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PREFACE BY THE EDITOR. - 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 constitution adopted by the State of Massachusetts, in 1780, did not go into operation without meeting serious obstacles in the first few years. The hostility entertained towards an independent executive head and a double legislative department had shown itself very decidedly in the convention,1 and it rather gained than lost strength, from the disturbed condition of things and the distress among the people immediately after the revolution. Complaints of the aristocratic character of the senate, of the governor’s salary, and of the courts, grew louder and louder until the year 1786, when they took the shape of armed resistance to the public authorities, threatening the entire overthrow of the government.
Simultaneously with this state of affairs in America, and growing out of them, discussions of the nature of government again came into vogue, both in England and France. Among other writers, Dr. Richard Price, who had all along viewed with the most lively interest the progress of the revolution, published at the close of the struggle a small tract entitled “Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution and the Means of making it a Benefit to the World,” embodying many useful suggestions and much good advice to the people of the United States. At the close of this pamphlet he added a letter which had been addressed to him, in 1778, by the celebrated philosopher and minister of France, M. Turgot, wherein among many strictures upon the civil institutions of America, he unequivocally and roundly condemns the whole theory of government which Mr. Adams had labored to sustain. Viewing it from a French position, in which the centralization of power has, under every change of form, even the most republican, been the leading idea, he attacks the state constitutions as slavishly borrowed from the system of the mother country, and advocates the collecting of all authority in one centre as the only true substitute. The passage relating to it is prefixed to this republication of Mr. Adams’s Defence, as well because it seems essential to a right understanding of the allusions constantly occurring to it in that work, as because it contains reflections upon other subjects which have not lost their interest even at this day. This letter was soon followed by a pamphlet written by the celebrated Mirabeau, reviewing the positions of Dr. Price and of M. Turgot, and particularly enforcing, in his declamatory style, the views of the latter respecting a simple and central government. These views were generally adopted by that school of philosophers which had risen into great influence at this time in France, and they were well known to be sustained by the high authority of Dr. Franklin, as well as of other distinguished men in America.
The occasion seemed to require a defence of the forms already adopted in some, though not in all of the states. Two of them had chosen to act upon the idea of a single source of legislative power, and others were known to be inclined to follow the example. The confederation had fallen into ruins, and projects were already in agitation for the reconstruction of the federal system. Mr. Adams, who was at the moment living in England, decided to come forward once more and fortify his position with both reasoning and authority. Such is the origin of this book, and the explanation of its title. It is a defence of the form of constitutions of the several states, and not, as some have imagined, of that of the United States, in which indeed the leading ideas are embodied, but which was not made until afterwards. Although from the day that the latter system went into successful operation it has been more and more throwing into the shade the state organizations, it must be apparent to every observer of the complex machine, that its favorable movement, in a great measure, depends upon the good condition of those less prominent parts. But this defence equally applies to the one and the other, being in its nature a generalization of ultimate principles, upon which that class of governments is founded which draw their powers from bases long established in all human, civilized society.
Viewed with the searching eye of criticism, the main defect of this book as a treatise appears to be its want of methodical treatment of the subject; a fault which is owing to the hasty manner in which it was prepared to meet a particular crisis, having been commenced on the fourth of October, 1786, and finished on the twenty-sixth of December of the next year. The author was always prompted to write by a sense of the necessity of immediate exertion, and, therefore, in this as in all other instances of his composition, he took too little care of the shape in which his thoughts were clothed.1 The pride of authorship never belonged to him, even to the degree to which it ought to belong to every man conscious of powers to contribute something to benefit his own generation. The editor had not advanced many pages in his work of revision of the many and glaring errors of the press, before he became impressed with the necessity of deciding a question lying deeper than these. The choice was before him, on the one hand, of implicitly following the text and the order of arrangement of the former editions, however obvious the disadvantage to a work of too much learning and profound reflection not to deserve placing in a better permanent form, or, on the other, of exercising within certain limits the liberty of revision and of correction. To give a single example: in the second volume, page 111, there occurs an obvious transposition of several pages of the text, the effect of which is to derange the regular order of dates, as given in Machiavel’s History of Florence, which the author steadily follows elsewhere, and to conclude with the first half of an account, the other portion of which had already been inserted out of any connection thirty pages earlier. Neither is there any reason to be seen in the substance of the story, for this violent change. There can be no cause for doubt that this was the result of an accidental misplacement of the sheets sent to the printer of the first edition, which has been faithfully transmitted to each succeeding one. So in regard to the numerous errors in dates and names, in French and Italian, as well in the translation, as in the original when placed in the notes; all these equally serve to show that if the work deserve to be retained at all, it imperatively requires to be freed from every minor imperfection. Conscious of the responsibility resting upon him for such a decision, the editor, after deliberate reflection, determined to enter upon a thorough revision. Hence it is that the original, unmeaning, and arbitrary division of the subject into letters addressed to a friend, has been made to give way to a more natural one of chapters, embracing the whole or a certain portion of some one topic. Passages, manifestly misplaced, have been brought together. Mistakes of the press have been corrected, and an elaborate comparison has been made of all the abridgments, translations, and quotations of passages to be found in other writers, with the originals, wherever these have been attainable. In all cases in which casual mistakes of the meaning have been made in the hurry of translation from languages with which the author did not become acquainted until late in life, corrections have been tacitly made; and the liberty has been sometimes taken of rearranging the members of a sentence too closely transferred from the Italian idiom, so as to free them from what in English appears unnatural inversion. More important errors sometimes occur, but these have been left to be pointed out in the notes. The changes thus made will prove to be considerable in number, yet, throughout, great care has been taken in no way to impair the meaning, or even to modify the original text of the author. It is obvious that with this notice, and with the original editions still in existence, and to be found in most public libraries, no room is left for a suspicion of surprise, either upon the reader or upon the public.
The remark has been made, that a careful collation with the original authorities has been attempted where practicable. But it should be added, that in some cases it has not been possible to obtain them. This is one of that class of works which, by reason of the deficiency of the libraries, could at no moment, even down to this time, have been written in America. Of the Italian historians referred to, several have been found only in the collection of books left by the author himself.
A few notes to the first volume have been found, a portion of them by the well-known Granville Sharp, and the others by Mr. Brand Hollis, with both of whom the author was in habits of intimacy when in England. Although not very material, they have been inserted with the initial of the writer attached.
The first volume was printed and published in octavo form, as a complete work, by C. Dilly, in London, in the year 1787. It was forthwith transmitted to the United States, where it arrived in the midst of the agitation caused by the assembling of the convention to form the federal constitution. An edition in duodecimo was immediately printed in Boston, another in New York, and another in Philadelphia, by Hall and Sellers, which was much circulated in the convention, and undoubtedly contributed somewhat to give a direction to the opinions of the members. Encouraged by the favorable reception of this volume, the author redoubled his efforts, and in the succeeding year brought out two additional ones. He would have done better had he allowed himself further time. But the French Revolution was impending, the federal constitution was struggling against popular opposition, and the public attention of all Europe was more than ever drawn to the examination of republican forms. The work was translated into French, with the omission of the Italian history, on the ground of the facility had by Europeans of access to the original authorities, and published at Paris, in two volumes, in 1792, together with some notes and observations by M. de la Croix. These notes do not appear to be such as to form an exception in favor of that writer from the sweeping condemnation passed upon his works by Lord Brougham.1 Not much time elapsed before another edition was published in London, by John Stockdale. This edition of 1794 is accompanied with an engraved head of the author, taken from Copley’s full-length picture, now in the possession of Harvard College. By the permission of that institution, an engraving of the entire picture has now for the first time been taken, and accompanies this volume. Lastly, William Cobbett published another edition in Philadelphia, in the year 1797. These are all the editions of the work which the editor has been enabled to discover, although, in some of the author’s later correspondence, he alludes to others. Sufficient has been shown to prove the existence of what must have been, considering its nature, regarded as a great demand. Neither has it been easy at any time since to obtain a perfect copy, without paying for it a full price.
Speculations upon government have gone out of vogue in the United States; partly by reason of a general satisfaction with the existing form of constitution, and a disposition to do nothing to disturb it; partly for another and more singular cause. In few countries, even those most despotically governed, can greater unwillingness prevail among educated men, to publish opinions on this subject, conflicting with received ideas. The experience of the author of the Defence furnished a memorable lesson of the danger incurred by a public man through an unreserved expression of his convictions, however honestly entertained. Written in a foreign country, without a thought of personal consequences, and solely to maintain a system recommended long before, the volumes, nevertheless, furnished, for many years after his return home, an unfailing armory, from which weapons to be used against him could be drawn at pleasure by the party in political opposition. Single passages, appearing to favor monarchy or an aristocracy, were torn from the context to prove that the writer was in his heart an enemy to liberty; whilst those which looked the other way, and exposed the defects of both, were overlooked or forgotten. These are the common practices of political warfare, and are only deserving of notice in this connection, on account of the effect they have had to destroy the independence of judgment indispensable to all effective scientific investigation. Upon a fair survey of the entire reasoning embodied in these volumes, it does not seem probable that the author intended to advocate the placing a greater share of power in the hands of his one executive head, than is now actually wielded by the President of the United States, with the exception of the restrictions held by the senate. So, likewise, the senate has probably proved to the full as conservative a body, in all its tendencies, as he designed to approve. The country, however, was just then emerging from an old into a new system, and was not prepared to weigh questions of science in very minute scales. The author was met with a storm of pamphlets and newspaper assaults, which pursued him as long as he remained in public life. Whether owing to this cause or not, the fact is certain, that no leading political man, since his day, has been known to express a serious doubt of the immaculate nature of the government established by the majority. The science has become reduced in America to a eulogy of the Constitution of the United States; and we are compelled to look abroad, to Sismondi, De Tocqueville, Lord Brougham, and other writers, who have studied on a broader scale, for the only philosophical examinations that are free from a bias seriously affecting their permanent value.
Very certainly this is not the spirit in which the Defence was written. Whether the opinions which it expresses prove to be sustained in the course of ages, by the experience of republican systems, or not, they were formed upon no immediate or narrow observation, but resulted from extensive generalization. As such, they must be regarded hereafter as the author’s contribution to science, upon which whatever may belong to him of name and fame must ultimately rest. It is not to be supposed that, in all the essential parts of the practical operation of a republican system in the United States, he has judged rightly. Thus far, some of his apprehensions of evil have proved to be without foundation, by reason of his not giving sufficient attention to the neutralizing forces which have been put in operation. But his deductions having been made from observations of the general laws regulating the action of mankind, during the whole period of recorded history, their ultimate soundness or unsoundness will only be established after a much longer term of trial of free institutions throughout the world than has yet been allowed them. It is matter of sufficient gratulation for the present generation, that the restraints recommended by the author, and generally adopted in the United States, have so far proved not inconsistent with the largest liberty, and have guaranteed to society the enjoyment of many of the substantial blessings that can be expected to flow from a well-ordered constitution.
EXTRACT OF A LETTER OF M. TURGOT TO DR. RICHARD PRICE.
Paris, 22 March, 1778.
But it appeared that you imputed to me the indiscretion of having flown in the face of the general opinion of my nation; and there I think you neither did justice to me nor to my nation, which is much more enlightened than is generally supposed among you, and in which perhaps it is easier than even with you, to call the public attention to ideas of reason. I judge so from the infatuation of the British in the prospect of conquering America, which continued until the adventure of Burgoyne made them, in some degree, open their eyes. I judge so from the system of monopoly and exclusion, which governs all your political writers upon commerce, except Mr. Adam Smith and Dean Tucker, a system which is the true prime cause of your separation from your colonies. I judge so from all your polemic writings upon questions which have been agitated for twenty years back, and in which, before yours appeared, I do not recollect to have read a single piece in which the true point in dispute has been rightly taken up. I have been unable to conceive how a nation which hath so successfully cultivated every branch of the natural sciences, can have continued so much beneath herself in the most interesting science of the whole, that of the public good; a science wherein the liberty of the press, which she alone enjoys, must have given her a mighty advantage over all the rest of Europe. Is it national pride which hath hindered you from making the utmost of that advantage? Is it because you were something better off than others, that you have turned all your speculations towards persuading yourselves that you were quite happy? Is it the spirit of party, and the wish to form self-support out of popular opinions, which hath retarded your progress by leading your politicians to treat as empty metaphysics all those speculations which tend to establish some fixed principles respecting the rights and true interests of individuals and of nations? How comes it to pass that you are almost the first among your writers who have given just notions of liberty, and who have exposed the falsehood of that threadbare sentiment of the greatest class of even the most republican writers, that liberty consists in being subject only to laws, as if a man oppressed by an unjust law was free? This would not be true, even if we suppose all the laws to be the work of the entire nation assembled; because, in fact, the individual has certain rights which the nation cannot take from him, but by violence, and an illegal use of force. Although you have had regard to this truth, and have explained yourself thereon, yet perhaps it merits your care to develop it more at large, considering the little attention which hath been paid to it by even the most zealous partisans of liberty.
It is also a strange thing that it should not be counted in England a trifling observation to say that one nation can never have a right to govern another; and that such a government could have no foundation but that of force, upon which also are supported robbery and tyranny. That the tyranny of a people is, of all known in the world, the most cruel and intolerable, leaving no remedy for the oppressed; whereas a single despot is at length stopped in his career by self-interest; he has the check of remorse, or that of public opinion; but a multitude makes no calculations, feels no remorse, and decrees to itself glory, when, in fact, it deserves the utmost disgrace.
Events are to the English nation a terrible commentary upon your book. For some months they have been falling headlong with accelerated rapidity. The knot is untied in regard to America. Lo! she is independent irrecoverably. Will she be free and happy? Will this new people, situated so advantageously to give the world the example of a constitution wherein man may enjoy all his rights, exercise freely his whole faculties, and be governed only by nature, by reason, and by justice, know how to form such a constitution—know how to fix it upon everlasting foundations, by guarding against all causes of division and corruption, which would sap it by degrees and overturn it?
I am not satisfied, I own, with any constitutions which have as yet been framed by the different American States. You blame with reason that of Pennsylvania, for exacting a religious test upon admission into the representative body. It is much worse in others. There is one of them, I think that of the Jerseys, which requires* . . . .
I see in the greatest number an unreasonable imitation of the usages of England. Instead of bringing all the authorities into one, that of the nation, they have established different bodies, a house of representatives, a council, a governor, because England has a house of commons, a house of lords, and a king. They undertake to balance these different authorities, as if the same equilibrium of powers which has been thought necessary to balance the enormous preponderance of royalty, could be of any use in republics, formed upon the equality of all the citizens; and as if every article which constitutes different bodies, was not a source of divisions. By striving to prevent imaginary dangers, they have created real ones. They wish to have nothing to fear from the clergy, and yet unite them under the barrier of a common proscription. By rendering them ineligible, they become formed into a body, and such a one as is foreign to the state. Why should one citizen, who has the same interest as others in the common defence of liberty and property, be excluded from contributing towards it his genius and virtues, because he is of a profession in which genius and virtue are essentials? The clergy are only dangerous when they compose a body in the state,—when they conceive themselves to have rights and interests as a body; or when it has been devised to have a religion established by law, as if men could have any right or any interest in regulating each other’s consciences; as if an individual could sacrifice to civil society those opinions on which he thinks his eternal salvation depends, or as if mankind were to be saved or damned by the lump. Wherever true toleration, that is to say, the absolute incompetency of government over the conscience of individuals, is established, there an ecclesiastic, when he is admitted into the national assembly, is but a citizen; when he is excluded from it, he becomes again an ecclesiastic.
I do not perceive that there has been sufficient care to reduce to the lowest possible number the kinds of business which the government of each state is to manage; or to separate the object of legislation from those of the general and from those of the particular and local assemblies, which, by performing all the functions of detail in government, may free the general assemblies from engaging therein, and so to take from the members of these latter all means, and, perhaps, all desire to abuse an authority, which would only be occupied about objects general in their nature, and, therefore, unconnected with the little passions which agitate mankind.
Nor do I perceive that due attention has been paid to the great distinction, and the only one founded in nature, between two classes of men. I mean those who are proprietors in lands and those who are not; to their interests, and, consequently, to their different rights, with respect to legislation, to the administration of justice and of the police, to the contribution for public expenses, and to their employments.
No fixed principle is established in regard to imposts. Each state is supposed to be at liberty to tax itself at pleasure, and to lay its taxes upon persons, consumptions, or importations, that is to say, to erect an interest contrary to that of the other states.
They suppose in all the states, that they have a right to regulate commerce. They even authorize the executive bodies or the governors to prohibit the exportation of certain products upon particular occasions; so far are they from seeing that the law of entire liberty of all commerce is a corollary of the right of property; so far are they still involved in the mists of European illusions.
In the general union of the states with one another, I do not see a coalition, a melting of all the parts together, so as to make the body one and homogeneous. It is only an aggregate of parts, always too separate, and which have a continual tendency to divide themselves, from the diversity of their laws, their manners, their opinions; from the inequality of their future progress. It is only a copy of the republic of Holland, and this had no occasion, like that of America, to dread the possible growth of any one of its provinces. This whole edifice has been supported, until now, upon the false basis of very ancient and very vulgar policy; upon the prejudice which nations, which provinces may have, concerning interests as a province or a nation, different from those which individuals have of being free, and defending their properties against robbers and conquerors;—a pretended interest in carrying on more commerce than others, not in buying merchandise of foreigners, but in forcing these to consume our productions and the works of our manufacturers; a pretended interest in having more extensive territory, in acquiring such and such a province, such and such an island, such and such a town; an interest in inspiring other nations with dread; an interest in excelling them in the glory of arms, or that of arts and sciences.
Each of these prejudices is cherished in Europe, because the ancient rivalry of nations and the ambition of princes obliges all states to be in arms, for defence against their armed neighbors, and to regard a military force as the principal object of government. Such is the good fortune of America, that she cannot have, for a long time, an external enemy to fear, if she does not become self-divided; therefore she may and ought to estimate at their true value those pretended interests, those grounds of discord, which are all that endanger her liberty. The sacred principle of freedom of commerce being considered as the necessary consequence of the right of property, all the pretended interests of trade vanish before it. The pretended interest of possessing more or less territory vanishes also, when the territory is justly considered as not belonging to nations, but to the individual proprietors of the soil; and when the question, whether such a canton or such a village ought to belong to such a province, or such a state, is not decided by the pretended interest of that province or that state, but by the interest which the inhabitants of the canton or village have in assembling themselves to transact their affairs in places the most convenient of access; when that interest, being measured by the length or shortness of the way which a man can go to manage his most important, without too much injury to his common concerns, becomes the natural and physical measure of the extent of the jurisdiction of states, and establishes throughout an equilibrium of extent and power, which annihilates all the danger of inequality, and all pretensions of superiority.
The interest of being dreaded becomes null, when we make no demands, and when we are in a situation not to be attacked, even by a considerable force, with any hope of success.
The glory of arms cannot compare with the felicity of living in peace. The glory of arts and sciences belongs to every one who has spirit to acquire it. There is a harvest of this kind abundantly sufficient for everybody; the field of discoveries cannot be overtilled, and all profit by the discoveries of all.
I imagine that the Americans have not felt these truths so strongly as they ought to be felt by them, for the security of the happiness of their posterity. I blame not their leaders. There was a necessity of providing against the exigencies of the moment, by some sort of union, against an enemy actually present and formidable; there was not time to correct the defects in constitutions, or in the models of the different states. But there should be a dread of perpetuating them, and an application to the means of uniting opinions and interests, and of reducing them to uniform principles throughout all the states.
[1 ]The clergy partook strongly of the feeling at this time. See the Memoir of Dr. Thacher, in Mass. Hist. Society Collections, vol. viii. p. 281.
[1 ]“These letters have been produced upon the spur of a particular occasion, which made it necessary to write and publish with precipitation, or it might have been useless to have published at all. The whole have been done in the midst of other occupations, in so much hurry, that scarce a moment could be spared to correct the style, adjust the method, pare off excrescences, or even obliterate repetition; in all which respects it stands in need of an apology.”
[1 ]Political Philosophy, vol. iii. pp. 322, 340.
[* ](Note by Dr. Price.) “It is the constitution of Delaware that imposes the test here meant.”