would have deserved more of their gratitude than all the inventions of philosophers. But, as long as human nature shall have passions and imagination, there is too much reason to fear that these advantages, in many instances, will have more influence than reason and equity can justify.

Let us then reflect, how the single assembly in Massachusetts, in which our great statesmen wishes all authority concentered, will be composed. There being no senate nor council, all the rich, the honorable, and meritorious, will stand candidates for seats in the house of representatives, and nineteen in twenty of them obtain elections. The house will be found to have all the inequalities in it, that prevailed among the people at large. Such an assembly will be naturally divided into three parts. — The first is, of some great genius, some masterly spirit, who unites in himself all the qualities which constitute the natural foundations of authority; such as benevolence, wisdom, and power: and all the adventitious attractions of respect; such as riches, ancestry, and personal merit. All eyes are turned upon him for their president or speaker. — The second division comprehends a third, or a quarter, or, if you will, a sixth or an eighth of the whole; and consists of those who have the most to boast of resembling their head. — In the third class are all the rest, who are nearly on a level in understanding, and in all things. Such an assembly has in it, not only all the persons of the nation who are most eminent for parts and virtues, but all those who are most inflamed with ambition and avarice, and who are most vain of their descent. These latter will of course constantly endeavor to increase their own influence, by exaggerating all the attributes they possess, and by augmenting them in every way they can think of; and will have friends, whose only chance for rising into public view will be under their protection, who will even be more active and zealous than themselves in their service. Notwithstanding all the equality that can ever be hoped for among men, it is easy to see that the third class will in general be but humble imitators and followers of the second. Every man in the second class will have constantly about him a circle of members of the third, who will be his admirers; perhaps afraid of his influence in the districts they represent, related to him by blood, connected with him in trade, or dependent upon him for favors. There will be much envy too, among individuals of the second class, against the speaker, although a sincere veneration is shewn him by the majority, and great external respect by all. I said there would be envy; because there will be, among the second class, several, whose fortunes, families, and merits, in the acknowledged judgment of all, approach near to the first; and, from the ordinary illusions of self-love and self-interest, they and their friends will be much disposed to claim the first place as their own right. This will introduce controversy and debate, as well as emulation; and those who wish for the first place, and cannot obtain it, will of course endeavor to keep down the speaker as near upon a level with themselves as possible, by paring away the dignity and importance of his office, as we saw in Venice, Poland, and every where else.

A single assembly thus constituted, without any counterpoise, balance, or equilibrium, is to have all authority, legislative, executive, and judicial, concentered in it. It is to make a constitution and laws by its own will, execute those laws at its pleasure, and adjudge all controversies, that arise concerning the meaning and application of them, at discretion. What is there to restrain them from making tyrannical laws, in order to execute them in a tyrannical manner?

Will it be pretended, that the jealousy and vigilance of the people, and their power to discard them at the next election, will restrain them? Even this idea supposes a balance, an equilibrium, which Mr. Turgot holds in so much contempt; it supposes the people at large to be a check and controul to the representative assembly. But this would be found a mere delusion. A jealousy between the electors and the elected neither ought to exist, nor is possible to exist. It is a contradiction to suppose, that a body of electors should have at one moment a warm affection and entire confidence in a man, so as to intrust him with authority, limited or unlimited, over their lives and fortunes; and, the next moment after his election, to commence a suspicion of him, that shall prompt them to watch all his words, actions, and motions, and dispose them to renounce and punish him. They choose him, indeed, because they think he knows more, and is better disposed, than the generality, and even than themselves very often. Indeed the best use of a representative assembly, arises from the cordial affection and unreserved confidence which subsists between it and the collective body of the people. It is by such a kind and candid intercourse alone, that the wants and desires of the people can be made known, on the one hand, or the necessities of the public communicated or reconciled to them, on the other. In what did such a confidence in one assembly end, in Venice, Geneva, Biscay, Poland, but an aristocracy, and an oligarchy? There is no special providence for Americans, and their natures are the same with others.

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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