John Adams’ Caution about a Republic Form of Government

“In an 8 January 1776 letter to Mercy Otis Warren, the wife of Colonel James Warren, John Adams, cousin of Samuel Adams wrote:

“But, Madam, there is one Difficulty which I know not how to get over.

“Virtue and Simplicity of Manners are indispensably necessary in a Republic among all orders and Degrees of Men. But there is so much Rascallity, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition such a Rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degrees of Men even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to Support a Republic.”

Many would agree with him today. However, in his letter, he argues that the other option, a monarchy

“would produce so much Taste and Politeness so much Elegance in Dress, Furniture, Equipage, so much Musick and Dancing, so much Fencing and Skaiting, so much Cards and Backgammon; so much Horse Racing and Cockfighting, so many Balls and Assemblies, so many Plays and Concerts that the very Imagination of them makes me feel vain, light, frivolous and insignificant.

“It is the Form of Government which gives the decisive Colour to the Manners of the People, more than any other Thing. Under a well regulated Commonwealth, the People must be wise virtuous and cannot be otherwise. Under a Monarchy they may be as vicious and foolish as they please, nay, they cannot but be vicious and foolish. As Politicks therefore is the Science of human Happiness and human Happiness is clearly best promoted by Virtue, what thorough Politician can hesitate who has a new Government to build whether to prefer a Commonwealth or a Monarchy?”

Early in his letter, despite his later caution, he announces his support for a republic:

“For my own part I am so tasteless as to prefer a Republic. . . .”

John Adams is relatively historically unheralded yet was recognized by his contemporaries “as the most learned and penetrating thinker of the founding generation“. He consistently maintained that the overarching purpose of government was the happiness of the people and that the republic form of government is that that has the most potential of achieving that end. And of the republic forms, he states in his famous essay, Thoughts on Government, “that form of government which is best contrived to secure an impartial and exact execution of the laws, is the best of republics”.

Of non-republic forms and certain republic forms of government, he has much to say but this on ‘fear’ should have been an accurate forwarning:

“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.” (http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/592#Adams_0284_852)

Our constitution was in great part constructed from the John Adams’ Thoughts essay, yet we should ask at least three questions:

  1. Has the government achieved or at least allowed for the happiness and safety of the people?
  2. Have there been or is there any reason to be fearful of government?
  3. Does our government consistently secure an impartial and exact execution of the laws?
Advertisements