A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America Critical Essays

John Adams

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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 all the faculties of man,” enlisted the talents of all citizens, or checked administrative abuses. Instead, he saw absolutisms sowing furtive suspicion which pitted against one another family and family, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, the gifted and the dull. He espoused a “mixture” of the advantages of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. Although his statement of the favorable aspects of aristocracies and monarchies was turned against him by political rivals later on, the DEFENSE contains as many strictures against these two forms of government as against democracy. Alleging that “there can be no free government without a democratical branch in the constitution,” Adams even said America would be better off to risk civil war arising from improper balance of power in a democratic republic than to establish an absolute monarchy.

Sure that sovereignty was derived from a...

(The entire section is 969 words.)