John Adams on how absolute power intoxicates those who excercise that power (1814)

John Adams

John Adams (1735-1826) was prompted by John Taylor’s book An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (1814) to defend his idea of democracy:

You say, sir, that I have gravely counted up several victims “of popular rage, as proofs that democracy is more pernicious than monarchy or aristocracy.” This is not my doctrine, Mr. Taylor. My opinion is, and always has been, that absolute power intoxicates alike despots, monarchs, aristocrats, and democrats, and jacobins, and sans culottes. I cannot say that democracy has been more pernicious, on the whole, than any of the others. Its atrocities have been more transient; those of the others have been more permanent. The history of all ages shows that the caprice, cruelties, and horrors of democracy have soon disgusted, alarmed, and terrified themselves. They soon cry, “this will not do; we have gone too far! We are all in the wrong! We are none of us safe! We must unite in some clever fellow, who can protect us all,—Cæsar, Bonaparte, who you will! Though we distrust, hate, and abhor them all; yet we must submit to one or another of them, stand by him, cry him up to the skies, and swear that he is the greatest, best, and finest man that ever lived!”

John Adams was stung by criticism from John Taylor that he had argued that democracy was more “pernicious” than other forms of government such as monarchy. He takes pains to defend democracy which he does in very strong terms concluding that “Democracy must be respected; democracy must be honored; democracy must be cherished; democracy must be an essential, an integral part of the sovereignty.” Yet he is also aware that democracies, like all forms of government, can result in abuses of political power. In making this point Adams comes up with a formulation which equals the famous one by Lord Acton that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In Adams phrasing of the problem of power he states “My opinion is, and always has been, that absolute power intoxicates alike despots, monarchs, aristocrats, and democrats”.