Congress: Adams ‘Defense’ No. 53

 Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 52

Conclusion: Congress

My dear Sir,

BY the authorities and examples already recited, you will be convinced, that three branches of power have an unalterable foundation in nature; that they exist in every society natural and artificial; and that if all of them are not acknowledged in any constitution of government, it will be found to be imperfect, unstable, and soon enslaved: that the legislative and executive authorities are naturally distinct; and that liberty and the laws depend entirely on a separation of them in the frame of government: that the legislative power is naturally and necessarily sovereign and supreme over the executive; and therefore that the latter must be made an essential branch of the former, even with a negative, or it will not be able to defend itself, but will be soon invaded, undermined, attacked, or in some way or other totally ruined and annihilated by the former. This is applicable to every state in America, in its individual capacity: but is it equally applicable to the United States in their foederal capacity?

The people of America, and their delegates in congress, were of opinion, that a single assembly was every way adequate to the management of all their foederal concerns; and with very good reason, because congress is not a legislative assembly, nor a representative assembly, but only a diplomatic assembly. A single council has been found to answer the purposes of confederacies very well. But in all such cases the deputies are responsible to the states; their authority is clearly ascertained; and the states, in their separate capacities, are the checks. These are able to form an effectual balance, and at all times to controul their delegates. The security against the dangers of this kind of government will depend upon the accuracy and decision with which the governments of the separate states have their own orders arranged and balanced. The necessity we are under of submitting to a foederal government, is an additional and a very powerful argument for three branches, and a balance, by an equal negative, in all the separate governments. Congress will always be composed of members from the natural and artificial aristocratical body in every state, even in the northern, as well as in the middle and southern states. Their natural dispositions then in general will be (whether they shall be sensible of it or not, and whatever integrity or abilities they may be possessed of) to diminish the prerogatives of the governors, and the privileges of the people, and to augment the influence of the aristocratical parties. There have been causes enough to prevent the appearance of this inclination hitherto; but a calm course of prosperity would very soon bring it forth, if effectual provision against it be not made in season. It will be found absolutely necessary, therefore, to give negatives to the governors, to defend the executives against the influence of this body, as well as the senates and representatives in their several states. The necessity of a negative in the house of representatives, will be called in question by nobody.

Dr. Price and the Abbé de Mably are zealous for additional powers to congress. — Full power in all foreign affairs, and over foreign commerce, and perhaps some authority over the commerce of the states with one another, may be necessary; and it is hard to say, that more authority in other things is not wanted: yet the subject is of such extreme delicacy and difficulty, that the people are much to be applauded for their caution. — To collect together the ancient and modern leagues — the Amphictyonic, the Olynthian, the Argive, the Arcadian, and the Achæan confederacies, among the Greeks — the general diet of the Swiss cantons, and the states general of the United Netherlands — the union of the hanse-towns, &c. which have been found to answer the purposes both of government and liberty; to compare them all, with the circumstances, the situation, the geography, the commerce, the population, and the forms of government, as well as the climate, the soil, and manners of the people, and consider what further foederal powers are wanted, and may be safely given, would be a useful work. If your public engagements allow you the time to undertake such an enquiry, you will find it an agreeable amusement.

Table of Contents: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States

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