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Adams Unbound

  Government | Human Nature | Freedom of the Press | The Rights of Man


Government

John Adams worked hard to establish the new American government with its system of checks and balances. He believed it kept institutions and people from becoming too powerful and ignoring the needs of the powerless. So Adams found Mary Wollstonecraft's idea that government caused problems like social injustices infuriating.

"[Wollstonecraft believed] that the primary accomplishment of any revolution should be to remove government... Adams could barely contain [his criticism]."

-- Historian Joseph Ellis

When should a new nation write a constitution?
Will people love a new Constitution right away?
Should a constitution be subject to change once it has been adopted?
How long should it take to set up a new government?
How much power should a nation's chief executive have?
How can government prevent tyranny?




When should a new nation write a constitution?

On May 15, 1776, the delegates to the Continental Congress passed John Adams' resolution "to declare the United Colonies free and independent states." In July 1776, they went to work on the country's first Constitution, called the Articles of Confederation, which created a federal government with no chief executive, independent judiciary, or authority to collect taxes.

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
After the wreck of a government the plan of a new constitution ought to be immediately formed, that is, as soon as circumstances will possibly admit, and presented to the citizens for their acceptance; or rather the people should depute men for that purpose, and give them a limited time for framing one.
ADAMS:
I had preached this doctrine a whole year in Congress in 1775 and 1776 before I could prevail upon that Body to pass my Resolution of the 15th of May 1776 recommending that Measure to the People of the States.


Will people love a new Constitution right away?

John Adams knew how hard it was to design a political system. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in May 1787, but took until September of that year to craft a document they all agreed upon.

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
A constitution is a standard for the people to rally round. It is the pillar of a government, the bond of all social unity and order. The investigation of it's principles makes it a fountain of light; from which issue rays of reason, that gradually bring forward the mental powers of the whole community."
ADAMS:
How was it possible to bring twenty five Millions of Frenchmen Who had never known or thought of any Law, but The Kings will to rally round any free Constitution at all? A Constitution is a Standard a Pillar and a Bond when it is understood approved and beloved. But without this Intelligence and attachment it might as well be a Kite or Balloon, flying in the air.


Should a constitution be subject to change once it has been adopted?

During the French Revolution, differences among revolutionary groups prevented the people from universally accepting a constitution and new government. John Adams knew very well that it took citizens a long time to approve a new constitution, let alone love it. Between 1787 and 1788 the states took nine months to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
And whenever the wheels of government, like the wheels of any other machine, are found clogged, or do not move in a regular manner, they equally require alteration and improvement: and these improvements will be proportionably perfect as the people become enlightened.
ADAMS:
These Machines called Constitutions, are not to be taken to Pieces and cleaned or mended so easily as a Watch.


How long should it take to set up a new government?

John Adams refers to Miguel de Cervantes' novel about an old man who believes he is actually a knight, Don Quixote de La Mancha. Adams read Wollstonecraft twice in his life, once in 1796 while president and again after his retirement at Quincy. This comment comes from his later reading.

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
The authority of the national assembly had been acknowledged nearly three months previous to this epocha, without their having taken any decided steps to secure these important ends.
ADAMS:
Did this Lady think three months time enough to form a free Constitution for twenty five Millions of Frenchmen. 300 years would be well spent in procuring so great a Blessing but I doubt whether it will be accomplished in 3000. Not one of the Projects of the Sage of La Mancha was more absurd, ridiculous or delirious than this of a Revolution in France... I thought so in all the intermediate Time, and I think so in 1812.


How much power should a nation's chief executive have?

After the Reign of Terror in France in 1795, a new legislature was formed. Many factions tried to overthrow it, but by 1804, an ambitious general, Napoleon Bonaparte, had seized power. He simplified French law, won recognition from the Vatican, and declared himself Emperor. John Adams had feared just such an end: a bloody revolution of this sort, he had argued, would lead not to democracy but despotism.

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
When kings are considered by the government of a country merely as ciphers, it is very just and proper, that their ministers should be responsible for their political conduct: but at the moment when a state is about to establish a constitution on the basis of reason, to undermine that foundation by a master-piece of absurdity, appears a solecism as glaring as the doctrine itself is laughable, when applied to an enlightened policy.
ADAMS:
The Supreme Head of the Executive of a great Nation must be inviolable or the Laws will never be executed... The Absurdity consisted in establishing an hereditary Executive as a Balance to a vast Legislature in one National Assembly. You might as well constitute an Army, to determine every Movement by a vote of an 100,000 Men and give the General a Veto upon each vote. A Gladiator in a Pit, without arms to defend himself against an hundred dragons.


How can government prevent tyranny?

Mary Wollstonecraft's enthusiasm for making government simpler seemed to John Adams to be a dangerous mistake. Adams believed that granting universal power would not create the "perfection of the science of government." This anarchistic philosophy, he argued, would only create more of the tyrants that France fought to destroy.

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
And this sovereignty of the people, the perfection of the science of government, only to be attained when a nation is truly enlightened, consisted in making them tyrants; nay the worst of tyrants, because the instruments of mischief of the men, who pretended to be subordinate to their will, though acting the very part of the ministers whom they execrated.
ADAMS:
Tyrants they will ever be made to be, while they exert their Sovereignty by Simple Majorities, whether collectively or by Representation.
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