John Adams's ( 1735–1826
Adams's constitutional thought is provided in two texts. Thoughts on Government was his most influential writing of the Revolutionary period. Here, he conceptualizes republican government in terms of the rule of law and lays out the constitutional arrangements necessary to secure the rule and law and, ultimately, social happiness. The second text, Adams's three-volume Defence of the Constitutions of the Governments of the United States of America, provides a historical and comparative survey and analysis of republican government and its philosophical foundations. To a considerable degree, the Defence provides an expanded, more detailed argument for the system of checks and balances initially laid out in Thoughts on Government. Taken together, Adams's writings make it clear that popular consent and the system of checks and balances are his keys for securing liberty and the rule of law.
For Adams, popular consent is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion for securing the rule of law. It is necessary because each person has a duty to judge for himself or herself the actions of government. Adams's insistence on popular sovereignty is consistent with other revolutionary documents, such as Thomas Paine's Common Sense ( 1776 ). Where Adams differs from Paine is in his belief that popular government, by itself, cannot secure the rule of law. Adams's concern is that the people will abdicate their duty of making the informed decisions necessary to hold government accountable. Thus, an exclusive reliance on frequent elections is inadequate by itself. It is necessary to institutionalize another safeguard—the system of checks and balances, which requires strengthening both the executive and judicial powers in particular and the national government in general.
When Adams speaks of the system of checks and balances, he has two things in mind. First, he employs the conventional understanding of the term as the division of political power into the legislative, executive, and judicial departments. It is not enough, however, to simply divide political power into three distinct branches, provide each with a distinct source of authority, and give each branch the means to prevent usurpations of the other branches. For Adams, it is necessary to divide the legislative power as well. In Thoughts, Adams identifies three problems with a unicameral legislature: 1) the majority will make unreasonable and oppressive demands of the minority; 2) it does nothing to restrain elected officials from usurping power; and 3) given Adams's fear that the many will fail to perform their duty as citizens, a single assembly “will not hesitate to vote itself perpetual” when the electorate begins to look to government to take care of it. Cumulatively, these three criticisms indicate that Adams sees bicameralism as a necessary constitutional safeguard against both the excesses of popular government and the usurpation of power by political elites.
A key difference between the two revolutions is the place of aristocrats in the ensuing social order. Whereas the radical quality of the French Revolution sought to do away with all social distinctions, Adams believes these distinctions are both natural and beneficial. Rejecting hereditary distinctions, Adams envisions a constitutional system where merit, virtue, and service to the common good characterize the aristocratic element. Adams grounds his understanding of aristocracy on the typology of human motivation he provides in his Defence. For Adams, these aristocrats should be characterized by their disinterestedness, as in classical republican thought and, more importantly, by their passion for distinction that leads to patriots and heroes who benefit humankind. In contrast, a lower form of this passion emphasizes riches and family pedigree that benefit only the individual and come closer to the vices of ambition and avarice that historically threaten liberty. Adams reasons that, by politicizing the symbols of honor and reputation in society, it would be possible to encourage elected officials to pursue luminous, public-spirited actions in the classical republican tradition. At the same time, frequent elections, bicameralism, and the system of checks and balances would prevent elected officials from transgressing the boundaries of the law.
Adams's revolutionary and constitutional principles find their clearest expression in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Adams's draft asserts the centrality of securing natural rights as the end of government and the necessity of proper constitutional principles to secure these rights. This is suggested by the fact that Adams locates the need for the separation of powers in that constitution's Declaration of Rights instead of in another section that delineates political institutions and practices.
In this way, he highlights the fact that the guarantee of liberty is contingent upon the proper structure and execution of political authority. To him, the proper structure of government institutions consists of dividing the legislative power (Chapter II, Article I), providing for the executive veto (Chapter II, Article I), and establishing an independent judiciary (Chapter IV). The proposal also speaks directly to Adams's understanding of human motivation. Article VII of the Declaration of Rights stresses the need for aristocrats to attain the higher, and nobler, form of the desire for distinction and contains a statement critical of the lower form, leading to ambition and greed. Thus, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 serves as a strong expression of Adams's understanding of the proper relationship between abstract principles of political right and constitutional design.
Adams entered the presidential office in 1797 having to deal with a misunderstanding with France. This misunderstanding, otherwise known as the Quasi-War ( 1798–1800 ), became the central issue of his presidency. The most notable consequences of the hysteria surrounding America's tensions with France were the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Justified as necessary wartime measures, the Alien Act granted the president the legal right to expel any foreigner considered dangerous without due process of law, whereas the Sedition Act criminalized any false, scandalous, or malicious writing against the government, Congress, or the president; or any attempt to excite against them the hatred of the American people or to stir up sedition. Although Adams never used the Alien Act, he used the Sedition Act almost exclusively against Republican newspaper editors. In opposition to these acts, Thomas Jefferson penned the Kentucky Resolution ( 1798 ), and James Madison authored the Virginia Resolution a year later. Jefferson argued that each state has the right to nullify federal actions it deems unconstitutional whereas Madison was an advocate of interposition, a doctrine allowing states to oppose actions of the national government that it deems unconstitutional.
The centrality of the relationship between principles of political right and constitutionalism is the great legacy Adams left America and political theory more generally. That the rule of law, liberty, and social happiness all depend upon proper constitutional principles is a lesson citizens are reminded of on a regular basis as constitutional democracy spreads throughout the world.
Finally, Adams leaves behind two truly unique treasures. First, is his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and, second, is his correspondence with his wife, Abigail Adams. Unique in the American history of letters, Adams's communications with Jefferson offers extended reflection and insight on core topics of the American political system and the human condition. Spanning almost forty years and numbering almost 1200 items, the letters of John and Abigail Adams were written during the most important moments in the genesis of America. Dealing with revolution, independence, and nation-building, these letters reveal the messiness and uncertainty of history as it happened.
SEE ALSO Alien and Sedition Acts ; Constitution ; Constitutional Government ; Constitutionalism ; Declaration of Independence ; Majority Tyranny ; Massachusetts Constitution, 1780 ; Paine, Thomas ; State Constitutions: Bills of Rights .
Adams, John. The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams. Edited by C. Bradley Thompson. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2000.
Adams, John. The Works of John Adams. 10 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1850–56. (Volume VI contains the Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America.)
Cappon, Lester J., ed. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Adams, John, Margaret A. Hogan, and C. James Taylor. My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007.
Howe, John R., Jr. The Changing Political Thought of John Adams. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966. McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Edited by Edward Larkin. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2004.
Shaw, Peter. The Character of John Adams. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.
Thompson, C. Bradley. John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
Jordon B. Barkalow
Bridgewater State University
Jennifer A. Mogg
Bridgewater State University