This sprawling work consists of John Adams’ selections from writings on republican governments ranging from ancient Greece to America of the 1780’s, material interspersed with his own maxims and observations on historical characters and events. He excused his faulty arrangement and style on the grounds of “hasty,” fourteen-month compilation, prompted by news of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts and moves toward revising the constitution of the American union. Some regard the work as possibly the most complete examination into the philosophy and institutions of republicanism by any American.
Adams’ purposes were several: to rebut the French philosophe Turgot’s charge that Americans showed themselves slavish followers of England in their state constitutions, most of which, like that of Adams for Massachusetts, provided for constitutional checks and balances; to show such governments superior to “simple” ones which centralized authority in an omnipotent, unicameral legislature, like those advocated by Turgot and instituted in Pennsylvania by Benjamin Franklin; and to prove by comparing historic forms of republics that their ruin proceeded from improper division of power.
Adams was convinced that, regardless of all differences, governments “move by unalterable rules.” He declared his repugnance for absolutism, whether monarchial or egalitarian, basing his argument on the practical grounds that neither gave “full scope to...
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