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Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Essay "Thoughts on Government" by John Adams concerning republican governments [draft]
Adams, John, 1735-1826
March 1776
Volume 11, Pages 321-327

[From Executive Letter Book]

John Adam's Thoughts on Government.

The subject on which you was pleased to request my sentiments is of infinite importance to mankind. Politics is the science of

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Human Happiness and the felicity of societies depends entirely on the Constitutions of Government under which they live. That famous couplet of a very great poet,

“For forms of government let fools contest
That best administered is best”

shows him to have been less attentive to the political and civil part of History, than the poetical. He must have read and studied for fanciful images, not social institutions, because the rectitude of administration depends upon the form, some species of government being always well administered, others never.

If you can determine what form of government will produce the greatest amount of human happiness you will at once decide which is best, this being the only criterion. If you determine what the dignity of human nature and the happiness of mankind consist in, you will decide what is that produces the greatest quantity of happiness. Divine, Moralist, philosophers and men of pleasure, all agree that it consist in Virtue. If there is a form of government therefore whose principle or foundation is Virtue, will not all these kinds of men acknowledge it to be better calculated to promote the general happiness than another the principle of which is Fear or even honor. I hold the principle of honor sacred—but am not ashamed to confess myself so much of Grecian or Roman, if not of a christian as to think the Principle of Virtue of higher rank in the scale of moral Excellence than Honor. Indeed Honor is but a part, a very small Part of Virtue. As to Fear it is so base and brutal a passion, that it don't deserve the name of a Principle and I think no gentleman of this Age and Country will think it a Foundation of Government proper for Americans. The spirit of the People among whom I had my Birth and Education, which you know very well, was always republican, altho' they never enjoyed a Constitution of Government conformable to that Spirit as the whole of the Executive, with an enormous prerogative, as well as two Branches of their legislative, and the whole of their judicial Power, were always in the hands of the Crown. It was wholly owing to the Constitution of their Towns. which were small Districts incorporated by an early Law, and vested powers to assemble frequently, deliberate, debate and act, upon many Affairs, together with the establishment of Grammar Schools in every one of those Towns, that such a spirit was preserved, at all among the people.

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In my early youth, the Works of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham Neville, Burnet, Headly, were put into my hands and the miserable Situation of our Country, for fifteen Years past, has frequently reminded me of their Principles and Reasonings. They have convinced me that there is no good government but what is Republican. The British Constitutions itself is Republican, for I know of no better Definition of a Republic than this, that it is an Empire of Laws and not of men: and therefore as I look upon Republics to be the best Governments so I think, that particular Form of Government, or in other words, that particular Arrangement and Combination of the Powers of Society, which is best calculated to secure an exact and impartial Execution of the Laws, is the best Republic.

Of Republics there is an infinite Variety, because the arrangements of the Powers of Society are capable of innumerable Diversifications.

Now Sir, as good Government, is an Empire of Laws, the first question is, how shall your Laws be made?

In a Society or Community consisting of any considerable number of People, inhabiting any considerable Extent of Territory, it is impossible, that the whole Body should assemble, for the Purpose of making Laws. They would be too numerous. They could not afford the Time or Expense. The first Step to be taken then, is to depute Power from the many to a few of the most wise and virtuous. But by what rules shall you choose your Representatives? Agree, upon the number of Persons, who shall have the Benefit of choosing one, or agree upon the Quantity of Property, which shall be instituted to one, or agree upon a District of Ground, the inhabitants of which shall have that Privilege. The principle Difficulty is, and the greatest Care should be taken in, constituting this Representative assembly. It should be, in Miniature, an exact Portrait of the People at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them.

That it may be the Interest of this assembly, to do equal Right and strict Justice upon all occasions, it must be an equal Representation of the People, or in other words, equal Interest among the People, should have equal Interest in the Representative Body. No Art should be spared to effect this, and to prevent, unfair, partial and corrupt Elections; but such Regulations are better

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made in Times of greater Tranquility than the present, and they will grow of themselves naturally when all the Powers of Society and Government, come to be in the hands of the People's Friends. At present it will be safest and wisest to go on in old established Methods to which the People are reconciled by Habit. Having obtained a Representation of the People in one Assembly, the Question arises, whether it is wisest to leave all the Powers of legislation in this Single Body, or to make your Legislature more complete? I think a People cannot be long happy or free, whose laws are made only by one assembly: my Reasons for this opinion are these,

1st. A single Assembly is liable to all the Frailties, Vices, and Follies of an Individual, Subject to fits of Humour, Caprice, Passions, Prejudice, hasty Results and absurd judgments, which ought to be corrected by some controlling Power.

2nd. A single Assembly is apt to be avaricious, and in time, would not scruple to exempt itself from Burthens which it would lay, without Feeling upon its Constituents.

3rd. A single Assembly is apt to grow ambitious, and vote itself perpetual. Witness the Case of Holland, whose assembly first voted that they should hold their seats for seven years, then for Life, and after some time they had the Modesty to determine, that when a vacancy happened by death or other wise, they themselves would fill it up, without applying to the Constituents of the deceased Members.

4th. An Assembly cannot exercise the Executive Powers, for want of two essential Properties, Secrecy and Dispatch, now if an executive Power is constituted distinct from the Legislative, and the Legislative consist of only one assembly, there will naturally grow a coldness, an opposition and at length a downright civil war between the Legislative and Executive.

5th. Because a Representative assembly is still less qualified to exercise the judicial Power, being too numerous, and generally too little skilled in those voluminous Collections of Laws, which are necessary to be thoroughly understood, and most carefully observed, in order to obtain a uniform, steady and impartial Administration of Justice, therefore I lay it down as a maxim that the Judicial Power should be distinct both from the Legislative and Executive. Now if you have your Legislative in one assembly, and

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Executive in another, and the judicial Power leans to either it will naturally join with that, and over balance, overbear, and overturn the other. The Legislative, therefore, should consist of more than one assembly. Let the Representative Body then, elect by ballot, from among themselves or their Constituents a distinct assembly to consist of the most experienced, accomplished, and Virtuous Men which for the sake of Perspicuity we will call a Council, it may consist of any Number you please—Say twenty or thirty. When these two Bodies are thus constituted, an inquiry will arise, is the Legislature compleat. I think not. There should be a third Branch which for the sake of preserving old styles and Titles, you may call a Governor whom I would invest with a negative upon the other Branches of the Legislative an also with the whole Executive Power, after divesting it of most of those badges of Domination called Prerogatives. I know that giving the Executive Power a Negative upon the Legislative is liable to objections, but it seems to be attended with more advantages than dangers, especially if you make this officer elective anually, and more especially if you establish a rotation by which no man shall be governor for more than three years annually elective, he may be allowed a free and independent Exercise of his Judgment, because he will have so much Regard for the People, the Representatives, and Council that he would seldom exercise this right except in cases, the public utility of which would be conspicuous and some such cases would happen. However if you like it better, give him only a casting Voice in Council.

In the present state of America when by an act of Parliament we are put out of the Royal Protection and it is become necessary to assume Governments for immediate security, the Governor should be chosen by joint Ballot of both Houses. In the same manner a Lieut. Governor, Secretary, Treasury, Commissary, and Attorney General, may be chosen. The Governor by and with and not without the advice and Consent of the Council should nominate and appoint all Judges, Justices, and all other officers civil and military, who should have Commissions signed by the Governor and under the seal of the Colony.—if you chose to have a government more popular still you may let all officers be chosen by one House, concurred with by the other and consented to by the Governor. Sheriffs should be chosen by the Freeholders of the

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counties. Indeed the whole of this Plan is calculated for the present emergency. The Legislature thus constituted will have Power to make any alterations from time to time to supply Defects which Experience may point out. It may indeed give the Election of the whole Government annually to the people at large as in Connecticutt.

The Stability of Government in all Branches, the Morals of the people and every blessing of Society depends so much upon a true Interpretation of the Laws, and an impartial administration of Justice, that the Judges should always be men of learning and experience in the Laws, exemplary Morals, great patience, calmness, coolness and Attention, should not have their minds distracted with complicated jarring Interest, or be subservient to any man or Body of Men or more complaisant to one than another. To this End, they should hold Estates for life in their offices, and their salaries should be fixed by law By holding Estates for life I mean their Commissions should be during good behaviour. Such a Constitution as this naturally and necessarily introduces universal knowledge among the People, and inspires them, with a conscious Dignity becoming Freemen, good humour, good manners and good Morals. Virtue, honour, and Civility become fashionable.

That Elevation of Sentiment, which is mechanically introduced by such a Government, makes the common People bold, brave and enterprising. That Ambition which is inspired by it into every Rank and order of Men, makes them industrious, sober, and frugal.—In such a government some Elegance perhaps, but more Solidity.—some Politeness, but more Civility.—some Pleasure but more Business. If you compare a Country where such a Government prevails with the Regions of Dominations, whether Aristocratical or Monarchial you will think yourself in Arcadia or Elisium. But must not all Commissions run in the name of the King? No, Let them run thus “The Colony of North Carolina to A. B. Greeting” and be tested by the Governors in the Name of the King? No. Let them run thus “The Colony of North Carolina to the Sheriff of &c” and let them be tested by the Chief Justice.

Must not all indictments conclude “Contra Pacem Domini Regis”? No, Let them conclude against the Colony of North Carolina

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and the “Dignity of the same” or “Majesty of the same” if you will.

We have heard much my Dear Sir, of a Continental Constitution. for my own Part I see no occasion for any but a Congress.—

Let every Colony please itself without Control in its own Constitution. Let a fair and equitable Representation of every Colony, appear in Congress, and let the authority of that great Council be sacredly Confined to these Cases, War, Trade, and Disputes between Colony and Colony. If the thirteen Colonies, were all possessed of such Forms of Government, and a Confederation for the above Purposes, was agreed on in Congress and ratified by the Assemblies, they would be unconquerable by all Europe.

I must rely on your friendship, not to expose me to ridicule or Censure, unnecessarily, for these imperfect hints.