Lacedaemon, Adams' "Defense" No. 40

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 40

Ancient Aristocratical Republics: LACEDÆMON

My dear Sir,

FROM the days of Homer to those of Lycurgus, the governments in Greece were monarchical in name and pretension, but aristocratical in reality. The archons were impatient of regal government, constantly struggling against their kings; and had prevailed in every other city, except Sparta, to abolish the royal authority and substitute an aristocracy of archons in its place. In Lacedæmon, too, where there were eight-and-twenty archons contending against two kings, they had brought the whole country into the utmost confusion.

The circumstance of two kings, which perhaps prolonged the regal power longer in Sparta than in any other city, originated in the fondness of a mother. Aristodemus, one of the descendants of Hercules, to whose share Laconia fell, upon the division of the Peloponnesus, after the return of that family from banishment, leaving twin sons, Euristhenes and Procles; their mother refusing to determine which had the right of primogeniture, it was agreed that both should succeed to the crown with equal authority, and that the posterity of each should inherit. The nobles took advantage of all the jealousies which arose between the two families, obliged each to court them, and from time to time to make them concessions, until the royal authority was lost; and as the archons could not agree, each party now began to court the people, and universal anarchy prevailed.

Lycurgus, of the family of Procles, and only in the tenth descent from Hercules, succeeded his brother Polidectes; but being told his brother’s widow was with child, he declared himself protector only, and resigned the crown. Such a disinterested indifference to a crown in any one of royal or noble blood, was so unexampled in that age, that no wonder it was much admired and very popular. The ambitious princess, his sister, offered to marry him, and remove out of his way the only competitor, by procuring an abortion. He deceived her by counterfeited tenderness; and diverted her from the thoughts of an abortion, by promising to take the disposition of the child upon himself when it should be born. The infant was sent to him, when at supper with the principal magistrates: he took it in his arms, and cried, “A king, Spartans, is born to you,” and placed it in his own seat.

The company were touched at the tenderness of the scene, and fell into a transport of enthusiasm, both of piety to the blood of Hercules, and admiration of the disinterested integrity of Lycurgus, who, like an able statesman, perpetuates the memory of the event, and the joy at it, by the name with which, upon the spot, he christens the boy, Charilaus, the peoples joy.

But all this exalted merit, added to his acknowledged divine descent, and the undoubted possession of royal power, were not sufficient to over-awe the jealousy of the nobles, a strong party of whom joined the irritated queen and her brother, and raised continual factions against him. Weary of cabals, and stimulated with a thirst for knowledge, he determined to travel; visited Crete and Egypt, the two sources of the theology and policy of Greece; and brought home with him, on his return to his own country, Thales the poet, and the writings of Homer, with the resolution of adopting the martial discipline and political liberty which he read in the poet, and had seen exemplified in Crete. Nothing could be better calculated than his two poets, to inspire the nation with that enthusiasm which he wanted, and confirm the belief, that kings were from Jupiter, and beloved by him, excepting the response of the oracle, which he took care to procure: “Welcome, Lycurgus, to this happy place; thou favorite of Heaven! I stand in doubt whether I shall pronounce thee god or man: inclining still to think thou art a god!” — Herodotus.

The disorders in Sparta were now become insupportable; the kings had as little authority as the laws. All parties, except the two kings, in despair of their private schemes, applied to the great legislator, pointed out to all, by his divine original, the inspiration of Homer and Thales, his own integrity, wisdom, knowledge, and commanding authority over the minds of men, as well as his special divine mission pronounced by the oracle, to be the only man capable of new-modelling the constitution.

In Crete he had acquired a deep insight into human nature, at least he had informed himself fully of the length and breadth, the height and depth, of the passion of ambition in the human heart; that complication of affections, which is called by so many names; the love of esteem, of praise, of fame, of glory; that sense of honor in which Montesquieu tells us monarchies are founded; which Tacitus tells us made the ancient Teutons submit quietly to be sold by their inferiors, when they had gambled away their liberty; which at this day enforces so punctual a payment of debts of honor contracted at play; which supports against all laws throughout Europe the custom of dueling, and produces more suicides than any other cause; which is commonly known by the denomination of the point of honor, and may with as much propriety be called ambition; — Lycurgus appears to have understood better than any other legislator, and to have made the foundation of his institution: for this reason, Plato with great propriety calls it “The ambitious Republic.”

Lycurgus in secret consulted the nobles, but not the kings; formed a powerful party, called an assembly of the people, before whom his friends appeared in arms. Charilaus and Archilaus were not in the secret, but found themselves obliged to submit. What is all this but a body of nobles completing, by the aid of Lycurgus, that abolition of monarchy which they had been pursuing for ages, unrestrained by any legal check in the people, and unresisted by any adequate power in the crown? But what was his new institution?

In compliance with old prejudices, and from attachment to his family, he confirmed the two families on the throne, established the hereditary descent of the crown, but limited its authority. The kings were to continue high priests, to be commanders in chief of the armies, and presidents of the senate. Charilaus and Archilaus, terrified by the fate of all the other kings of Greece, agreed to accept of a certain, though limited authority, in lieu of pretensions more absolute, and more precarious.

The ancient dignities of the nobles were confirmed and enlarged: a senate of eight-and-twenty of their chiefs was formed, at the head of whom the two kings were placed. To the people he committed the election of future senators: but as the present twenty-eight were for life, and the influence of kings and senators would be commonly used with great unanimity, in favor of the eldest son, to fill up a vacancy made by the death of his father; and as the people were not permitted to debate, their choice was perhaps little more than a consent by acclamations to a nomination made by the king, and amounted to the same thing with an hereditary house of peers.

To this senate the whole executive power was committed, and the most important part of the legislative; for as all laws were to originate there only, they had a negative before debate. Here is indeed all authority nearly collected into one center, and that center the nobility; for the king was but the first among equals, having no negative upon the senate. If the legislature had rested here, his institution would have been in effect: a simple hereditary oligarchy, possessed of the whole legislative, executive, and judicial power, and probably as restless as ever, to reduce the kings to elections for life, or years, and then to take from them the power of religion, the command of armies, and then to change the title from king to archon, or from the family of Hercules to other houses.

With a view to counterbalance this dangerous authority, he instituted assemblies of the people, but intrusted them only with the power of confirming or rejecting what the senate proposed, and expressly forbade them all debate. The citizens were to give their simple ayes or noes, without being allowed to speak, even so far as to give a reason for their vote. He instituted moreover, as a farther check upon the senate, five magistrates to inspect the administration, and maintain the constitution; to convoke, prorogue, and dissolve both the greater assembly of the people, composed of nine thousand inhabitants of the city, and the lesser, consisting of thirty thousand inhabitants of the country or inferior villages.

These magistrates were called the ephori, and were to be annually appointed. But the lawgiver saw that the king and people were both too weak, and the senate would still have power to scramble after both; he therefore contrived a kind of solemn alliance to be perpetually renewed between the monarchical and democratical branches, by which the senate might be awed into moderation. He ordered an oath to be taken every month, by the kings and the ephori: the former swore to observe the laws, and the latter swore, for themselves and the people whom they represented, to maintain the hereditary honors of the race of Hercules, to revere them as ministers of religion, to obey them as judges, and follow them as leaders.

This was indeed a balance founded in opinion and in religion, though not a legal and independent check; as it was not a negative in either. In this constitution then were three orders, and a balance, not indeed equal to that of England, for want of a negative in each branch; but the nearest resembling it of any we have yet seen. The kings, the nobles, the senate, and the people in two assemblies, are surely more orders than a governor, senate, and house. The balance here attempted was as strong as religion operating on human nature could make it, though. not equivalent to a negative in each of three branches.

Another balance was attempted, in the rigorous separation of the city from the country, in two assemblies: it avoided the danger of jealousies between town and country in the deliberations of the people, and doubled the chances both of the monarchy and democracy, for preserving their importance in case of encroachments by the senate. If the senate and nobles should prevail in one assembly of the people so far as to carry any unconstitutional point, the kings and ephori would find a resource in the other, to lead them back.

The Lacedæmonian republic may then, with propriety, be called monarchical, and had the three essential parts of the best possible government; it was a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. It failed, however, in that essential particular, the balance. The aristocracy had a legal power, so eminent above that of king or people, that it would soon have annihilated both, if other precautions had not been taken, which destroyed all the real merit of this celebrated institution.

That the glory of the descendants of Hercules, and of their republic, might be the pride of every citizen, and that a superstitious attachment to both might be perpetuated, it was necessary to extinguish every other appetite, passion, and affection, in human nature. The equal division of property; the banishment of gold and silver; the prohibition of travel, and intercourse with strangers; the prohibition of arts, trades, and agriculture; the discouragement of literature; the public meals; the incessant warlike exercises; the doctrine, that every citizen was the property of the state, and that parents should not educate their own children; — although they served to keep up the constant belief of the divine mission of Lycurgus, and an enthusiastic passion for the glory of the republic, and the race of Hercules; and although they are celebrated by the aristocratical philosophers, historians, and statesmen of antiquity; must be considered as calculated to gratify his own family pride, rather than promote the happiness of his people.

Four hundred thousand slaves must be devoted to forty thousand citizens; weak and deformed children must be exposed; morality and humanity, as well as all the comforts, elegancies, and pleasures of life, must be sacrificed to this glaring phantom of vanity, superstition, and ambition. Separated from the rest of mankind, they lived together, destitute of all business, pleasure, and amusement, but war and politics, pride and ambition; and these occupations and passions they transmitted from generation to generation, for seven hundred years; as if fighting and intriguing, and not life and happiness were the end of man, and society, as if the love of one’s country, and of glory, were amiable passions, when not limited by justice and general benevolence; and as if nations were to be chained together for ever, merely that one family might reign among them.

Whether Lycurgus believed the descent of his ancestor from Jupiter the divine inspiration of Homer and Thales, or the divinity of the Oracle, any more than Mahomet believed his divine mission, may well be doubted. Whether he did or not, he shackled the Spartans to the ambitious views of his family for fourteen successions of Herculean kings, at the expense of the continual disturbance of all Greece, and the constant misery of his own people. Amidst the contradictions of ancient and modern writers, that account has been followed concerning the institution of the ephori, which appears most favorable to Lycurgus. The Roman tribunes, and perhaps the Venetian inquisitors, were borrowed from this institution.

Human nature perished under this frigid system of national and family pride. Population, the surest indication of national happiness, decreased so fast, that not more than one thousand old Spartan families remained, while nine thousand strangers had intruded in spite of all their prohibitory laws. The conquest of Athens gave them a taste of wealth, and even the fear of the penalty of death could not restrain them from traveling. Intercourse with strangers brought in foreign manners. The ephori were sometimes bribed. Divisions arose between the two kings, Agis and Leonidas: one joined with the people, the other with the nobles, and the sedition proceeded to blood. Kings became so fond of subsidies from foreign powers, that Agesilaus received them from a king of Egypt, and his enemy at the same time. Agis was murdered by the order of the ephori, who, instead of honoring the blood of Hercules according to their oath, took the sovereign power into their own hands. — Here the balance broke; Cleomenes, who endeavoured like Agis to restore the old laws and maxims, fell a sacrifice, and nothing appears afterwards in the history of Sparta but profligacy, tyranny, and cruelty, like that in Rome under the worst of the Cæsars.

The institution of Lycurgus was well calculated to preserve the independence of his country, but had no regard to its happiness, and very little to its liberty. As the people’s consent was necessary to every law, it had so far the appearance of political liberty: but the civil liberty of it was little better than that of a man chained in a dungeon; a liberty to rest as he is. The influence of this boasted legislation on the human character was to produce warriors and politicians, and nothing else.

To say that this people were happy, is to contradict every quality in human nature, except ambition. They had no other gratification: science and letters were sacrificed, as well as commerce, to the ruling passion; and Milton had no reason to “wonder how museless and unbookish they were, minding naught but the feats of war,” since it was not so much because Lycurgus was “addicted to elegant learning, or to mollify the Spartan surliness with smooth songs and odes, the better to plant among them law and civility,” that he brought the scattered works of Homer from lonia, and Thales from Crete, but merely to propagate his own and his family imposture.

The plan was profound, and means were with great ability fitted to the end: but as a system of legislation, which should never have any other end than the greatest happiness of the greatest number, saving to all their rights, it was not only the least respectable, but the most detestable in all Greece. To do it justice, however, it is much to be desired, that exercises like those established by Lycurgus, running, wrestling, riding, swimming, skating, fencing, dancing, should be introduced into public and private education in America, which would fortify the bodies and invigorate the minds of youth; instead of those sedentary amusements which debilitate, and are taking entire possession of society all over the world. The ladies too might honor some of these entertainments, though not all, with their presence and participation, to the great advantage of their own health, and that of posterity, without injury to their charms, or their reputations. But, above all, the existence of an all-perfect Intelligence, the parent of nature, the wise and moral ruler of it; the responsibility of every subordinate intellectual and moral agent; a future state of rewards and punishments; and the sacred obligations of oaths, as well as of the relative duties of social life, cannot be too clearly fixed by rational arguments in the minds of all the citizens. In this respect Lycurgus merits praise.

But as a civil and political constitution, taken all together, it is infinitely inferior to another, which Americans have taken for their model. The English constitution is the result of the most mature deliberation on universal history and philosophy. If Harrington’s council of legislators had read over the history, and studied the constitution of every nation ancient and modern, remarked the inconveniences and defects of each, and bent the whole force of their invention to discover a remedy for it, they would have produced no other regulations, than those of the English constitution in its theory, unless they had found a people so circumstanced as to be able to bear annual elections of the king and senate. This improvement the Americans, in the present stage of society among them, have ventured on; sensible, however, of the danger, and knowing perfectly well a remedy, in case their elections should become turbulent. Of this, at present, there is no appearance.

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 for the original version of this book is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired. Paragraphs have been broken up in this version by The Moral Liberal for greater ease of reading. Copyright of this version © 2011 Steve Farrell.

The Moral Liberal recommends David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize Winner: John Adams