Rome: John Adam's "Defense," No. 36

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 36

Ancient Aristocratical Republics: ROME

My dear Sir,

DIONYSIUS Halicarnassensis has not only given us his own judgment, that the most perfect form of government is that which consists of an equal mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, in the speech which he puts into the mouth of Valerius, but has repeated the same sentiment, in his own name, in other parts of his work. In the seventh section of his second book of the Roman Antiquities, he says of Romulus, that he was extremely capable of instituting the most perfect form of government. And again, “I shall first speak of the form of government he instituted, which I look upon, of all others, to be the most self-sufficient to answer all the ends both of peace and war.” This is a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, extolled by Polybius; and is nearly the same with that of Lycurgus, instituted at Sparta about a hundred years before. As the constitutions of Rome and Sparta lasted so many centuries longer than others of Greece and Italy, and produced effects so amazing upon the human character, we may rationally ascribe that duration, and those effects, to this composition, although the balance was very imperfect in both. The legal power, both of the kings and people, in both, were unequal to that of the senate, and therefore the predominant character in both was aristocracy. In Sparta, the influence of the monarchy and democracy was derived chiefly from the oath taken by the kings and ephori to support each other. — An authority founded thus in opinion, in religion, or rather superstition, not in legal power, would keep the senate in some awe, but not in any certain restraint.

Romulus divided all the people into three parts, and appointed a person of the first rank to be the chief of each of them. Then he subdivided each of these into ten others, and appointed as many of the bravest men to be the leaders of these. The greater divisions he called tribes, and the lesser curiæ: the commanders of the tribes were called tribuni; and those of the curiae, curiones. He then divided the land into thirty portions, and gave one of them to each curia. He distinguished those who were eminent for their birth, virtues, and riches; and to these he gave the name of fathers. The obscure, the mean, and the poor, he called plebeians, in imitation of the government at Athens, where, at that time, those who were distinguished by their birth and fortune were called “well-born,” to whom the administration of government was committed; and the rest of the people, who had no share in it, “husbandmen.” Romulus appointed the patricians to be priests, magistrates, and judges. The institution by which every plebeian was allowed to choose any patrician for his patron, introduced an intercourse of good offices between these orders, made the patricians emulate each other in acts of civility and humanity to their clients, and contributed to preserve the peace and harmony of Rome in so remarkable a manner, that in all the contests which happened for six hundred and twenty years, they never proceeded to bloodshed.

The king, according to the institution of Romulus, had several important functions, viz. 1. Supremacy in religion, ceremonies, sacrifices, and worship. 2. The guardianship of the laws, and administration of justice, in all cases, whether founded on the law of nature, or the civil law: he was to take cognizance of the greatest crimes in person, leaving the lesser to the senate; and to observe, that no errors were committed in their judgments: he was to assemble both the senate and the people; to deliver his opinion first, and pursue the resolutions of the majority. — Romulus, however, wisely avoided that remarkable Spartan absurdity, of two kings.

The senate were to deliberate, and determine by a majority of votes, all questions which the king should propose to them. This institution also Romulus took from the constitution of the Lacedaeonians. The kings, in both constitutions, were so far from being absolute, that they had not the whole executive power, nor any negative upon the legislature; in short, the whole power of the government was vested in the senate.

The people had three privileges; to choose magistrates (yet all the great employments must be confined to the patricians); to enact laws; and to determine concerning war, when proposed by the king: but the concurrence of the senate being necessary to give a sanction to their decisions, their power was not without controul.

To separate the executive from the legislative power, and the judicial from both, and to give the king, the senate, and people, each a negative in the legislature, is so simple, and to us appears so obvious an improvement of this plan, that it is surprising it did not occur to Romulus, as well as to Lycurgus: bur, in those early times, perhaps neither kings, nor nobles, nor people, were willing to have their prerogatives and privileges so exactly ascertained. The nobles, in both nations, had almost all the influence, and were no doubt as jealous of royal as they were of popular power. It is certain that, although the government was called monarchical, it was in reality aristocratical in an high degree. There is a remarkable example of aristocratical art, in the manner of obtaining the determination of the people: they were not permitted to vote in one common assembly; they were called in their curiae the majority of votes in a curia decided its voice; and a majority of curiae was the resolve of the whole people.

Had Romulus died in peace, and left a son, his monarchy would probably have descended in his family: but a contest arose immediately here (as it has done in all other nations where the people had not a negative, and where the executive power has been partly in the hands of a king, and partly in a senate) between the king and the nobles; and Romulus was put to death by the patricians, for aiming, as they pretended, at more power than his share. This enabled the patricians to carry their first point; for it is always the first point of the aristocracy to make the first magistrate elective: in this they are always at first joined by the people; but, after seeing the use which the nobles make of these elections a few times, the people themselves have always made it hereditary.

Numa was chosen, a man of peace, piety, and humanity, who had address enough to make the nobles and people believe that he was married to the goddess Egeria, and received from his celestial consort all his laws and measures.

Tullius Hostilius, a man of great merit, was chosen in his stead; but after a glorious, at least a victorious, reign of thirty-two years, was murdered by the patricians, headed by Ancus Marcius, grandson of Numa by his only daughter, who thought his family-right prior to that of Tullius.

Ancus was elected king, and died a natural death.

Lucius Tarquinius, after a reign of thirty-eight years, in which he had enlarged the territory, beautified the city, and shewn himself worthy of the crown, was assassinated in his palace by the two sons of Ancus Marcius, who had learned the family policy: but their project was unfortunate; the people loved Lucius, executed the instruments of the murder, banished the two sons of Ancus, and confiscated their estates.

Servius Tullius, who had married the daughter of Lucius, was now elevated to the throne by the people, much against the will of the senate and patricians, because Lucius was not one of them, but of Greek extraction. Tullius was chiefly supported by the people, always disagreeable to the patricians, who held his advancement to the throne to be illegal. The administration of Tullius is an artful system of duplicity, to preserve his character, of the man of the people, and, at the same time, appease the fury of the patricians, by really undermining the authority of the people, and throwing the whole power into their hands. In pursuance of his principle to please both sides, he made excellent equitable regulations for registering the people, establishing a militia, and proportioning the burdens of war according to the property and abilities of all ranks; but he subdivided the six classes into one hundred and ninety-three centuries: the first class was composed wholly of the rich, and contained ninety-eight of the centuries. If the centuries of the first class were unanimous, as they generally were, they carried every point by a majority of three; if they disagreed, the centuries of the second class were called; if they disagreed, the third came forward; and so on, till ninety-seven centuries agreed: if the numbers continued equal, ninety-six to ninety-six, the sixth class was called, which was composed wholly of the poorest people, and contained but one century; but even the votes of the fourth class were rarely called for, and the votes of the fifth and sixth were generally useless. When the people voted by curiae, the vote of every citizen was given, and, as the poor were most numerous, they were always sure of a large majority; but when thus taken by centuries, that numerous body of the poor, which composed the sixth century, were wholly insignificant, and those of the fifth and fourth very nearly so. By changing the votes from curiae to centuries, Tullius wholly changed the fundamental constitution, and threw the elections of magistrates civil and military, the power of enacting and repealing laws, declaring war, and making peace, all into the power of the rich patricians. The people had not sense enough to see this; nor to see another thing of more importance, viz. that the king had been driven to the necessity of this artful flattery of the patricians, by his not being independent of them, and by their sharing with him in the executive power. Tullius had two daughters, married to the grandsons of his predecessor, Aruns and Tarquinius. The patricians were still caballing against Tullius, and set up Tarquin, one of his sons-in-law, against him; but as a majority were not for his deposition, Tarquin and his impious and incestuous wife joined the cabal in the murder of her first husband and her father. Tarquin, in time, murdered on all hands, patricians and plebeians. — He was expelled by Brutus.

This whole history, from Romulus to Tarquin, is one continued struggle of the noble families for the first place; and another unanswerable proof of the necessity of having three orders, and each order independent, in order to form an effectual equilibrium. The people were very little regarded by the senate or patricians; the kings only now and then courted the people for support against their rivals among the patrician families. The tyranny of Tarquin made the name of king odious and unpopular: the patricians, who were the principal conductors of the revolution, took advantage of this; — for what? To restore and improve Romulus’s plan of a mixed government? No; but to establish their favorite aristocracy upon the ruins of monarchy. Two consuls, in imitation of the two Spartan kings, were to be elected annually, by the votes of the people, which carried the name of a democratical power; but the votes were taken by centuries, not by tribes, which made the patricians matters of the elections, and constituted an aristocracy in reality. From this moment a haughty faction of selfish patricians appears, who affected to despite the people, to reduce them to servitude, and establish a despotic oligarchy. The people had suffered their prejudices to blind them so far as to be tricked out of their king, who was at least a better friend to them than the patricians were, and now the contests were wholly between patricians and plebeians: the former had now got the consuls, and consequently the executive power, as much in their hands as ever the nobles in Venice had their doge, or as the nobles in Poland have their king.

The plebeians were now in a most wretched situation. They were obliged to serve in the wars, to keep out the Tarquins and their allies, at their own expense, which frequently obliged them to borrow money at exorbitant interest of the patricians, who had engrossed the greater part of the wealth; and, as the country was often ravaged by the enemy, many lost all their effects. Unable to pay the principal, with accumulated loads of interest upon interest, they were frequently confined by their creditors in chains, and scourged with whips; for the law, to which they had foolishly consented, had made the debtor a slave to the creditor. The people began to demand an abolition of debts; the senate appointed a dictator. A confusion of foreign wars and domestic dissensions ensues, till we come to the story so beautifully told by Livy and Dionysius, of the man who had been in twenty-eight battles, who appeared before the people, and shewed on his back the bleeding scars inflicted by a merciless creditor. At this time the patricians had plunged into their usual difficulty, a violent contest among themselves, between a furious headlong party which always appears for an oligarchy, and the moderate men, who desire to continue the aristocracy; the young patricians generally follow the haughty Claudius, and the mild Valerius courts the people. The oligarchy prevails, and the decemvirate is established: their tyranny drives the people to the sacred mountain; and, at last, the tribunate was established. — Here is the first symptom of any system pursued by the people: this was a balance — but what kind of balance? Nobody thought of another council, a house of representatives, who should have a negative; and, if they had, it would not have availed without a king; for such a new assembly would soon have been either wholly subjected to the senate, or would have voted it useless. In truth, the monarchical power being suppressed, and the executive authority, as well as legislative, being now only in the senate and people, a struggle commenced between these two.

The people were on the scramble for more power; and first obtained a law, that all laws passed in their assemblies by tribes, should have equal force with those made in the assembly by centuries; then, that all posts and dignities should be enjoyed by the plebeians equally with the patricians; and that the decrees of the people should have the same force, and affect the patricians in the same manner, as those passed by the senate. All this was very just, and only brought the democracy to an equality with the aristocracy; but whenever these two are equal in legal power, numbers will soon turn the balance in favour of the democracy, unless there is a third power to intervene. Accordingly it so happened, and the people went on from step to step, increasing their own importance, and diminishing that of the senate, until it was found shut up in Utica; but, before this, the people were divided into parties, and Caesar, at the head of one, passed the Rubicon, that is, set the most sacred law of his country at open defiance. From this time the government became a government of men, and the worst of men.

From this example, as from all others, it appears, that there can be no government of laws without a balance, and that there can be no balance without three orders; and that even three orders can never balance each other, unless each in its department is independent and absolute. For want of this, the struggle was first between the king and senate; in which case the king must always give way, unless supported by the people. Before the creation of tribunes, the people were in no sense independent, and therefore could not support the kings. After the abolition of kings, the senate had no balance either way, and accordingly became at once a tyrannical oligarchy. When the people demanded their right, and obtained a check, they were not satisfied; and grasped at more and more power, until they obtained all, there being no monarchical power to aid the senate. But the moment the power became collected into this one center, it was found in reality split into three; and as Caesar had the largest of the three shares, he instantly usurped the whole.

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

Formatting, font, spelling modernizations, explanatory footnotes, and review questions 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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