Tacitus on Ancient Germans: John Adams' "Defense" No. 37

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 37

Ancient Monarchical Republics: TACITUS ON THE ANCIENT GERMANS

Dear Sir,

BEFORE we proceed to the Greeks, we may even mention the savages. Every nation in North America has a king, a senate, and a people. The royal office is elective, but it is for life; his sachems are his ordinary council, where all the national affairs are deliberated and resolved in the first instance: but in the greatest of all, which is declaring war, the king and sachems call a national assembly round a great council fire, communicate to the people their resolution, and sacrifice an animal. Those of the people who approve the war, partake of the sacrifice; throw the hatchet into a tree, after the example of the king; and join in the subsequent war songs and dances. Those who disapprove, take no part of the sacrifice, but retire.


THE ancient German nations mentioned by Tacitus, had among them at least two sorts of governments. One was monarchy; and the king was absolute, as appears by these words: “Exceptis iis gentibus quae regnantur; ibi enim et super ingenuos, et super nobiles, ascendunt liberti: apud ceteros, impares libertini, libertatis argumentum.1 The other species of government was aristocracy; for though there was a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, yet the power of the king and people was so feeble, and that of the nobles, as Comprehended under the titles of princes, dukes, and counts, was so predominant, that the government must be denominated aristocratical. “De minoribus rebus principes consultant, de majoribus omnes; ita tamen, ut ea quoque, quorum penes plebem arbitrium est, apud principes pertractentur.” If those things which were most clearly in the power of the people, were first discussed among the nobles, the reference to the people afterwards seems to have been rather a communication to them of the result of the senate, than a submission of it to the popular judgment.

The nature and extent of the royal dignity and authority, appears from these words: “Reges ex nobilitate sumunt; nec regibus infinita aut libera potestas.” Kings were taken from the nobility, or kings were chosen for their noble descent; so that ordinarily the office descended to the next of kin: but it is here expressly ascertained that their power was neither unlimited nor independent. They had no negative, and might in all things be over-ruled, at least by the nobles and people conjointly.

The nature and extent of the aristocratical dignities and authorities, may be collected from what follows: “Duces ex virtute sumunt; et duces exemplo potius quam imperio, si prompti, si conspicui: si ante aciem agant, admiratione præsunt.” The feudal hierarchy, even in these early times, was fully established, although it was afterwards enlarged. The titles of dukes and counts, the rank and power they conferred, descended in families, although there was the bare formality of an election in the grand council. “Arma sumere, non ante cuiquam moris, quam civitas suffecturum probaverit: tum, in ipso consilio, vel principum aliquis, vel pater, vel propinquus, scuto frameaque juvenem ornant. Insignis nobilitas, aut magna patrum merita, principis dignationem etiam adolescentulis assignant.” — “When the young men were first admitted into public society, it was in the great council; when some one of the dukes, or the father, or other relation, adorned the youth with arms. And if he is of very noble birth, or his father has great merit, the dignity of a duke is assigned to him, young as he is.” — From this it is pretty clear that the crown, as well as the titles of dukes and counts, descended in the family line; although the formality of an admission into council was kept up. The nobles, among whom the king was little more than the first among equals — at least he was not more superior to the dukes, than the dukes were to the counts — had the game in their own hands, and managed a rude people as they pleased. This will appear probable from other passages: “Cæteris robustioribus, ac jam pridem probatis, aggregantur; nec rubor inter comites aspici, gradus quinetiam et ipse comitatus habet, judicio ejus quem sectantur. Magnaque et comitum aemulatio, quibus primus apud principem suum locus; et principum, cui plurimi et acerrimi comites. Haec dignitas, hae vires, magno semper electorum juvenum globo circumdari, in pace decus, in bello præsidium; nec solum in sua gente cuique, sed apud finitimas quoque civitates, id nomen, ea gloria est, si numero ac virtute comitatus emineat; expetuntur enim legationibus, et muneribus ornantur, et ipsa plerumque fama bella profligant. Cum ventum in aciem, turpe principi virtute vinci, turpe comitatui virtutem principis non adaequare. Jam vero infame in omnem vitam, ac probrosum, superstitem principi suo ex acie recessisse. Illum defendere, tueri, sua quoque fortia facta gloria ejus assignare, præcipuum sacramentum est. Principes pro victoria pugnant, comites pro principe. Si civitas, in qua orti sunt, longa pace et otio torpeat, plerique nobilium adolescentium petunt ultro eas nationes quæ tum bellum aliquod gerunt; quia et ingrata genti quies, et facilius inter ancipitia clarescunt, magnumque comitatum non nisi vi belloque tueare; exigunt enim principis sui liberalitate illum bellatorem equum illam cruentam victricemque frameam: nam epulæ, et quanquam incompti, largi, tamen, apparatus pro stipendio cedunt; materia magnificentiae per bella et raptus. Nec arare terram, aut expectare annum, tam facile persuaseris quam vocare hostes, et vulnera mereri; pigrum quinimo et iners videtur, sudore acquirere quod possis sanguine parare.”

When the foregoing ties, by which the people or the common soldiers were attached to the nobles, and the young and inferior nobles to the superior, are considered, a better judgment may be formed of the authority which the people really had in the grand council or national assembly.

The powers and privileges of the people, in assembly, appears from the following passages: Coeunt, nisi quid fortuitum et subitum inciderit, certis diebus, cum aut inchoatur luna aut impletur; nam agendis rebus hoc auspicatissimum initium credunt. — Illud ex libertate vitium, quod non simul nec jussi conveniunt, sed et alter et tertius dies cunctatione coeuntium absumitur.” By this it should seem that the people were so far from esteeming the privilege of meeting, that the king and nobles could scarcely get them together. They had such an aversion to these civil and political deliberations, that the chiefs could hardly collect them to receive their orders. — “Ut turbæ placuit, considunt armati. Silentium per sacerdotes, quibus tum et coercendi jus est, imperatur. Mox rex, vel princeps, prout aetas cuique, prout nobilitas, prout decus bellorum, prout facundia, audiuntur, auctoritate suadendi magis quam jubendi potestate. Si displicuit sententia, fremitu aspernantur; sin placuit, frameas concutiunt.” Here is some appearance of popular liberty: but when it is considered that the nobles were probably all the speakers; that the numbers were not counted, nor voices distinctly taken; assent expressed by a clash of arms, and dissent by a murmur or a groan; and especially the dependence of the people on their leaders, and attachment to them by oath; we may consider these assemblies rather as called to receive the proclamation of the laws or minds of the nobles, than as any effectual democratical check. There was one thing however, of great importance, done in these assemblies; judges, the posse comitatus, and juries, were here appointed to administer justice. “Eliguntur in iisdem conciliis et principes, qui jura per pagos vicosque reddunt. Centeni singulis ex plebe comites, consilium simul et auctoritas, adsunt.” — An hundred commoners attended the judge, and out of these were juries appointed to give their opinion, “consilium;” and others, or perhaps the same, to afford their assistance, “auctoritas,” in putting the sentences and judgment into execution.

From other particulars related by Tacitus, it is very probable there had been communications between Germany and Greece; from the worship of Hercules, Mars, Minerva, &c.; if not from the altar of Ulysses, and the name of Laertes, and the other monuments, and inscriptions in Greek letters, of which he speaks more doubtfully. — However this may have been, there is a remarkable analogy between these political institutions of the Germans, and those described by Homer in the times of the Trojan war. It was, in both, the prerogative of the king to lead in war, and to rule in peace; but it is probable he was not fond of deliberating, any more than or fighting, without company: and though he may have done both sometimes, yet numbers of his followers were ready to attend him in either. The nation acknowledged him for their leader; but they were accustomed, on great occasions, to assemble; and, without any studied form of democracy, took the sovereignty upon themselves, as often as their passions were strongly enough affected to unite them in a body. The superior classes among themselves came as naturally to hold their meetings apart; and assembled frequently, when the occasion was not sufficient to engage the attention of the whole. — There is one remarkable difference between the Germans and the Greeks. Among the former the priests were a distinct body, and seem to have had more decisive authority than the kings, nobles, or people in the general assemblies — “Silentium per sacerdotes, quibus tum et coercendi jus est, imperatur:” whereas, among the latter, the kings were themselves at the head of the priesthood.

In this second kind of German governments, we see the three orders of king, nobles, and commons distinctly marked; but no balance fixed, no delineation of the powers of each: which left room for each to claim the sovereignty, as we know they afterwards did; as least the king and the nobles claimed and contended for it for many ages: the people sometimes claimed it, but at last gave it up to the king, as the least evil of the two, in every country except England.

1. There cannot be a stronger proof than this, that the monarchy was of the most absolute kind, that it was indeed a simple despotism; and Tacitus himself gives the explanation of it, in his account of the origin of this kind of slavery. “Aleam sobrii inter seria exercent, tanta lucrandi perdendive temeritate, ut, cum omnia defecerunt, extremo ac novissimo jactu, de libertate et de corpore contendant. Victus voluntariam servitutem adit; quanquam junior, quanquam robustior, alligari se ac venire patitur: ea est in re prava pervicacia; ipsi fidem vocant. Servos conditionis hujus per commercia tradunt, ut se quoque pudore victoriæ exsolvant. Liberti non multum supra servos sunt, raro aliquod momentum in domo, nunquam in civitate, exceptis duntaxat iis gentibus quæ regnantur,” &c. If in these nations those freedmen, who were nothing in the others, neither in the family or the state, were held in more estimation, and advanced to more power, than the citizens, even than the nobles, these kings must have been despots, in the strictest sense of the word; otherwise neither nobles nor people would have suffered the indignity.

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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