The last thirty years have seen a resurgence of interest in John Adams. From the acclaimed biographies of David McCullough and Joseph Ellis to the works of C. Bradley Thompson, John Paynter, Jonathan Green, Luke Mayville, Sara Georgini, and Ben Peterson focusing on specific aspects of Adams’s political thought and writings, the “Sage of Braintree” has reclaimed his position as an important member of the Founding generation. Nevertheless, one can argue that the full impact that this brilliant, albeit irascible, scholar-politician had on the creation of the American Republic remains woefully underrated. One area that should be more appreciated is his significant contribution to political philosophy. From designing the framework of functional republican constitutions to vigorously defending balanced tripartite government, Adams stands as one of the most important political thinkers of his time.
Perhaps Adams’s greatest contribution to American Political Thought was bringing the Baconian scientific method to constitution-making. While other Founders, most notably Madison, also followed Bolingbroke in looking to the lessons of history to address contemporary problems, Adams was more consciously scientific in his approach, viewing himself as following in the footsteps of not only Aristotle, Polybius, and Machiavelli but also Bacon and Newton. In applying an empirical, inductive, a posteriori method to solving the problem of framing orderly republican government, Adams sought to build a political structure that would be more enduring and protective of liberty. This approach stood in marked contrast to the rationalist, deductive, a priori method favored by many enlightened theorists of the eighteenth century, individuals like Turgot, Condorcet, Paine, and Wollstonecraft, who expressed outright disdain for Adams’s epistemology and constitutional framework.
Adams’s interest in constitution-making goes back at least to 1775. In his Autobiography, he notes that, in the spring of 1775, he and a few colleagues began discussing how to build republican governments once the yoke of royal authority was cast off. Even if we do not trust the New Englander’s memory, we have his letter of November 15, 1775, to Richard Henry Lee, in which, developing the thoughts of the previous evening’s conversation, Adams put into writing a framework of government that would serve as the foundation of his first great political treatise, Thoughts on Government.
Published by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap in April 1776, the pamphlet had an immediate impact on several state conventions that were preparing to draft new constitutions, including Virginia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. In it Adams outlined what he considered the essential components of a republican government that would bring the greatest happiness to the constituents (“. . . the happiness of the people, the great end of man, is the end of government”). These included a bicameral legislature, with a representative body elected directly by the people (this “representative assembly should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large”), and an upper chamber, which he called a council, chosen by the representatives; an independent governor, chosen by the bicameral legislature and holding the power of the veto; an independent judiciary with members of at least the higher courts serving during good behavior; annual elections of governor and both assemblies; and rotation of offices. This tripartite division of executive, legislative, and judicial would ensure checks and balances, something that Adams viewed as vital for a healthy republic. The principles contained in Thoughts on Government would be developed in later years, including in the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, which Adams almost single-handedly drafted, and in the federal Constitution, which made Adams’s cherished vision of a balanced government with checks and balances the cornerstone of the innovative American Republic.
In September 1786, Adams commenced his important, and controversial, three-volume defense of tripartite government, Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America. The catalyst for the work was the 1784 publication of Baron Anne Robert Turgot’s March 22, 1778, letter to Richard Price, in which the French philosophe questioned the sagacity of the newly drafted state constitutions: “I am not satisfied, I own, with any constitutions which have as yet been framed by the different American States . . . I see in the greatest number an unreasonable imitation of the usages of England. Instead of bringing all the authorities into one, that of the nation, they have established different bodies, a house of representatives, a council, a governor, because England has a house of commons, a house of lords, and a king.” Two-chamber legislatures and powerful executives undermined the integrity of republican government, according to Turgot, for they retained the very hierarchical structure that republicans desired to eliminate. A unicameral legislature and a weak executive, similar to what was instituted in Pennsylvania, were the proper components of republican government.
Although it was obviously meant to defend the system that he had espoused since 1775 and to expose the inherent flaws of a single-chamber assembly, Adams’s work is much more. As Thompson has noted, Defence is really a blueprint for political scientists. In the manner of Bacon and Newton, two natural philosophers whom he admired, Adams collected and examined as much political data as possible from ancient and modern republics as well as from philosophers and historians past and present to test the theory of Turgot and his followers. By applying this scientific method to an examination of political structures, he could arrive at conclusions as to what worked and why. Armed with such information, the political scientist could then construct a political structure that would be long-lasting and protective of individual rights. Only when viewing the Defence as a scientific approach to constitution-making, and not simply as an occasional piece designed to refute Turgot, can the reader appreciate the work for what it is, an important contribution to political science. There is a methodology to Defence that has too often been ignored by historians such as Gordon S. Wood, who, in Creation of the American Republic, excoriated it as lacking coherence and relevance, its emphasis on mixed government being “contrary to the general thrust of constitutional thought in 1787.”
And what lessons did Adams take from his extensive study of history? In the preface he asserts that a unicameral system, in which all powers are vested in a single assembly, has in every case led to factionalism, internecine strife, and tyranny. Adams declares that:
“If there is one certain truth to be collected from the history of all ages, it is this; that the people’s rights and liberties, and the democratical mixture in a constitution, can never be preserved without a strong executive, or, in other words, without separating the executive from the legislative power. If the executive power, or any considerable part of it, is left in the hands either of an aristocratical or a democratical assembly, it will corrupt the legislature as necessarily as rust corrupts iron, or as arsenic poisons the human body; and when the legislature is corrupted, the people are undone.”
He goes on to explain how a two-chamber legislature, with a senate reserved for the wealthiest and most influential, restricts the influence of ambitious men: “A member of a senate, of immense wealth, the most respected birth, and transcendent abilities, has no influence in the nation, in comparison of what he would have in a single representative assembly. When a senate exists, the most powerful man in the state may be safely admitted into the house of representatives, because the people have it in their power to remove him into the senate as soon as his influence becomes dangerous.”
Adams’s remarks on the significance of a senate reserved for the natural aristocracy highlight an important truism that his empirical study revealed. Hierarchies are natural realities and cannot be eradicated no matter how much the philosophes longed for egalitarianism. Following Machiavelli, whom he quotes often in Defence, Adams wanted to see people as they are, not as they ought to be. Ambition and envy, the desire for distinction and emulation—these passions are natural in all humans and lead to an inevitable hierarchy of social orders. There are those who will rise above others and gain the respect and admiration of their peers, who will then naturally defer to them. To locate all orders in one assembly allows these elite few to gain control of the government. That is why Adams often spoke of the need to “ostracize” the elite in their own small chamber, where their ambitions would be controlled and they could do less harm. On the other hand, this senate would also serve as a check on democratic factionalism, which can prove just as detrimental to the polity.
Adams’s examination of republics further showed that even the establishment of a bicameral legislature was not enough to guard against the follies of human passion. Mixed constitutions in Sparta, Carthage, Rome, and Florence deteriorated into factionalism, discord, and strife because they were not balanced. Adams maintained throughout his writings that all orders—the One, the Few, and the Many—must be equally represented and independent of one another. An independent executive armed with an absolute veto and an independent judiciary acting as mediator between the executive and the legislative were essential components that were usually lacking in the republics studied by Adams. Only the English constitution, so despised by the philosophes and many American revolutionaries, and some state constitutions came close to realizing Adams’s perfect polity. Conversely, Turgot’s utopian government was furthest from Adams’s ideal.
The first volume of Defence was published in London in January 1787 by Charles Dilly. Volumes II and III followed in late 1787 and early 1788. Adams himself saw to the distribution of Volume I to the leading figures in Europe and America; copies of Volume I were made available to the public in America in April and were thus available to delegates to the Philadelphia Convention. In Europe and America initial reaction to Volume I was generally favorable, with many, including Richard Price, asserting that Adams had successfully rebutted Turgot. However, the Turgotists in France rejected the arguments of Defence. The Marquis de Condorcet, Turgot’s protégé and leader of the rationalists, was quick to respond to Adams’s work. In his Four Letters from a Gentleman in New Haven (1788), Condorcet attacked Adams’s methodology. He argued that basing one’s constitutionalism on precedents from the past was too confining, for it failed to allow human reason the freedom to create something completely new. What was needed was a complete dismantling of the hierarchical past and an affirmation of the natural equality of all people. Like Adams, Condorcet wanted to bring science to politics; however, following Descartes, he called for a method that was rationalist, deductive, and a priori.
It was Condorcet’s Four Letters, together with reports of the early stages of the French Revolution, that prompted Adams to write a series of thirty-two anonymous essays from April 28, 1790, to April 27, 1791, in John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States. Considered by their author as the fourth volume of Defence, Discourses on Davila provides an important insight into Adams’s view of human nature and the role it plays in society. The work itself is a mixture of translation, commentary, poetry, and philosophical ruminations about human nature. The starting point for the essays was a history of the French religious wars of the sixteenth century by Enrico Caterina Davila, a little-known historian who was highly recommended by Bolingbroke for his desire to go beyond consequences to understand the underlying causes of human conflict. This was certainly what drew Adams to the work, for he, like Davila, wanted to learn the fundamental causes of the factionalism, strife, and tyranny that led to the demise of all governments in recorded history. Only when the reasons behind the deterioration of constitutions are properly understood can the political scientist build an architecture designed to prevent, or at least alleviate, those causes. And from his study of history, Adams’s conclusion was clear: Understanding human nature was the key to unlocking the problem of constitutionalism.
Almost half of the essays are devoted to what causes humans to act as they do. Drawing from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adams refers to the spectemur agendo as the motivating force for good and bad in all humans. This universal desire to be recognized by others can lead to incredible acts of benevolence, but it can also fuel blind ambition, which was the primary cause of the strife that undermined governments past and present. Therefore, Condorcet’s rationalist ideal of a single egalitarian assembly in which all power would be concentrated was destined to failure, for it flew in the face of human nature and history. Refusing to acknowledge precedent, including the recent history of sectarian violence in France, was courting disaster. Only a balanced government with a bicameral assembly and power divided among an independent executive, legislative, and judicial could control the destructive passions that history had incessantly recorded. Addressing the current situation in France, Adams warns Condorcet and his fellow revolutionaries what the lessons of history have taught him with a Burkean prescience that clearly set him apart from most Americans at the time:
“And if a balance of passions and interests is not scientifically concerted, the present struggle in Europe will be little beneficial to mankind, and produce nothing but another thousand years of feudal fanaticism, under new and strange names. . . . The men of letters in France are wisely reforming one feudal system; but may they not, unwisely, lay the foundation of another? A legislature, in one assembly, can have no other termination than in civil dissension, feudal anarchy, or simple monarchy. . . . Frenchmen! Act and think like yourselves! confessing human nature, be magnanimous and wise. Acknowledging and boasting yourselves to be men, avow the feelings of men. The affectation of being exempted from passions is inhuman. . . . Americans! Rejoice, that from experience you have learned wisdom; and instead of whimsical and fantastical projects, you have adopted a promising essay towards a well-ordered government.”
This final statement can serve as the perfect summation of Adams’s contribution to American constitution-making. Learning from history’s lessons while disdaining reliance on untested theoretical assumptions, Adams gave to the citizens of America the blueprint for a well-ordered society that would protect the freedoms of all individuals. It was a blueprint that he was prepared to defend throughout his life, even in the face of harsh criticism that often came from those whom he considered friends. For this he deserves a special place in the pantheon of America’s greatest political thinkers.
Gregory Spindler is a retired educator currently focusing on the intellectual history of the Early Republic.