Adams Papers

From John Adams to William Stephens Smith, 26 December 1787

Grosvenor-Square, Dec. 26, 1787

Dear Sir.

It should have been before observed, that the Western empire fell in the fifth century, and the Eastern in the fifteenth.

Augustus was compelled by Odoacer, King of the Heruli. in 475, to abdicate the Western empire, and was the last Roman who possessed the Imperial dignity at Rome. The dominion of Italy fell, soon afterwards, into the hands of Theodoric the Goth. The Eastern empire lasted many centuries afterwards, till it was annihilated by Mahomet the Great, and Constantinople was taken in the year 1453. The interval between the fall of these two empires, making a period of about a thousand years, is called The Middle Age.* During this term republics without number arose in Italy; whirled upon their axles or single centres, foamed, raged, and burst like so many water-spouts upon the ocean. They were all alike ill-constituted: all alike miserable: and all ended in similar disgrace and despotism. It would be curious to pursue our object through all of them whose records have survived the ravages of Goths, Saracens, and bigotted Christians; through those other republics of Castile, Arragon, Catalonia, Gallicia and all the others in Spain; through those in Portugal: through the several provinces that now compose the kingdom of France; through those in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, England, Scotland, Ireland, &c. But if such a work should be sufficiently encouraged by the public (which is not probable, for mankind in general dare not as yet read or think upon CONSTITUTIONS) it is too extensive for my forces, and ought not to be done in so much haste. The preceding Letters have been produced upon the spur of a particular occasion, which made it necessary to write and publish with precipitation, or it might have been useless to have published at all. The whole has been done in the midst of other occupations, in so much hurry, that scarce a moment could be spared to correct the style, adjust the method, pare off excrescences, or even obliterate repetitions; in all which respects it stands in need of an apology. You may pursue the investigation to any length you please. All nations, from the beginning, have been agitated by the same passions. The principles developed in these Letters will go a great way in explaining every phænomonon that occurs in the history of government. The vegetable and animal kingdoms, and those heavenly bodies whose existence and movements we are as yet only permitted faintly to perceive, do not appear to be governed by laws more uniform or certain than those which regulate the moral and political world. Nations move by unalterable rules: and education, discipline, and laws, make the greatest difference in their accomplishments, happiness, and perfection. It is the master artist alone who finishes his building, his picture, or his clock. The present actors on the stage have been too little prepared by their early views, and too much occupied with turbulent Scenes, to do more than they have done: impartial justice will confess, that it is astonishing they have been able to do so much. It is for you and your youthful companions, to make yourselves masters of what your predecessors have been about to comprehend and accomplish but imperfectly. A prospect into futurity in America, is like contemplating the heavens through the telescopes of Herschell: objects, stupendous in their magnitudes and motions, strike us from all quarters, and fill us with amazement! When we recollect, that the wisdom or the folly, the virtue or the vice, the liberty of servitude, of those millions now beheld by us, only as Columbus saw these times in vision,* are certainly to be influenced, perhaps decided, by the manners, examples, principles, and political institutions of the present generation, that mind must be hardened into stone that is not melted into reverence and awe. With such affecting scenes before his eyes, is there, can there be, a young American indolent and incurious; surrendered up to dissipation and frivolity; vain of imitating the loosest manners of countries, which can never be made much better or much worse? A profligate American youth must be profligate indeed, and richly merits the scorn of all mankind.

The world has been too long abused with notions, that climate and soil decide the characters and political institutions of nations. The laws of Solon, and the despotism of Mahomet, have at different times prevailed at Athens: consuls, emperors, and pontiffs, have ruled at Rome. Can there be desired a stronger proof, that policy and education are able to triumph over every disadvantage of climate? Mankind have been still more injured by insinuations, that a certain celestial virtue, more than human, has been necessary to preserve liberty. Happiness, whether in despotism or democracy, whether in slavery or liberty, can never be found without virtue. The best republics will be virtuous, and have been so; but we may hazzard a conjecture, that the virtues have been the effect of the well-ordered constitution, rather than the cause: and perhaps it would be impossible to prove, that a republic cannot exist, even among highwaymen, by setting one rogue to watch another; and the knaves themselves may; in time, be made honest men by the struggle.

It is now in our power to bring this work to a conclusion with unexpected dignity. In the course of the last summer, two authorities have appeared, greater than any that have been before quoted, in which the principles we have attempted to defend have been acknowledged. The first is an Ordinance of Congress, of the 13th of July 1787, for the Government of the Territory of the United States North-west of the River Ohio; the second is, the Report of the Convention at Philadelphia, of the 17th of September 1787. The former confederation of the United States was formed upon the model and example of all the confederacies, ancient and modern, in which the foederal council was only a diplomatic body: even the Lycian, which is thought to have been the best, was no more. The magnitude of territory, the population, the wealth and commerce, and especially the rapid growth of the United States, have shewn such a government to be inadequate to their wants; and the new system, which seems admirably calculated to unite their interests and affections, and bring them to an uniformity of principles and sentiments, is equally well combined to unite their wills and forces as a single nation. A result of accommodation cannot be supposed to reach the ideas of perfection of any one; but the conception of such an idea, and the deliberate union of so great and various a people in such a plan, is, without all partiality or prejudice, if not the greatest exertion of human understanding, the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen. That it may be improved is not to be doubted, and provision is made for the purpose in the Report itself. A people who could conceive, and can adopt it, we need not fear will be able to amend it, when, by experience, its inconveniences and imperfections shall be seen and felt.

*  Barbeyrac’s Preface to his History of Ancient Treaties. Corps Dipl. tom. xii. Harris’s Philological Inquiries, part iii. chap. I.

*  Barlow’s Vision of Columbus.

Printed Source--John Adams. A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. 3 vols. (Philadelphia: 1797)..

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