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John Adams to William Stephens Smith

21 Dec. 1786

My dear Sir, Grosvenor-square, Dec. 21, 1786.

According to Mr. Turgot’s idea of a perfect commonwealth, a single assembly is to be possessed of all authority, legislative, executive, and judicial. It will be a proper conclusion of all our speculations upon this, the most interesting subject which can employ the thoughts of men, to consider in what manner such an assembly will conduct its deliberations, and exert its power. The executive power is properly the government; the laws are a dead letter until an administration begins to carry them into execution. Let us begin then with this. If there is an army to raise, this single assembly is to appoint all its officers. The man of the most ample fortune, the most honourable descent, the greatest abilities, especially if there is any one among them who has had experience, rendered important services, and acquired fame in war, will be chosen general. This event is a great point gained by the aristocracy; and a great advance towards the selection of one, in case of convulsions and confusions, for monarchy. The general has vast influence, of course, with the whole nation, and especially with the officers of his army; whose articles of war, and whose habits, both of obedience and command, establish a system of subordination of which he is the center, and produce an attachment that never wears out. The general, even without being sensible of it, will naturally fall in with the views of the aristocratical body, in promoting men of family, property, and abilities; and indeed, in general, it will be his duty to do this, as such are undoubtedly, in general, the fittest for the service: his whole corps of officers will grow habitually to respect such only, or at least chiefly; and it must be added, because experience proves it, and the truth requires it to be mentioned, to entertain some degree of contempt for the rest of the people, as “rank and file.” The general’s recommendation will have great weight in the assembly, and will in time be given chiefly, if not wholly, to men who are either of the aristocratical body themselves, or at least recommended by such as are so. All the other officers of the army are to be appointed by this assembly; and we must suppose that all the general officers and field officers will be of patrician families, because each candidate will be unknown to nine-tenths of the assembly. He comes from a part of the state which a vast majority of the members of the assembly do not particularly represent, and are unacquainted with; they must therefore take his character upon trust from his patron in the house, some member who is his neighbour, and who perhaps owes his election to him or his particular friends.—Here is an endless source of debate and delay. When there are two or more candidates for a commission, and there will generally be several, how shall an assembly of five hundred or one hundred men, collected from all the most distant parts of a large state, become informed of the merits and pretensions of each candidate? It can only be done in public or in private. If in public, it exposes the characters of the candidates to a public discussion, which few men can bear; it consumes time without end; and it will frequently happen, that the time of the whole assembly shall be wasted, and all the public affairs delayed, for days and weeks, in deliberating and debating, affirming and denying, contradicting and proving, in the appointment of a single officer; and, after all, he who has friends of the most influence in the house, who will be generally of the aristocratical complexion, will be preferred. It is moderate to say that the loss of time and delay of business will be a greater burthen to the state than the whole support of a governor and council. If there is a navy, the same process must be gone through respecting admirals, captains, and all other officers. All the officers of revenue, police, justice, must be appointed in the same way. Ambassadors, consuls, agents to foreign countries, must be appointed too by vote of assembly.—This branch of business alone would fill up the whole year, and be more than could be done. An assembly must be informed before it can act. The understanding and conscience of every member should be clearly satisfied before he can vote. Information is to be had only by debate, and examination of evidence. Any man may see that this must be attended with difficulty; but no man, who has not seen the inside of such an assembly, can conceive the confusion, uncertainty, and procrastination of such proceedings. The American provincial congresses had experience enough of this; and gentlemen were more convinced by what they there saw, heard, and felt, of the necessity of three branches, than they would have been by reasoning or reading; it was generally agreed, that the appointment of officers by lot would have been a more rational method.—But this is not all: the army, the navy, revenue, excise, customs, police, justice, and all foreign ministers, must be gentlemen, that is to say, friends and connections of the rich, well-born and well-educated members of the house; or, if they are not, the community will be filled with slander, suspicion, and ridicule against them, as ill-bred, ignorant, and in all respects unqualified for their trusts; and the plebeians themselves will be as ready as any to join in the cry, and run down their characters. In the second place, there never was yet a people who must not have somebody or something to represent the dignity of the state, the majesty of the people, call it what you will—a doge, an avoyer, an archon, a president, a consul, a syndic; this becomes at once an object of ambition and dispute, and, in time, of division, faction, sedition, and rebellion.—The next enquiry is, concerning the administration of justice. Shall every criminal be brought before this assembly and tried? Shall he be there accused before five hundred men? witnesses introduced, counsel heard? This again would take up more than the whole year; and no man, after all, would consider his life, liberty, or property, safe in such a tribunal. These all depend upon the disquisitions of the counsel, the knowledge of the law in the judges, the confrontation of parties and witnesses, the forms of proceedings, by which the facts and the law are fairly stated before the jury for their decision, the rules of evidence, by which the attention of the jury is confined to proper points, and the artifices of parties and counsel avoided. An assembly of five hundred men are totally incapable of this order, as well as knowledge; for, as the vote of the majority must determine, every member must be capable, or all is uncertain: besides, it is the unanimity of the jury that preserves the rights of mankind—must the whole five hundred be unanimous?—Will it be said that the assembly shall appoint committees to try causes? But who are to make these appointments? Will not a few haughty palatines in the assembly have influence enough to determine the election in favour of their friends? and will not this make the judges the tools of a party? If the leaders are divided into parties, will not one prevail at one year, and another the next? and will not this introduce the most wretched of servitudes, an uncertain jurisprudence? Will it be said that the assembly shall appoint committees for the nomination of officers? The same intrigues, and greater struggles, would be introduced for the place of a committee-man; and there would be frequent appeals from those committees to the body that appointed them. Shall the assembly appoint a governor or president, and give him all the executive power? Why should not the people at large appoint him? Giving this power to the assembly will open a wider door to intrigue for the place; and the aristocratical families will be sure, nine times in ten, to carry their choice in this way; and, what is much worse, the first magistrate will be considered as dependent on every obscure member of the house, but in reality he will be dependent only on a dozen or a score, perhaps on two or three, of the whole. He will be liable to daily motions, debates, and votes of censure. Instead of thinking of his duty to the people at large, he will confine his attention chiefly to the assembly, and believe, that if he can satisfy them, or a majority of them, he has done his duty. After all, any of these devices are only changing words; they are, in reality, erecting different orders of men, and aiming at balances, as much as the system which so much displeases Mr. Turgot; they are introducing, in effect, all the inequalities and disputes that he so greatly apprehends, without any of that security to the laws which ought to be the principal object; they render the executive power, which is in truth the government, the instrument of a few grandees. If these are capable of a combination with each other, they will seldom disagree in their opinion, which is the richest man and of the first family; and, as these will be all their enquiries, they will generally carry their election: if they are divided, in constant wrangles with each other, and perpetual attacks upon the president about the discharge of his functions, they will keep the nation anxious and irritated, with controversies which can never be decided nor ended. If they agree, and the plebeians still carry the vote against them, the choice will nevertheless probably fall upon one of their number, who will be disposed to favour them too much; but if it falls upon a plebeian, there commences at once a series of contests between the rich and the poor, which will never end but in the ruin of the popular power and the national liberty—or at least in a revolution and a new constitution. As the executive power, the essence of government, is ever odious to popular envy and jealousy, it will ever be in the power of a few illustrious and wealthy citizens to excite clamours and uneasiness, if not commotions and seditions, against it. Although it is the natural friend of the people, and the only defence which they or their representatives can have against the avarice and ambition of the rich and distinguished citizens, yet such is their thought less simplicity, they are ever ready to believe that the evils they feel are brought upon them by the executive power. How easy is it then for a few artful men, among the aristocratical body, to make a president, thus appointed and supported, unpopular, though he conducts himself with all the integrity and ability which his office requires?

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? The convention has published its code, and is no more. Shall a new convention be called, to determine every question which arises concerning a violation of the constitution? This would require that the convention should sit whenever the assembly sits, and consider and determine every question which is agitated in it. This is the very thing we contend for, viz. that there may be two assemblies; one to divide, and the other to choose. Grant me this, and I am satisfied, provided you will confine both the convention and assembly to legislation, and give the whole executive power to another body. I had almost ventured to propose a third assembly for the executive power; but the unity, the secrecy, the dispatch of one man, has no equal; and the executive power should be watched by all men; the attention of the whole nation should be fixed upon one point, and the blame and censure, as well as the impeachments and vengeance for abuses of this power, should be directed solely to the ministers of one man.—But to pursue our single assembly. The first year, or the first seven years, they may be moderate; especially in dangerous times, and while an exiled royal family, or exiled patricians or nobles, are living, and may return; or while the people’s passions are alive, and their attention awake, from the fresh remembrance of danger and distress: but when these transitory causes pass away, as there is an affection and confidence between the people and their representatives, suppose the latter begin to make distinctions, by making exceptions of themselves in the laws?—They may frank letters; they are exempted from arrests; they can privilege servants—One little distinction after another, in time makes up a large sum. Some few of the people will complain; but the majority, loving their representatives, will acquiesce. Presently they are exempted from taxes. Then their duration is too short; from annual they become biennial, triennial, septennial, for life; and at length, instead of applying to constituents to fill up vacancies, the assembly takes it upon itself, or gives it to their president. In the mean time, wars are conducted by heroes to triumph and conquest, negotiations are carried on with success, commerce flourishes, the nation is prosperous;—the citizens are flattered, vain, proud of their felicity, envied by others: it would be the basest, the most odious ingratitude, at least it would be so represented, to find fault with their rulers. In a word, as long as half a score of capital characters agree, they will gradually form the house and the nation into a system of subordination and dependence to themselves, and govern all at their discretion—a simple aristocracy or oligarchy in effect, though a simple democracy in name: but, as every one of these is emulous of others, and more than one of them is constantly tormented with a desire to be the first, they will soon disagree; and then the house and the nation gradually divides itself into four parties, one of which at least will wish for monarchy, another for aristocracy, a third for democracy, and a fourth for various mixtures of them; and these parties can never come to a decision but by a struggle, or by the sword. There is no remedy for this, but in a convention of deputies from all parts of the state: but an equal convention can hardly be obtained, except in times like those we have lately seen, when the danger could only be warded off by the aid and exertions of the whole body of the people: when no such danger from without shall press, those who are proud of their wealth, blood, or wit, will never give way to fair and equal establishments. All parties will be afraid of calling a convention; but if it must be agreed to, the aristocratical party will push their influence, and obtain elections even into the conventions for themselves and their friends, so as to carry points there, which perhaps they could not have carried in the assembly.

But shall the people at large elect a governor and council annually to manage the executive power, and a single assembly to have the whole legislative? In this case, the executive power, instead of being independent, will be the instrument of a few leading members of the house; because the executive power, being an object of jealousy and envy to the people, and the legislative an object of their confidence and affection, the latter will always be able to render the former unpopular, and undermine its influence.— But if the people for a time support an executive disagreeable to the leaders in the legislative, the constitution will be disregarded, and the nation will be divided between the two bodies, and each must at last have an army to decide the question. A constitution consisting of an executive in one single assembly, and a legislative in another, is already composed of two armies in battle array; and nothing is wanting, but the word of command, to begin the combat.

In the present state of society and manners in America, with a people living chiefly by agriculture, in small numbers, sprinkled over large tracts of land, they are not subject to those panics and transports, those contagions of madness and folly, which are seen in countries where large numbers live in small places, in daily fear of perishing for want: we know, therefore, that the people can live and increase under almost any kind of government, or without any government at all. 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. All nations, under all governments, must have parties; the great secret is to controul them: there are but two ways, either by a monarchy and standing army, or by a balance in the constitution. Where the people have a voice, and there is no balance, there will be everlasting fluctuations, revolutions, and horrors, until a standing army, with a general at its head, commands the peace, or the necessity of an equilibrium is made appear to all, and is adopted by all.

I am, / My dear Sir, / With much esteem and affection, / Yours,

John Adams.

Internal address: “William Stephens Smith, Esq.”

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