Adams Papers

From John Adams to Louis Alexandre, Duc de La Rochefoucauld d’Anville, 1788

[ca. 1788]

My Lord Duke

our celestial Citizen, in his Second Letter, has it in design to explain, the constitution of a Single Legislative Body; the manner of fixing the Extent and Limits of the Power, which it ought to exercise; and the form, according to which, it ought to give its decisions, to the End that the Citizens may enjoy the Advantages of a free, peaceable and durable Constitution. This method, of destroying the Abuses inseperable from all human Institutions, is according to him the most conformable to Reason; of an Effect more sure, and more calculable, than the ordinary method of multiplying the Powers, with the Intention that they should mutually counterpoise <ballance> each other, and form an Equilibrium, a Sort of an empirical method whose Effects appear not Susceptible either of being forseen nor calculated with Precision."—

We learn, my Lord Duke from Diogenes Laertius that Zeno the great Founder and Teacher of the Stoical Philosophy, taught the Necessity of three Branches of Power in the Constitution of his Republick. “πολίτείαν δὲ ἀρίστην την μικτην ἔκ τε δημοκρατίας και βαςίλειας καὶ αριστοκρατίας."Zenoni visam eam Rem publicam esse optimam quæ Sit mista e regio et populari dominatu, optimorum que potentia."

To this great Authority might be added Lycurgus and Solon Aristotle and Plato, Romulus and Brutus, Dionissues Hallicarnasseusis and Polybius, Cicero Livy and Tacitus among the ancients; <Montesquieu> Sidney Harrington Montesquieu and innumerable others among the Moderns; Names whose Authority, might have been sufficient, not indeed to Shelter Error from Investigation, but to protect any Thing almost from such an Accusation. <the Charge of Empiricism>

Empiricism, as it was originally understood among the legend Signified Experiment, and an Empirick, one without science or art who relied solely upon Experience <with out Science or Art>: as it is commonly understood at present it Signifies sometimes Ignerance <[. . .]> sometimes <fraud> Knavery and at other times a mixture of both, in the Practice of Physick, Law Divinity, or any other Art Trade or Profession. But Surely, the great Legislators and Statesmen I just now <before> named will not Seriously be charged with the latter of these Characters any more than with the former. But as the whole Scope of these Letters, is manifestly to answer a particular Writer, to whose Work they have clearly enough alluded without naming it, this charge <is obe> of Empiricism is obviously addressed to the Prejudices and Vanity among the Vulgar Men of Letters in Paris. I will not retort the charge of Empiricism: but the Public, if not the Writer himself, may possibly in the Sequel See Reasons enough urged in favour of the System of Zeno to think it the Duty of a Writer who has thrown out Such an [Imprecation] of Contempt upon it, to retract repent and apologise for his rashness.

But the "Effects of a multiplication of Powers with a design that they Should form a mutual Equilibrium are not Susceptible of being forseen, <with> or calculated with any Precision."—The History of Rome and Carthage of Sparta and Athens, of England and Neufchattel are so well known, that any Man who reads may See what have been the Effects of an Equilibrium of Powers in those Instances. and if these are compared with the Histories of Simple Legislatures, whether in one, a few, or many, in earlier or later times, the Advantage will not be found in favour of the latter. Some Men indeed will say the Truth is exactly the reverse of our Authors opinion The Effects of a Division of Powers forming a mutual Ballance, may <can> be foreseen and calculated with Precesion while those of the Unity of the Legislative Power in a Single Assembly cannot. or rather, it may be Said with Truth, that if we form a Judgment either from the Constitution of the human heart, or from the History of nations, We may foresee with Ease and Precision that the effects of a Division of Powers forming a mutual Ballance, will be Peace, Liberty and Safety under equal Laws: and those of the Unity of the Legislative Power in a Single assembly will be a Faction Sedition and civil War after every species of Injustice, License and Breach of Faith.

The great Principle which renders civil Government necessary points out the Remedy for its greatest Evils. Human Passions are all unlimited and insatiable. This renders Association and Government necessary. without it, We are in continual Danger from each others Passions. But association does not extinguish the Passions or limit them. They remain Still craving andinsatiable. The great Maxim of a Legislature therefore, Should be, to leave no Passion in Society without a Controul; No action without a Reaction. If he leaves any Passion without a <Check> Controul, that Passion being insatiable will swallow up all the Power of the society. in a Simple Monarchy the insatiable Passions of one Man, are left without a Check and the Pages of History in Characters of Blood are sufficiently <Stained and> polluted with the Horrors, which their unresisted Fury has occasioned.—in a Simple Aristocracy, the insatiable Passions of a Few are unrestrained, and History shews in Instances enough, that their Excesses have been as great as those of Monarchs. in Simple Democracies, there are no Examples: but in Government which approached nearest to them, the Effects have been <more> no better.—in the Simplest Democracy that Imagination can concieve, every Thing must be determined by a Majority. This Majority becomes a moral Person, has its Understanding Will and Passions. Those Passions are as unlimited and insatiable as those of an Individual. The Minority cannot ballance, check nor controul them. They therefore in their Progress swallow up all Power, with an appetite as voracious as that of any individual, or any Monarch. The Consequences in this Case are so much the worse, as the Number of Persons is greater, and it requires more to gratify the appetites & passions of many than of one or a few. The Condition therefore of the Minority who are the defenceless Prey of the Majority is more terrible in this Government than that of subjects or Citizens in any other.

 Lib. 7. cap. 1. n. 66.

MHi: Adams Papers.

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