Dionysius, Valerius: Adams "Defense" No. 32

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 32

Ancient Republics and Opinions of Philosophers: DIONYSIUS, VALERIUS

Dear Sir,

DIONYSIUS Halicarnassensis, in his seventh book, has given us an excellent speech in the senate, made by Manlius Valerius, a man venerable for his age and wisdom, and remarkable for his constant friendship for the people.

“If any of you, fathers! alarmed with an apprehension that you will introduce a pernicious custom into the commonwealth, if you grant the people a power of giving their suffrages against the patricians, and entertain an opinion that the tribunitian power, if considerably strengthened, will prove of no advantage, let them learn, that their opinion is erroneous, and their imagination contrary to sound reasoning: for if any measure can tend to preserve this commonwealth, to assure both her liberty and power, and to establish a perpetual union and harmony in all things, the most effectual will be to give the people a share in the government: and the most advantageous thing to us will be, not to have a simple and unmixed form of government; neither a monarchy, an oligarchy, nor a democracy, but a constitution tempered with all of them: for each of these forms, when simple, very easily deviates into abuse and excess; but when all of them are equally mixed, that part which happens to innovate, and to exceed the customary bounds, is always restrained by another that is sober, and adheres to the established order. — Thus monarchy, when it becomes cruel and insolent, and begins to pursue tyrannical measures, is subverted by an oligarchy, consisting of good men; and an oligarchy, composed of the best men, which is your form of government, when elated with riches and dependents, pays no regard to justice, or to any other virtue, and is destroyed by a wise people: and in a democracy, when the people, from being modest in their deportment, and observant of the laws, begin to run into disorders and excesses, they are forced to return to their duty by the power with which, upon those occasions, the best man of the commonwealth is invested. You, fathers, have used all possible precautions to prevent monarchical power from degenerating into tyranny; for, instead of a single person, you have invested two with the supreme power; and though you committed this magistracy to them, not for an indefinite time, but only for a year, you nevertheless appointed three hundred patricians, the most respectable, both for their virtue and their age, of whom this senate is composed, to watch over their conduct; but you do not teem hitherto to have appointed any to watch over your own, and to keep you within proper bounds. As for yourselves, I am as yet under no apprehensions, lest you should suffer your minds to be corrupted by great and accumulated prosperity, who have lately delivered your country from a long tyranny; and, through continual and lasting wars, have not as yet had leisure to grow insolent and luxurious. But with regard to your successors, when I consider how great alterations length of time brings with it, I am afraid, lest the men of power in the senate should innovate, and silently transform our constitution to a monarchical tyranny: whereas, if you admit the people to a share in the government, no mischief can spring from the senate; but the man who aims at greater power than the rest of his fellow citizens, and has formed a faction in the senate, of all who are willing to partake of his councils and his crimes (for those who deliberate concerning public affairs ought to foresee every thing that is probable) this great, this awful person, I say, when called by the tribunes to appear before the people, must give an account both of his actions and thoughts to this people, inconsiderable as they are, and so much his inferiors, and, if found guilty, suffer the punishment he deserves: and, lest the people themselves, when vested with so great a power, should grow wanton, and. seduced by the worst of demagogues, become dangerous to the best of citizens, (for the multitude generally give birth to tyranny) some person of consummate prudence, created dictator by yourselves, will guard against this evil, and not allow them to run into excess; and being in vested with absolute power, and subject to no account, will cut off the infected part of the commonwealth, and not suffer that which is not yet infected to be vitiated, reform the laws, excite the citizens to virtue, and appoint such magistrates as he thinks will govern with the greatest prudence: and having effected these things within the space of six months, he will again become a private man, without receiving any other reward for these actions, than that of being honored for having performed them. induced, therefore, by these considerations, and convinced that this is the most perfect form of government, debar the people from nothing; but as you have granted them a power of choosing the annual magistrates, who are to preside over the commonwealth, of confirming and repealing laws, of declaring war, and making peace, which are the greatest and most important affairs that come under the consideration of our government, not one of which you have submitted to the absolute determination of the senate, allow them, in like manner, the power of trying offenders, particularly such as are accused of crimes against the state, of raising a sedition, of aiming at tyranny, of concerting measures with our enemies to betray the commonwealth, or of any other crimes of the like nature; for the more formidable you render the transgression of the laws, and the alteration of discipline, by appointing many inspectors, and many guards over the insolent and the ambitious, the more will your constitution be improved.”

It is surprising that Valerius should talk of an equal mixture of monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical powers, in a commonwealth where they were so unequally mixed as they were in Rome. There can be no equal mixture without a negative in each branch of the legislature. But one example of an equal mixture has ever existed in Europe, and that is in England. The consuls in Rome had no negative; the people had a negative, but a very unequal one, because they had not the same time and opportunity for cool deliberation. The appointment of tribunes was a very inadequate remedy. What match for a Roman senate was a single magistrate seated among them? his abilities could not be equal; his firmness could not be always depended on: but what is worse, he was liable to be intimidated, flattered, and bribed. It is really astonishing, that such people as Greeks and Romans should ever have thought four or five epheri, or a single tribune, or a college of ten tribunes, an adequate representation of themselves. If Valerius had proposed, that the consul should have been made an integral part of the legislature, and that the Roman people should choose another council of two or three hundred, equally representing them, to be another integral part, he would then have seen, that the appointment of a dictator could never in any case become necessary.

Table of Contents: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, by John Adams

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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