John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 27

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786


My dear Sir,

THE whole chapter is very much to the purpose, but the following paragraphs more particularly so. — According to some authors, there are but three sorts of governments, viz. monarchy or principality, aristocracy, and democracy; and that those who intend to erect a new state, must have recourse to some one of these which he likes best. Others, and with more judgment, as many think, say there are six sorts; three of which are very bad, and the other three good in themselves, but liable to be so corrupted that they may become the worst. The three good sorts have been just now mentioned: the other three proceed from these; and every one of them bears such a resemblance to that on which it respectively depends, that the transition from one to the other is short and easy; for monarchy often degenerates into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into licentious anarchy and confusion: so that whoever sets up any one of the former three sorts of government, may assure himself it will not be of any long duration; for no precaution will be sufficient to prevent its falling into the other that is analogous to it, on account of the affinity which there seems to be in this case betwixt virtue and vice, perfection and imperfection.

This variety of governments among mankind appears to have been the effect of chance: for in the beginning of the world, the inhabitants being few, they sometimes lived separate from each other, like beasts; but afterwards, as they multiplied, they began to unite for their mutual defence, and put themselves under the protection of such as were most eminent amongst them for courage and strength, whom they engaged to obey and acknowledge as their chiefs. Hence arose the distinction betwixt honest and dishonest, just and unjust: for when any one injured his benefactor, his ingratitude excited a sort of fellow-feeling and indignation in others, as well as kindness and respect for those that behaved differently; and, as they considered that they might: some time or other, perhaps, be treated in the same manner themselves, if proper measures were not taken to prevent it, they thought fit to make laws for the reward of good men, and the punishment of offenders. This first gave rise to justice in the world; and from this consideration it came to pass, in process of time, that, in the election of a new chief, they had not so much regard to courage and bodily strength, as to wisdom and integrity: but afterwards, as this kind of government became gradually hereditary instead of elective, the heirs of these chieftains soon began to degenerate from the virtue of their ancestors, and to behave themselves as if they thought the main duty of a prince consisted in surpassing all other men in luxury, extravagance, effeminacy, and every fort of voluptuousness; by which, in a while, they first grew odious to their subjects, and then so jealous for themselves, that they were forced to dis-tress and cut off others for their own security, and at last to become downright tyrants. This first occasioned combinations and conspiracies for the destruction of princes; not amongst the weak and pusillanimous part of their subjects, but among such as, being more eminent for their generosity, magnanimity, riches, and birth, could not endure any longer to submit to these pitiful and oppressive governments.

The multitude, therefore; swayed by the authority of the nobles, rose in arms against their prince; and being freed from his yoke, transferred their allegiance to their deliverers, who, being thoroughly disgusted at. monarchy, changed the form of government, and took it into their own hands: after which they conducted both themselves and the state according to the plan they had formed, preferring the common good to any particular advantage; and behaving, in private as well as public affairs, with assiduity and moderation; whilst the remembrance of their past sufferings continued fresh upon their minds. But this authority afterwards devolving upon their sons, who had not seen these changes, nor experienced the miseries of tyranny, they began to grow so dissatisfied with that sort of civil equality, that they cast off all restraint, and giving themselves up to rapine, ambition, and lust, soon changed the government again from aristocracy into an oligarchy. Their administration, however, becoming as insupportable, in a while, as the tyranny of the other had formerly been, the people naturally began to look out for some deliverer; and, having fixed upon a leader, they put themselves under his banners, and established oligarchy. But when they had done this, and came to reflect upon the oppressions they sustained under a tyrant, they resolved never to be again governed by any one man, and therefore agreed to set up a popular government; which was constituted in such a manner, that the chief authority was not vested either in a prince or in a junto of the nobility.

Now, as all new establishments are held in some degree of reverence and veneration at first, this form subsisted for some time; though no longer than those people lived, who had been the founders of it: for, after their death, their descendants degenerated into licentiousness, and such a contempt for all authority and distinction, that, every man living after his own caprice, there was nothing to be seen but confusion and violence: so that, either by the advice of some good and respectable man, or compelled by the absolute necessity of providing a remedy for these disorders and enormities, they at last determined once more to submit to the dominion of one: from which state they fell again in time, through the same gradations, and from the abovementioned causes, into misrule and licentiousness. Such is the rotation to which all states are subject; nevertheless they cannot often revert to the same kind of government, because it is not possible that they should so long exist as to undergo many of these mutations: for it frequently happens, that when a state is labouring under such convulsions, and is destitute both of strength and counsel, it falls a prey so some other neighbouring community or nation that is better governed; otherwise it might pass through the several abovementioned revolutions again and again to infinity.

All these sorts of government then, in my opinion, are infirm and insecure; the three former from the usual shortness of their duration, and the three latter from the malignity of their own principles. The wisest legislators, therefore, being aware of these defects, never established any one of them in particular, but contrived another that partakes of them all, consisting of a prince, lords, and commons, which they looked upon as more firm and stable, because every one of these members would be a check upon the other; and of those legislators, Lycurgus certainly merits the highest praise, who constituted an establishment of this kind at Sparta, which lasted above eight hundred years, to his own great honour, as well as the tranquillity of the citizens.

Very different was the fate of the government established by Solon at Athens, which, being a simple democracy only, was of so short continuance, that it gave way so the tyranny of Pisistratus, before the death of the legislator: and though, indeed, the heirs of that tyrant were expelled about forty years after, and the Athenians not only recovered their liberty, but re-established Solon’s laws and plan of government, yet they did not maintain it above one hundred years, not withstanding they made several new regulations to restrain the insolence of the nobles, and the licentiousness of the commons; the necessity of which Solon had not foreseen; so that for want of tempering his democracy with a share of aristocracy, and princely power, it was of short duration in comparison of the constitution of Sparta.

But to return to Rome. — Though that city had not a Lycurgus to model its constitution at first, in such a manner as might preserve its liberty for a long course of time; yet so many were the accidents which happened in the contests betwixt the patricians and plebeians, that chance effected, what the lawgiver had not provided for: so that if it was not perfect at the beginning, it became so after a while; for though the first laws were deficient, yet they were neither incapable of amendment, nor repugnant to its future perfection; since not only Romulus, but all the rest of the kings that succeeded him, made several good alterations in them, and such as were well calculated for the support of liberty. But, as it was their intention to found a monarchy, and not a republic; when that city had shaken off the yoke of a tyrant, there seemed to be many provisions still wanting for the further maintenance of its freedom. And notwithstanding tyranny was at last eradicated, by the ways and means abovementioned, yet those who had chiefly contributed to it, created two consuls to supply the place of royalty; by which it came to pass, that the name alone, and not the authority, of princes was extinguished: so that the supreme power being lodged only in the consuls and senate, the government consisted of no more than two of the three estates, which we have spoken of before, that is, of royalty and aristocracy: it remained, therefore, still necessary to admit the people into some share of the government: and the patricians growing so insolent in time (as I shall shew hereafter), that the plebeians could no longer endure it, the latter took arms, and obliged them to relinquish part of their authority, lest they should lose the whole: on the other hand, the consuls and senators still retained so much power in the commonwealth, as enabled them to support their rank and dignity with honour. This struggle gave birth to certain officers, called tribunes of the people; after the creation of whom, that state became more firm and compact, every one of the three degrees abovementioned having its proper share in the government; and so propitious was fortune to it, that although it was changed from a monarchy into an aristocracy, and afterwards into a democracy, by the steps and for the reasons already assigned, yet the royal power was never entirely abolished and given to the patricians, nor that of the patricians wholly to the plebeians: on the contrary, the authority of the three estates being duly proportioned and mixed together, gave it the highest degree of perfection that any commonwealth is capable of attaining to; — and this was owing in a great measure, if not altogether, to the dissentions that happened betwixt the patricians and plebeians, as shall be shewn more at large in the following chapters.

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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