“The publick Power should be divided into different parts”: On the Trail of John Adams and Plato

By Rhonda Barlow, Research Associate

According to Abigail Adams, Plato was John Adams’ favorite author, and she wrote in 1784 that he was “in his easy chair reading Platos Laws.” Although John later wrote that some of the ideas of the Greek philosopher emerged from a lunatic asylum, Plato’s views on balanced constitutions resonated with the New Englander. So how did John Adams learn about them?

It is tempting to imagine the Harvard-educated lawyer absorbed in reading Plato’s complete works in the original Greek. This does not seem to be the case. Years later, Adams recalled that he read all of Plato in translation, using English, French, and Latin, and compared selections with the Greek. But his 31 March 1791 letter to Connecticut poet John Trumbull gives us a glimpse into how he actually accessed a classical author.  In his criticism of the unbalanced constitutions of revolutionary France, Adams quoted from Plato’s Laws in Latin, not Greek.

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John Adams letter to John Trumbull, March 31, 1791

Adams’ Latin can be translated as, “The republics, gentlemen, of which you are members, are true republics; but those we have just been speaking of, aristocracy, democracy, and monarchy, are not republics; they are communities where one part is a slave to the other part that dominates,” and “Not one of them is a true republic; the right name is seditions. In none do we find a willing sovereign with willing subjects, but a sovereign controlling reluctant subjects by violence.”

Adams then explained, “Human passions domineer in each of the three Simple Governments. to enquire which of them is the best is only to enquire, which will produce most mischief, the Passions of one Man the Passions of the Majority of a Senate or the Passions of a Majority of the Multitude. to enquire whether a mixed Government is better than a Simple one, is to ask whether the Passions are as wise as just and as moderate as the Laws.”

Adams had a Greek and Latin parallel version, and as lawyers, he and Trumbull could be expected to be more proficient in Latin than Greek. But the quotes did not come from Adams’ parallel version, and do not follow the original Greek closely. Instead, his source was his friend Gabriel Bonnot Abbé de Mably’s Entretiens de Phocion, a dialogue highlighting ancient Athenian statesman Phocion. Not only do the two Latin quotes match exactly, but Adams quotes them in the same order. Furthermore, when writing to James Madison about balanced constitutions 27 years later, Adams repeated his appreciation for Plato and de Mably and their views on mixed governments, and this time provided page numbers:

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John Adams letter to James Madison, April 22, 1817

Accidentally his Phocion is on my Table. In the Second Conversation, p. 45 and 49, he censured Monarchy, pure Aristocracy, and popular Government, The Laws are not safe, under these Administrations… What is the Security against these dangers? According to Plato, Phocion and De Mably, “An able Mixture of all these Governments; the publick Power should be divided into different parts, capable of controuling restraining, over-awing each other; of ballancing each other, and of reciprocally moderating each other.”

Adams probably did read much of Plato’s Laws in translation, and also encountered the ancient philosopher in contemporary writers. His dedication to his own role in a mixed and balanced government while serving as America’s first vice-president is showcased in volumes 20 and 21 of the Papers of John Adams.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding of the edition is currently provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute.