Skip to comments.The Conservative Mind: John Adams and Liberty Under The Law (An Excerpt)
Posted on 10/25/2002 7:00:46 AM PDT by William McKinley
Jus cuique, the golden rule, is all the equality that can be supported or defended by reason or common sense... My 'Defence of the Constitutions' and 'Discourses on Davila' were the cause of that immense unpopularity which fell like the tower of Siloam upon me. Your steady defence of democratical principles, and your invariable favorable opinion of the French revolution, laid the foundation for your unbounded popularity. Sic transit gloria mundi.John Adams, son of a Braintree farmer, let his enemy persuade him to write a book. A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America was the book, and Thomas Jefferson was the enemy-- a friend at the moment, however, then for long years an adversary, and toward the end a friend once more. Shocked at the fancies of Lafayette, Rochfoucauld, Condorcet, and Franklin, condemning their ignorance of history, this severe and forthright little Massachusettes lawyer spent the greater part of his life declaring, with perfect indifference to popularity, that freedom can be achieved and retained only by sober men who take humanity as it is, not as humanity as it should be. His learning and his courage made him great, and he became the founder of true conservatism in America. Thirteen years after Adams had lost the Presidency of the United States, he wrote the passage above, without acrimony, to the man who had beaten him. In general, the Federalists were a gloomy set; and Adams underestimated the influence his ideas and his example would exert upon future generations in America. Despite grave faults, the United States remain today a nation strong and prosperous, where proterty and liberty are tolerably secure. John Adams, who entertained no exaggerated opinion of the wisdom and virtue possessed by the mass of mankind, might have been reasonably satisfied with this accomplishment. More than anyone else, he taught the value of good and practical laws, transcending the passions of the hour. And more than anyone else, he kept the American government one of laws, not of men.
By and large, the American Revolution was not an innovating upheaval, but a conservative restoration of colonial prerogativves. Accustomed from their beginnings to self-government, the colonials felt that by inheritance they possessed the rights of Englishmen and by prescription certain rights peculiar to themselves. When a designing king and a distant parliament presumed to extend over America powers of taxation and administration never before exercised, the colonies rose to vindicate their prescriptive freedom; and after the hour of compromise had slipped away, it was with reluctance and trepidation they declared their independence. Thus men essentially conservative found themselves triuphant rebels, and were compelled to reconcile their traditional ideas with the necessities of an independence harldy anticipated. It was a profound problem: the Republicans, Jefferson being chief among them, endeavored to solve it by the application of a priori concepts, and came to sympathize with French egalitarian theories. Their opponents, the Federalists, appealed to the lessons of history, the legacy of British liberties, and the guarentees of prescriptive constitutions.
These Federalists, the first conservative faction in an independent America, found themselves menaced by two radicalisms: one of French origins, the same enormous social and intellectual convulsion that Burke confronted; the other a growth in part native and in part English, the levelling agrarian republicanism of which Jefferson was the chief representative, zealous to abolish entail, primogeniture, church establishments, and all the vestiges of aristocracy,
[entail: to restrict (property) by limiting the inheritance to the owner's lineal descendants or to a particular class thereof]and to oppose centralization, strong government, public debt, and the military. The Federalists tended to be the party of the towns, the commercial and manufacturing interests, and the creditors; the Republicans, the party of the country, the agricultural interests, and the debtors. Shay's Rebellion, and later the Whiskey Rebellion, gave the Federalists a highly unpleasant notion of the power and aspirations of their opponents, inspiring in them an almost desperate resolution to oppose local radicalism by means of conservative consolidation.
primogeniture: an exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son. WM ]
[More on Shays Rebellion here
More on the Whiskey Rebellion here WM]
Edmund Burke and John Adams were liberals in the sense that they believed in prescriptive liberties, though not in abstract liberty. They were individualists in the sense that they believed in individuality-- diversity of human character, variety of human action-- although they abhorred the apotheosis of Individualism as the supreme moral principle. When the doctrinaire liberals repudiated the idea of Providence, they retained only a moral concept shorn of religious sanctions and left to wither into mere selfishness. Similarly, when the doctrinaire liberals severed political freedom from that political complexity which shelters liberty, they unwittingly hacked the roots of "inalienable rights". Burke touched upon all this in 1790, but Adams, in Defence, had anticipated him.
Turgot, Adams wrote, was blind to the truth that Liberty, practically speaking, is made of particular local and personal liberties; Turgot was ignorant of the great prerequisite for just government, which is recognition of the local rights and interests and diversities, and their safeguarding in the state. Turgot was for "collecting all authority in one centre, the nation" (Turgot's own words). "It is easily understood," Adams commented, "how all authority may be collected into 'one centre' in a despot or monarch; but how it may be done when the centre is to be the nation, is more difficult to comprehend...If, after the pains of 'collecting all authority to one centre,' that centre is to be the nation, we shall remain exactly where we began, and no collection of authority at all will be made. The nation will be the authority, and the authority will be the nation. The centre will be the circle, and the circle the centre. When a number of men, women, and children, are simply congregated together, there is no political authority among them; nor any natural authority, but that of parents over their children."
Either this centralization is an illusion, and authority reposes nowhere; or it is a fact, and therefore a tyranny by those men who in actually constitute the centre. This dilemna, the conundrum of "plebiscitary democracies" in our age, Adams proceeds to examine in the light of history; for, with Burke, he looked upon history as the source of all enlightened expediency.
As Gilbert Chinard remarks, the Defence is a lawyer's brief, rather than a philosophical treatise. But what a brief! Adams is intent upon proving that only a balance of powers-- executive, senate, house of representatives, use what equivalent terms you will-- makes a free government possible. First, he examines modern democratic republics-- San Marino, Biscay, seven separate cantons of Switzerland, and the United Provinces of the Low Countries; then he turns to aristocratic republics-- nine Swiss examples, and Lucca, Genoa, Venice, and again the United Provinces. Next come three examples of regal republics, England, Poland, and Neuchatel; after that the "Opinions of Philosophers," Swift, Franklin, and Price; presently "Writers on Government," Machiavelli, Sidney, Montesquieu, and Harrington; which lead to "Opinions of Historians," Polybius (Adams' favorite among the ancients), Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plato, Locke, Milton and Hume. The seventh chapter is an analysis of twelve ancient democratic republics; the eigth, of three ancient aristocratic republics; and the ninth, of three ancient monarchial republics. It is not necessary to tabulate the contents of the second and third volumes of the Defence to be convinced of Adams' erudition. Here is a thirst for information not unworthy of comparison with Aristotle's and Bacon's. And he summarizes all this mass of evidence with a paragraph:
By the authorities and examples already recited, you will be convinced that three branches of power have an unalterable foundation in nature; that they exist in every society natural and artificial; and that if all of them are not acknowledged in any constitution of government, it would be found to be imperfect, unstable, and soon enslaved; that the legislative and executive authorities are naturally distinct; and that liberty and the laws depend entirely on a separation of them in the frame of government; that the legislative power is naturally and necessarily sovereign and supreme over the executive; and, therefore, that the latter must be made an essential branch of the former, even with a negative, or it will not be able to defend itself, but will be soon invaded, undermined, attacked, or in some way or other totally ruined and annihilated by the former.Without balance in government, there can be no true law; and without law, no liberty. [...]
In the practical art of acheiving political balance, Adams had experience; he had dominated the convention that framed the first free constitution for Massachusettes, and his early writings had influenced constitution writers in other states. He stood for a strong executive, with a veto upon the other two branches of the legislature (for the chief magistrate, although incorporated in the sovereignity of the legislature, exercises a separate authority); a senate, or upper chamber, substantially representative of wealth and position; a house or representatives, or lower chamber, substantially based upon population. And this division is not made primarily for the protection of the rich, well-born, and able against the mass of the people, but rather to protect the multitude against the ambition of aristocracy, natural or artificial. In Massachusettes, the senatorial seats were allotted to districts in proportion to the direct taxes paid into the state treasury from each area; other methods, too, might serve to distinguish the constituencies electing the members of the upper house from those electing the lower. "The rich, the well-born, and the able, acquire and influence among the people that will soon be too much for simple honesty and plain sense, in a house of representatives. The most illustrious of them must, therefore, be separated from the mass, and placed by themselves in a senate; this is, to all honest and useful intents, an ostracism... the Senate becomes the great object of ambition; and the richest and most sagacious wish to merit an advancement to it by services to the public in the house."
The executive officer should be representative of the people in general, a man of august and independent character, viewing impartially the clams of the other two branches of the government. Parrington objects that Adams provides no means for selecting an executive who would truly represent the mass of people, and not the aristocratic element which tends to dominate all societies. And yet has not the American national presidency developed into very nearly the institution which Adams describes, so far as things terrestrial can approach their idea?
Thus power is distributed justly among the chief interests in society; the inedradicable natural aristocracy, to the analysis of which Adams devoted so large a part of his political writings, is recognized and to some extent moulded into a separate body by the institution of a senate; the passion of the moment and the tyranny of the omnipotent legislative organ are checked by constitutional devices. Years before, Adams had inveighed against the defects of a single assembly-- it was liable to all the frailties of an individual, it was avaricious, it was ambitious of perpetual power, it was unfit to exercise executive authority, it was too little skilled in law to exercise judicial power, and it tended to adjudge all disputes in its own favor. These evils Turgot's proposal would release upon an unlucky nation; balance alone can keep the lip upon them.
Democracy is feared by Adams no more than he dreads any other unmixed form of government: "I cannot say that democracy has been more pernicious, on the whole, than any of the others. Its atrocities have been more transient; those of the others have been more permanent...Democracy must be an essential, an integral part of the sovereignity, and have a control over the whole government, or moral liberty cannot exist, or any other liberty. I have been always grieved at the gross abuse of this respectable word." But neither can moral liberties endure if democracy is unchecked by other social interests; for that matter, pure democracy destroys itself, for want of wisdom and moderation, and ends in despotism. "Where people have a voice, and there is no balance, there will be everlasting fluctuations, revolutions, and horrors, until a standing army, with a general at its head, commands the peace, or the necessity of an equillibrium is made appear to all, and is adopted by all." This far-sighted admonition was written three years before Burke stirred himself to warn France and civilization (as Laski very justly comments) of the "military dictatorship he so marvellously foresaw."
I am in the process of reading The Conservative Mind, and think that as I find particular passages of interest or relevance I will take a moment to type them in and share them. I posted last week the following excerpt:
One precedent at a time, the statists are over-writing the Constitution, and changing the US into a "parliamentary democracy" in all but name.
I believe it is Ben Franklin who has been proven right:
Mr. President I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said "I don't know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that's always in the right-Il n'y a que moi qui a toujours raison."
In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends, on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administred.
On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.
On the last day of the Constitutional Convention, Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin, one of the few Americans of the time with international repute, rose to give a speech to the Convention prior to the signing of the final draft of the Constitution. Too weak to actually give the speech himself, he had fellow Pennsylvanian James Wilson deliver the speech. It is considered a masterpiece.
It appears here as reported in Madison's notes on the Convention for September 17, 1787.
His arguments for a proper division of powers have become so familiar to Americans that they may appear wearisome truisms. But it is Adams who made them truisms: his learning and his candor, almost unaided, obstructed in the United States a flooding intellectual sympathy with French theories of idyllic benevolence, omnicompetent single assemblies, and unitary states. He sacrificed his popularity in order to oppose these revolutionary opinions, but in the long run he and his friends prevailed; and modern American government, however disfigured in his eyes by haphazard introduction of the instruments of "direct democracy," nevertheless probably would seem to him sufficient vindication of his political struggle. He was the truest Federalist of them all; for where Hamilton accepted the federal system merely as a tolerable substitute for central government, and where Pickering and Dwight and the other Hartford Convention men adhered to the federal idea only when it suited New England's interest, Adams believed in the federal principle as the best possible government for America. More than any other nation in the world, the United States cling affectionately to the idea of political balance; and in large measure, this is the harvest of Adams' practical conservatism.I subscribe to this point of view. I believe that by and large, our system is as Adams envisioned and is, as Franklin hoped, possibly the best that can be hoped. I believe that whatever distortions exist in it are a result, not of any failings of the federalists, but rather in the fault of those who subsequently tinkered with the balances crafted by men like Adams and Madison; that when we introduced direct democratic elections to the Senate we altered the balance of power between away from the states in ways that have had negative reprecussions. But for the most part, a strong federal government is a necessity, lest the union be divided by secession or overtaken by a conquering rival nation. It just needs to be checked, and the liberties we enjoy every day suggest that it is being checked, although I freely admit that the regulations and the taxes suggest we should reign it in more.
The "liberties we enjoy" are decreasing day by day. The Federalists got their way, and we are screwed. Sure, the Anti-Federalists bitched until they got the Bill of Rights included in the Constitution, but the "strong central government" types have been chipping and chopping away at them since that time, and succeeding on almost all fronts. Soon they will exist only on paper, and so warped by "legal precedent" as to be meaningless.
The "liberties we enjoy" are decreasing day by dayI don't agree with this perspective. I believe that in aggregate, our liberties are plentiful and in many ways more prevalent than earlier in our history. Go to any state and examine some of the older "blue" laws. Compare a black man of today with one of 200 years ago, or even 100 years ago. Compare the freedoms women have today, as compared to the past.
And not all of these advancements of "liberty" have been positive; we have now a freedom to abort, which is a destructive and corrosive moral failing.
Are there things where liberties are constricted more now than in the past? Certainly. Are there things where liberties are more expansive now than in the past? Just as certainly.
For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?..."perfect production" -- ?
That's my problem with Franklin. He was too much the theorist or rationalist.
What he characterizes as "prejudices", "passions", "opinion" and "local interest" was their disparagment of theory and reliance on history and practical common sense. (See Forrest MacDonald) Both Franklin, who was there but elderly and sleeping some of the time, and Jefferson who was abroad, looked down on the Constitution for the same reason they favored the abstract rationalism, a priori reasoning and metaphysics that led to the French Revolution and all the Terror: They were men of the mind and not the world.
No, my friend, Franklin was an admirable animator, but a poor craftsman.
It is easy for complainers to say the Anti-Federalists were "right", because they never got the second convention they wanted, and so there is no way of knowing what might have come out of a second convention. Why should anyone think the result would have been better? Everyone was represented. They debated. They deliberated. Then they submitted it to the public. What the heck else could any of them have done?
In that practical sense, it seems to me, Franklin was right to say this was the best they were going to do, regardless of whatever criticisms he might have had with it, or upon what basis those criticisms were formed. But hey, what do I know?
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