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Adams: Thoughts on Government

John Adams: Thoughts on Government

MY DEAR SIR,--If I was equal to the task of forming a plan for the government of a colony, I
should be flattered with your request, and very happy to comply with it; because, as the divine
science of politics is the science of social happiness, and the blessings of society depend entirely
on the constitutions of government, which are generally institutions that last for many
generations, there can be no employment more agreeable to a benevolent mind than a research
after the best.
Pope flattered tyrants too much when he said,
"For forms of government let fools contest,
That which is best administered is best."
Nothing can be more fallacious than this. But poets read history to collect flowers, not fruits;
they attend to fanciful images, not the effects of social institutions. Nothing is more certain, from
the history of nations and nature of man, than that some forms of government are better fitted for
being well administered than others.
We ought to consider what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best
form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the
end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the
individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government
which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number
of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.
All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the
happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates,
Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this.
If there is a form of government, then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every
sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other
Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders
men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely
to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.
Honor is truly sacred, but holds a lower rank in the scale of moral excellence than virtue. Indeed,
the former is but a part of the latter, and consequently has not equal pretensions to support a
frame of government productive of human happiness.
The foundation of every government is some principle or passion in the minds of the people. The
noblest principles and most generous affections in our nature, then, have the fairest chance to
support the noblest and most generous models of government.
A man must be indifferent to the sneers of modern English men, to mention in their company the
names of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, and Hoadly. No small
fortitude is necessary to confess that one has read them. The wretched condition of this country,
however, for ten or fifteen years past, has frequently reminded me of their principles and
reasonings. They will convince any candid mind, that there is no good government but what is
republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; because the very
definition of a republic is "an empire of laws, and not of men." That, as a republic is the best of
governments, so that particular arrangement of the powers of society, or, in other words, that
form of government which is best contrived to secure an impartial and exact execution of the
laws, is the best of republics.
Of republics there is an inexhaustible variety, because the possible combinations of the powers
of society are capable of innumerable variations.
As good government is an empire of laws, how shall your laws be made? In a large society,
inhabiting an extensive country, it is impossible that the whole should assemble to make laws.
The first necessary step, then, is to depute power from the many to a few of the most wise and
good. But by what rules shall you choose your representatives? Agree upon the number and
qualifications of persons who shall have the benefit of choosing, or annex this privilege to the
inhabitants of a certain extent of ground.
The principal difficulty lies, and the greatest care should be employed, in constituting this
representative assembly. It should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It
should think, feel, reason, and act like them. That it may be the interest of this assembly to do
strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or, in other words, equal interests
among the people should have equal interests in it. Great care should be taken to effect this, and
to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections. Such regulations, however, may be better made
in times of greater tranquillity than the present; and they will spring up themselves naturally,
when all the powers of government come to be in the hands of the people's friends. At present, it
will be safest to proceed in all established modes, to which the people have been familiarized by
A representation of the people in one assembly being obtained, a question arises, whether all the
powers of government, legislative, executive, and judicial, shall be left in this body? I think a
people cannot be long free, nor ever happy, whose government is in one assembly. My reasons
for this opinion are as follow:--
1. A single assembly is liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual; subject to fits
of humor, starts of passion, flights of enthusiasm, partialities, or prejudice, and consequently
productive of hasty results and absurd judgments. And all these errors ought to be corrected and
defects supplied by some controlling power.
3. A single assembly is apt to grow ambitious, and after a time will not hesitate to vote itself
perpetual. This was one fault of the Long Parliament; but more remarkably of Holland, whose
assembly first voted themselves from annual to septennial, then for life, and after a course of
years, that all vacancies happening by death or otherwise, should be filled by themselves,
without any application to constituents at all.
4. A representative assembly, although extremely well qualified, and absolutely necessary, as a
branch of the legislative, is unfit to exercise the executive power, for want of two essential
properties, secrecy and despatch.
5. A representative assembly is still less qualified for the judicial power, because it is too
numerous, too slow, and too little skilled in the laws.
6. Because a single assembly, possessed of all the powers of government, would make arbitrary
laws for their own interest, execute all laws arbitrarily for their own interest, and adjudge all
controversies in their own favor.
But shall the whole power of legislation rest in one assembly? Most of the foregoing reasons
apply equally to prove that the legislative power ought to be more complex; to which we may
add, that if the legislative power is wholly in one assembly, and the executive in another, or in a
single person, these two powers will oppose and encroach upon each other, until the contest shall
end in war, and the whole power, legislative and executive, be usurped by the strongest.
The judicial power, in such case, could not mediate, or hold the balance between the two
contending powers, because the legislative would undermine it. And this shows the necessity,
too, of giving the executive power a negative upon the legislative, otherwise this will be
continually encroaching upon that.
To avoid these dangers, let a distinct assembly be constituted, as a mediator between the two
extreme branches of the legislature, that which represents the people, and that which is vested
with the executive power.
Let the representative assembly then elect by ballot, from among themselves or their
constituents, or both, a distinct assembly, which, for the sake of perspicuity, we will call a
council. It may consist of any number you please, say twenty or thirty, and should have a free
and independent exercise of its judgment, and consequently a negative voice in the legislature.
These two bodies, thus constituted, and made integral parts of the legislature, let them unite, and
by joint ballot choose a governor, who, after being stripped of most of those badges of
domination, called prerogatives, should have a free and independent exercise of his judgment,
and be made also an integral part of the legislature. This, I know, is liable to objections; and, if
you please, you may make him only president of the council, as in Connecticut. But as the
governor is to be invested with the executive power, with consent of council, I think he ought to
have a negative upon the legislative. If he is annually elective, as he ought to be, he will always
have so much reverence and affection for the people, their representatives and counsellors, that,
although you give him an independent exercise of his judgment, he will seldom use it in
opposition to the two houses, except in cases the public utility of which would be conspicuous;
and some such cases would happen.
In the present exigency of American affairs, when, by an act of Parliament, we are put out of the
royal protection, and consequently discharged from our allegiance, and it has become necessary
to assume government for our immediate security, the governor, lieutenant-governor, secretary,
treasurer, commissary, attorney-general, should be chosen by joint ballot of both houses. And
these and all other elections, especially of representatives and counsellors, should be annual,
there not being in the whole circle of the sciences a maxim more infallible than this, "where
annual elections end, there slavery begins."
These great men, in this respect, should be, once a year,
"Like bubbles on the sea of matter borne,
They rise, they break, and to that sea return."
This will teach them the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation, without
which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.
This mode of constituting the great offices of state will answer very well for the present; but if
by experiment it should be found inconvenient, the legislature may, at its leisure, devise other
methods of creating them, by elections of the people at large, as in Connecticut, or it may
enlarge the term for which they shall be chosen to seven years, or three years, or for life, or
make any other alterations which the society shall find productive of its ease, its safety, its
freedom, or, in one word, its happiness.
A rotation of all offices, as well as of representatives and counsellors, has many advocates, and
is contended for with many plausible arguments. It would be attended, no doubt, with many
advantages; and if the society has a sufficient number of suitable characters to supply the great
number of vacancies which would be made by such a rotation, I can see no objection to it. These
persons may be allowed to serve for three years, and then be excluded three years, or for any
longer or shorter term.
Any seven or nine of the legislative council may be made a quorum, for doing business as a
privy council, to advise the governor in the exercise of the executive branch of power, and in all
acts of state.
The governor should have the command of the militia and of all your armies. The power of
pardons should be with the governor and council.
Judges, justices, and all other officers, civil and military, should be nominated and appointed by
the governor, with the advice and consent of council, unless you choose to have a government
more popular; if you do, all officers, civil and military, may be chosen by joint ballot of both
houses; or, in order to preserve the independence and importance of each house, by ballot of one
house, concurred in by the other. Sheriffs should be chosen by the freeholders of counties; so
should registers of deeds and clerks of counties.
All officers should have commissions, under the hand of the governor and seal of the colony.
The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every
blessing of society depend so much upon an upright and skillful administration of justice, that
the judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent
upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that. The judges,
therefore, should be always men of learning and experience in the laws, of exemplary morals,
great patience, calmness, coolness, and attention. Their minds should not be distracted with
jarring interests; they should not be dependent upon any man, or body of men. To these ends,
they should hold estates for life in their offices; or, in other words, their commissions should be
during good behavior, and their salaries ascertained and established by law. For misbehavior, the
grand inquest of the colony, the house of representatives, should impeach them before the
governor and council, where they should have time and opportunity to make their defence; but,
if convicted, should be removed from their offices, and subjected to such other punishment as
shall be thought proper.
A militia law, requiring all men, or with very few exceptions besides cases of conscience, to be
provided with arms and ammunition, to be trained at certain seasons; and requiring counties,
towns, or other small districts, to be provided with public stocks of ammunition and entrenching
utensils, and with some settled plans for transporting provisions after the militia, when marched
to defend their country against sudden invasions; and requiring certain districts to be provided
with field-pieces, companies of matrosses, and perhaps some regiments of light-horse, is always
a wise institution, and, in the present circumstances of our country, indispensable.
Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely
wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be
thought extravagant.
The very mention of sumptuary laws will excite a smile. Whether our countrymen have wisdom
and virtue enough to submit to them, I know not; but the happiness of the people might be
greatly promoted by them, and a revenue saved sufficient to carry on this war forever. Frugality
is a great revenue, besides curing us of vanities, levities, and fopperies, which are real antidotes
to all great, manly, and warlike virtues.
But must not all commissions run in the name of a king? No. Why may they not as well run thus,
"The colony of to A. B. greeting," and be tested by the governor?
Why may not writs, instead of running in the name of the king, run thus, "The colony of to the
sheriff," &c., and be tested by the chief justice?
Why may not indictments conclude, "against the peace of the colony of and the dignity of the
A constitution founded on these principles introduces know ledge among the people, and
inspires them with a conscious dignity becoming freemen; a general emulation takes place,
which causes good humor, sociability, good manners, and good morals to be general. That
elevation of sentiment inspired by such a government, makes the common people brave and
enterprising. That ambition which is inspired by it makes them sober, industrious, and frugal.
You will find among them some elegance, perhaps, but more solidity; a little pleasure, but a
great deal of business; some politeness, but more civility. If you compare such a country with the
regions of domination, whether monarchical or aristocratical, you will fancy yourself in Arcadia
or Elysium.
If the colonies should assume governments separately, they should be left entirely to their own
choice of the forms; and if a continental constitution should be formed, it should be a congress,
containing a fair and adequate representation of the colonies, and its authority should sacredly be
confined to these cases, namely, war, trade, disputes between colony and colony, the post office,
and the unappropriated lands of the crown, as they used to be called.
These colonies, under such forms of government, and in such a union, would be unconquerable
by all the monarchies of Europe.
You and I, my dear friend, have been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of
antiquity would have wished to live. How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an
opportunity of making an election of government, more than of air, soil, or climate, for
themselves or their children! When, before the present epocha, had three millions of people full
power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that
human wisdom can contrive? I hope you will avail yourself and your country of that extensive
learning and indefatigable industry which you possess, to assist her in the formation of the
happiest governments and the best character of a great people. For myself, I must beg you to
keep my name out of sight; for this feeble attempt, if it should be known to be mine, would
oblige me to apply to myself those lines of the immortal John Milton, in one of his sonnets:--
"I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs
By the known rules of ancient liberty,
When straight a barbarous noise environs me
Of owls and cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs."
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