Locke, Milton, and Hume: Adams ‘Defense’ No. 54

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 54

My dear Sir,

CHIMERICAL systems of legislation are neither new nor uncommon, even among men of the most resplendent genius and extensive learning. It would not be too bold to say, that some parts of Plato and sir Thomas More, are as wild as the ravings of Bedlam. A philosopher may be perfect master of Descartes and Leibnitz, may pursue his own enquiries into metaphysics to any length you please, may enter into the inmost recesses of the human mind, and make the noblest discoveries for the benefit of his species; nay, he may defend the principles of liberty and the rights of mankind, with great abilities and success; and, after all, when called upon to produce a plan of legislation, he may astonish the world with a signal absurdity. Mr. Locke, in 1663, was employed to trace out a plan of legislation for Carolina; and he gave the whole authority, executive and legislative, to the eight proprietors, the lords Berkley, Clarendon, Albemarle, Craven, and Ashley; and messieurs Carteret, Berkley, and Colleton, and their heirs. This new oligarchical sovereignty created at once three orders of nobility: barons, with twelve thousand acres of land; caciques, with twenty-four thousand, &c.; and landgraves, with eighty thousand. Who did this legislator think would live under his government? He should have first created a new species of beings to govern, before he instituted such a government.

A man may be a greater poet than Homer, and one of the most learned men in the world; he may spend his life in defence of liberty, and be at the same time one of the most irreproachable moral characters; and yet, when called upon to frame a constitution of government, he may demonstrate to the world, that he has reflected very little on the subject. There is a great hazard in saying all this of John Milton; but truth, and the rights of mankind, demand it. In his “Ready and Easy Way to establish a Free Commonwealth,” this great author says, “I doubt not but all ingenuous and knowing men will easily agree with me, that a free commonwealth, without single person, or house of lords, is by far the best government, if it can be had; for the ground and basis of every just and free government, is a general council of ablest men chosen by the people to consult of public affairs, from time to time, for the common good. In this grand council must the sovereignty, not transferred, but delegated only, and, as it were, deposited, reside; with this caution, they must have the forces by sea and land committed to them for preservation of the common peace and liberty; must raise and manage the public revenue, at least with some inspectors deputed for satisfaction of the people how it is employed; must make or propose civil laws, treat of commerce, peace, or war with foreign nations; and, for the carrying on some particular affairs with more secrecy and expedition, must elect, as they have already, out of their own number and others, a council of state. And although it may seem strange at first hearing, by reason that men’s minds are prepossessed with the notion of successive parliaments, I affirm that the grand council, being well chosen, should be perpetual; for so their business is, or may be, and oftentimes urgent; the opportunity of affairs gained or lost in a moment. The day of council cannot be set as the day of a festival, but must be ready always, to prevent or answer all occasions. By this continuance they will become every way skilfullest, best provided of intelligence from abroad, best acquainted with the people at home, and the people with them. The ship of the commonwealth is always under sail; they sit at the stern, and if they steer well, what need is there to change them, it being rather dangerous? Add to this, that the grand council is both foundation and main pillar of the whole state; and to move pillars and foundations, not faulty, cannot be safe for the building. I see not, therefore, how we can be advantaged by successive and transitory parliaments; but that they are much likelier continually to unsettle, rather than to settle a free government; to breed commotions, changes, novelties, and uncertainties; to bring neglect upon present affairs and opportunities, while all minds are suspence with expectation of a new assembly, and the assembly, for a good space, taken up with the new settling of itself, &c. But if the ambition of such as think themselves injured, that they also partake not of the government, and are impatient to be chosen, cannot brook the perpetuity of others chosen before them; or if it be feared that long continuance of power may corrupt sincerest men, the known expedient is, that annually a third part of senators go out,” &c.

Can you read, without shuddering, this wild reverie of the divine immortal Milton? If no better systems of government had been proposed, it would have been no wonder that the people of England recalled the royal family, with all their errors, follies, and crimes about them. Had Milton’s scheme been adopted, this country would have either been a scene of revolutions, carnage, and horror, from that time to this, or the liberties of England would have been at this hour the liberties of Poland, or the island would have been a province of France. What! a single assembly to govern England? an assembly of senators for life too? What! did Milton’s idea’s of liberty and free government extend no further than exchanging one house of lords for another, and making it supreme and perpetual? What! Cromwell, Ireton, Lambert, Ludlow, Waller, and five hundred others, of all sects and parties, one quarter of them mad with enthusiasm, another with ambition, a third with avarice, and a fourth of them honest men, a perpetual council, to govern such a country! It would have been an oligarchy of decemvirs, on the first day of its fitting; it would have instantly been torn with all the agitations of Venice, between the aristocracy and oligarchy, in the assembly itself. If, by ballots and rotations, and a thousand other contrivances, it could have been combined together, it would have stripped the people of England of every shadow of liberty, and grown in the next generation a lazy, haughty, ostentatious group of palatines: but if they had fallen into divisions, they would have deluged the nation in blood, till one despot would have ruled the whole. John Milton was as honest a man as this nation ever bred, and as great a friend of liberty: but his greatness most certainly did not consist in the knowledge of the nature of man and of government, if we are to judge from this performance, or from “The present Means and brief Delineation of a free Commonwealth,” in his letter to General Monk. — Americans in this age are too enlightened to be bubbled out of their liberties, even by such mighty names as Locke, Milton, Turgot, or Hume; they know that popular elections of one essential branch of the legislature, frequently repeated, are the only possible method of forming a free constitution, or of preserving the government of laws from the domination of men, or of preserving their lives, liberties, or properties in security; they know, though Locke and Milton did not, that when popular elections are given up, liberty and free government must be given up. Upon this principle, they cannot approve the plan of Mr. Hume, in his “Idea of a perfect Commonwealth.” — “Let all the freeholders of twenty pounds a year in the county, and all the householders worth five hundred pounds in the town parishes, meet annually in the parish church, and choose, by ballot, some freeholder of the county for their member, whom we shall call the county- representative. Let the hundred county-representatives, two days after their election, meet in the county-town, and choose by ballot, from their own body, ten county-magistrates, and one senator. There are therefore, in the whole commonwealth, one hundred senators, eleven hundred county-magistrates, and ten thousand county-representatives; for we shall bestow on all senators the authority of county-magistrates, and on all county-magistrates the authority of county-representatives. Let the senators meet in the capital, and be endowed with the whole executive power of the commonwealth; the power of peace and war, of giving orders to generals, admirals, and ambassadors, and, in short, all the prerogatives of a British king, except his negative. Let the county representatives meet in their particular counties, and possess the whole legislative power of the commonwealth; the greater number of counties deciding the question; and where these are equal, let the senate have the casting-vote. Every new law must first be debated in the senate; and, though rejected by it, if ten senators insist and protest, it must be sent down to the counties: the senate, if they please, may join to the copy of the law their reasons for receiving or rejecting it.” &c. — The senate, by the ballot of Venice or Malta, are to choose a protector, who represents the dignity of the commonwealth, and presides in the senate; two secretaries of state, and a council of state, a council of religion and learning, a council of trade, a council of laws, a council of war, a council of the admiralty — each of five persons, all senators; and seven commissioners of the treasury.

If you compare this plan, as well as those of Locke and Milton, with the principles and examples in the foregoing letters, yon will soon form a judgment of them; it is not my design to enlarge upon them. That of Hume is a complicated aristocracy, and would soon behave like all other aristocracies. It is enough to say, that the representatives of the people may by the senators be deprived of a voice in the legislature; because the senate have their choice of sending the laws down, either to the county-magistrates or county-representatives. It is an ingenious device, to be sure, to get rid of the people and their representatives; besides that the delays and confusions would be endless, in sending the laws to be debated in as many separate commonwealths as there are counties. But the two decisive objections are, 1. Letting the nobility or senate into the management of the executive power; and, 2. Taking the eyes of the people off from their representatives in the legislature. The liberty of the people depends entirely on the constant and direct communication between them and the legislature, by means of their representatives.

The improvements to be made in the English constitution lie entirely in the house of commons. If county-members were abolished, and representatives proportionally and frequently chosen in small districts, and if no candidate could be chosen but an established long-settled inhabitant of that district, it would be impossible to corrupt the people of England, and the house of commons might be an immortal guardian of the national liberty. Instead of projects to abolish kings and lords, if the house of commons had been attended to, wild wars would not have been engaged in, nor countless millions thrown away, nor would there have remained an imperfection perhaps in the English constitution. Let the people take care of the balance, and especially their part of it: but the preservation of their peculiar part of it will depend still upon the existence and independence of the other two; the instant the other branches are destroyed, their own branch, their own deputies, become their tyrants.

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

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