Sir Thomas Smith, Adam's Defense, No. 34

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 34

Ancient Republics and Opinions of Philosophers: SIR THOMAS SMITH

My dear Sir,

I promised you to add to the researches of Polybius and Plato, concerning the mutability of governments, those of Sir Thomas Smith, who, as he tells us, on the 28th of March, 1565, in the 7th [year of the reign] of [Queen] Elizabeth and 51st year of his age, was ambassador from that queen to the court of France, and then published “The Commonwealth of England,” not as Plato made his Republic, Xenophon his Kingdom of Persia, or Sir Thomas Moore his Utopia, feigned commonwealths, such as never were nor shall be, vain imaginations, phantasies of philosophers, but as England stood, and was governed at that day.

In his 7th chapter, and the two following, he gives us his opinion of the origin of a kingdom, an aristocracy, and democracy. The third he supposes to grow naturally out of the second, and the second out of the first, which originated in patriarchal authority. But as there is nothing remarkable, either in favor of our system or against it, I should not have quoted the book in this place, but for the sake of its title. The constitution of England is in truth a republic, and has been ever so considered by foreigners, and by the most learned and enlightened Englishmen, although the word commonwealth has become unpopular and odious, since the unsuccessful and injudicious attempts to abolish monarchy and aristocracy, between the years 1640 and 1660.

Let us proceed then to make a few observations upon the Discourses of Plato and Polybius, and shew how forcibly they prove the necessity of permanent laws, to restrain the passions and vices of men, and to secure to the citizens the blessings of society, in the peaceable enjoyment of their lives, liberties, and properties; and the necessity of different orders of men, with various and opposite powers, prerogatives, and privileges, to watch over one another, to balance each other, and to compel each other at all times to be real guardians of the laws.

Every citizen must look up to the laws, as his master, his guardian, and his friend; and whenever any of his fellow citizens, whether magistrates or subjects, attempt to deprive him of his right, he must appeal to the laws; if the aristocracy encroach, he must appeal to the democracy; if they are divided, he must appeal to the monarchical power to decide between them, by joining with that which adheres to the laws; if the democracy is on the scramble for power, he must appeal to the aristocracy, and the monarchy, which by uniting may restrain it. If the regal authority presumes too far, he must appeal to the other two. Without three divisions of power, stationed to watch each other, and compare each other’s conduct with the laws, it will be impossible that the laws should at all times preserve their authority, and govern all men.

Plato has sufficiently asserted the honor of the laws, and the necessity of proper guardians of them; but has no where delineated the various orders of guardians, and the necessity of a balance between them: he has, nevertheless, given us premises from whence the absolute necessity of such orders and equipoises (1) may be inferred; he has shewn how naturally every simple species of government degenerates. The aristocracy, or ambitious republic, becomes immediately an oligarchy — What shall be done to prevent it? Place two guardians of the laws to watch the aristocracy: one, in the shape of a king, on one side of it; another, in the shape of a democratical assembly, on the other side. The aristocracy, become an oligarchy, changes into a democracy — How shall it be prevented? By giving the natural aristocracy in society its rational and just weight, and by giving it a regal power to appeal to, against the madness of the people. Democracy becomes a tyranny — How shall this be prevented? By giving it an able independent ally in an aristocratical assembly, with whom it may unite against the unjust and illegal designs of any one man.

Editor’s Footnote (added by The Moral Liberal)

1. equipose: 1. state of equilibrium 2. counterbalance.

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

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