A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 29

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Ancient Republics and Opinions of Philosophers: HARRINGTON

My dear Sir,

IN searching for the principles of government, we may divide them into two kinds: the principles of authority, and the principles of power. The first are virtues of the mind and heart, such as wisdom, prudence, courage, patience, temperance, justice, &c.: the second are the goods of fortune, such as riches, extraction, knowledge, and reputation. I rank knowledge among the goods of fortune, because it is the effect of education, study, and travel, which are either accidents, or usual effects of riches or birth, and is by no means necessarily connected with wisdom or virtue: but, as it is universally admired and respected by the people, it is clearly a principle of power. The same may be said of reputation, which, abstracted from all consideration whether it is merited or not, well or ill founded, is another source of power.

Riches will hold the first place, in civilised societies at least, among the principles of power, and will often prevail not only over all the principles of authority, but over all the advantages of birth, knowledge, and fame. For, as Harrington says, “Men are hung upon riches, not of choice as upon the other, but of necessity and by the teeth: for as much as he who wants bread, is his servant that will feed him; and if a man thus feeds a whole people, they are under his empire.” It already appears, that there must be in every society of men, superiors and inferiors, because God has laid in the constitution and course of nature the foundations of the distinction. And indeed, as Harrington says, “an army may as well consist of soldiers without officers, or of officers without soldiers, as a commonwealth consist of a people without a gentry, or of a gentry without a people.”

“Let states take heed,” says Lord Bacon, “how their nobility and gentlemen multiply too fast, for that makes the common subject grow to be a peasant and base swain driven out of heart, and in effect but a gentleman’s labourer. How shall the plow then be kept in the hands of the owners, and not mere hirelings? how shall the country attain to the character which Virgil gives of ancient Italy, Terra potens armis, atque ubere gleba? how, but by the balance of dominion or property?”

Notwithstanding Mr. Turgot’s aversion to balances, Harrington discovered, and made out, as Toland his biographer informs us, that “empire follows the balance of property, whether lodged in one, a few, or many hands.” A noble discovery, of which the honour solely belongs to him, as much as the circulation of the blood to Harvey, printing to Laurence Coster, or of guns, compasses, or optic glasses to the several authors. If this balance is not the foundation of all politics, as Toland asserts, it is of so much importance, that no man can be thought a master of the subject, without having well weighed it. Mr. Turgot, it is plain, had not the least idea of it.

“Tillage,” says Harrington, “bringing up a good soldiery, brings up a good commonwealth: for where the owner of the plow comes to have the sword too, he will use it in defense of his own. Whence it has happened, that the people of England, in proportion to their property, have been always free, and the genius of this nation has ever had some resemblance with that of ancient Italy, which was wholly addicted to commonwealths, and where Rome came to make the greatest account of her rustic tribes, and to call her consuls from the plow: for in the way of parliaments, which was the government of this realm, men of country lives have been still intrusted with the greatest affairs, and the people have constantly had an aversion to the ways of the court. Ambition loving to be gay and to fawn, has been a gallantry looked upon as having something in it of the livery; and husbandry, or the country way of life, though of a grosser spinning, as the best stuff of a commonwealth, according to Aristotle; such a one, being the most obstinate assertress of her liberty, and the least subject to innovation or turbulency. Commonwealths, upon which the city life has had the greatest influence, as Athens, have seldom or never been quiet: but at best are found to have injured their own business by overdoing it. Whence the Urban tribes of Rome, consisting of the turba forensis and libertinus, that had received their freedom by manumission, were of no reputation in comparison of the rustics. A commonwealth, consisting but of one city, would doubtless be stormy, in regard that ambition would be every man’s trade: but where it consists of a country, the plow in the hands of the owner finds him a better calling, and produces the most innocent and steady genius of a commonwealth.

Oceana, p. 37. — Domestic empire is founded upon dominion, and dominion is property, real or personal; that is to say, in lands, or in money and goods. Lands, or the parcels of a territory, are held by the proprietor or proprietors of it, in some proportion; and such (except it be in a city that has little or no land, and whose revenue is in trade) as is the proportion or balance of dominion or property in land, such is the nature of the empire. If one man be sole landlord of a territory, or over-balance the people — for example, three parts in four — he is grand seignior: for so the Turk is called from his property; and his empire is absolute monarchy. If the few, as a nobility and clergy, be landlords, or overbalance the people to the like proportion, it makes the Gothic balance, and the empire is mixed monarchy, as that of Spain, Poland, and once of England: and if the whole people be landlords, or hold the lands so divided among them, that no one man, or number of men, within the compass of the few, or aristocracy, over-balance them, the empire is a commonwealth.

If force be interposed in any of these three cases, it must either frame the government to the foundation, or the foundation to the government; or, holding the government not according to the balance, it is not natural, but violent: and therefore if it be at the devotion of a prince, it is tyranny; if at the devotion of the few, oligarchy. or if in the power of the people, anarchy. Each of which confusions, the balance standing other wise, is but of short continuance, because against the nature of the balance; which not destroyed, destroys that which opposes it.

Here it would be entertaining to apply these observations to the force of fleets and armies, &c. applied by Great Britain in the late contest with America. The balance of land, especially in New England, where the force was first applied, was neither in the king nor a nobility, but immensely in favour of the people. The intention of the British politicians was to alter this balance, “frame the foundation to the government, by bringing the lands more and more into the hands of the governors, judges, counsellors, &c. &c. who were all to be creatures of a British ministry. We have seen the effects.” — The balance destroyed that which opposed it.

Harrington proceeds. — But there are certain other confusions, which being rooted in the balance, are of longer continuance, and of worse consequence; as, first, where a nobility holds half the property, or about that proportion, and the people the other half; in which case, without altering the balance, there is no remedy, but the one must eat out the other: as the people did the nobility in Athens, and the nobility the people in Rome. Secondly, where a prince holds about half the dominion, and the people the other half, which was the case of the Roman emperors, (planted partly upon their military colonies, and partly upon the senate and the people) the government becomes a very shambles, both of the princes and the people. It being unlawful in Turkey that any should possess land but the grand seignior, the balance is fixed by the law, and that empire firm. Nor, though the kings often fell, was the throne of England known to shake, until the statute of alienations broke the pillars, by giving way to the nobility to sell their estates. While Lacedæmon held to the division of land made by Lycurgus, it was immovable; but, breaking that, could stand no longer. This kind of law, fixing the balance in lands, is called Agrarian, and was first introduced by God himself, who divided the land of Canaan to his people by lot.

The public sword, without a hand to hold it, is but cold iron. The hand which holds this sword is the militia of a nation; and the militia of a nation is either an army in the field, or ready for the field upon occasion. But an army is a beast that has a great belly, and must be fed; wherefore this will come to what pastures you have, and what pastures you have will come to the balance of property, without which the public sword is but a name. He that can graze this beast with the great belly, as the Turk does his timariots, may well deride him that imagines he received his power by covenant. But if the property of the nobility, stocked with their tenants and retainers, be the pasture of that beast, the ox knows his master’s crib; and it is impossible for a king, in such a constitution, to reign otherwise than by covenant; or, if he breaks it, it is words that come to blows.

Aristotle is full of this balance in divers places, especially where he says, that immoderate wealth, as where one man, or the few, have greater possessions than the equality or the frame of the commonwealth will bear, is an occasion of sedition, which ends, for the greater part, in monarchy; and that, for this cause, the ostracism has been received in divers places, as in Argos and Athens; but that it were better to prevent the growth in the beginning, than, when it has got head, to seek the remedy of such an evil.

Machiavelli, not perceiving that if a commonwealth be galled by the gentry, it is by their over-balance, speaks of the gentry as hostile to popular governments, and of popular governments as hostile to the gentry; which can never be proved by any one example, unless in civil war, seeing that, even in Switzerland, the gentry are not only safe, but in honour. But the balance, as I have laid it down, though unseen by Machiavel, is that which interprets him, where he concludes, “That he who will go about to make a commonwealth where there be many gentlemen, unless he first destroys them, undertakes an impossibility. And that he who goes about to introduce monarchy, where the condition of the people is equal, shall never bring it to pass, unless he cull out such of them as are the most turbulent and ambitious, and make them gentlemen or noblemen, not in name, but in effect; that is, by enriching them with lands, castles, and treasures, that may gain them power among the rest, and bring in the rest to dependence upon them; to the end that they, maintaining their ambition by the prince, the prince may maintain his power by them.”

Wherefore, as in this place I agree with Machiavelli, that a nobility, or gentry, over-balancing a popular government, is the utter bane and destruction of it, so I shall shew in another, that a nobility or gentry, in a popular government, not over-balancing it, is the very life and soul of it.

The public sword, or right of the militia, be the government what it will, or let it change how it can, is inseparable from the over-balance in dominion.


The balance of dominion in land is the natural cause of empire; and this is the principle which makes politics a science undeniable throughout, and the most demonstrable of any whatever. — If a man, having one hundred pounds a year, may keep one servant, or have one man at his command, then, having one hundred times so much, he may keep one hundred servants; and this multiplied by a thousand, he may have one hundred thousand men at his command. — Now that the single person, or nobility, of any country in Europe, that had but half so many men at command, would be king or prince, is that which I think no man can doubt. But “No money, no Swiss.” — The reason why a single person, or the nobility, that has one hundred thousand men, or half so many, at command, will have the government, is, that the estate in land, whereby they are able to maintain so many, in any European territory, must over-balance the rest that remains to the people, at least three parts in four Now, for the same reason, if the people hold three parts in four of the territory, it is plain there can neither be any single person or nobility able to dispute the government with them. In this case, therefore, except force be interposed, they govern themselves. So that by this computation of the balance of property or dominion in the land, you have, according to the three-fold foundation of property, the root or generation of the three-fold kind of government or empire. If one man be sole landlord of a territory, or over-balance the whole people, three parts in four, or thereabouts, he is grand seignior; for so the Turk, not from his empire, but property, is called; and the empire, in this case, is absolute monarchy. If the few, or a nobility, or a nobility with a clergy, be landlords to such a proportion as over-balances the people in the like manner, they may make whom they please king; or, if they be not pleased with their king, down with him, and set up whom they like better; a Henry the fourth, or seventh, a Guise, a Montfort, a Nevil, or a Porter, should they find that best for their own ends and purposes: for as not the balance of the king, but that of the nobility, in this case, is the came of the government, so not the estate of the prince or captain, but his virtue or ability, or fitness for the ends of the nobility, acquires that command or office. This for aristocracy, or mixed monarchy. But if the whole people be landlords, or hold the lands so divided among them, that no one man, or number of men, within the compass of the few, or aristocracy, over-balance them, it is a commonwealth. Such is the branch in the root, or the balance of property naturally producing empire.

Then follows a curious account of the laws in Israel against usury, and in Lacedæmon against trade, &c. which are well worth studying.

Page 254. — That which, introducing two estates, causes division, or makes a commonwealth unequal, is not that she has a nobility, without which she is deprived of her most special ornament, and weakened in her conduct, but when the nobility only is capable of magistracy, or of the senate; and where this is so ordered, she is unequal, as Rome. But where the nobility is no otherwise capable of magistracy, nor of the senate, than by election of the people, the commonwealth consists but of one order, and is equal, as Lacedæmon or Venice. Where the nobility holds half the property, or about that proportion, and the people the other half, the shares of the land may be equal; but in regard the nobility have much among few, and the people little among many, the few will not be contented to have authority, which is all their proper share in a commonwealth, but will be bringing the people under power, which is not their proper share in a commonwealth; wherefore this commonwealth must needs be unequal; and, except by altering the balance, as the Athenians did by the recision of debts, or as the Romans went about to do, by an agrarian, it be brought to such an equality, that the whole power be in the people, and there remain no more than authority in the nobility, there is no remedy, but the one, with perpetual feuds, will eat out the other, as the people did the nobility in Athens, and the nobility the people in Rome. Where the carcase is, there will be the eagles also; where the riches are, there will be the power: so if a few be as rich as all the rest, a few will have as much power as all the rest; in which case the commonwealth is unequal, and there can be no end of staving and tailing till it be brought to equality.

The estates, be they one, or two, or three, are such, as was said by virtue of the balance upon which the government must naturally depend: exemplified in France, &c.

Page 256. — All government is of three kinds: a government of servants, a government of subjects, or a government of citizens. The first is absolute monarchy, as that of Turkey; the second aristocratical monarchy, as that of France; the third a commonwealth, as Israel, Rome, Holland. Of these, the government of servants is harder to be conquered, and the easier to be held. The government of subjects is the easier to be conquered, and the harder to be held. The government of citizens is both the hardest to be conquered, and the hardest to be held.

The reason why a government of servants is hard to be conquered, is, that they are under a perpetual discipline and command. Why a government of subjects is easily conquered, is on account of the factions of the nobility.

The reasons why a government of citizens, where the commonwealth is equal, is hardest to be conquered, are, that the invader of such a society must not only trust to his own strength, inasmuch as, the commonwealth being equal, he must needs find them united; but in regard that such citizens, being all soldiers, or trained up to their arms, which they use not for the defence of slavery, but of liberty, a condition not in this world to be bettered, they have, more specially upon this occasion, the highest soul of courage, and, if their territory be of any extent, the vastest body of a well-disciplined militia, that is possible in nature: wherefore an example of such a one, overcome by the arms of a monarch, is not to be found in the world.

In the Art of Law-giving, chap. i. he enlarges still farther upon this subject; and instances Joseph’s purchase of all the lands of the Egyptians for Pharaoh, whereby they became servants to Pharaoh; and he enlarges on the English balance, &c.

In America, the balance is nine-tenths on the fide of the people: indeed there is but one order: and our senators have influence chiefly by the principles of authority, and very little by those of power; but this must be postponed.

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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