A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“We are now employed, how little soever we may think of it, in making establishments which will affect the happiness of an hundred millions of inhabitants at a time, in a period not very distant.”

Summary Overview

In A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, John Adams defends the decision to establish a bicameral legislature along with a three-branch system of government. Adams argues that a single assembly would tend toward uniformity and be prone to abuses of power, and that it would be difficult to administer justice properly if the representatives were not subject to any oversight. He expresses the concern that a single-assembly system could too easily be influenced by a few powerful aristocrats to the detriment of the American people. Finally, Adams worries that once the immediacy of danger from the Revolution passed, people might become complacent and not speak out against abuses of power by their representatives. Using generalized examples taken from American and British history, Adams makes his case for why his proposed system would be the most fair and effective way to help the new United States move forward.

Defining Moment

The establishment of the United States of America was more than just the creation of a new country; it also marked the creation of a new form of government. This three-branch system of checks and balances was unprecedented at a time when governments were ruled by monarchies and single-assembly legislatures. The founders’ multilayered, highly democratic approach was carefully crafted and makes sense given that it was chosen in the wake of the Revolutionary War and the recent split from control by the British monarchy. The drafters of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and other key documents wanted to prevent aristocrats from gaining too much power over the new government. They took great pains to develop a system that would allow individuals who were not from elite or powerful families to serve as representatives and contribute to the future of the new nation.

This dramatic change was met with skepticism from European scholars and philosophers, many of whom believed that some combination of monarchy and a single-assembly legislature was perfectly adequate. In 1787, John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence, responded to these arguments in a series of published letters entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. Drawing from examples in American and British history, he highlighted the potential dangers of allowing an unchecked legislature to make major decisions about the new nation’s leadership. He also explained how a three-branch government could work in conjunction with a two-assembly legislature to provide the checks and balances necessary to ensure that no small faction of individuals could dominate the decision-making process. This marked a significant moment for the new government, as the reasons for the new system were staunchly defended in the face of criticism.

Author Biography

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts. He was educated at Harvard College beginning in 1751, where he chose to study law rather than become a farmer and a minister like his father. He rose to prominence as a trial attorney and drafted many government documents while gaining respect for his extensive knowledge of American and British political and legal history.

From these beginnings, Adams embarked on an extensive career in government and public service. He was elected to the Massachusetts General Court in 1770 and then served as the Massachusetts delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses between 1774 and 1777. Because of his knowledge of law and history, as well as his experience with drafting documents, he was a very influential force in these assemblies.

Throughout his life, Adams strongly believed in the cause for American independence from Great Britain. He became a key figure in shaping the Declaration of Independence when he was appointed to the drafting committee along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. While Thomas Jefferson received the credit for writing the Declaration of Independence, input from Adams significantly influenced the chosen structure for the new government as well as the wording of the document as it was signed in 1776. Alongside the Declaration, Adams published a pamphlet “Thoughts on Government,” where he explained many of the decisions made by the drafters. This pamphlet influenced many states to establish governing bodies similar to those of the federal government, and Adams himself participated in drafting the Massachusetts Constitution in 1779.

The three-branch system of government and bicameral legislature was quite different from other Western governments at the time and was often criticized in Europe. In 1787, Adams published a three-volume set entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which he wrote as a series of letters addressed to critics that systematically refuted their arguments based on his historical knowledge and personal experiences with several different legislative and judicial bodies in the American colonies and in Great Britain.

In 1789, Adams was elected the first vice president of the United States, during which time he also acted as the president of the Senate. In 1797, Adams was elected the second president of the United States. However, some of the policies he pursued during his term were controversial or unpopular, and he served only a single four-year term before he was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election.

John Adams died on July 4, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Document Analysis

The official founding of the United States of America was significant for several reasons. Importantly, it separated the American colonies from British colonial rule. Moreover, it marked the establishment of an entirely new form of government. The Founding Fathers of the United States believed it was necessary to establish three branches of government, each of which would be responsible for a particular domain of the law, and all of which would be required to work together to make any significant changes. The legislative branch was designated to write the laws, the judicial branch was charged with ensuring that the laws complied with the provisions of the United States Constitution, and the executive branch was to give force to the laws. An additional feature of this system was that the legislature was divided into two separate assemblies—each served a different purpose, but both would need to cooperate in order to create new laws.

John Adams wrote A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America in part to address arguments against this three-branch system. Through a series of letters, Adams describes the necessity of checks and balances, also explaining the benefits of the two-assembly legislature. His resolute defense of the new government was aimed at critics in Europe. In particular, the French economist Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot held the view that a bicameral legislature was unnecessary in countries that lacked a ruling aristocracy, as appeared to be the case in the nascent United States.

The newly formed United States was still reeling from the recent danger and upheaval of the Revolutionary War, and the people were very much on their guard to prevent small groups of powerful individuals from seizing control of the new government. The Founding Fathers were not entirely convinced that an aristocracy did not exist in America; there was indeed a ruling class of highly influential people, and while many of them fled during the war and its aftermath, they could return and attempt to seize control over the new country. Adams was particularly sensitive to this since, even though his family had been in America for more than a century, they were not especially powerful or elite. This was true for many other drafters of early documents as well, and building a system of checks and balances into the new government was thought to be the most effective way of preventing an aristocratic takeover.

In this selection from A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Adams clearly defines the purpose of the executive power, namely to ensure administration and execution of the laws. He notes that without this follow-through, it was pointless to have laws at all. However, to illustrate the problems that could arise from having a single governing body create and administer all aspects of the federal government, Adams uses the example of raising an army. He notes that if there were a single assembly, then that group would be responsible for appointing all military officers. They would likely choose “the man of the most ample fortune, the most honourable descent,” which would likely mean someone who came from a background very similar to their own. The selected general by definition would be a highly influential person within the military, and even to the nation as a whole, and attitudes would be shaped by this individual’s ideas and visions. This would inevitably lead to uniformity across the military, which would not be desirable.

Adams also notes that if there were a single federal assembly containing representatives from all states, most of that assembly would not personally know the candidates for various positions put forth by other members of the assembly. They would instead need to rely on the endorsements of fellow assembly members, who might have their own personal interests at stake in a particular appointment. This could result in certain individuals holding a significant amount of influence over such appointments, particularly if they were from powerful, elite families with many political ties. Unfortunately, this might not lead to the best candidate receiving the job.

Then Adams asks a very practical question: How could the hundreds of men that make up such an assembly “become informed of the merits and pretensions of each candidate”? He notes that this sharing of information could only be done in public or in private, and each approach has its drawbacks. Public debate “consumes time without end,” and addressing every minor detail in this fashion would waste the time of the entire assembly. However, if these discussions took place in private, too many representatives would not receive the information they needed to make an educated vote. In either case, Adams suspected that the candidate who has the most influential friends in the assembly would win in the end anyway.

Based on the reality of time-consuming public debate, Adams points out the logistical problem that, if all leadership must be appointed by the single assembly, that business alone could consume the entire year if good decisions are to be made based on full and proper examination of the evidence. He states specifically that anyone who has seen such an assembly in action could understand the “confusion, uncertainty, and procrastination” that would result from proceedings such as this. He observes that similar congresses had already been operating in the colonies and rather notoriously suffered from these problems. It is then unsurprising that Adams, along with many of the other Founding Fathers who themselves had served on local assemblies, intentionally chose to create a three-branch system to ease the administrative burden of running the country.

The final complication with a single-assembly system is that it could tend to favor candidates with elite aristocratic backgrounds. Adams was particularly concerned that those who might otherwise be good representatives of their communities would be exposed to “slander, suspicion, and ridicule” if they tried to run for office. Since Adams did not come from a particularly influential background himself, he wanted to ensure that others like him would have the opportunity to serve the public good if they chose to do so. With a bicameral approach, Adams felt that there would be a place in the legislature for the aristocrats, but their power would be kept in check by the need for cooperation between the two tiers.

Adams also expresses concerns about the administration of justice in a single-assembly system. He again asks an important practical question: Would there be rules to govern the proceedings of the assembly, and if so, who would create it? If the assembly created its own rules and there were no other governmental body to oversee its compliance, there could be no assurance that the assembly would not simply make and break rules as its own convenience. Adams notes that to prevent such a situation, a second assembly would need to convene simultaneously to answer any question that arose concerning the legality of the actions of the first assembly. This effectively meant that two assemblies would need to be created anyway, so the founders chose instead to establish the House of Representatives and the Senate to provide checks and balances on one another’s power right from the beginning.

Adams also mentions that he had considered proposing a third assembly to exercise executive power but ultimately decided that it would be best for the executive to be represented in one man—the president of the United States. Adams believed that in times of important decisions, “the unity, the secrecy, the dispatch of one man, has no equal,” and that this job could be performed best by a single person. He emphasizes, however, that because of the nature of these significant decisions, the public must vigilantly watch over the executive branch and take swift action on any abuses of power. This, he believed, would ultimately be easier to do if the responsibility could be placed on one single person rather than on yet another assembly.

Adams then returns to discussing the single-assembly idea and notes that in the first few years of the new nation, the assembly would probably behave moderately since people are still on guard from the “fresh remembrance of danger and distress” brought about by the Revolutionary War. Yet he expresses concern that as time passes and the immediate dangers are forgotten, the representatives may grant themselves progressively more exceptions when enforcing laws and the people they govern may not be so vigilant against such abuses of power. He was particularly worried that the minor exceptions these representatives might grant to themselves would eventually grow into much larger exceptions. For example, if representatives were exempt from paying taxes while they served in the assembly, Adams was concerned that would simply vote to expand that exemption to last for one year after service, then several years, and then eventually a lifetime. Citizens might eventually become indifferent to such abuses of power by their representatives and fail to address this corruption, and worse yet, ignoring the problem would only encourage these abuses of power.

Adams also feared that this complacency could make it easy for a small group of representatives to exercise a significant amount of control over the government. He believed these people would likely be members of the aristocracy who would “never give way to fair and equal establishments” because they wanted to retain the power for themselves. Adams was quite strong in his belief that aristocrats would use their influence in any way possible to obtain and keep control over the government if given the opportunity; he therefore strongly favored a establishing a system that was specifically designed to keep such influences to a minimum.

Adams goes on to question to the wisdom in allowing the people to democratically elect their assembly, but then allowing a council of that assembly to appoint the leader of the executive branch. He was concerned that this approach would again place too much power into the hands of a few elite and influential members of the assembly, who could then assign an executive who was favorable to their own interests. He also worried that this could cause tension between the democratically elected legislative body and the potentially unpopular appointed executive leader, as well as their respective supporters. With tensions still running high from the Revolutionary War, it is not surprising that Adams was concerned about any situation that had the potential to cause civil unrest. This argument also highlights the importance of the judicial branch as a way to maintain the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches and emphasizes the importance of holding a popular election to select the nation’s president.

Adams concludes the letter by observing that people can survive and even thrive in countries with poorly constructed governments, or even without any governments at all. However, he recognizes the significance of creating a solid foundation for the government that would serve the people of the new United States, who were “living chiefly by agriculture, in small numbers, sprinkled over large tracts of land.” This situation presented an interesting set of challenges, and the drafters of the United States Constitution chose to address them by using a three-branch form of government and a two-tiered legislature. In this piece, Adams defends that idea through reasoning and examples of how the development of the United States might play out if a single-assembly system were to be chosen instead. Many of Adams’s examples were a result of his own direct observation as a participant in government, as well as his knowledge of history and how similar situations had progressed in the past, both in the American colonies and in Great Britain.

Essential Themes

In A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, John Adams defends establishment of a three-branch system of government with a bicameral legislature—arguing for its superiority to a more traditional single-assembly system. Many European scholars and philosophers of the day believed that such a complex structure of government would be unnecessary in a country without a ruling aristocracy, but Adams and the other founders disagreed.

Adams believed that a single assembly would lack oversight, become bogged down in administrative details, and tend toward uniformity; he was concerned that abuses of power might become prevalent under such conditions. Adams also seemed unconvinced that the new United States was free from the influence of elite aristocrats. Through firsthand experiences in the colonial legislature of Massachusetts, he had witnessed how individuals from powerful families could exercise significant influence over the decisions made by these assemblies, and he therefore wanted to prevent significant control over the new government from falling into the hands of a few.

Adams also considered it imperative to have a popularly elected president to control the executive branch. He believed that if the president were instead appointed by a legislative committee, the decision would be strongly influenced by the most powerful members of the legislature. This might cause a rift between the legislature that the people had elected and the unpopular president that the elite representatives had installed, which could lead to civil unrest. This scenario was a very real concern to Adams, as the newly established United States had only recently emerged from the Revolutionary War with Great Britain, and the founders were eager to propose a system of government that would allow the people to be represented while also maintaining the peace.

Lastly, Adams feared that once the sense of uncertainty and the immediacy of danger from the war had passed, the American people might slowly become complacent and reluctant to address abuses of power by their elected officials. The necessity of a fair and balanced government might no longer seem so urgent then, and the people might simply wish to avoid more trouble now that the worst had passed. However, such complacency could encourage political corruption to the detriment of the American people. Using generalized examples taken from American and British history, Adams made his case for why a three-branch government with a two-tiered legislature would be the most fair and effective way to help the new nation move forward.

Bibliography
  • Burnett, Edmund Cody. The Continental Congress. New York: Macmillan, 1941. Print.
  • McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon, 2001. Print.
  • Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970. Print.
  • Shea, Marilyn. “A Defence of the Constitutions of the Government of the United States of America.” Reading Revolutions. University of Maine, 2006. Web. 1 July 2012.
  • Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Evans, Thomas, and Louisa Evans. “When Freedom Meets Power.” Newsweek 27 Jan. 2009: 65. Print.
  • Ferling, John. John Adams: A Life. 1992. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
  • Hennessey, Jonathan, and Aaron McConnell. The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation. New York: Hill, 2008. Print.
  • Paynter, John E. “The Rhetorical Design of John Adams’ Defence of the Constitutions of . . . America.” Review of Politics 58.3 (1996): 531–60. Print.
  • Ritchie, Donald A. Our Constitution. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
  • Slauter, Will. “Constructing Misreadings: Adams, Turgot, and the American State Constitutions.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 105.1 (2011): 33–67. Print.

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