John Adams (1735-1826)  
President of the United States (1797-1801)
A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1787

John Adams was in London serving as a diplomat for his young country in 1787.  He wrote and published A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America in three volumes.  The American edition was published the same year in New York and Philadelphia.  The work occurs in the middle of his career and reflects the depth of thought that our founders engaged in while building a new country.  He explores and encourages others to read the writings of philosophers and sages from all ages:  Machiavel, Sidney, Locke, Harrington, Milton, Ponnet, the Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, Hoadley, Trenchard, Gordon, and Plato Redivivus. 

A Defence was stimulated by the writings of Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, the Abbé De Mably, and Dr. Richard Price.  The books are organized in letters so that Adams could address diverse topics and historical periods while relating them to the argument before him.  In the first letter, dated October 4, 1786, Adams reviewed the critiques of Turgot in particular and proposes to address the issues and criticism.  He wrote to defend the various Constitutions which had been enacted within the States at that time, while examining the processes used to balance power and avoid tyranny. 

In the first volume Adams described and explored the structure of various forms of modern and ancient government.  He looked at democratic forms of government formed in several Cantons of Switzerland, St. Marino in Italy (included below), Biscay in Spain; aristocratic republics found in Zurich in Switzerland, Venice in Italy, and Genoa; republics with monarchs such as England and Poland; and ancient republics such as Carthage, Rome, Corinth, Athens, Crete, and Thebes.  Adams considered political ideas from Plato's Republic to those of John Locke sometimes with humor:
 
Mr. Locke, in 1663, was employed to trace out a plan of legislation for Carolina; and he gave the whole authority, executive and legislative, to the eight proprietors, the lords Berkley, Clarendon, Albemarle, Craven, and Ashley; and messieurs Carteret, Berkley, and Colleton, and their heirs.  This new oligarchical sovereignty created at once three orders of nobility:   barons, with twelve thousand acres of land; caciques, with twenty-four thousand, &c.; and landgraves, with eighty thousand. Who did this legislator think would live under his government?  He should have first created a new species of beings to govern, before he instituted such a government.  (Letter LIV)

How many branches of government should there be?  Adams strongly favored separation of powers and used examples from other republics to show how the balance of power limits corruption and supports stability.  Should the legislature be separated into two chambers or should there be a single body?  Adams gave a vivid description of how leadership is chosen in a group to illustrate that just a few in any assembly would wield much of the power.  He said:   
A single assembly thus constituted, without any counterpoise, balance, or equilibrium, is to have all authority, legislative, executive, and judicial, concentered in it.  It is to make a constitution and laws by its own will, execute those laws at its pleasure, and adjudge all controversies, that arise concerning the meaning and application of them, at discretion.  What is there to restrain them from making tyrannical laws, in order to execute them in a tyrannical manner?  (Letter XXV)
Adams saw the two branches of the legislature balancing the power of government, pulling together in times of crisis, but arguing and debating the slow path toward law.  He knew people, he knew their weakness, and he and his contemporaries were very aware of the fragility of what they were attempting to build.

Adams even described our modern problem of voter turnout in his description of the republic of St. Marino in Italy. 

Another remarkable circumstance is, the reluctance of the citizens to attend the assembly of the arengo, which obliged them to make a law, obliging themselves to attend, upon a penalty.  This is a defect, and a misfortune natural to every democratical constitution, and to the popular part of every mixed government.  A general or too common disinclination to attend, leaves room for persons and parties more active to carry points by faction and intrigue, which the majority, if all were present, would not approve.  (Letter III)
Earlier, in 1776, John Adams had been on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence and was an early proponent of separation from England.  He describes the Declaration and his work with Jefferson in a letter to Thomas Pickering in 1888.  He gives Jefferson full credit for the draft of the Declaration and notes that the original draft contained language to abolish slavery.  Adams supported that language and regretted that Congress as a whole struck it from the document.

His strong belief in the individual rights of man was also displayed by his support for the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.  He had helped write the constitution for the State of Massachusetts and authored much of the Declaration of Rights for Massachusetts.  It included provisions against unreasonable search and seizure, guaranteeing freedom of religion and the press, and providing for trial by jury.  The Declaration of Rights for Massachusetts comes before the body of the Constitution of Massachusetts.  During 1787 he not only published A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, but also corresponded extensively with those who were writing the Constitution.  It must have been frustrating for him to be in England during that period.  Nonetheless, the power of his writing and the wealth of ideas explored in the “Defence” influenced the development of the Constitution. 

His letters and writings show that he thought the Bill of Rights for the United States should have preceded the Constitution, and that the principles of the Constitution should have been based on them.  After he returned from England, he made extensive contributions to what we call our "Bill of Rights", the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. 

Adams served as President of the United States from 1797-1800.  His presidency had a tone that illustrated the necessity of separation of powers, the need for a Bill of Rights, and the overwhelming attraction of power.  Adams saw himself as one of the elite and loved the trappings of power.  Even at the beginning of his presidency, the newspapers of the time began to criticize him both for his policies and for the pomp and elitism surrounding his office.  They saw him as a representative of the rich, to the exclusion of the rest of the country.  To be fair, newspapers criticized his opponents as well, but Adams couldn’t stand it when it was directed at him.  This defender of individual rights pushed to pass the “Alien and Sedition Acts” in 1798 which allowed the Federal government to limit freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  Adams immediately had several of his newpaper critics and even a member of Congress arrested.  Matthew Lyon was a Representative from Vermont who was critical of the Federalists, President Adam’s party.  He was arrested for a letter he published in the Vermont Journal critical of President Adams.  When another publisher, Anthony Haswell, attempted to raise money to pay Lyon’s fine, he too was jailed.  To the credit of the people of Vermont, they re-elected Lyon while he was still in jail.

Fortunately, the Constitution and the country Adams had worked to found was strong enough to withstand this insult to liberty.  The Virginia and Kentucky legislatures both wrote resolutions deploring the Alien and Sedition acts.  Newspapers throughout the country campaigned hard against them.  In the end, Adams served only a single term as President.  Thomas Jefferson succeeded him and the Alien and Sedition Acts expired in 1801 before Jefferson took office.  The Federalists never recovered.  They were seen as trying to establish a monarchy and to undermine the very foundations of liberty, of individual freedom, and the rights of citizens Adams had fought to establish.
Quotations:    
                          
Without three divisions of power, stationed to watch each other, and compare each other's conduct with the laws, it will be impossible that the laws should at all times preserve their authority, and govern all men.  (Letter XXXIV)

Congress will always be composed of members from the natural and artificial aristocratical body in every state, even in the northern, as well as in the middle and southern states.  Their natural dispositions then in general will be (whether they shall be sensible of it or not, and whatever integrity or abilities they may be possessed of) to diminish the prerogatives of the governors, and the privileges of the people, and to augment the influence of the aristocratical parties.  There have been causes enough to prevent the appearance of this inclination hitherto; but a calm course of prosperity would very soon bring it forth, if effectual provision against it be not made in season.  It will be found absolutely necessary, therefore, to give negatives to the governors, to defend the executives against the influence of this body, as well as the senates and representatives in their several states.  The necessity of a negative in the house of representatives, will be called in question by nobody.  (Letter LIII)

But we have not yet considered how the legislative power is to be exercised in this single assembly?  — Is there to be a constitution?  Who are to compose it?  The assembly itself, or a convention called for that purpose?  In either case, whatever rules are agreed on for the preservation of the lives, liberties, properties, and characters of the citizens, what is to hinder this assembly from transgressing the bounds which they have prescribed to themselves, or which the convention has ordained for them?  (Letter LV)

But it is of great importance to begin well; misarrangements now made, will have great, extensive, and distant consequences; and we are now employed, how little soever we may think of it, in making establishments which will affect the happiness of an hundred millions of inhabitants at a time, in a period not very distant.  (Letter LV)
                                                                       

Portrait of John Adams shown above from Wikipedia.com
The bottom book in the above photograph

is the copy of the Essays.

The people on the list of subscribers

are those who subsidized the printing

of the essays.  Of course, more copies

would have been printed for general sale.

The preface is followed by the

first three letters, including that

dealing with St. Marino.

The enlargements of the document are sufficient for easy reading -- they will be a slow download on a modem.  The photographs of the A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America may be used freely on non-commercial sites (no advertisements) and for educational purposes.  Please link to this site for the copyright.
Further Resources:

The text of
A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.  1787

Letters between John Adams and his wife Abigail -- 1776

Letter to Thomas Pickering concerning the writing of the Declaration of Independence -- 1822

Text of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions protesting the Acts -- 1798

    Description of the Alien and Sedition Acts and their consequences.

    Sedition:  The Cases

    Short biography of Matthew Lyon -- Wikipedia

    The Aliens are Coming: John Adams and the Federalist Attack on the First Amendment  Craig R. Smith

Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot, French economist, wrote a letter to Dr. Price. 
   
Dr. Richard Price, minister, philosopher and supporter of the American and French revolutions.

Postscript of A Defence in which Adams writes about his contact with Gabriel Bonnot, Abbé De Mably.

Republic of St. Marino today. Description of population, trade, and other statistics. Further description of the government and politics can be found through links at the bottom. From Nations Encyclopedia.




 (c) Marilyn Shea, 2005, 2006