Thoughts on Government from John Adams

John Adams was a major proponent of independence from Great Britain. In April 1776, he wrote a letter to two of North Carolina’s delegates to the First Continental Congress. They had asked Adams if he would help defining the government for North Carolina. We now know this letter as Adams’ “Thoughts on Government” The entire letter is available here. The letter provides insights not just into how Adams felt, but into how many of the Founding Fathers thought and the types of issues they confronted in laying the foundation for the American Republic.

Adams’ Thoughts on Government provides a short statement of what type of government the American people should have. As such, it is a good starting point for exploring the formation of the American Republic. Today, it is commonplace to accept “new” ideas and reject that which is “too old.” Many see the ideas of the Founding Fathers as outdated. Perhaps the biggest irony of that is that the “new” ideas proposed to replace the “old” ones often have just as long an intellectual history. Nevertheless, before rejecting the principles of the Founding Fathers, we should first seek to understand them.

John Adams was born in 1735 in Massachusetts. Adams attended Harvard College, completing Bachelors and Masters degrees. He practiced law in Massachusetts, and had a long career of public service. He served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, a judge, in diplomatic posts to England and the Netherlands. After ratification of the Constitution, Adams served as the first Vice President of the United States, under George Washington. Finally, Adams succeeded Washington, becoming the second President of the United States.

Politics is Important

Adams writes that

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.

While many today look at politics as a dark and unpleasant topic, this was not the way Adams saw it. Instead of being something dismal, he writes that it is “the science of social happiness.” Remembering this generally positive view of politics is important to understanding what Adams means in the rest of the letter.

The Form of Government Matters

Adams begins his discussion of the best government by criticizing the poet Alexander Pope. Pope had suggested that the form of government does not matter. For Pope, the only thing that matters is how well administered the government is. Adams snaps back:

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.

Purpose of Government

What form of government does Adams think is best? To answer that, we must first know the purpose of government. For Adams, “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.” Adams continues:

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, Mohamet, 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 form?

Virtue is the proper foundation for government, then. It is not the most common foundation for governments, though. Adams writes that “[f]ear is the foundation of most governments.” Fear, though, 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.

If not, fear, what must be the foundation of good government? Adams suggests that

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.

The Proper Form of Government

With virtue as the principle of government, Adams needs to consider the proper form of government. In 1776, when Adams was writing his letter, certain English authors were unpopular with English proponents of monarchy. Despite this, Adams argues that certain Englishmen have something valuable to offer in understanding what government is best.

A man must be indifferent to the sneers of modern Englishmen to mention in their company the names of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, and Hoadley. 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.

So, for Adams and the Founding Fathers as a group, a republic is the ideal form of government. This is because they saw republican government as both suited to and dependent upon a virtuous population. Other articles will delve more into republican government and, for example, how a republic differs from a democracy. For now, though, let’s consider some of the characteristics of republican government that Adams noted in his Thoughts on Government.

Republican Government

A republican government is suited to a virtuous community. In Thoughts on Government, Adams does not explore what he means by “virtue,” so we will not delve deeply into that here. When Adams says virtue, however, he is referring to things like civic engagement by the citizens and a general moral goodness of the members of the community.

Quoting James Harrington’s Oceana, Adams notes that a republic is “an empire of laws, and not of men.” Rule of law is the second key concept of republican government. When he notes that a republic is an empire of laws, not men, he is saying that laws are made not by the arbitrary decisions of a monarch who is above the law. Instead, laws are made through a predictable process by people subject to them.

Adams observes that it is impractical in a large community to have everyone gather together together in an Assembly to make laws. We must create an Assembly in which the people send representatives, so the the Assembly is a manageable size.

There is one more thing that Adams notes as an important characteristic of a republic. The system of government must define and clearly define and separate the Legislative, executive, and judicial powers. Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, highlighted separation of powers. While the Founding Fathers certainly knew about Montesquieu’s work, the concept of separation of powers as essential to good government, actually has a much longer history. Separation of powers is a key element of republican government.

Adams writes:

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 long be free, nor ever happy, whose government is in one assembly.

Adams notes the dangers of one body controlling all power. Power divided among different branches of government, however, has built in checks to help protect the liberty of the people. Adams notes a lot of specific reasons for why one Assembly should not have all of the governmental power. A few of these are

  • A single Assembly might be persuaded by “fits of [humor], starts of passion, flights of enthusiasm, partialities of prejudice, and consequently productive of hasty results and absurd judgments”
  • A single Assembly may exempt itself from the burdens placed on other members of the community. In other words, it may make laws that apply to everyone except its own members.
  • An Assembly may be suitable for legislative purposes, but lacks “secrecy and dispatch” needed for the executive.
  • An Assembly cannot exercise judicial power well. A legislative assembly is too large, and may have many members not skilled in the Law.
  • Legislative power should not be concentrated in one Assembly. Instead it should be divided into two, deliberately complicating the legislative process to protect essential liberty.

As we confront political issues today, we would be well advised to keep in mind the issues raised by John Adams’ Thoughts on Government.