Item of the Day: A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America by John Adams (1794)

Full Title:  A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, against the attack of M. Turgot in his letter to Dr. Price, Dated the Twenty-Second Day of March, 1778.  By John Adams, LL.D. and a  Member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences at Boston.  All Nature’s Difference keeps all Nature’s Peace.  Pope.  In Three Volumes. Vol. I. A New Edition.  London:  Printed for John Stockdale, Piccadilly. 1794.


Grosvenor-Square, Oct. 4, 1786.

My Dear Sir,

Three writers in Europe, of great abilities, reputation, and learning, M. Turgot, the Abbe De Mably, and Dr. Price, have turned their attention to the constitutions of government in the United States of America, and have written and published their criticism and advice.  They had all the most amiable characters, and unquestionably the purest intentions.  they had all experience in public affairs, and ample information in the nature of man, the necessity of society, and the science of government.

There are in the productions of all of them, among many excellent things, some sentiments, however, that it will be difficult to reconcile to reason, experience, the constitution of human nature, or to the uniform testimony of the greatest statesmen, legislators, and philosophers of all enlightened nations, ancient and modern.

M. Turgot, in his letter to Dr. Price, confesses, “that he is not satisfied with the constitutions which have hitherto been formed for the different states of America.”  He observes that by most of them the customs of England are imitated, without any particular motive.  Instead of collecting all authority into one center, that of the nation, they have established different bodies, a body of representatives, a council, and a governor, because there is in England, a house of commons, a house of lords, and a king.  They endeavour to balance these different powers, as if this equilibrium, which in England may be a necessary check to the enormous influence of royalty, could be of any use in republics founded upon the equality of all citizens, and as if establishing different orders of men was not a source of divisions and disputes.”

There has been, from the beginning of the revolution in America, a party in every state, who have entertained sentiments similar to these of M. Turgot.  Two or three of them have established governments upon his principle:  and, by advices from Boston, certain committees of counties have been held, and other conventions proposed in the Massachusetts, with the express purpose of deposing the governor and senate, as useless and expensive branches of the constitution; and as it is probable that the publication of M. Turgot’s opinion has contributed to excite such discontents among the people, it becomes necessary to examine it, and, if it can be shown to be an error, whatever veneration Americans very justly entertain for his memory, it is to be hoped they will not be missed by his authority.


My Dear Sir,

M. Turgot is offended, because the customs of England are imitated in most of the new constitutions in America, without any particular motive.  But, if we suppose that English customs were neither good nor evil in themselves, and merely indifferent; and the people by their birth, education, and habits, were familiarly attached to them; was not this a motive particular enough for their preservation, rather than endanger the public tranquillity, or unanimity, by renouncing them?  If those customs were wise, just, and good, and calculated to secure the liberty, property, and safety of the people, as well or better than any other institutions ancient or modern, would M. Turogt have advised the nation to reject them, merely because it was at that time justly incensed against the English government? — What English customs have they retained which may with an propriety be called evil?  M. Turgot has instanced only in one, viz. “that a body of representatives, a council, and a governor, has been established, because there is in England, a house of commons, a house of lords, and a king.”  It was not so much because the legislature in England consisted of three branches, that such a division of power was adopted by the states, as because their own assemblies had ever been so constituted.  It was not so much from attachment by habit to such a plan of power, as from conviction that it was founded in nature and reason, that it was continued. 

 M. Turgot seems to be of a different opinion, and is for “collecting all authority into one center, the nation.”  It is easily understood how all authority may be collected “into one center” in a despot or monarch; but how it can be done when the center is to be the nation, is more difficult to comprehend.  Before we attempt to discuss the notions of an author, we should be careful to ascertain his meaning.  It will not be easy, after the most anxious research, to discover the true sense of this extraordinary passage.  If, after the pains of “collecting all authority into one center,” that center 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 the nation.  The center will be the circle, and the circle the center.  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.  To leave the women and children out of the question for the present, the men will all be equal, free and independent of each other.  No one will have any authority over any other.  The first “collection” of authority must be as unanimous agreement to form themselves into a nation, people, community, or body politic, and to be governed by the majority of suffrages or voices.  But even in this case, although the authority is collected into one center, that center is no longer the nation, but the majority of the nation.  Did M. Turgot mean, that the people of Virginia, for example, half a million of souls scattered over a territory of two hundred leagues square, should stop here, and have no other authority by which to make or execute a law, or judge a cause, but by a vote of the whole people, and the decision of a majority?  Where is the plain large enough to hold them; and what are the means, and how long would be the time, necessary to assemble them together?

A simple and perfect democracy never yet existed among men.  If a village of half a mile square, and one hundred families, is capable of exercising all the legislative, executive, and judicial powers, in public assemblies of the whole by unanimous votes, or by majorities, it is more than has ever yet been proved in theory or experience.  In such a democracy, the moderator would be king, the town-clerk legislator and judge, and the constable sheriff, for the most part; and upon more important occasions, committees would be only the counsellors of both the former, and commandants of the latter.

Shall we suppose then, that M. Turgot intended, that an assembly of representatives should be chosen by the nation, and vested with all the powers of government; and that this assembly shall be the center in which all the authority shall be collected, and shall be virtually deemed the nation?  After long reflection, I have not been able to discover any other sense in his words, and this was probably his real meaning.  To examine this system in detail may be thought as trifling an occupation, as the laboured reasonings of Sidney and Locke, to shew the absurdity of Filmar’s superstitious notions, appeared to Mr. Hume in his enlightened days.  Yet the mistakes of great men, and even the absurdities of fools, when they countenance the prejudices of numbers of people, especially in a young country, and under new governments, cannot be too fully confuted.  You will not then esteem my time or your own mis-spent, in placing this idea of M. Turgot in all its lights; in considering the consequences of it; and in collecting a variety of authorities against it.


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Filed under 1790's, Constitutional Debate, Early Republic, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

One response to “Item of the Day: A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America by John Adams (1794)

  1. Pingback: Item of the Day: John Adam’s Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1794) « Eighteenth-Century Reading Room

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