Athens: Adams "Defense" No. 41

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 41

Ancient Democratical  Republics: ATHENS

My dear Sir,

CECROPS, an Egyptian, conducted a colony that settled in Athens, and first engaged the wandering shepherds and hunters of Attica to unite in villages of husbandmen. Although the government of Egypt was an absolute monarchy, he found it necessary to establish his own upon a more limited plan.

The two rival families of Perseus and Pelops, anciently contended for the dominion of the Grecian peninsula. The fortune of the descendants of the latter prevailed, and their superior prosperity led them to persecute their enemies. The descendants of Hercules, who was a son of Jupiter by Alcmena, of the line of Perseus, was stripped of all their possessions, and driven into exile. After a series of misfortunes, Temenus, Cresphontes, and Aristodemus, descendants in the fifth degree from Hercules, conducted an expedition into Greece, and conquered the whole country.

The governments of the little states of Greece in the first ages, though of no very regular and certain constitution, were all limited monarchies. When, therefore, the Heraclides possessed themselves of Peloponnesus, they established every where that hereditary limited monarchy, which was the only government assimilated to the ideas and temper of the age, and an equality among themselves. Those vigorous principles of aristocracy, and some traces of the spirit of democracy, which had always existed in the Grecian governments, began to ferment; and in the course of a few ages monarchy was every where abolished: the very name of king was proscribed; a republic was thought the only government to which it became men to submit; and the term Tyrant was introduced to denote those who, in opposition to these new political principles, acquired monarchical authority.

Absolute monarchy was unknown as a legal constitution. The title of king implied a superiority of lawful dignity and authority in one person, above all others, for their benefit, not a right of absolute power. Legislation was never within their prerogative. A distinction of families into those of higher and lower rank obtained very early throughout Greece, and no where more than at Athens, where, by the constitution of Theseus, the Eupatrides, or nobly born, formed a distinct order of the state with great privileges.

Afterwards wealth became the principal criterion of rank, which amounted probably to the same thing, as the nobly born were generally most wealthy. Every citizen in every Grecian state was bound to military service, as in modern times among the feudal kingdoms. It was natural that the rich should serve on horseback; and this was the origin of knighthood both in ancient and modern nations. Where the noble or the rich held all the power, they called their own government aristocracy, or government of the better fort, or optimacy, government of the best sort. The people allowed the appellation of aristocracy only to those governments where persons, elected by themselves for their merit, held the principal power. Democracy signified a government by all the freemen of the state, or the peop!e at large, forming in assembly the legal, absolute sovereign: but as this, above all others, was subject to irregularity, confusion, and absurdity, when unchecked by some balancing power lodged in fewer hands, it was called ochlocracy, or mob rule. Most of the Grecian states had some mixture of two or more of these forms. The mixture of oligarchy and democracy, in which the former was superior, yet the latter sufficed to secure liberty and equal right to the people, might, according to Aristotle, be called aristocracy.

That mixture where the democratic power prevailed, yet was in some degree balanced by authority lodged in steadier hands, is distinguished by that great author by the name of polity. An equal mixture of all three was never known in Greece, and therefore never obtained a distinct name in that language.

A war happened between the Athenians and Peloponnesians; the armies were encamped near each other, and the Delphian oracle was consulted. The answer of the Pythoness implied, that the Peloponnesians would be victorious, provided they did not kill the Athenian king. Codrus disguising himself like a clown, with a faggot on his shoulder, and a fork in his hand, determined to devote his life, entered the enemy’s camp, and was killed. The Peloponnesian chiefs finding the body to be Codrus, and fearing the prophecy, withdrew their forces, and a peace ensued. Medon, the eldest son of Codrus, was lame; and bodily ability was held in so high rank in popular esteem, that his younger brother disputed the succession. Each had a powerful party; but the dispute brought forward a third, which was for abolishing the royalty, and having no king but Jupiter. Fatal dissensions were apprehended, when a declaration of the oracle was procured in favour of Medon; and it was amicably accommodated that Medon should be first magistrate, with title of archon, but not king. Although the honour was to be hereditary, and that the archon should be accountable to the assembly of the people for his administration, it was agreed that a colony should be sent to Asia Minor, under Nelius and Androclus, younger sons of Codrus. The most restless spirits joined in the migration, and no further materials for history remain for several generations.

From the period where Homer’s history ceases, to that in which the first prose historians lived, a space of 250 years, there is little light to be obtained. Twelve archons are named, who followed Medon by hereditary succession, and filled up 300 years. On the death of Alcmeon, Charops was raised to the archonship, upon condition of holding it for ten years only. Six archons followed Charops, by appointment, for ten years; but on the expiration of the archonship of Eryxias, it was resolved that the office should be annual, and that there should be nine persons to execute it. They had not all equal dignity, nor the same functions: one represented the majesty of the state, and was usually called the archon; the second had the title of king, and was head of the church; the polemarch was third, and chief of military affairs. The other six had the title of thesmothetes; they presided as judges in ordinary courts of justice. The nine together formed the council of state: here methinks I see the Polish nobles running down the king, or those of Venice the doge, and dividing the spoils of his prerogatives among themselves. Legislation was in the assembly of the people; but the whole administration, civil, military, religious, and judiciary, was with the archons, who were commonly appointed by lot; but sometimes the assembly of the people interfered, and exercised the power of naming them. From the appointment of annual archons there was nothing but intestine troubles.

That weight which, from earliest times, a few principal families possessed among the Attic people, and which was in a great degree confirmed to them by the constitution of Theseus, remained, amid all the turbulence of democracy, to a late period. Among those families the Alcmæonides, claiming some connection by blood with the perpetual archons and kings of the ancient Neleid line, were of great fame. Megacles, head of this family, was archon when Cylon, a man of a very ancient and powerful family, attempted to acquire the sovereignty of his country. He seized the citadel of Athens with some troops he received from Theagerus, tyrant of Megara, whose daughter he had married. His vanity was excited not only by his birth and marriage, but his personal merit, having been victor in a chariot race at the Olympic games. The people ran to arms under their archons, and laid siege to the citadel. Cylon fled, and his party fled to the altars: they were promised pardon, but condemned and executed. This was an atrocious infidelity, and made the actors in it as odious, as it rendered Cylon and his party again popular and powerful.

The miseries of a fluctuating jurisprudence became insufferable, and all parties united at last in the resolution to appoint a lawgiver. Draco was raised to this important office; a man whose morals and integrity recommended him to the people, but whose capacity was equal to no improvement in the political constitution, and to no greater invention for reforming the judicatures, than that of inflicting capital punishments in all offenses: and the knowing ones had no other remedy than to get the oracle to pronounce that the laws of Draco were written in blood; an expression which struck the imagination and touched the heart, and therefore soon rendered this system unpopular.

Salamis, perceiving the divisions at Athens, revolted, and allied itself to Megara. Several attempts to recover it having failed, the lower people, in opposition to their chiefs, carried a law, making it capital to propose a renewal of the enterprise. Solon, of an ancient royal family, who had hitherto pursued nothing but literature and poetry, perceiving that this rash act of the populace began to give general disgust and repentance, especially to the young Athenians, ventured to lead the people to repeal it. He caused it to be reported that he was mad, and for some time kept his house: in this retirement he composed a poem, such as he thought would excite the multitude; then watching his opportunity, during an assembly of the people, he ran into the Agora like one frantic, mounted on a rock, and read his poem to the people. Some of his friends, who were in the secret, were present, and ready to wonder and applaud. The enthusiasm spread, the law was repealed, and an expedition sent under Solon’s friends, which, being skillfully conducted, recovered the island. But the party of Cylon were still clamorous against the partisans of Megacles, for their breach of faith. Solon persuaded the accused to submit to a trial: they were condemned to banishment; but this punishment not being sufficient to appease the deity, the bones of those who had been executed were removed beyond the mountains.

During these troubles Salamis was retaken. Superstition now gained the ascendant; phantoms and omens were seen, and expiations and purifications were necessary. Epimenides, a Cretan philosopher, of great reputation for religious knowledge, and an intimate friend of Solon, was invited to superintend the religion of Athens. Epimenides was the ostensible director, but Solon concerted with him the various improvements in jurisprudence. By means of religious pomp, ceremony, sacrifices, and processions, he amused the people into some degree of order and suspension of their factions: but the tranquility was not likely to be lasting.

Three political parties existed: one for democracy, composed of the landholders of the mountains; another for an aristocracy, of the rich, consisting of the possessors of the plain; a third preferred a mixture of oligarchy and democracy, consisting of the inhabitants of the coast, and the most disinterested men. There was another division of the people, into the parties of the rich and the poor. Dangerous convulsions were so apprehended, that many sober men thought the establishment of a tyranny, in one, necessary to prevent greater evils.

Solon’s reputation for wisdom and integrity was universal; and, as he had friends in all parties, they procured the place of archon, with power to reform the constitution His first object was to reconcile the rich with the poor: this he accomplished by lowering the interest without annulling the debt, and by taking from the creditor the exorbitant powers over the person and family of the debtor. He found such a predilection for democracy in the minds of the citizens, that he preserved to every free Athenian his equal vote in the assembly of the people, which he made supreme in all cases, legislative, executive, and judicial. He had not, probably, tried the experiment of a democracy in his own family, before he attempted it in the city, according to the advice of Lycurgus; but was obliged to establish such a government as the people would bear, not that which he thought the best, as he said himself.

As the laws of Solon were derived from Crete and Egypt, were afterwards adopted by the Romans as their model, and have by them been transmitted to all Europe, they are a most interesting subject of inquiry; but it is not possible to ascertain exactly which were his, which were those of Epimenides or Theseus, or what was, in fact, the constitution of Athens.

The first inquiry is, Who were citizens? By a poll that was taken in the time of Pericles, they were found to be fourteen thousand persons. By another, in the time of Demetrias Phalerius, they were twenty-one thousand: at the same time there were ten thousand freemen, consisting of foreigners and freed slaves, and four hundred thousand souls in actual bondage, who had no vote in the assembly of the people. The persons therefore who shared the power, being not a tenth part of the nation, were excused from labour, in agriculture as well as manufactures, and had time for education; they were paid too for attendance on public affairs, which enabled the poorer citizens to attend their duty.

This is one circumstance which rendered a government so popular practicable for a time: another was, the division of Attica into tribes and boroughs, or districts, like the American counties, towns, and parishes, or the mires, hundreds, and tythings of England The tribes at first were four, afterwards ten. Each tribe had its presiding magistrate, called phylarchus, analogous to the English sheriff; and each borough, of which there were one hundred and seventy-four, its demarchus, like a constable or headborough.

As the title of king was preserved to the high-priest, so the person presiding over the religion of each tribe was called philobasileus, king’s friend, and was always appointed from among the nobly born, eupatrides. Thus religion was always in the hands of the aristocratical part of the community. As the oracles and priests were held by the people in so much sacred veneration, placing them, with all their splendid shews and rites, always in the power of the aristocratical families, or persons of best education, was as great a check to the democracy as can well be imagined. It should be here recollected too, that almost all these eupatrides or nobles, among the Greeks, were believed to be descended from the gods, nearly or remotely. Nobility, as well as royalty, were believed of divine right, because the gods and goddesses had condescended to familiar intercourses with women and men, on purpose to beget persons of a superior order to rule among nations. The superiority of priests and nobles were assumed and conceded with more consistency than they are in Poland, Switzerland, and Venice, and they must have had a proportional influence with the people.

Another check to this authority in one center, the nation, established by Solon, was countenanced by precedent introduced by Theseus, who divided the Attic people into three ranks: all magistrates were taken exclusively out of the first. Solon, by a new division, made four ranks, determined by property, and confined all magistracies to the first three. By this regulation, he excluded all those who had no will of their own, and were dependent on others; but by still allowing to the fourth, who were more numerous than all the others, their equal votes in the assembly of the people, he put all power into hands the least capable of properly using it; and accordingly these, by uniting, altered the constitution at their pleasure, and brought on the ruin of the nation.

By these precautions, however, we see the anxiety of Solon to avail himself of every advantage of birth, property, and religion, which the people would respect, to balance the sovereign democracy. With the same view, he instituted a senate, of one hundred persons out of each or the four tribes; and this great council, to which he committed many of the powers of the archons, he hoped would have a weight which all the archons together had not been able to preserve. It was afterwards increased to five hundred, when the tribes were increased to ten, fifty out of each, and was then called the council of five hundred. They were appointed annually by lot; but certain legal qualifications were required, as well as a blameless life. The members of each tribe in turn, for thirty-five days, had superior dignity, and additional powers, with the title of prytanes, from whence the hall was called Prytaneium. The prytanes were by turns presidents, had the custody of the seal, and the keys of the treasury and citadel, for one day. The whole assembly formed the council of state of the commonwealth, and had the constant charge of its political affairs; the most. important of which was the preparation of business for the assembly of the people, in which nothing was to be proposed which had not first been approved here.

This was Solon’s law; and, if it had been observed, would have formed a balance of such importance, that the commonwealth would have laded longer, and been more steady. But factious demagogues were often found to remind the people, that all authority was collected into one center, and that the sovereign assembly was that center; and a popular assembly being, in all ages, as much disposed, when unchecked by an absolute negative, to overleap the bounds of law and constitution as the nobles or a king, the laws of Solon were often spurned, and the people demanded and took all power, whenever they thought proper.

Sensible that the business of approving and rejecting magistrates, receiving accusations, catalogues of fines, enacting laws, giving audience to ambassadors, and discussions of religion, would very often be uninteresting to many even of the most judicious and virtuous citizens; that every man’s business is no man’s; Solon ordained it criminal in any not to take a side in civil disturbances. Certain times were stated for the meeting of the general assembly; all gates were shut, but that which led to it; fines were imposed for non-attendance; and a small pay allowed by the public to those who attended punctually at the hour. Nine proedri were appointed from the council; from whom the moderators, epistates, were appointed too by lot, with whom sat eleven nomophylaces, whole duty it was to explain the tendency of any motions contrary to the spirit of the constitution. The prytanes too had distinct and considerable powers in the assembly. When any change in the law was judged necessary by the people, another court, consisting of a thousand persons, called nomothetes, were directed to consider of the best mode of alteration, and prepare a bill; after all, five syndics were appointed to defend the old law before the assembly, before the new one could be enacted. A law, passed without having been previously published, conceived in ambiguous terms, or contrary to any former law, subjected the proposer to penalties. It was usual to repeal the old law before a new one was proposed, and this delay was an additional security to the constitution.

The regular manner of enacting a law was this: — A bill was prepared by the council; any citizen might, by petition or memorial, make a proposition to the prytanes, whose duty it was to present it to the council — if approved by them, it became a proboulema; and, being written on a tablet, was exposed, for several days, for public consideration, and, at the next assembiy, read to the people — then proclamation was made by a crier, Who of those above fifty years of age chooses to speak?” When these had made their orations, any other citizen, not disqualified by law for having fled from his colours in battle, being deeply indebted to the public, or convicted of any crime, had an opportunity to speak; but the prytanes had a general power to enjoin silence on any man, subject no doubt to the judgment of the assembly: without this, debates might be endless. When the debate was finished, the crier, at the command of the proedri, proclaimed that the question waited the determination of the people, which was given by holding up the hand: in some uncommon cases, particularly of impeachments, the votes were given privately, by casting pebbles into urns. The proedri examined the votes, and declared the majority; the prytanes dismissed the assembly.

Every one of these precautions demonstrated Solon’s conviction of the necessity of balances to such an assembly, though they were found by experience to be all ineffectual. From the same solicitude for balances against the turbulence of democracy, he restored the court of Areopagus, improved its constitution, and increased its power: he composed it of those who had held with reputation the office of archon, and admitted them into this dignity and authority for life.

The experience, the reputation, and permanency of these Areopagites must have been a very powerful check. From the Areopagus alone no appeal lay to the people; yet if they chose to interfere, no balancing power existed to resist their despotic will. The constitution authorized the Areopagus to stop the judicial decrees of the assembly of the people; annul an acquittal, or grant a pardon — to direct all draughts on the public treasury — to punish impiety, immorality, and disorderly conduct — to superintend the education of youth; punish idleness — to enquire by what means men of no property or employment maintained themselves.

The court sat in the night, without light, that the members might be less liable to prejudice. Pleaders were confined to simple narration of facts, and application of laws, without ornaments of speech, or address to the passions. Its reputation for wisdom and justice was so high, that Cicero said, the commonwealth of Athens could no more be governed without the court of Areopagus, than the world without the providence of God.

The urgent necessity for balances to a sovereign assembly, in which all authority, legislative, executive, and judicial, was collected into one center, induced Solon, though in so small a state, to make his constitution extremely complicated: no less than ten courts of judicature, four for criminal causes, and six for civil, besides the Areopagus and general assembly, were established at Athens. In conformity to his own laying, celebrated among those of the seven wise men, that “the most perfect government is that where an injury to any one is the concern of all,” he directed that, in all the ten courts, causes should be decided by a body of men, like our juries, taken from among the people; the archons only presiding like our judges.

As the archons were appointed by lot, they were often but indifferent lawyers, and chose two persons of experience to assist them; these, in time, became regular constitutional officers, by the name of Paredri, assessors. The jurors were paid for their service, and appointed by lot. — This is the glory of Solon’s laws: it is that department which ought to belong to the people at large; they are most competent for this : and the property, liberty, equality, and security of the citizens, all require that they alone should possess it. Itinerant judges, called the Forty, were appointed to go through the counties, to determine assaults, and civil actions under a certain sum.

Every freeman was bound to military service. The multitude of slaves made this necessary, as well as practicable. Rank and property gave no other distinction than that of serving on horseback.

The fundamental principle of Solon’s government was the most like Mr. Turgot’s idea of any we have seen. Did this prevent him from establishing different orders and balances? did it not render necessary a greater variety of orders, and more complicated checks, than any in America? yet all were insufficient, for want of the three checks, absolute and independent. Unless three powers have an absolute veto, or negative, to every law, the constitution can never be long preserved; and this principle we find verified in the subsequent history of Athens, notwithstanding the oath he had the address and influence to persuade all the people to take, that they would change none of his institutions for ten years.

Soon after his departure, the three parties of the highlands, lowlands, and coasts, began to shew themselves afresh. These were, in fact, the party of the rich, who wanted all power in their own hands, and to keep the people in absolute subjection, like the nobles in Poland, Venice, Genoa, Berne, Soleure, &c.; the democratical party, who wanted to abolish the council of five hundred, the Areopagus, the ten courts of Judicature, and every other check, and who, with furious zeal for equality, were the readiest instruments of despotism; and the party of judicious and moderate men, who, though weaker than either of the Others, were the only balance between them.

This last party, at this time, was supported by the powerful family of the Alcmæonides, of whom Megacles, the chief, had greatly increased the wealth and splendour of his house, by marrying the daughter of the tyrant of Sicion, and had acquired fame by victories in the Olympian, Pythian, and Isthmian games: the head of the oligarchic party was Lycurgus, not the Spartan lawgiver: the democratical party was led by Pisistratus, claiming descent from Codrus and Nestor, with great abilities, courage, address, and reputation for military conduct in several enterprizes.

Upon Solon’s return, after an absence of ten years, he found prejudices deeply rooted; attachment to their three leaders dividing the whole people. He was too old to direct the storm: the factions continued their manoeuvres; and at length Pisistratus, by an artifice, became master of the commonwealth. Wounding himself and his horses, he drove his chariot violently into the Agora, where the assembly of the people was held; and, in a pathetic speech, declared that he had been waylaid as he was going into the country — that it was for being the man of the people that he had thus suffered — that it was no longer safe for any man to be a friend of the poor — it was not safe for him to live in Attica, unless they would take him under their protection.” Ariston, one of his partisans, moved for a guard of fifty men, to defend the person of the friend of the people, the martyr for their cause. In spite of the utmost opposition of Solon, though Pisistratus was his friend, this point was carried: Pisistratus, with his guards, seized the citadel; and, his opponents forced into submission or exile, he became the first man, and from this time is called the Tyrant of Athens; a term which meant a citizen of a republic, who by any means obtained a sovereignty over his fellow-citizens.

Many of them were men of virtue, and governed by law, after being raised to the dignity by the consent of the people; so that the term Tyrant was arbitrarily used by the ancients, sometimes to signify a lawful ruler, and sometimes an usurper. Pisistratus, of whom Solon said, “Take away his ambition, cure him of his lust of reigning, and there is not a man of more virtue, or a better citizen,” changed nothing in the constitution. The laws, assembly, council, courts of justice, and magistrates, all remained; he himself obeyed the summons of the Areopagus, upon the charge of murder.

Solon trusted to his old age against the vengeance of the tyrant, and treated him in all companies with very imprudent freedoms of speech. But Pisistratus carried all his points with the people; and had too much sense to regard the venerable legislator, or to alter his system. He returned his reproaches with the highest respect; and gained upon him, according to some authors, to condescend to live with him in great familiarity, and assist him in his administration. Others say that Solon, after having long braved the tyrant’s resentment, and finding the people lost to all sense of their danger, left Athens and never returned.

Solon died at the age of eighty, two years after the usurpation. The usurper soon fell. The depressed rival chiefs, Megacles and Lycurgus, uniting their parties, expelled him; but the confederated rivals could not agree. Megacles proposed a coalition with Pisistratus, and offered him his daughter in marriage. The condition was accepted; but the people in assembly must be gained.

To this end they dressed a fine girl with all the ornaments and armour of Minerva, and drove into the city, heralds proclaiming before them, “O Athenians, receive Pisistratus, whom Minerva honouring above all men, herself conducts into your citadel.” The people believed the maid to be a goddess, worshipped her, and received Pisistratus again into the tyranny.

Is this government, or the waves of the tea? But Pisistratus was soon obliged to retire to Eretria, and leave the party of Megacles masters of Athens. He strengthened his connexions; and in the eleventh year of this his second banishment, he returned to Attica with an army, and was joined by his friends. The party of Megacles met him with another army, ill disciplined and commanded, from the city; were attacked by surprize, and defeated. Pisistratus proclaimed that none need fear, who would return peaceably home. The known honour, humanity, and clemency of his character, procured him confidence; his enemies fled, and he entered the city without opposition.

He made no fundamental change in the constitution, though, as head of a party, he had the principal influence. He depended upon a large fortune of his own, and a good understanding with Thebes and Argos, to support him in it. He died in peace, and left his son successor to his influence.

Both his sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, were excellent characters; and arts, agriculture, gardening, and literature, as well as wisdom and virtue, were singularly cultivated by the whole race of these tyrants. Harmodius and Aristogeton, however, conspired the death both of Hippias and Hipparchus; the latter was killed, and Hippias was led to severities; many Athenians were put to death. Hippias, to strengthen his interest with foreign powers, married his only daughter to the son of the tyrant of Lampsacus. Her epitaph shews that the title of Tyrant was not then a term of reproach: “This dust covers Archedice, daughter of Hippias, in his time the first of the Greeks. Daughter, sister, wife, and mother of tyrants, her mind was never elated to arrogance.”

The opposite party were watchful to recover Athens, and to increase their interest with the other Grecian states for that end. The temple of Delphi was burnt. The Alcmæonides, to ingratiate themselves with the oracle, the Amphictyons, and all Greece, rebuilt it with Parian marble, instead of Porine stone, as they had contracted to do, without asking any additional price. The consequence was, that whenever the Lacedæmo nians consulted the oracle, the answer always concluded with an admonition to give liberty to Athens. At length the oracle was obeyed; and, after some variety of fortune, the Alcmæonides, aided by Cleomenes the Spartan, prevailed, and Hippias retired to Sigeium.

It was one maxim of the Spartans, constantly to favour aristocratical power; or rather, wherever they could, to establish an oligarchy: for in every Grecian city there was always an aristocratical, oligarchial, and democratical faction. Whenever the Grecian states had a war with one another, or a sedition within themselves, the Lacedæmonians were ready to interfere as mediators. They conducted the business generally with great caution, moderation, and sagacity; but never lost sight of their view to extend the influence of their state; nor of their favourite measure for that end, the encouragement of aristocratical power, or rather oligarchical: for a few principal families, indebted to Lacedæmon for their pre-eminence, and unable to retain it without her assistance, were the best instruments for holding the state in alliance. This policy they now proposed to follow at Athens.

Cleisthenes, son of Megacles, head of the Alcmæonides, was the first person of the commonwealth. Having no great abilities, a party was formed against him under Isagoras, with whom most of the principal people joined. The party of Cleisthenes was among the lower sort, who being all powerful in the general assembly, he made by their means some alterations in the constitution favouring his own influence. Cleisthenes was now tyrant of Athens, as much as Pisistratus had been.

In the contests of Grecian factions, the alternative was generally victory, exile, or death; the inferior party therefore resorted sometimes to harsh expedients. Isagoras and his adherents applied to Lacedæmon. Cleomenes, violent in his temper, entered with zeal into the cause of Isagoras, and sent a herald to Athens, by whom he imperiously denounced banishment against Cleisthenes and his party, on the old pretence of criminality for the execution of the partisans of Cylon. Cleisthenes obeyed. Exalted by this proof of a dread of Spartan power, he went to Athens with a small military force, and banished seven hundred families at once: such was Athenian liberty. He was then proceeding to change the constitution, to suit the views of Spartan ambition, by dissolving the council of five hundred, and committing the whole power to a new council of three hundred, all partisans of Isagoras. Athens was not so far humbled.

The five hundred resisted, and excited the people, who flew to arms, and besieged Cleomenes and Isagoras in the citadel; who the third day surrendered, upon condition that the Lacedæmonians might depart in safety. Isagoras went with them. Many of his party were executed, and Cleisthenes, and the exiled families, returned; but conscious of their danger from their hostile fellow-citizens in concert with Lacedæmon, they sent to solicit an alliance with Artaphernes, the satrap of Persia. The answer was, If they would give earth and water to Darius they might he received, otherwise they must depart. The ambassadors, considering the imminent danger of their country and party, consented to these humiliating terms.

Although Athens was distracted with domestic factions, and pressed with the rear of an attack from Cleomenes, the conduct of her ambassadors, in acknowledging subjection to the Persian king, in hopes of his protection, was highly reprobated upon their return; and it does not appear that Persian assistance was further desired; yet the danger which hung over Athens was very great. Cleomenes, bent on revenge, formed a confederacy against them, of the Thebans, Corinthians, and Chalcidians. These could not agree, and the Athenians gained some advantages of two of them. Cleomenes then pretended that Sparta had acted irreligiously in expelling Hippias, who ought to be restored; because, when he was besieged in the citadel at Athens, he had discovered a collusion between the Delphic priests and the Alcmæonides. Sparta was willing to restore Hippias; but Corinth, their ally, was not. Hippias, despairing of other means, now in his turn applied to Persia, and brought upon his country the Persian war; from which it was delivered by Miltiades, at the battle of Marathon. Miltiades became the envy of the Alcmæonide family. Xanthippus, one of the principal men of Athens, who had married a daughter of Megacles, the great opponent of Pisistratus, conducted a capital accusation against him: he was condemned in a fine of fifty talents, more than he was worth. His wound, which prevented him from attending the trial, mortified, and he died in prison.

In order to brand the family of Pisistratus, the fame of Harmodius and Aristogeton was now cried up. They had assassinated Hipparchus from mere private revenge; but they were now called asserters of public liberty. The tyrannicide, as it was called, was celebrated by songs, statues, ceremonies, and religious festivals.

It must be acknowledged that every example of a government, which has a large mixture of democratical power, exhibits something to our view which is amiable, noble, and I had almost said, divine. In every state hitherto mentioned, this observation is verified. What is contended for, is, that the people in a body cannot manage the executive power, and therefore that a simple democracy is impracticable; and that their share of the legislative power must be always tempered with two others, in order to enable them to preserve their share, as well as to correct its rapid tendency to abuse. Without this, they are but a transient glare of glory, which passes away like a flash of lightning, or like a momentary appearance of a goddess to an ancient hero, which, by revealing but a glimpse of celestial beauties, only excited regret that he had ever seen them.

The republic of Athens, the school-mistress of the whole civilized world, for more than three thousand years, in arts, eloquence, and philosophy, as well as in politeness and wit, was, for a short period of her duration, the most democratical commonwealth of Greece. Unfortunately their history, between the abolition of their kings and the time of Solon, has not been circumstantially preserved.

During this period, they seem to have endeavoured to collect all authority into one center, and to have avoided a composition of orders and balances as carefully as Mr. Turgot: but that center was a group of nobles, not the nation. Their government consisted in a single assembly of nine archons, chosen annually by the people. But even here was a check; for by law the archons must all be chosen out of the nobility. But this form of government had its usual effects, by introducing anarchy, and such a general profligacy of manners, that the people could at length be restrained by nothing short of the ultimate punishment from even the most ordinary crimes. Draco accordingly proposed a law, by which death should be inflicted on every violation of the law.

Humanity shuddered at so shocking a severity! and the people chose rather that all offences should go unpunished, than that a law thus written in blood, as they termed it both in horror and contempt, should be executed. Confusions increased, and divided the nation into three factions; and their miseries became so extreme, that they offered Solon an absolute monarchy. He had too much sense, as well as virtue, to accept it; but employed his talents in new-modelling the government. Sensible, from experience, of the fatal effects of a government too popular, he wished to introduce an aristocracy, moderated like that of Sparta; but thought the habits and prejudices of the people too strong to bear it. The archons he continued; but, to balance their authority, he erected a senate of four hundred, to be chosen by ballot of the people. He also revived the court of Areopagus, which had jurisdiction in criminal cases, and the care of religion. He excluded from the executive, or the magistracy, all the citizens who were not possessed of a certain fortune; but vested the sovereignty in a legislative assembly of the people, in which all had a right to vote. In this manner Solon attempted a double balance. The Areopagus was to check the executive in the hands of the archons; and the senate of four hundred, the fickleness and fire of the people. Every one must see that these devices would have been no effectual controul in either case; yet they were better than none. It was very right that the people should have all elections; but democratical prejudices were so inveterate, that he was obliged not only to make them, assembled in a body, an essential branch of the legislature, but to give them cognizance of appeals from all the superior courts.

Solon himself, in his heart, must have agreed with Anacharsis, that this constitution was but a cobweb to bind the poor, while the rich would easily break through it. Pisistratus soon proved it, by bribing a party, procuring himself a guard, and demolishing Solon’s whole system before his eyes, and establishing a single tyranny. The tyrant was expelled several times by the opposition, but as often brought back, and finally transmitted his monarchy to his sons. One of these was assassinated by Harmodius and Aristogeton; and the other driven into banishment by the opposition, aided by the neighbouring state, Sparta. He fled to the Persians, excited Darius against his country, and was killed at Marathon.

These calamities inspired the people with such terrors of a single tyrant, that, instead of thinking to balance effectually their “orders,” they established the ostracism, to prevent any man from becoming too popular: a check indeed, but a very injudicious one; for it only banished their best men. History no where furnishes so frank a confession of the people themselves, of their own infirmities, and unfitness for managing the executive branch of government, or an unbalanced share of the legislature, as this institution. The language of it is, “We know ourselves so well, that we dare not trust our own confidence and affections, our own admiration and gratitude for the greatest talents and sublimest virtues. We know our heads will be turned, if we suffer such characters to live among us, and we shall always make them kings.” What more melancholy spectacle can be conceived even in imagination, than that inconstancy which erects statues to a patriot or a hero one year, banishes him the next, and the third erects fresh statues to his memory?

Such a constitution of government, and the education of youth which follows necessarily from it, always produces such characters as Cleon and Alcibiades; mixtures of good qualities enough to acquire the confidence of a party, and bad ones enough to lead them to destruction; whose lives shew the miseries and final catastrophe of such imperfect polity.

From the example of Athens it is clear, that the government of a single assembly of archons chosen by the people, was found intolerable; that, to remedy the evils of it, Solon established four several orders, an assembly of the people, an assembly of four hundred, an assembly of archons, and the Areopagus; that he endeavoured to balance one singly by another, instead of forming his balance out of three branches. Thus these attempts at an equilibrium were ineffectual; produced a neverending fluctuation in the national councils, continual factions, massacres, proscriptions, banishment, and death of the best citizens: and the history of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, will inform us how the raging flames at last burnt out.

The people in each of the United States have, after all, more real authority than they had in Athens. Planted as they are over large dominions, they cannot meet in one assembly, and therefore are not exposed to those tumultuous commotions, like the raging waves of the sea, which always agitated the ecclesia at Athens. They have all elections, of governor and senators, as well as representatives, so prudently guarded, that there is scarce a possibility of intrigue. The property required in a representative, senator, or even governor, is so small, that multitudes have equal pretensions to be chosen. No election is confined to any order of nobility, or to any great wealth; yet the legislature is so divided into three branches, that no law can be passed in a passion, nor inconsistent with the constitution. The executive is excluded from the two legislative assemblies; and the judiciary power is independent, as well as separate from all. This will be a fair trial, whether a government so popular can preserve itself. If it can, there is reason to hope for all the equality, all the liberty, and every other good fruit of an Athenian democracy, without any of its ingratitude, levity, convulsions, or factions.

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.

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