Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO JAMES MADISON. - The Works of John Adams, vol. 10 (Letters 1811-1825, Indexes)
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TO JAMES MADISON. - John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 10 (Letters 1811-1825, Indexes) 
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. 10.
Part of: The Works of John Adams, 10 vols.
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TO JAMES MADISON.
Quincy, 22 April, 1817.
As I can make no apology for so long forgetting to return the volumes inclosed, I must, without qualification, beg your pardon. This work, though it bears the name of Condorcet alone, was understood to be written in concert between him and his great patron, the Duke de la Rochefoucauld, as well as the “New Haven,” and several other publications in favor of a government in one centre,—genuine disciples of M. Turgot. I was personally treated with great kindness by these three great and good men. But I lamented and deplored, notwithstanding their profound science and learning, what appeared to me their blind infatuation to a chimera. I shuddered at the prospect of what appeared to me inevitable consequences of their theory, of which they made no secret. I wondered the more at this, because the Abbé de Mably was their intimate friend, their social and convivial companion, whose writings were familiar to them.
The truth is, that none of these gentlemen had ever had any experience of a free government. It is equally true, that they had never deliberately thought, or freely spoken, or closely reasoned upon government, as it appears in history, as it is founded in nature, or as it has been represented by philosophers, priests, and politicians, who have written upon the subject. They have picked up scraps, but digested nothing. Condorcet’s Observations on the twenty-ninth book of the Spirit of Laws; Helvetius, too, in his Letters to Montesquieu, printed in Mr. Jefferson’s translation of Tracy; Condorcet’s Life of Turgot; his Progress of the Human Mind, and even Necker’s Executive Power, appear to me the most pedantical writings that ages have produced. Every one of these writers must be an original genius. He must discover something that no man had ever conceived before him. Genius with them is a more privileged order than ever existed among men.
Is not despotism the simplest of all imaginable governments? Is not oligarchy the next, aristocracy the third, and a simple democracy of twenty-five millions of men the fourth? All these are simple governments, with a vengeance. Erect a house of a cubic form, one hundred feet square at the base, without any division within into chambers, parlors, cellars, or garrets; would not this be the simplest house that ever was built? But would it be a commodious habitation for a family? It would accommodate nothing but a kennel of hunter’s hounds. These gentlemen all affect to be great admirers of nature. But where in nature do they find the models of their adored simplicity? Is it in the Mynheer Lyonnet dissections and microscopic observations on the willow caterpillar, in which he has found more veins and muscles and fibres than in the human body? No. The real wisdom, the genuine taste, the correct judgment consists in adapting necessary means to necessary ends. Here too much simplicity cannot be applied. I am not an implicit believer in the inspiration or infallibility of Montesquieu. On the contrary, it must be acknowledged, that some of these philosophers have detected many errors in his writings. But all their heads consolidated into one mighty head, would not equal the depth of his genius, or the extent of his views. Voltaire, alone, excels or equals him. When a writer on government despises, sneers, or argues against mixed governments, or a balance in government, he instantly proves himself an ideologian. To reason against a balance, because a perfect one cannot be composed or eternally preserved, is just as good sense as to reason against all morality, because no man has been perfectly virtuous. Not only Montesquieu, but the Abbé de Mably, who, some of them said, never wrote any thing but “choses communes en style commun,” might have taught them more sense, though he, too, indeed, was not always steady nor correct in his opinions. Scattered here and there, in his writings, are correct sentiments. Accidentally his Phocion is on my table. In the second conversation, pages 45 and 46, he says, “Plato censured monarchy, pure aristocracy, and popular government. The laws are not safe under these administrations, which leave too free a career to the passions. He dreaded the power of a prince, sole legislator, sole judge of justice and law. He was terrified, in aristocracy, with the pride and avarice of the grandees, who, believing that every thing is theirs, will sacrifice, without scruple, the interests of society to their private advantages. He shuddered, in democracy, at the caprices of a multitude, always blind, always extreme in their desires, and who will condemn to-morrow with fury that which they approve to-day with enthusiasm.” What is the security against these dangers? According to Plato, Phocion, and De Mably, “an able mixture of all these governments; the public power should be divided into different parts, capable of overawing, of balancing, and of reciprocally moderating each other.” In the Abbé’s own remarks upon this second conversation, page 204, he says, “all the ancient philosophers thought like Plato, and the most celebrated statesmen have always wished to establish in their cities a mixed policy, which, by confirming the empire of the laws over the magistrates, and the empire of magistrates over the citizens, should unite the advantages of the three ordinary governments, and have none of their vices,” &c. “To ask which is the best government, monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, is to ask what greater or lesser evils can be produced, by the passions of a prince, of a senate, or of a multitude. To ask whether a mixed government is better than any other, is to ask whether the passions are as wise, as just, and as moderate as the laws.”
The accidental discovery of your books in my library, and the name of Condorcet, have drawn my thoughts to a subject, which I had long since endeavored to forget, as wholly desperate. I fear, Sir, you will wish that I had feloniously appropriated your books to my own use, rather than have returned them with so impertinent a letter. I return them with thanks for the loan of them, and with thanks for your long, laborious, able, and successful services to your country.