In his 2014 work The Great Debate, Yuval Levin argues that the origin of the debate between progressives and conservatives in Western liberalism can be traced to the end of the 18th century, specifically citing the opposing positions of Edmund Burke (Reflections on the Revolution in France) and Thomas Paine (Rights of Man) in response to the French Revolution. In this essay I intend to build on Levin’s work by focusing on an earlier debate within the context of the American Revolution. While John Adams and Paine were among the first in America to advocate for independence from Great Britain, they differed dramatically in how they envisioned the structure and purpose of the new government. Their conflicting visions would have a significant impact on the emerging state constitutions that were framed in the early years of the Revolution.
As he made his way back to Philadelphia from Massachusetts in January 1776, Adams, who was about to earn the mantle “Atlas of American Independence” during the upcoming session of Congress, began to hear reports of a sensational new pamphlet that was stirring the emotions of Americans throughout the colonies. Common Sense made such a strong case for independence that many friends and foes believed that the anonymous tract had been written by Adams, given his outspoken advocacy for a complete break from Great Britain. Confessing that he was flattered to be considered the author of such an influential work, the Sage of Braintree sheepishly acknowledged his inability to write so powerfully and persuasively in support of independence.
Adams’s initial positive response to Common Sense, however, was soon replaced by a fear that the author was leading colonists toward anarchy. Asserting that the pamphlet’s author was adept at tearing down government but had no understanding how to construct a government that would ensure order, Adams told Abigail in a March 19 letter that he was considering developing a framework for a republican government that was far superior to anything that Paine, by then the acknowledged writer of Common Sense, could produce. Within days of this letter, Adams presented his idea of government in separate letters to North Carolina congressmen William Hooper and John Penn. He later expressed his views in letters to George Wythe of Virginia and Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant of New Jersey, with the letter to Wythe serving as the basis for his influential Thoughts on Government.
Adams’s sketch of government was explicitly conservative in that he maintained the basic British form. In addition to an independent executive, legislative, and judiciary, he called for a bicameral legislative body, with the larger chamber representing the people, and thus to be chosen by them, and a smaller council of the elite. Together the two chambers would elect a governor who would serve for one year and hold an absolute veto, something that Adams considered essential for an orderly government that ensured human happiness. Such a sketch was appealing to many of Adams’s contemporaries since it was familiar and easy to implement. It was also diametrically opposed to Paine’s vision of government as espoused in Common Sense and later writings.
Referring to government as “but a necessary evil,” Paine asserted that its end was nothing more than man’s security. In terms of its form, the author of Common Sense emphasized that the simpler its design the less liable government was to breach its contract and enslave its citizens. With that in mind, Paine excoriated the British constitution, which Adams often declared to be the most perfect one devised by men, as being so complex as to render it well-nigh impossible to detect the actual source of tyranny. The British principle of checks and balances, so admired by Montesquieu and many of the American Founders, was, according to Paine, an absurdity. The will of the British monarch was every bit as absolute as that of the French ruler, although exercised more subtly. Moreover, the bicameral legislature, said to ensure the representation of all subjects, was nothing more than an illusion. In fact, few were truly represented in Commons, considered the chamber most representative of the people.
In order to embody true republican principles and reflect the equality that a functional democracy must possess, the legislature, made up of citizens elected by their peers, must serve as the foundation of government. Any executive would have but perfunctory power, devoid of the prerogatives that allowed the British sovereign to wield unlimited authority in a constitutional monarchy. And since this legislature was to be representative of an egalitarian citizenry, there was no need for a dual chamber. In fact, for Paine, a unicameral legislature made up of ordinary citizens, and not elites, was the essence of republican government.
Pennsylvania, Paine’s adopted state, would embrace this form of government. In June 1776, with Benjamin Franklin serving as chair and George Bryan, James Cannon, and Paine himself playing leading roles, convention delegates drafted the most radical constitution in America. Power resided in a unicameral legislature, the Assembly, whose members were elected to one-year terms. A twelve-member Supreme Executive Council would administer the government. The Assembly together with the Council would choose one of the twelve members to be President, a largely honorific position controlled by the Council. A Council of Censors was also created; members would be elected every seven years to conduct an evaluation of the government and to censure any activities deemed to be in violation of the constitution. All changes to the constitution could be made only through this Council of Censors.
While Georgia and Vermont followed Pennsylvania in framing constitutions closely adhering to Paine’s blueprint, the majority of states embraced Adams’s template. In June 1776 Virginia drafted a constitution remarkably similar to what Adams had recommended. In fact, Patrick Henry, in collaboration with Adams’s close associate Richard Henry Lee, published anonymously a highly influential handbill in the May 10 edition of the Virginia Gazette, which he titled “A Government Scheme,” that reproduced almost verbatim what Adams had written in a November 15, 1775, letter to Lee outlining his recommended form of government. Meanwhile, North Carolina followed the lead of Hooper and Penn in framing the form of government favored by Adams. New Jersey, Maryland, and South Carolina also drafted conservative constitutions in line with the Adams model. And, of course, the 1780 Massachusetts constitution, the majority of which was framed by Adams, served as the supreme example of a republican constitution inspired by the British form of government.
In his Autobiography, Adams made clear his disdain for Paine and his ideology. Indeed, it is no hyperbole to say that Thomas Paine rivaled Alexander Hamilton as the man most despised by the Sage of Braintree. And the vitriol was reciprocated. According to Adams, a deeply agitated Paine paid a visit to the New Englander’s quarters shortly after publication of Thoughts on Government. In a scene foreshadowing Hamilton’s attempt in 1800 to change Adams’s mind regarding the sending of peace emissaries to France, Paine raged against the idea of a bicameral assembly, offering numerous reasons why the traditional two-house legislature was unrepublican and antithetical to one’s liberty. Of course, Adams accepted none of Paine’s arguments, deeming them whimsical and naïve. Most importantly, he saw the form of government espoused by Paine as dangerous to orderly society as it would put power in the hands of inexperienced, uneducated individuals who would cater to their own interests and not act on behalf of the common good. A conservative approach to government, in which a disinterested educated class would counter the representatives of the common people, was the only rational way to build a new republic. The radical experiment promulgated by the quixotic Paine and his followers was destined for failure and in the process would undercut republicanism in America as well as the independence movement itself.
In this early contest between progressivism and conservatism, Adams’s vision was to prevail. In 1790 a new constitution was adopted in Pennsylvania which established a two-chamber legislature along with a more independent executive. This followed the creation of a national government whose structure was greatly influenced by Adams’s 1780 Massachusetts constitution. Indeed, bicameralism and a strong executive remain fundamental characteristics of American democracy at both the federal and state level. Nevertheless, the great debate in American liberalism over the form and role of government, initiated by the opposing views of John Adams and Thomas Paine, has never been completely resolved but has continued for over two centuries with new foes taking up the fight. From the battle between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to the debate over state rights that dominated the nineteenth century to current concerns over government intrusion in individuals’ lives, America has witnessed clashes between ideological opponents who hold radically different positions on what republicanism means and how a republican government can best ensure an individual’s pursuit of personal happiness within an orderly and functional society.
Gregory Spindler is a retired educator currently interested in the ideological history of the early American Republic.