The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Adams, John (1735-1826)

John Adams, American statesman and political philosopher, played a leading role in the American Revolution and served as the nation’s first vice president and second president. He wrote a number of important works in constitutional and political philosophy, in which he argued for a balanced, moderate form of representative democracy to safeguard liberty. Adams, a Harvard-educated lawyer from a Puritan family, wrote the Constitution of Massachusetts, sat on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, and served for a decade as a diplomat in Europe, which resulted in his not being able to attend the Constitutional Convention.

In 1776, Adams was urged to write a short pamphlet, Thoughts on Government, that proved to be the most influential of his writings. It is a guide for “forming a plan for the government of a colony.” Social happiness, he argued, depends entirely on the constitution of government, “institutions that last for many generations.” Just as the happiness of the individual is the end of man, the happiness of society should be the end of government. Hence, it follows that the form of government that results in happiness to the greatest number of people, to the greatest degree, is the best. That form of government is a republic, “an empire of laws, not men.” Thoughts on Government is a warning against both direct democracy and unicameral unbalanced government. Human nature cannot be trusted with power, and the legislature must therefore be balanced by a strong executive, with the legislature split into a Senate, whose members should come from the socially powerful and serve longer terms, and a popular lower house. The executive should be given veto power over the actions of the legislature, and both legislative chambers must agree on any legislation. Adams wished to grant voting rights to all but the very poor, whom he considered “too dependent upon other Men to have a Will of their own.” His recommendations were largely followed by most of the states that drafted constitutions in 1776. The most important exception was Pennsylvania, where the Quakers, under the influence of Thomas Paine, instituted a unicameral system with combined executive and legislative power. That experiment failed and was reformed in line with Adams’s precepts in 1790.

While in Europe, Adams worked on his “chief political testament,” a three-volume Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787–1788), followed by a fourth volume separately published as Discourses on Davila (1791). The work preceded the new federal constitution, which was in the process of being drafted when the first volume appeared, and was directed against the French philosophe Turgot, who had accused the new American states of uncritically and unnecessarily copying the British constitutional structure, with its division among Crown, House of Lords, and House of Commons. The Defence is an unpolished book that might be best read as a lawyer’s brief seeking to demonstrate that a coherent, reasonable political philosophy undergirds the American state constitutions. In the Defence, Adams surveyed the history of republicanism because he believed history is but philosophy by example. He concluded that most ancient republics had collapsed because they failed to achieve the right constitutional structure. Just as civilized man must control the maelstrom of swirling, raging passions inside him through reason and conscience, so should the makers of a commonwealth rule the passions within society by building constitutions that are compatible with human nature. Recognizing that men will not be ruled by reason and that an education in moral virtue does not secure good government, Adams sought to achieve balance by giving the various factions of a society stakes in its constitutional system.

Had Adams distilled his arguments into one, organized volume, the Defence could well have become a classic. Instead, he produced a repetitive work weighed down by long, often unattributed quotes cribbed from works in history and political philosophy. Therefore, although the Defence is unattractive reading, it was circulated at the Constitutional Convention and remains a treasure trove for students of the American constitutional regime. Adams saw two major threats to a free republic: the envy of the people and the ambition of the elites. He believed that a nation’s “natural aristocracy” posed a potential social problem. A society must give those who excel room to exercise their talents; otherwise their resentment will be turned against the system. In contrast, unchecked democracy leads to calls for the redistribution of property, that “absurd figment of the mind.” Therefore, the rule of law must protect the “sacred” property rights of rich and poor alike. According to Adams, only a balanced constitution can protect the lives, liberties, and properties of the people by securing a stable and free government.

Further Readings

Handler, Edward. America and Europe in the Political Thought of John Adams. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Haraszti, Zoltan. John Adams and the Prophets of Progress. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952.

Thompson, C. Bradley. John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Originally published .