The following are excerpts and commentary on John Adams “Thoughts on Government” Apr. 1776 Papers 4:86-93.
A complete rendition of this work is available at http://www.constitution.org/jadams/thoughts.htm
I heartily encourage you to read it in its entirety. It was a little long so I have presented some of what I believe to be its more important points and have offered them here with my feeble observations. Do not let my musings deter you from considering Adam’s thoughts for yourself and drawing your own conclusions. It is a healthy exercise and there is not a single American who would not be well served by it.“…as the divine science of politics is the science of social happiness, and the blessings of society depend entirely on the constitutions of government, which are generally institutions that last for many generations, there can be no employment more agreeable to a benevolent mind than a research after the best.”
How many today would describe politics as “a divine science of social happiness?”
Not to put too cynical a point on it, but a more accurate description of contemporary politics might read, “there can be no employment more self-serving to the malevolent mind than the research after what is best for the few."“Pope flattered tyrants too much when he said, "For forms of government let fools contest,That which is best administered is best."Nothing can be more fallacious than this. But poets read history to collect flowers, not fruits; they attend to fanciful images, not the effects of social institutions. Nothing is more certain, from the history of nations and nature of man, than that some forms of government are better fitted for being well administered than others.”
From this I derive two things: 1st that process matters more than intentions. If we circumvent it in pursuit of our immediate interests, it will set precedents that will come back to bite us in unexpected places. 2nd that Hollywood is probably not the best place to look for political advice. Artists are all about personality and will tend to prioritize it over substance.“From this principle it will follow, that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.”
The key here is “the greatest number in the greatest degree,”
not solely the wealthy, the powerful or any other group. Nor should we settle for the lowest common denominator of happiness but rather should expect the “greatest degree.”
But herein lies the rub McDuff, happiness is not the pursuit of unbridled hedonistic consumption but rather…"All sober inquirers after truth… have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.”
Perhaps it is because of distasteful notions like this that these old fellers have so fallen out of favor.“If there is a form of government, then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?”
Since happiness lies in virtue, and the business of government is to provide an environment conducive to happiness, then according to Adams the role of government is to promote virtue.“Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.”
I think on this point Adams would be appalled by how much fear eventually became the foundation of the government he so tenderly crafted and bitterly disappointed in how easily most Americans have acquiesced to it.“Honor is truly sacred, but holds a lower rank in the scale of moral excellence than virtue. Indeed, the former is but a part of the latter, and consequently has not equal pretensions to support a frame of government productive of human happiness.”
From this I derive that George Walker Bush and other politicians should be less reluctant to make their mea culpa, and more concerned with actual virtue rather than pharisaical piety.“The foundation of every government is some principle or passion in the minds of the people. The noblest principles and most generous affections in our nature, then, have the fairest chance to support the noblest and most generous models of government.”
Greed, ambition, fear and partisan prejudice are not “the most generous affections in our nature.”
But they are the engines that drive our current model of government, hence its ignobility.“A man must be indifferent to the sneers of modern English men, to mention in their company the names of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, and Hoadly. No small fortitude is necessary to confess that one has read them. The wretched condition of this country, however, for ten or fifteen years past, has frequently reminded me of their principles and reasonings. They will convince any candid mind, that there is no good government but what is republican.”Plus en change plus ce le mem chose.
It still requires “no small fortitude to confess one has read”
these men in the contemporary American academies and halls of power. Perhaps it is the shortage of candid minds
among those that tend to congregate in such places.“the very definition of a republic is "an empire of laws, and not of men." That, as a republic is the best of governments, so that particular arrangement of the powers of society, or, in other words, that form of government which is best contrived to secure an impartial and exact execution of the laws, is the best of republics.”"An empire of laws not of men”…
What would Adams thought of political dynasties today? His son also followed him into office and the country had a bumpy ride. Don’t get me wrong, I’d gladly swap George Walker for John Quincy, but I can’t help but wonder about this country’s tendency to brand loyalty. What was considered exceptional early in the Republic has become accepted and even expected. Dynasties like the Roosevelt’s, the Gore’s, the Kennedy’s, the Kerry’s, the Sanunu’s, the Walker/Bush’s now seem to be the keys to access to political power. They all attend the same schools on legacy entrance and most join the same “Skull and Bones” regardless of familial party affiliation. I am not convinced that such dynasties have over the last century in fact “contrived to secure an impartial and exact execution of the laws,”
nor have they necessarily delivered us “the best of republics.”
“Of republics there is an inexhaustible variety, because the possible combinations of the powers of society are capable of innumerable variations.”
Perhaps we should all remember this in Iraq.“…it is impossible that the whole should assemble to make laws. The first necessary step, then, is to depute power from the many to a few of the most wise and good.”
That sounds great. Now, will someone please tell the “most wise and good”
to start running for office. For Heaven’s sake someone tell these evil ambitious fools who keep running to shut up and go home!“The principal difficulty lies, and the greatest care should be employed, in constituting this representative assembly.”
No, John. “The principle difficulty lies…”
in getting the most wise and the good
to run for office. Even if they did, they would as likely be pilloried by a partisan mob as be elected to govern. Oh crap, I'm sounding like Pope. Nevermind.“It should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.”
In its current iteration…it isn’t and it doesn’t.“Great care should be taken to effect this, and to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections. Such regulations, however, may be better made in times of greater tranquillity than the present; and they will spring up themselves naturally, when all the powers of government come to be in the hands of the people's friends. At present, it will be safest to proceed in all established modes, to which the people have been familiarized by habit.”
Well John we are still waiting for the government to "come to be in the hands of the people’s friends."
As far as electoral regulations springing up naturally...
well lets just say that both cynical gerrymandering and recent events in Florida and Ohio seem to indicate that such things are more likely to be of a more malevolent synthetic
origin.“A single assembly is liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual; subject to fits of humor, starts of passion, flights of enthusiasm, partialities, or prejudice, and consequently productive of hasty results and absurd judgments.”
Well, John was sure right on this score. Can you say Patriotic Act? Yeah I know, the irony is as galling as it is striking.“A single assembly is apt to grow ambitious, and after a time will not hesitate to vote itself perpetual.”
This sure turned out like he thought. Only perpetuality is handled by campaign finance and 98% incumbency. In some ways this is even more insidious because it is less transparent and leaves the electorate with the illusion of choice.“A representative assembly, although extremely well qualified, and absolutely necessary, as a branch of the legislative, is unfit to exercise the executive power, for want of two essential properties, secrecy and despatch.”
The Legislature would do well to remember this on occasion and be less inclined to use foreign policy to serve partisan agendas. Conversely the Executives would do good to seek a little more advice and consent and then maybe they would not so often find their Legislature making liars of them.“Because a single assembly, possessed of all the powers of government, would make arbitrary laws for their own interest, execute all laws arbitrarily for their own interest, and adjudge all controversies in their own favor.”
This certainly proved to be the case.“But shall the whole power of legislation rest in one assembly? … these two powers will oppose and encroach upon each other, until the contest shall end in war, and the whole power, legislative and executive, be usurped by the strongest. The judicial power, in such case, could not mediate, or hold the balance between the two contending powers, because the legislative would undermine it. And this shows the necessity, too, of giving the executive power a negative upon the legislative, otherwise this will be continually encroaching upon that.”
Adams was justifiably skeptical of the integrity and judgment of Legislatures that are prone to hasty judgments in the heat of partisan political passion. He thought there should be both a Senatorial and an Executive veto on their excesses. This is why it is so important who we elect for our Executive. We might want to raise our standards a bit before casting that ballot in the primaries. Maybe we should concern ourselves less with electability and more with competent culpability."To avoid these dangers, let a distinct assembly be constituted, as a mediator between the two extreme branches of the legislature, that which represents the people, and that which is vested with the executive power. Let the representative assembly then …should have a free and independent exercise of its judgment, and consequently a negative voice in the legislature. These two bodies, thus constituted, and made integral parts of the legislature, let them unite, and by joint ballot choose a governor… If he is annually elective, as he ought to be, he will always have so much reverence and affection for the people, their representatives and counsellors, that, although you give him an independent exercise of his judgment, he will seldom use it in opposition to the two houses, except in cases the public utility of which would be conspicuous; and some such cases would happen."
I think Adams has good intentions here but was over optimistic about how independent and effective the Senate would be. He also underestimated the role political parties would come to play in equally polarizing and politicizing both assemblies. The fact that we currently have what amounts to a governmentally mandated two party system essentially nullifies the mitigating effects of a bicameral legislature. I’m sure old Jimmy Madison is rolling in his grave. I doubt Adams is sleeping any more soundly.“And these and all other elections, especially of representatives and counsellors, should be annual, there not being in the whole circle of the sciences a maxim more infallible than this, "where annual elections end, there slavery begins."
These great men, in this respect, should be, once a year,"Like bubbles on the sea of matter borne,They rise, they break, and to that sea return."
This will teach them the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation, without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.”
I second this observation…"where annual elections end, there slavery begins."
I would be content if we could just get these little “bubbles”
to return to the sea. I have long since given up on their learning moderation, humility and patience.
But John sure had that “ravenous beast of prey”
thing correct. These little “bubbles”
are insatiable.“A rotation of all offices, as well as of representatives and counsellors, has many advocates, and is contended for with many plausible arguments. It would be attended, no doubt, with many advantages; and if the society has a sufficient number of suitable characters to supply the great number of vacancies which would be made by such a rotation, I can see no objection to it.”
My only objection to this proposal John, is that while there is no shortage of “characters” who will ambitiously seek such posts, there tends to be a perpetual scarcity of men of Character and expertise to fill them. Oh John, where are you when we need you?"The governor should have the command of the militia and of all your armies. The power of pardons should be with the governor and council."
We can have militias and other armies? Wow, did anyone clue Lincoln into this? Governors can pardon? Let me guess, nobody told GW about it.“All officers should have commissions, under the hand of the governor and seal of the colony.”
Cool, does this mean I can be an admiral in the Texas Navy? On second thought I’d probably just end up a swabby on the TXSS Minnow. But imagine if Texas had its own aircraft carrier…I bet it would be bigger than yours.“The judges, therefore, should be always men of learning and experience in the laws, of exemplary morals, great patience, calmness, coolness, and attention. Their minds should not be distracted with jarring interests; they should not be dependent upon any man, or body of men.”
I think on this point there is no dissent among the People, but among the Senate, well that is another matter all together.“To these ends, they should hold estates for life in their offices; or, in other words, their commissions should be during good behavior…”
I would be more than willing to grant the Judiciary their tenure if…“For misbehavior, the grand inquest of the colony, the house of representatives, should impeach them”
…a little more often.“A militia law, requiring all men, or with very few exceptions besides cases of conscience, to be provided with arms and ammunition, to be trained at certain seasons; and requiring counties, towns, or other small districts, to be provided with public stocks of ammunition and entrenching utensils, and with some settled plans for transporting provisions after the militia, when marched to defend their country against sudden invasions…”
I think most Americans would be more amenable to a military draft if they were stationed in their home states and if they could count on their President to only deploy them “to defend their country against sudden invasions…”
“Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”
Amen to this John! If only we had started when you first suggested it. If only we hadn’t quit once we started. If only we had lawmakers of “a humane and generous mind.”
If only we had listened to you and your colleagues about so many things…sigh.“The very mention of sumptuary laws will excite a smile. Whether our countrymen have wisdom and virtue enough to submit to them, I know not; but the happiness of the people might be greatly promoted by them, and a revenue saved sufficient to carry on this war forever. Frugality is a great revenue, besides curing us of vanities, levities, and fopperies, which are real antidotes to all great, manly, and warlike virtues.”
Sumptuary Laws are luxury taxes and they are an excellent idea. They are a great means of raising revenue and they really cramp the style of those latte drinking limo types, which if nothing else provides some small satisfaction to the rest of us. I once asked an enlightened wealthy art collector how he felt about luxury taxes, his response surprised me, because he favored them. I protested that the luxury taxes would diminish the demand for yachts and all the working class shlubs who build those ships would be out of work. His response was telling, “Folks who buy yachts don’t care about the price of the boat let alone the cost of the taxes. If you have to ask how much…you can’t afford it.” I guess the rich really are different.“But must not all commissions run in the name of a king? No. Why may they not as well run thus, "The colony of to A. B. greeting," and be tested by the governor? Why may not writs, instead of running in the name of the king, run thus, "The colony of to the sheriff," &c., and be tested by the chief justice? Why may not indictments conclude, "against the peace of the colony of and the dignity of the same?"
What makes Federal laws so sacred? Why are not state laws sufficient for the prosecution of most crimes? The current redundant system amounts to double jeopardy. If the state can’t convict the Feds will. This gives Government two bites at the same apple and puts an undue burden on the defense. But we get all these redundant laws, mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines because politicians like to look tough on crime. Since felons can’t vote, legislators create such laws at no political risk to themselves. Because most people don’t anticipate ever being arrested and charged for something they have not done, they don’t mind when their civil rights are preemptively violated. Americans have been cheering for revenge instead of weeping for their loss of Liberty. These dead guys were right about one thing…we get the government we deserve.“A constitution founded on these principles introduces know ledge among the people, and inspires them with a conscious dignity becoming freemen; a general emulation takes place, which causes good humor, sociability, good manners, and good morals to be general. That elevation of sentiment inspired by such a government, makes the common people brave and enterprising. That ambition which is inspired by it makes them sober, industrious, and frugal. You will find among them some elegance, perhaps, but more solidity; a little pleasure, but a great deal of business; some politeness, but more civility. If you compare such a country with the regions of domination, whether monarchical or aristocratical, you will fancy yourself in Arcadia or Elysium.”“…inspires them with a conscious dignity becoming freemen; a general emulation takes place, which causes good humor, sociability, good manners, and good morals to be general.”
These virtues are in critically short supply in Washington and since our leaders no longer have them or follow Constitutional principles our people are now less “sober, industrious, and frugal.”As for “If you compare such a country with the regions of domination, whether monarchical or aristocratical"...
Well I am not sure if Adams would even recognize what he and his companions wrought as it has become more “aristocratical”
and its Executive ever more “monarchical.”
Regarding: “you will fancy yourself in Arcadia or Elysium.”
Perhaps the Ancients put this one best when they said “Et in Arcadia Ego.”
You’re gonna have to look that one up for yourselves folks.“…a continental constitution should be formed, it should be a congress, containing a fair and adequate representation of the colonies, and its authority should sacredly be confined to these cases, namely, war, trade, disputes between colony and colony, the post office, and the unappropriated lands of the crown, as they used to be called.”
That’s it. Operative phrase here is “confined to these cases.”
“These colonies, under such forms of government, and in such a union, would be unconquerable by all the monarchies of Europe.”
So far so good.You and I, my dear friend, have been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live. How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government, more than of air, soil, or climate, for themselves or their children! When, before the present epocha, had three millions of people full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?
Adams and his colleagues were acutely aware of the gravity of the task they set themselves. They could hardly believe the opportunity that they had and were conscientiously attendant to their effect on posterity. Oh what we would give to have such minds among us today! I’d give you 50 Senators a couple hundred Congressmen and a President for the likes of one John Adams."For myself, I must beg you to keep my name out of sight; for this feeble attempt, if it should be known to be mine, would oblige me to apply to myself those lines of the immortal John Milton, in one of his sonnets:--
"I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs
By the known rules of ancient liberty,
When straight a barbarous noise environs me
Of owls and cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs."
Apparently good ideas have always been dangerous and people have generaly been willing to disregard them due to prejudice against the messenger. I’m certainly no John Adams, but I think I’ll stick with my nome de plume.