Front Page Titles (by Subject) EDITOR'S PREFACE. - The Works of John Adams, vol. 6 (Defence of the Constitutions Vol. III cont'd, Davila, Essays on the Constitution)
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EDITOR’S PREFACE. - John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 6 (Defence of the Constitutions Vol. III cont’d, Davila, Essays on 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. 6.
Part of: The Works of John Adams, 10 vols.
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The four following letters were collected in 1802, and published in Boston, in a small pamphlet of thirty-two pages, with a title-page and advertisement by an unknown hand, which are here retained. They are all included in this work, as well because they form a part of the published opinions on government of John Adams, as because they show the nature of the difference of sentiment that existed between him and his friend and namesake. This difference is more or less perceptible in the action of the two, from the date of the formation of the Constitution of Massachusetts to the end of their career. Yet it must be after all conceded that it here makes itself felt rather than understood. A few words seem necessary, in order to place it in a clear light before the reader.
The real point of division appears to rest in the views taken of sovereignty. Samuel Adams, by confounding the right, conceded always to belong to a people, of changing or overturning an existing form of civil government, with that more limited one reserved und the form itself, of changing the administering officers, has the air of supposing both equally to mean an ever-present, unlimited, and absolute control of the majority in which the sovereignty resides. Hence it is, that all elective officers, from the highest to the lowest, are considered as holding only “delegated” powers, subject to the direction or control of their principals, whenever these choose to signify their wishes; and the form of government is made equivalent to a qualified democracy. This view has been always entertained by numbers in the United States, and is probably gaining, rather than losing ground, with the passage of time.
John Adams, on his side, whilst equally ready to admit the right of revolution, considers the adoption of any mixed form known in America as at once limiting the exercise of the popular sovereignty within a few specified channels. Hence his definition of a republic, as “a government in which the people have collectively, or by representation, an essential share in the sovereignty;” whilst his friend contends that they retain it all. It follows, from the former idea, that the officers constituted to administer the system, are not indiscriminately regarded as representatives, solely because they are elected by the people, and not at all as mere delegates to do their will.1 A wide distinction is preserved by him between an executive chief and a senate, in whom certain defined powers are vested for a term of years, and vested absolutely, subject only to penalties for abuse, and a house of representatives possessing the essence of the legislative or organic power, in which sovereignty is maintained to exist,1 and intended, by the frequent recurrence of elections, to reflect accurately the will of the majority of numbers. There can be no doubt, that John Adams regarded the constitution of the United States as forming a government more properly to be classed among monarchical than among democratic republics, an idea, suggested at the outset by Patrick Henry in America, and by Godwin in England, which has reappeared in some essays of late years. And the truth or falsity of this construction cannot be said, by any means, to be established by the mere half century’s experience yet had of the system. For, although in practice the action of the chief magistrate has thus far conformed with tolerable steadiness to the popular wishes, this does not seem to have arisen from any power retained by the people to prevent him, had he inclined otherwise, so much as from the moderate desires of the men who have been elected to the post. It is a remark of M. de Tocqueville, respecting the United States, that there are multitudes who have a limited ambition, but none who cherish one on a very great scale. This may be true now, in the infancy of the country, and yet time may finally bring it under the influence of the general law of human experience elsewhere. Assuming the main check which existed for forty years, the chance of reelection, to be definitively laid aside, it is not easy to put the finger upon any clause of the constitution which can prevent an evil-disposed president for four years from using the powers vested in him in what way he pleases, without regard to the people’s wishes at all. Indeed, it is possible to go a step further, and to venture a doubt whether an adequate restraint can be found against the corrupt as well as despotic use of his authority,—the sale of his patronage, as well as the perversion of his policy. The only tangible remedy,—that by impeachment,—is obviously insufficient, from the absence of all motive to wield a ponderous system of investigation after the offender has lost his power, and when he is no longer of consequence to the state. Of the sluggish nature of this process, experience in cases of inferior magnitude has already furnished enough proof. The evidence necessary to convict an offender would not be likely to accumulate until a large part of his four years of service had expired; and the remainder would probably elapse before it could be obtained. Then would come the election of a successor, with a system in no wise responsible for that which preceded it, and around which new interests would immediately concentrate. What probability is there of the ultimate infliction upon the guilty man, now become a private individual, removed from observation, of any penalty adequate to his crime? But if this reasoning, as to the absence of responsibility, be only partially true, it becomes perfectly plain that, at least in the case of a president confining himself to the use of his legitimate powers in office, however unpalatable that may be, there can be little of sovereignty exercised by the people during his term, or of punishment inflicted afterwards.
The same course of remark may be applied, though with modified force, to the senate. In its original conception, it cannot be regarded as having been strictly a representative body, or subject to much restraint of the popular will. It is indeed true that the course of things has introduced modifications which render it somewhat sensitive to the condition of public opinion. But the cause is to be found in the aspirations of its members to higher distinction than is given by a place in that assembly, and not in the constitution of the body itself. If we could suppose that no individual had any other object in view than to serve out his six years of public life, it is not easy to see any hold the popular sovereignty has retained upon the senate, which would prevent them from acting precisely as they chose. So strongly has this been felt in practice already, that an effort has been made, attended with partial success, to introduce a point of honor, as a counterpoise to the constitutional provision. But the scrupulous senator who resigns his post, because he will not obey the popular voice which instructs him to do what he disapproves, follows a law which is nowhere to be found laid down for him in the constitution. He could not have been held to any legal or moral responsibility, had he chosen to remain where he was for the rest of his term, and defied the instructing power.
That such were the notions of the limitation of the popular sovereignty entertained by John Adams, there can be no doubt; for they are still further illustrated in a series of three letters, written in 1789, to Roger Sherman of Connecticut, which have not before seen the light. For the sake of completing his own exposition of his system, they are appended to the following correspondence. In these papers, the provisions inserted by him in the constitution of Massachusetts, which were stricken out in the convention, are more particularly defended. They will be found to contain a curious commentary upon the federal constitution, written at the moment of its formation, and a singular mixture of accuracy and error thus far in the predictions made of its operation.
[1 ]Representation of itself limits the popular sovereignty. Some observations on this subject have been already made in a note to volume iv. of this work, pp. 324-326.
[1 ]For a confirmation of this view, look back to page 322 of this volume, in the Discourses on Davila, written at the same time with these letters. Also to page 430, in the first letter to Roger Sherman.