Thebes: Adams’ Defense, No 48

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 48

Ancient Democratical Republics: Thebes

Dear Sir,

FABLE, and history too, relate that this city was governed anciently by kings; sixteen of whom, from Cadmus the Phoenician, who founded it, to Xanthus, are enumerated. After the death of the last, the Thebans changed their government to a democratical republic. Their orders and balances are not known; but their factions and divisions, as well as their dulness, is remembered. From the analogy of all the other Grecian states, it is probable that archons presided over the several cities of Boeotia, as their separate districts, and had a king at their head, like Ulysses in Ithaca, and Alcinous in Phæacia; that the king, whose domain was Thebes, had sometimes an inclination to favour his capital more than the subordinate towns; and that the archons grew impatient of his monarchy, and aspired at independency: the jealousy and rivalry of cities favoured the factious views of the archons, and were probably fomented for that purpose.

Is it an instance of their want of penetration, or was it from necessity, that they chose the two heads of opposite factions for their highest annual magistrates? Ismenias was one; an honest man, a friend to liberty, and consequently an advocate for an equilibrium of powers in the constitution. Leontidas, the other, was ambitious of the whole power to himself, and of governing by a council of his friends; but, finding his rival more popular than himself, he sold the citadel to a Spartan general, upon condition that he and his party should rule. When this was effected, he seized his colleague, and had him tried, condemned, and executed, for caballing against the government. The friends of Ismenias fled in a panic, and were banished by a public edict; for it seems that a revolution without banishments and confiscations, at least, is a degree of moderation and self-government of which nations are wholly incapable. The exiled citizens, who in this case were the honest men and friends of liberty, among whom was Pelopidas, returned from Athens in disguise, destroyed the tyrant and his crew, and, with the help of Epaminondas and his friends, regained the citadel. These two sages and heroes had now enough to do: first, to inspire a little understanding and unanimity into their fellow-citizens; then to discipline them for war, and conquer their enemies; and, at last, to frame a good constitution of government. They accomplished all but the last, to their immortal glory: but Pelopidas was killed in battle, before the war was finished; and Epaminondas grew unpopular, and was rejected by faction even from the command of the army: a sufficient proof that the aristocratical and democratical factions were nearly equal. He was reinstated, indeed, after the blunders and defeats of his successor had brought the citizens to repentance; but was slain in battle at the moment, of victory: so that the Theban republic never had the benefit of his advice in the formation of a new code of laws; as she had never made any figure, excepting a momentary fame under these two great men, and was at length totally destroyed by Alexander.

The ruin of Boeotia was occasioned by the finesse of Antalcidas, in his Persian treaty. The Thebans, as well as Argives, had withheld their assistance in the Persian war. Antalcidas knew that the subordinate cities of Thespiæ, Platea, Aulis, Anthemon, Larymna, Aschra, Coronea, Labadea, Delium, Alalkomene, Leuctra, Chæronea, all wished for independence; they accordingly rejected the jurisdiction and sovereignty of Thebes. The Thebans solicited Sparta to take a part in their domestic quarrels; and, against her own favourite treaty, trade by her artful ambassador, she accepted the proposal. The virtuous and amiable Spartan senate perceived that it was equally their interest that Argos should lose her jurisdiction over her revoked towns, and that Thebes, the rival neighbour of Athens, should recover her authority in Boeotia; but, notwithstanding partial successes, she could not regain her authority over all the cities, until Epaminondas arose, after eighty years of civil wars. Had there been a governor in Boeotia, and a senate, and a house of representatives, composed of an equitable proportion of deputies from Thebes and all the lesser cities — and each of these branches possessed of an independent negative in the legislature, while the whole executive was in the governor — would these civil wars have happened? these endless contentions between the nobles and people, the capital and subordinate cities? these intrigues of one party with Athens, and another with Sparta? The very disinclination, both in Thebes and Argos, to engage in the Persian war, arose wholly from their domestic dissensions; and these from the want of judicious orders and balances.

After the abolition of monarchy in Boeotia, there was an effort to collect all authority into one center; but the nation found, that, although laws might be thus made, they could not be so executed. There must, therefore, be an executive magistrate; but not being able to agree, in order to please both sides, the leader of each faction must be chosen. They could not agree, as might have been foreseen, and split the nation at once into two hostile armies; one of which fought the alliance of Sparta, and the other that of Athens. Thus it ever was, and ever will be, in similar cases. It is much to be regretted, that Epaminondas did not live to display his talents as a legislator; the world might possibly have been blessed with something like an English constitution, two or three thousand years sooner than it was.

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