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Victor Nuovo: John Adams on government

Editor’s note: This is the 14th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Thomas Paine and John Adams represent opposite types in manners, motives and ideas. But they were united in a common cause, brought together by the force of circumstance, which they seized as a political opportunity of great historical moment. Through many trials and not without error, and despite their opposite tendencies, these two complemented each other and comprised the complex and often bewildering American political genius.
Paine was a populist and a skeptic. His populism is evident in his vision of America as a refuge and asylum for all people in search of a better life (as discussed in this column the week prior). Yet he also harbored doubts that any society could rise to this high calling, for he believed that society corrupts.
Adams was no less skeptical than Paine, and he was a more consistent moral skeptic. He doubted that a mere assembly of people, guided only by a common sentiment, could establish justice—which is a Populist ideal. Therefore, the very framework of government, Adams believed, must be designed so that it counteracts mere sentiment by channeling human energy and ambition into rational institutional pathways that are determined to be reliable and just. He called this form of government, Republicanism.
Populism and Republicanism are the two poles of the American political system.
The central idea of Adams’ republican theory is “the rule of law.” In Thoughts on Government, published in May 1776, he swept aside the long tradition of political thought of laying out the merits and demerits of the various types of governments: monarchy, aristocracy or democracy, and called immediately for the creation of a republic, which was to be “an empire of laws, not of men.”
By “laws,” he meant not only the fundamental laws that establish a civil government and prescribe its organization (the law of constitutions), but also laws enacted by legitimate legislative bodies—in sum, the whole body of law.
To bring all this about, he proposed the acceptance of three principles.
• First, the principle of representation prescribes that the legislative body of government be made up of persons chosen for their moral fitness, rather than their popular appeal. Hence, legislative power must be deputed “from the many to a few of the most wise and good.” This may be described as Adams’ anti-populist or elitist principle.
However, he required that the legislative body be proportional to population, that legislators be elected annually by the people, and that a legislature “be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large.”
“It should think, feel, reason and act like them,” and, overall, “serve the common interest.” Even here, however, he moralizes. The “common interest” is not a collection of everyday wishes and desires shared among a majority of the people, he wrote, but a deep passion for “the noblest principles and generous affections of our nature.”
• Second, there must be a complete separation of the three powers of government: legislative, executive and judicial. The reasons he gives have to do with function. The legislative process must be open to view to any who care to observe it; laws must not be made in secret. On the other hand, the executive must be able to act in secret, even though all its actions must be recorded, and officials held accountable for their decisions and actions. Membership of the judiciary requires a special competence that goes far beyond any legal competence required of those in the other branches of government.
• Third, the legislature must consist of more than one body, so that there is a system of checks and balances within the legislative process itself; this policy is reinforced by the right of review by an independent judiciary.
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Adams’ republican idea appears to give priority to the legislative branch of government, for it has the power to make law, which is the primary expression of the sovereignty of a nation. Yet he also favored a strong executive possessing a right of legislative veto to counterbalance it.
Adams expressed the hope that government would be able to cause “the happiness of society,” of happiness infused with virtue. This is not a novel thought. What does he mean by it? Happiness is a feeling, and as far as I know, only individuals have feelings. Yet, individuals in society have feelings, and they are infectious, and this applies especially to feelings of content or discontent with respect to government. If an overwhelming majority of citizens believe that the laws are just and that public officials justly apply them, then that civil society may be described as happy or content.
But Adams conveys a more vibrant feeling than contentment. He was by all accounts a sober and often somber man, and very straight-laced, yet in spite of all of this, his revolutionary writings convey a near utopian excitement. Although his prescription that a government achieves happiness through an impartial administration of laws is not new, he thought that the real possibility of achieving it had been reached in America, something never achieved anywhere before. And he celebrated that moment.
He also believed that the empire of laws about to be established would be an empire of liberty: a society voluntarily shaped and constituted by the free choice of the people, who agree to submit to the rule of laws, enacted and executed by its constitutionally chosen representatives.
Furthermore, the laws, and the representatives who make and execute them, must serve the public interest or public good. And what is that? They must be laws that “suit the nature of justice,” which requires serving the public interest and not the private interests of a privileged few. Laws must be proper expressions of the will of the whole people, of their common right. They must be enacted in public, and the proponents and opponents of proposed laws must debate them using rational discourse.
In short, reason and virtue must prevail over passion, greed and resentment.
Such was the system of government that Adams hoped would be established in America. It would be a union of independent states, each with its own republican constitution. And in a quiet and modest way Adams imagined that in time the center of the world empire would migrate from Europe to America, although only for a time, not forever.

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