Achaia and the Volatility of Small Democracies: John Adams’ ‘Defense’ No. 43

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 43

Ancient Democratical Republics: ACHAIA

Dear Sir,

THE Achæans, whose republic became so famous in later times, inhabited a long but narrow strip of land along the Corinthian gulph, which was destitute of harbors, and; as its shores were rocky, of navigation and commerce; but the impartial and generous spirit of their laws, if we are to credit Polybius and their other panegyrists, were some compensation for the natural disadvantages of their situation and territory. They admitted strangers into their community on equal terms with the ancient citizens; and, as they were the first, and, for a long time, the only republic of Greece which had such liberality, it is not strange that they should have enjoyed the praises of all foreigners.

In all other states of Greece, in which the people had any share in government, there were constant complaints, that one powerful capital domineered over the inferior towns and villages, like Thebes in Boeotia, Athens in Attica.

In Laconia, Lycurgus avoided this inconvenience by two popular assemblies, one for Sparta, and one for the country; but in Achaia there was no commercial town, and all were nearly equal, having common laws and institutions, and common weights and measures.

Helice, which is distinguished by Homer as the most considerable town of Achaia, was the place of assembly of the congress, until it was swallowed up in an earthquake; then Ægæ became the seat of congress, who annually appointed presidents in rotation, and generals, who were responsible to the congress, as the members of congress were to the cities they represented. This is said to be an excellent system of government, because it checked the ambition of Achaia, while it maintained its independence: and Polybius is full of the praises of this people for their “virtue and probity in all their negotiations, which had acquired them the good opinion of the whole world, and procured them to be chosen to be arbitrators between the Lacedæmonians and Thebans; for their wise councils, and good dispositions; for their equality and liberty, which is in the utmost perfection among them; for their laws and institutions; for their moderation, and freedom from ambition,” &c. Yet whoever reads his own history, will see evident proofs, that much of this is the fond partiality of a patriot for his country; and that they had neither the moderation he ascribes to them, nor the excellent government. Better indeed than the other republics of Greece it might be; and its congress, as a diplomatic assembly, might have governed its foreign affairs very well, if the cities represented in it had been well constituted of a mixture of three independent powers: — But it is plain they were not; but were in a continual struggle between their first magistrates, nobles, and people, for superiority, which occasioned their short duration, and final ruin. As this example deserves to be fully examined by every American, let us explain it a little more particularly.

Atreus, king of Argos and Mycene, was the son of Pelops, and father of Agamemnon, who was the father of Orestes, who was the father of Tisamenus: Pelops, after whom Peloponnesus was named, was the son of Tantalus, a king of Phrygia; and Tantalus was the son of Jupiter, by the nymph Plota.

Tisamenus, flying from Sparta, upon the return of the Heraclidæ governed in Achaia, and was the first king of that people. The dominion by him there founded was continued, in a rightful succession, down to Gyges. Notwithstanding his descent from Jupiter, his government was probably like that of Alcinous in Phæacia: — Twelve archons presided over the twelve cities, who, each in his district, was the first magistrate; and all able to make out, some way or other, their connection with some of the ancient families, who were all alike honourably descended, at least, from an inferior god or goddess. Tisamenus made the thirteenth, and was first among equals at least. The sons of Gyges not governing by law, but despotically, the monarchy was abolished, and reduced to a popular state; probably it was only an aristocracy of the twelve archons. These hints at the genealogy of these kings are to shew how intimately theology was intermixed with politics in every Grecian state and city; and, at the same time, to shew that the whole force of superstition, although powerful enough to procure crowns to these persons, yet, for want of the balance we contend for, was not sufficient to restrain the passions of the nobles, and prevent revolutions almost as rapid as the motion of a wheel: nothing has ever been found to supply the place of the balance of three powers.

The abolition of this limited monarchy was not effected by the people for the purpose of introducing democracy, or a mixed government; but by the nobles, for the sake of establishing an aristocracy. The new government, consequently, was a confederation of twelve archons, each ruling as first magistrate in a separate city, with his council and people, as an independent state. The twelve archons met in a general assembly, sometimes in person, and sometimes by proxy, to consult of general affairs, and guard against general dangers.

This whole state could not be larger than another Biscay, and each city must have been less than a merindade, and its general assembly like the junta general: yet such is the passion for independence, that this little commonwealth, or confederacy of commonwealths, could not hold together. The general assembly was neglected; the cities became independent: some were conquered by foreigners, and some lost their liberties by domestic tyrants, that is, by their first magistrates assuming arbitrary power. Polybius discovers as much affection for this little republic as Rousseau did for Geneva, and is very loth to confess their faults: — He colours over the revolutions they underwent for a course of ages, by saying, that “though their affairs were governed according to the diversity of times and occurrences, all possible endeavours were used to preserve the form of a popular state.

The commonwealth was composed of twelve cities, which are in being at this day, Olenus and Helice only excepted, which were swallowed up by the sea in an earthquake that happened not long before the battle of Leuctra; which cities are Patra, Dyma, Phara, Trytæa, Leontium, Ægira, Pellene, Ægium, Bura, Ceraunia, Olenus, and Helice. After the death of Alexander, and since the Olympiad we have mentioned, these cities fell into dangerous dissensions, chiefly by the artifices of the Macedonian princes, when every city apart meditated on nothing but their own private profit and ends, to the prejudice and destruction of their neighbours; and this gave occasion to Demetrius and Cassander, and afterwards to Antigonus Gonatus, to put garrisons in some of their cities; and that others were invaded and governed by tyrants, who, in those days, were very numerous in Greece.

But about the 124 Olympiad, when Pyrrhus invaded Italy, these people began to see the error of their dissensions, and laboured to return to their former union. Those who gave the first example were Dyma, Patra, and Phara: five years afterwards, Ægium, having cast out the garrison that was placed over them, were received into the confederacy. Bura followed their example, having first killed the tyrant; and soon after Ceraunia did the like; for Iseas their tyrant, considering how that those of Ægium had expelled their garrison, and he who governed in Bura was already slain by the practices of Marcus and the Achaians, and that it would be his lot to have them all quickly for enemies, he therefore resigned the dominion, after having first stipulated with the Achaians for his indemnity for what was passed, and so incorporated the city into the union of the Achaians.

“The cities then we have mentioned continued for the space of five-and-twenty years to preserve this form of government unchanged, choosing in their general assembly two prætors (or presidents) and a secretary. Afterwards they concluded to have but one prætor only, who should be charged with the management of their affairs; and the first who enjoyed that dignity was Marcus the Carian, who, after four years of his administration, gave place to Aratus the Sicyonian, who, at the age of twenty years, after he had, by his virtue and resolution, rescued his country from tyranny, joined it to the commonwealth of the Achaians, so great a veneration had he from his youth for the manners and institutions of that people. Eight years after, he was a second time chosen prætor, and won Acro-corinth, which Antigonus had fortified with a garrison, whereby Aratus freed all Greece from no small apprehension.

When he had restored liberty to Corinth, he united it to the Achaians, together with the city of Megara, which he got by intelligence during his prætorship. In a word, Aratus, who, in a short space, brought many and great things to pass, made it manifest, by his councils and actions, that his greatest aim was the expulsion of the Macedonians out of Peloponnesus, to suppress tyranny, and assert the liberty of his country: so that, during the whole reign of Antigonus Gonatus, Aratus constantly opposed all his designs and enterprizes, as he did the ambition of the Ætolians to raise themselves on the ruins of their neighbour states; and, as in all the transactions of his administration he gave singular evidences of a steady mind and firm resolution, all his attempts succeeded accordingly, notwithstanding many states confederated to hinder the union, and to destroy the commonwealth of the Achaians.

After the death of Antigonus the Achaians entered into a league with the Ætolians, and generously assisted them in their war against Demetrius; so that the ancient hatred between these two people seemed for the present extinguished, and the desire of concord began, by degrees, to grow in the minds of the Ætolians.

Demetrius died, when many great and noble occasions were given to the Achaians of finishing the project they had conceived; for the tyrants who reigned in Peloponnesus, having lost the support of Demetrius, who greatly favoured them, began now to despair; and, on the other hand, being awed by Aratus, who admonished them to quit their governments, on promise of great honours and rewards to such as voluntarily resigned, and threatening others with hostility who refused; whereupon they resolved to despoil themselves of their dignities, restore their people to liberty, and incorporate them with the Achaians.

As to Lysidas, the Megalopolitan, he, wisely foreseeing what was likely to come to pass, frankly renounced his dominion during the life of Demetrius, and was received into the general confederacy of rights and privileges with the whole nation. Aristomachus, tyrant of the Argicus, Xeno of the Hermionians, and Cleonymus of the Phliatians, resigning their authority at the time we mention, were likewise received into the alliance of the Achaians. In the mean time the Ætolians began to conceive jealousies at the growing greatness and extraordinary success of the Achaians, and basely entered into a league with Antigonus, who at that time governed Macedon, and with Cleomenes, king of the Lacedæmonians.

These three powers, Macedonia, Lacedæmon, and Ætolia, were to invade Achaia on all sides; but the great political abilities of Aratus defeated the enterprize. He considered that Antigonus was a man of experience, and willing enough to make alliances; and that princes have naturally neither friends nor enemies, but measure amities and enmities by the rules of interest: he therefore endeavoured, after a good understanding with that prince, and determined to propose the joining the forces of the Achaians to his. He proposed to cede him some towns; and the alliance was formed, and the Cleomenic war commenced. In the prosecution of it, Cleomenes and his Spartans displayed the utmost ferocity and cruely, particularly at Ægium, where he put in practice so many outrages and cruelties of war, that he left not so much as any appearance that it had been ever a peopled place.”

There is great reason to suspect that the Achaians were not less guilty of cruelty; for Polybius professes to follow the account given by Aratus himself, in a history which that prætor wrote of Achaia, who may be well suspected of partiality; and Polybius himself was the son of Lycortas of Megalopolis, who perfected and confirmed the confederacy of the Achaians, and discovers throughout his history a strong attachment to this people. If the history of Clearchus was extant, we might possibly see that the Achaians, the Spartans, and Macedonians, were equally liable to the accusation of inhumanity. Mantinæa was subjected to unspeakable calamities as well as Ægium; but Polybius endeavours to cover this over with a veil by abusing Clearchus, accusing him with departing from the dignity of history and writing tragedies, by representing women with dishevelled hair and naked breasts, embracing each other with melting lamentations and tears, and complaints of men, women, and children, dragged away promiscuously. He attempts to justify the punishment of this city, by charging it with treacherously betraying itself into the hands of the Spartans, and massacring the Achaian garrison: but this was no more than the usual effect of the continual revolutions in the Greek cities, from democracy to aristocracy, from that to monarchy, and back again through the whole circle.

In every one of these cities there were three parties; a monarchical party, who desired to be governed by a king or tyrant, as he was then called; an aristocratical party, who wished to erect an oligarchy; and a democratical party, who were zealous for bringing all to a level. Each faction was for collecting all authority into one center in its own way; but unfortunately there was no party who thought of a mixture of all these three orders, and giving each a negative by which it might balance the other two: accordingly the regal party applied to Macedonian kings for aids and garrisons; the aristocratical citizens applied to Sparta for the like assistance; and the democratical factions applied to Aratus and the Achaian league. The consequence was, as each party prevailed, they brought in a new garrison, and massacred the old one, together with the leaders of the faction subdued. But is such a system to be recommended to the United States of America? If the Americans had no more discretion than the Greeks, no more humanity, no more consideration for the benign and peaceful religion they profess, they would still have to consider, that the Greeks had in many places forty slaves, and in all places ten, to one free citizen; that the slaves did all the labour, and the free citizens had nothing to do but cut one another’s throats.

Wars did not cost money in Greece; happily for the world, at present they are very expensive. An American soldier will not serve one year, without more money for pay than many of these Greek cities had for their whole circulating medium. — There is but one possible means of realizing Mr. Turgot’s idea. Let us examine it well before we adopt it. Let every town in the Thirteen States be a free sovereign and independent democracy: here you may nearly collect all authority into one center, and that center the nation. These towns will immediately go to war with each other, and form combinations, alliances, and political intrigues, as ably as the Grecian villages did: but these wars and negotiations cannot be carried on but by men at leisure.

The first step to be taken then, is to determine who shall be freemen, and who slaves. Let this be determined by lot. In every fifty men, forty are to be slaves, and stay at home unarmed, under certain overseers provided with good whips and scourges, to labour in agriculture and mechanic arts. All commerce and navigation, fisheries, &c. are to cease of course. The other ten are to be free citizens, live like gentlemen, eat black broth, and go out to war; some in favour of tyrants, some for the well-born, and some for the multitude: for, even in the supposition here made, every town will have three parties in it; some will be for making the moderator a king, others for giving the whole government to the select men, and a third sort for making and executing all laws, and judging all causes, criminal and civil, in town meeting.

Americans will well consider the consequences of such systems of policy, and such multiplications and divisions of states, and will universally see and feel the necessity of adopting the sentiments of Aratus, as reported by Plutarch: “That small cities could be preserved by nothing else but a continual and combined force, united by the bond of common interest; and as the members of the body live and breathe by their mutual communication and connection, and when once separated pine away and putrify, in the same manner are cities ruined by being dismembered. from one another, as well as preserved when, linked together into one great body, they enjoy the benefit of that providence and council that governs the whole.”

These were the sentiments which, according to the same Plutarch, acquired him so much of the confidence of the Achaians, “that since he could not by law be chosen their general every year, yet every other year he was, and by his councils and actions was in effect always so; for they perceived that neither riches nor repute, nor the friendship of kings, nor the private interest of his own country, nor any other thing else, was so dear to him as the increase of the Achaian power and greatness.”

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

Formatting, font, spelling modernizations and corrections, explanatory footnotes, review questions, and or paragraph break ups for this version of John Adams’ “A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States,” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell. Two overlarge paragraphs in Letter 43 were broken up for easier reading and several archaic spellings or typos were corrected by Mr. Farrell.

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