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John Adams argues that the British Empire is not a “true” empire but a form of a “republic” where the rule of law operates (1763)

John Adams, in Novanglus No. VII (1763), argues that because the British monarch was limited by the rule of law Britain was more like a republic than an empire. A true empire, he asserted, is a despotism bound by no law or limitation

[T]he British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men. If this definition be just, the British constitution is nothing more nor less than a republic, in which the king is first magistrate. This office being hereditary, and being possessed of such ample and splendid prerogatives, is no objection to the government’s being a republic, as long as it is bound by fixed laws, which the people have a voice in making, and a right to defend. An empire is a despotism, and an emperor a despot, bound by no law or limitation but his own will; it is a stretch of tyranny beyond absolute monarchy.

Here, again, we are to be conjured out of our senses by the magic in the words “British empire,” and “supreme power of the state.” But, however it may sound, I say we are not a part of the British empire; because the British government is not an empire. The governments of France, Spain, &c. are not empires, but monarchies, supposed to be governed by fixed fundamental laws, though not really. The British government is still less entitled to the style of an empire. It is a limited monarchy. If Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington knew what a republic was, the British constitution is much morelike a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men. If this definition be just, the British constitution is nothing more nor less than a republic, in which the king is first magistrate. This office being hereditary, and being possessed of such ample and splendid prerogatives, is no objection to the government’s being a republic, as long as it is bound by fixed laws, which the people have a voice in making, and a right to defend. An empire is a despotism, and an emperor a despot, bound by no law or limitation but his own will; it is a stretch of tyranny beyond absolute monarchy. For, although the will of an absolute monarch is law, yet his edicts must be registered by parliaments. Even this formality is not necessary in an empire. There the maxim is quod principi placuit legis habet rigorem, even without having that will and pleasure recorded. There are but three empires now in Europe, the German or Holy Roman, the Russian, and the Ottoman.

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This view of Adams seems to contradict what Adam Smith said about the common disjuncture between relative liberty in the metropole co-exisiting with “tyranny” in the colonies. It is an intriguing concept to see the monarch described as the first and “hereditary magistrate” in a nation governed by the rule of law. I don’t think jefferson would have agreed with him on this point.

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