Subtitle: John Adams Reconsiders Republican Government.
The American Revolution wasn’t a simple colonial rebellion against English imperialism. It was first and foremost a social revolution. We can hardly imagine today the leap in men’s minds from a stratified social order in which all honors were gifts from a King, to that of free and equal republican citizens. In his 1776 Thoughts on Government, John Adams viewed politics as a straightforward struggle between rulers and the people. Cast off monarchy, and indeed all executive authority, and let a virtuous people govern themselves. The Articles of Confederation reflect this reliance on public virtue and abhorrence of executive power.1
Yet, given the poor track record of republics, could America pull off these radical changes without falling into history’s deadly traps? Being without a unifying hereditary monarch to bind the nation, what sort of social glue could possibly prevent infighting, disorders, and eventual dissolution among thirteen distinct peoples?
History had taught that public virtue is the necessary foundation of republics. No republican government could last, said John Adams, unless there was a “positive passion for the public good, the public interest” in the minds of the people. Yet, could America keep this spartan sense of sacrifice?
Many didn’t believe Americans had the requisite public virtue. Even if they did in 1776, keeping the sense of public virtue, and with it the republic, was no easy matter and was certain to eventually fail. In the end, republics are torn to pieces by faction and internal struggles between the commercial and agrarian, the creditor and debtor interests.2
Perhaps more than any revolutionary hero, John Adams rested his hopes on the regenerative effects of republican government and on virtuous politicians who could shape the character of the people. Since the politicians in representative government are interchangeable with the people, everyone must encourage the foundational traits of “strength, hardiness, courage, fortitude, and enterprise.”
By the mid-1780s, the thirteen republics of the United States were clearly incapable of the idealized, utopian free government vision of the Founding Era. To rely on public virtue wrote Adams, the American republics were destined, like every previous republic, for eventual destruction.
Dealing with Reality. The leading Federalists of 1787, like contemporary Article V Opponents, looked about and saw nothing but licentiousness. Rather than accept middleclass lives in equality, Americans pursued happiness through avarice and ambition just as they do today. And to some, ambition meant political office. “Aristocratical passions,” wrote Adams, were often unlimited and all-consuming. He saw little that was meritorious in those who reached the pinnacle of society except their ability to get there. Once on top, the few worked to keep and grow wealthy from their positions by oppressing those below them.
Adams accepted the reality that Americans were as driven by the passions for wealth and precedence as any people in history. The difference between then and now is that once men like Adams realized the situation, they advocated and took measures to deal with man’s nature. Article V opponents’ reliance on public virtue is a blind alley.
Rather than view politics as people v. monarchs, Adams described politics in his 1787 Defense of the Constitutions of the United States as the struggle between the many and the few, the people and the wealthy. Left unchecked, the early American state governments showed how readily the people will turn on the better-off and rob and ruin them without hesitation. Reason certainly allowed that given the opportunity, the wealthy would readily do the same to the people. And America was fast developing a wealthy class. Nothing less than a proper republican executive could mediate the clashing passions of the democratic and aristocratical elements of society.
For Adams, this balance of forces in any free society was The Enlightenment fulfilled. Without knowing so, Adams came to much the same conclusion as the Federal Convention. To keep a balance among the natural orders, the structure of government must confine the wealthy to a legislative chamber of their own. If not, the ambitious will infest the people’s chamber and dominate politics to their own profit. He was right. They are doing it today.
John Adams would be aghast at the sight of our unbalanced Constitution. Thanks to the 17th Amendment, the Senate cast off its aristocratic persona. States no longer send noteworthy men to defend state interests and wealth. Instead of state legislatures, the Senate’s farm team since 1913 is the House of Representatives, which today impossibly “represent” enormous constituencies of over 750,000 people. The average, non-professional, working person stands little chance at election. Only the better off, or those financed by political parties, can remotely aspire to Congress. As recent events involving the southern border crisis illustrate, the House isn’t representative. It is instead a self-serving wealthy body uninterested in the general welfare. It will never dilute the power of its members by adding more seats.3
Free government is an impossibility until we restore balance to our beloved Constitution.
1. The language of the Articles reflects reliance on comity and public virtue. Preamble – “To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting.” Article III – “The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship . . . “ Article IV – The better to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the people of the different States in this union . . .”
2. Wood, G. S. (1969). The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 94.
3. Congress established 435 members to the House of Representatives in 1929.