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

by John Adams

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976

First published: 1787-1788

Type of work: Political treatise

Critical Evaluation:

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 majority of the mass of people and that a representative branch of the legislature should be organized on democratic principles, Adams feared to trust without restraint all power to the masses. As a check on the representative house, he advocated a senate in terms which have seldom been duplicated. It would be not only a forum where property interests might be defended against leveling tendencies of the representatives, but also an honorable place whither demagogues might be banished by election to render their ambition safe to and their abilities conserved for an empire of liberty. Adams' advocacy of coordinate but independent executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government causes no surprise. He advocated a single executive in order for it to be censorable for administrative abuse. By these forms, he contended, America would realize a practical government of laws and not of men.

Less hopeful of mankind and distrustful of a supposed passion for democracy, Adams denied Turgot's assertion that "a love of democracy is the love of equality," saying that "every man hates to have a superior . . . [and] no man is willing to have an equal," that "democracy signifies nothing more or less than a nation of people without any government at all, and before any constitution is instituted." Adams deemed "reason, conscience, a regard for justice, and a sense of duty and moral obligation" the only defenses against "desire for fame, and the applause, gratitude, and rewards of the public" as well as "the real friends of equality." He was so confident of the beneficent effects of a republic of mixed characteristics that he averred it would make honest men of knaves from having one rogue to watch another.

Believing that "God and nature" ordained inequalities of wealth, birth, and ability among men, Adams declared there was a natural aristocracy. Not dangerous in itself, he believed it would transform an omnipotent unicameral legislature into an oligarchy or monarchy, destroying "all equality and liberty, with the consent and acclamation of the people themselves." Believing man more selfish than public-spirited, he would no more trust all of an omnipotent, unicameral legislature than any one man's ambition for gold or power or acclaim. Unless "the rich and the proud" and the representatives of the masses were thrown into separate, coequal assemblies, each could do mischief and neither check the other or an executive.

He declared that "conviction," not "habit," caused Americans to retain their English inheritance of preserving governmental equilibrium by division of powers between executives, two-house legislatures, and a separate judiciary. Only in such institutions did he find hope for avoiding the hypocrisy, superstition, flattery, and corruption which had overturned earlier republics. Advancing from the individual states to the federal government, Adams dismissed the continental congresses under the Articles of Confederation as "only a diplomatic assembly," necessitating that the states themselves have balanced governments to check the aristocratical traits of the congressmen. "Mixing the authority of the one, the few, and the many confusedly into one assembly," said he, created a train of events which would proceed from aristocratical wrangling over offices to "division, faction, sedition, and rebellion." He observed political parties in every country, controlled only by monarchial armies or by "a balance in the constitution." Thinking virtue "too precarious a foundation for liberty," he declared that governments needed power to compel "all orders, ranks, and parties" to "prefer the public good before their own," but that power was surest if based on "reverence and obedience to the laws."

With enthusiasm for the proposed federal constitution, Adams hailed the old confederation as inadequate and the new frame of government, so similar to Adams' own views, to be the "greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen."

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access