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THE PLAN. - John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 4 (Novanglus, Thoughts on Government, Defence of the Constitution) 
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 4.
Part of: The Works of John Adams, 10 vols.
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The rapidity with which events in 1775 were hastening a final separation between Great Britain and the Colonies, naturally suggested in many minds reflections upon the position in which the people of the latter might be placed after removing the foundation of all recognized authority. Mr. Adams, in his Autobiography, speaks of the discussions held upon government during that season, among the members of the Continental Congress. The following letter seems to have been an effort to embody the ideas then uppermost in the writer’s mind, made at the request of Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, to whom it was addressed.
The copy from which this is printed was taken from the original, a few years since, by John Quincy Adams. Other copies were, however, circulated in Virginia at a much earlier date, one of which, with a few variations, was transmitted to England, and found its way to Government. It was discovered by Mr. Sparks, in the State Paper Office, and was printed by him in the Appendix to the second volume of Washington’s Writings. As the earliest trace of the author’s plan of government, it seems proper to be inserted here.
TO RICHARD HENRY LEE.
Philadelphia, 15 November, 1775.
The course of events naturally turns the thoughts of gentlemen to the subjects of legislation and jurisprudence; and it is a curious problem, what form of government is most readily and easily adopted by a colony upon a sudden emergency. Nature and experience have already pointed out the solution of this problem, in the choice of conventions and committees of safety. Nothing is wanting, in addition to these, to make a complete government, but the appointment of magistrates for the due administration of justice.
Taking nature and experience for my guide, I have made the following sketch, which may be varied in any one particular an infinite number of ways, so as to accommodate it to the different genius, temper, principles, and even prejudices, of different people.
A legislative, an executive, and a judicial power comprehend the whole of what is meant and understood by government. It is by balancing each of these powers against the other two, that the efforts in human nature towards tyranny can alone be checked and restrained, and any degree of freedom preserved in the constitution.
Let a full and free representation of the people be chosen for a house of commons.
Let the house choose, by ballot, twelve, sixteen, twenty-four, or twenty-eight persons, either members of the house, or from the people at large, as the electors please, for a council.
Let the house and council, by joint ballot, choose a governor, annually, triennially, or septennially, as you will.
Let the governor, council, and house, be each a distinct and independent branch of the legislature, and have a negative on all laws.
Let the governor, secretary, treasurer, commissary, attorney-general, and solicitor-general, be chosen annually, by joint ballot of both houses.
Let the governor, with seven counsellors, be a quorum.
Let all officers and magistrates, civil and military, be nominated and appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of his council.
Let no officer be appointed but at a general council; and let notice be given to all the counsellors seven days, at least, before a general council.
Let the judges, at least of the supreme court, be incapacitated by law from holding any share in the legislative or executive power; let their commissions be during good behavior, and their salaries ascertained and established by law.
Let the governor have the command of the army, the militia, forts, &c.
Let the Colony have a seal, and affix it to all commissions.
In this way, a single month is sufficient, without the least convulsion, or even animosity, to accomplish a total revolution in the government of a colony. If it is thought more beneficial, a law may be made, by their new legislature, leaving to the people at large the privilege of choosing their governor and counsellors annually, as soon as affairs get into a more quiet course.
In adopting a plan in some respects similar to this, human nature would appear in its proper glory, asserting its own real dignity, pulling down tyrannies at a single exertion, and erecting such new fabrics as it thinks best calculated to promote its happiness.
As you were last evening polite enough to ask me for this model, if such a trifle will be of any service to you, or any gratification of curiosity, here you have it from, Sir,
Your friend and humble servant,
The PRESENT STATE
In a LETTER from a Gentleman
To his Friend.
Printed by John Dunlap.
“In the winter of 1776 there was much discussion in Congress concerning the necessity of independence, and advising the several States to institute governments for themselves under the immediate authority and original power of the people. Great difficulties occurred to many gentlemen in making a transition from the old governments to new, that is, from the royal to republican governments. In January, 1776, Mr. George Wythe, of Virginia, passing an evening with me, asked me what plan I would advise a colony to pursue, in order to get out of the old government and into a new one. I sketched in words a scheme, which he requested me to give him in writing. Accordingly, the next day, I delivered to him the following letter. He lent it to his colleague, Richard Henry Lee, who asked me to let him print it; to which I consented, provided he would suppress my name; for if that should appear, it would excite a continental clamor among the tories, that I was erecting a battering-ram to demolish the royal government and render independence indispensable.
“Quincy, 21 July, 1811.”
The copy of the pamphlet to which this notice was prefixed in writing on the fly-leaf, is now separated from it, and neither that nor any other has been discovered among the papers. Judge Cranch, when preparing his Memoir of Mr. Adams for the Columbian Institute at Washington, was unable to find it in print.
The first edition, making a duodecimo of twenty-eight pages, was printed in Philadelphia, by John Dunlap, and copies are yet preserved in that city. The Editor has seen not less than three in the City Library, an institution rich in the early pamphlets of the Revolution. It is not probable that many ever found their way to Massachusetts. Certainly, none are known to exist there at the present time. A reprint was made of it the same year, by John Gill, in Queen Street, Boston, a copy of which is now in the Library of the American Antiquarian Society, at Worcester. It makes sixteen pages, 12mo, of paper and print far inferior to the original edition. Since that period it has been repeatedly printed; upon one occasion it was attributed to Mr. Jefferson, but most frequently it has appeared in connection with notices of the life of the author.
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,
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 form?
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 Englishmen, 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 habit.
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.
2. A single assembly is apt to be avaricious, and in time will not scruple to exempt itself from burdens, which it will lay, without compunction, on its constituents.
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,
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 skilful 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 intrenching 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 NA to the sheriff,” &c., and be tested by the chief justice?
Why may not indictments conclude, “against the peace of the colony of NA and the dignity of the same?”
A constitution founded on these principles introduces knowledge 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:—
Copies of “Thoughts on Government” were sent by the author to many gentlemen with whom he had been in relations personal or political, and, among others, to Patrick Henry, of Virginia. The reply of Mr. Henry is on many accounts remarkable. It throws great light not only upon his own system at the commencement of the struggle, but upon the prevailing opinions of the time in the State to which he belonged.
TO JOHN ADAMS.
Williamsburgh, 20 May, 1776.
My Dear Sir,—
Your favor, with the pamphlet, came safe to hand. I am exceedingly obliged to you for it; and I am not without hopes it may produce good here, where there is among most of our opulent families a strong bias to aristocracy. I tell my friends you are the author. Upon that supposition, I have two reasons for liking the book. The sentiments are precisely the same I have long since taken up, and they come recommended by you. Go on, my dear friend, to assail the strongholds of tyranny; and in whatever form oppression may be found, may those talents and that firmness, which have achieved so much for America, be pointed against it.
Excuse me for telling you of what I think of immense importance; ’tis to anticipate the enemy at the French Court. The half of our Continent offered to France, may induce her to aid our destruction, which she certainly has the power to accomplish. I know the free trade with all the States would be more beneficial to her than any territorial possessions she might acquire. But pressed, allured, as she will be—but, above all, ignorant of the great thing we mean to offer may we not lose her? The consequence is dreadful.
Excuse me again. The confederacy;—that must precede an open declaration of independency and foreign alliances. Would it not be sufficient to confine it, for the present, to the objects of offensive and defensive nature, and a guaranty of the respective colonial rights? If a minute arrangement of things is attempted, such as equal representation, &c., &c., you may split and divide; certainly will delay the French alliance, which with me is every thing. The great force in San Domingo, Martinique, &c., is under the guidance of some person in high office. Will not the Mississippi lead your ambassadors thither most safely?
Our session will be very long, during which I cannot count upon one coadjutor of talents equal to the task. Would to God you and your Sam Adams were here! It shall be my incessant study, so to form our portrait of government, that a kindred with New England may be discerned in it; and if all your excellencies cannot be preserved, yet I hope to retain so much of the likeness, that posterity shall pronounce us descended from the same stock. I shall think perfection is obtained, if we have your approbation. I am forced to conclude; but first, let me beg to be presented to my ever-esteemed S. Adams. Adieu, my dear sir; may God preserve you, and give you every good thing.
P. Henry, Jr.
P.S.—Will you and S. A. now and then write?
In the month of January, 1776, the delegates of North Carolina were authorized by the colonial legislature, to apply to Mr. Adams for his views of the nature of the government it would be proper to form, in case of a final dissolution of the authority of the Crown. The following letter, addressed to Mr. John Penn, one of the number, was the reply. In many parts it is in the very words of the preceding pamphlet, whilst in others it so essentially amplifies the views, as to render its insertion necessary to the full comprehension of the system of the author.
No copy of this letter was retained by Mr. Adams. It was not printed until 1814, when Mr. John Taylor, of Caroline County, Virginia, to whom it had come from the hands of Mr. Penn, inserted it in his work, entitled “An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States,” from whence it is now taken.
TO JOHN PENN.
If I was possessed of abilities equal to the great task you have imposed upon me, which is to sketch out the outlines of a constitution for a colony, I should think myself the happiest of men in complying with your desire. Because, as politics is the art of securing human happiness, and the prosperity of societies depends upon the constitution of government under which they live, there cannot be a more agreeable employment to a benevolent mind than the study of the best kinds of government.
It has been the will of Heaven that we should be thrown into existence at a period when the greatest philosophers and lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live. A period when a coincidence of circumstances without example, has afforded to thirteen Colonies, at once, an opportunity of beginning government anew from the foundation, and building as they choose. How few of the human race have ever had any opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves and their children! How few have ever had any thing more of choice in government than in climate! These Colonies have now their election; and it is much to be wished that it may not prove to be like a prize in the hands of a man who has no heart to improve it.
In order to determine which is the best form of government, it is necessary to determine what is the end of government. And I suppose, that in this enlightened age, there will be no dispute, in speculation, that the happiness of the people, the great end of man, is the end of government; and, therefore, that form of government which will produce the greatest quantity of happiness is the best.
All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, divines, moralists, and philosophers, have agreed that the happiness of mankind, as well as the real dignity of human nature, consists in virtue; if there is a form of government whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every wise man acknowledge it more likely to promote the general happiness than any other?
Fear, which is said, by Montesquieu and other political writers, to be the foundation of some governments, is so sordid and brutal a passion, that it cannot possibly be called a principle, and will hardly be thought in America a proper basis of government.
Honor is a principle which ought to be sacred; but the Grecians and Romans, pagan as well as Christian, will inform us that honor, at most, is but a part of virtue, and therefore a feeble basis of government.
A man must be indifferent to sneer and ridicule, in some companies, to mention the names of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, Hoadly; for the lines of John Milton, in one of his sonnets, will bear an application, even in this country, upon some occasions:—
These great writers, however, will convince any man who has the fortitude to read them, that all good government is republican; that the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; for the true idea of a republic is an empire of laws, and not of men; and, therefore, as a republic is the best of governments, so that particular combination of power which is best contrived for a faithful execution of the laws, is the best of republics.
There is a great variety of republics, because the arrangements of the forms of society are capable of many variations.
As a good government is an empire of laws, the first question is, how shall the laws be made?
In a community consisting of large numbers, inhabiting an extensive country, it is not possible that the whole should assemble to make laws. The most natural substitute for an assembly of the whole, is a delegation of power from the many to a few of the most wise and virtuous. In the first place, then, establish rules for the choice of representatives; agree upon the number of persons who shall have the privilege of choosing one. As the representative assembly should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large, as it should think, feel, reason, and act like them, great care should be taken in the formation of it, to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections. That it may be the interest of this assembly to do equal right and strict justice, upon all occasions, it should be an equal representation of their constituents; or, in other words, equal interests among the people should have equal interests in the representative body.
That the representatives may often mix with their constituents, and frequently render them an account of their stewardship, elections ought to be frequent:—
These elections may be septennial or triennial; but, for my own part, I think they ought to be annual; for there is not in all science a maxim more infallible than this, where annual elections end, there slavery begins.
But all necessary regulations for the method of constituting this assembly may be better made in times of more quiet than the present, and they will suggest themselves naturally, when the powers of government shall be in the hands of the people’s friends. For the present, it will be safest to go on in the usual way.
But we have as yet advanced only one step in the formation of a government. Having obtained a representative assembly, what is to be done next? Shall we leave all the powers of government to this assembly? Shall they make, and execute, and interpret laws too? I answer, No; a people cannot be long free, and never can be happy, whose laws are made, executed, and interpreted by one assembly. My reasons for this opinion are these:—
A single assembly is liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual; subject to fits of humor, transports of passion, partialities of prejudice; and, from these and other causes, apt to make hasty results and absurd judgments; all which errors ought to be corrected, and inconveniences guarded against, by some controlling power.
A single assembly is apt to grow avaricious, and in time would not scruple to exempt itself from burdens, which it would lay upon its constituents without sympathy.
A single assembly will become ambitious, and after some time will vote itself perpetual. This was found in the case of the Long Parliament; but more remarkably in the case of Holland, whose assembly first voted that they should hold their seats for seven years, then for life, and after some time, that they would fill up vacancies as they should happen, without applying to their constituents at all.
The executive power cannot be well managed by a representative assembly for want of two essential qualities, secrecy and despatch.
Such an assembly is still less qualified to exercise the judicial power; because it is too numerous, too slow, and generally too little skilled in the laws.
But shall the whole legislative power be left in the hands of such an assembly? The three first, at least, of the foregoing reasons will show that the legislative power ought not to be wholly entrusted to one assembly.
Let the representative body, then, elect from among themselves, or their constituents, or both, a distinct assembly, which we will call a council. It may consist of any number you please, say, twenty or thirty. To this assembly should be given a free and independent exercise of its judgment upon all acts of legislation, that it may be able to check and arrest the errors of the other.
But there ought to be a third branch of the legislature; and wherever the executive power of the state is placed, there the third branch of the legislature ought to be found.
Let the two houses, then, by joint ballot, choose a governor. Let him be chosen annually. Divest him of most of those badges of slavery called prerogatives, and give him a negative upon the legislature. This, I know, is liable to some objections, to obviate which, you may make him in a legislative capacity only president of the council. But if he is annually elective, you need not scruple to give him a free and independent exercise of his judgment; for he will have so great an affection for the people, the representatives and council, that he would seldom exercise this right, except in cases the public utility of which would soon be manifest, 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 all obligations of allegiance; and when it has become necessary to assume governments for immediate security, the governor, lieutenant-governor, secretary, treasurer, and attorney-general, should be chosen by joint ballot of both houses.
The governor, by and with, and not without, the advice and consent of council, should appoint all judges, justices, and all other officers, civil and military, who should have commissions signed by the governor, and under the seal of the colony.
Sheriffs should be chosen by the freeholders of the counties. If you choose to have a government more popular, all officers may be chosen by one house of assembly, subject to the negative of the other.
The stability of government, in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every other blessing of society and social institutions, depend so much upon an able and impartial administration of justice, that the judicial power should be separated from the legislative and executive, and independent upon both; the judges should be men of experience in the laws, of exemplary morals, invincible patience, unruffled calmness, and indefatigable application; their minds should not be distracted with complicated, jarring interests; they should not be dependent on any man or body of men; they should lean to none, be subservient to none, nor more complaisant to one than another. To this end, 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.
If accused of misbehavior by the representative body before the governor and council, and if found guilty after having an opportunity to make their defence, they should be removed from their offices, and subjected to such other punishment as their offences deserve.
A rotation of offices in the legislative and executive departments has many advocates, and, if practicable, might have many good effects. A law may be made, that no man shall be governor, lieutenant-governor, secretary, treasurer, counsellor, or representative, more than three years at a time, nor be again eligible until after an interval of three years.
A constitution like this, of which the foregoing is a very imperfect plan, naturally introduces general knowledge into the community, and inspires the people with a conscious dignity becoming freemen. A general desire of reputation and importance among their neighbors, which cannot be obtained without some government of their passions, some good humor, good manners, and good morals, takes place in the minds of men, and naturally causes general virtue and civility. That pride which is introduced by such a government among the people, makes them brave and enterprising. That ambition which is introduced into every rank, makes them sober, industrious, and frugal. You will find among them some elegance, but more solidity; a little politeness, but a great deal of civility; some pleasure, but more business.
Let commissions run thus: “Colony of North Carolina to A. B. greeting,” &c., and be tested by the governor.
Let writs run: “The Colony of, &c., to the sheriff,” &c.
Let indictments conclude: “against the peace of the Colony of North Carolina, and the dignity of the same;” or if you please: “against the peace of the Thirteen United Colonies.”
We have heard much of a continental constitution; I see no occasion for any but a congress. Let that be made an equal and fair representative of the Colonies; and let its authority be confined to three cases,—war, trade, and controversies between colony and colony. If a confederation was formed, agreed on in Congress, and ratified by the assemblies, these Colonies, under such forms of government and such a confederation, would be unconquerable by all the monarchies of Europe.
This plan of a government for a colony, you see, is intended as a temporary expedient under the present pressure of affairs. The government once formed, and having settled its authority, will have leisure enough to make any alterations that time and experience may dictate. Particularly, a plan may be devised perhaps, and be thought expedient, for giving the choice of the governorto the people at large, and of the counsellors to the freeholders of the counties. But, be these things as they may, two things are indispensably to be adhered to,—one is, some regulation for securing forever an equitable choice of representatives; another is, the education of youth, both in literature and morals.
I wish, my dear sir, that I had time to think of these things more at leisure, and to write more correctly; but you must take these hints, rough as they run. Your own reflections, assisted by the patriots of North Carolina, will improve upon every part of them.
As you brought upon yourself the trouble of reading these crude thoughts, you can’t blame your friend,1
[1 ]A letter of the same description was addressed to Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, of New Jersey, in answer to a similar application, made at the time of the formation of the constitution in that State; but no copy has been found.