Papers of John Adams, volume 3

From James Warren

To Samuel Osgood Jr.

307 To Richard Henry Lee, 15 November 1775 JA Lee, Richard Henry


To Richard Henry Lee, 15 November 1775 Adams, John Lee, Richard Henry
To Richard Henry Lee
Philadelphia Novr. 15th 1775 Dear Sir

The Course of Events, naturally turns the Thoughts of Gentlemen to the Subjects of Legislation and Jurisprudence, and it is a curious Problem what Form of Government, is most readily and easily adopted by a Colony, upon a Sudden Emergency. Nature and Experience have already pointed out the Solution of this Problem, in the Choice of Conventions and Committees of safety. Nothing is wanting in Addition to these to make a compleat Government, but the Appointment of Magistrates for the due Administration of Justice.

Taking Nature and Experience for my Guide I have made the following Sketch, which may be varied in any one particular an infinite Number of Ways, So as to accommodate it to the different, Genius, Temper, Principles and even Prejudices of different People.1

A Legislative, an Executive and a judicial Power, comprehend the whole of what is meant and understood by Government. It is by ballancing each of these Powers against the other two, that the Effort in humane Nature towards Tyranny, can alone be checked and restrained and any degree of Freedom preserved in the Constitution.

Let a full and free Representation of the People be chosen for an House of Commons.

Let the House choose by Ballott twelve, Sixteen, Twenty four or Twenty Eight Persons, either Members of the House, or from the People at large as the Electors please, for a Council.

Let the House and Council by joint Ballott choose a Governor, annually triennially or Septennially as you will.

Let the Governor, Council, and House be each a distinct and independant Branch of the Legislature, and have a Negative on all Laws.

Let the Lt. Governor, Secretary, Treasurer, Commissary, Attorney General and Solicitor General, be chosen annually, by joint Ballott of both Houses.

Let the Governor with seven Councillors be a Quorum.

Let all Officers and Magistrates civil and military, be nominated and appointed by the Governor, by and with the Advice and Consent of his Council.

Let no Officer be appointed but at a General Council,2 and let Notice be given to all the Councillors, Seven days at least before a General Council.

Let the Judges, at least of the Supream Court, be incapacitated by 308Law from holding any Share in the Legislative or Executive Power, Let their Commissions be during good Behaviour, and their Salaries ascertained and established by Law.

Let the Governor have the Command of the Army, the Militia, Forts &c.

Let the Colony have a Seal and affix it to all Commissions.

In this Way a Single Month is Sufficient without the least Convulsion or even Animosity to accomplish a total Revolution in the Government of a Colony.

If it is thought more beneficial, a Law may be made by this new Legislature giving 3 leaving to the People at large the Priviledge of choosing their Governor, and Councillors annually, as soon as affairs get into a more quiet Course.

In adopting a Plan, in some Respects similar to this,4 human Nature would appear in its proper Glory asserting its own real Dignity, pulling down Tyrannies, at a single Exertion and erecting such new Fabricks, as it thinks best calculated to promote its Happiness.

As you was last Evening polite enough to ask me for this Model, if such a Trifle will be of any service to you, or any gratification of Curiosity, here you have it,5 from, sir, your Friend and humble servant,

John Adams

RC (Kevin D. Harrington, Tiburon, Calif., 1977); addressed: “Richard Henry Lee Esqr. Present”; docketed: “Mr. Adams plan of Government.” Tr in the hand of William Cranch (Adams Papers). Cranch notes that the Tr was made on 7 April 1827 from the original, then in possession of Edmund Jennings Lee, son-in-law of Richard Henry Lee.


What follows is the germ of JA's Thoughts on Government, written in the spring of 1776. It anticipates the later call for a government in which the legislative, executive, and judicial branches balance each other. What it lacks is any general discussion of the purpose of government and the meaning of representation, as well as provisions for the franchise, education, and the militia, all included in the later effort (see Thoughts on Government, ante 27 March–April 1776, below).


The appointment of officers at a “General Council” was the practice in Massachusetts. In 1776 such a council met usually on Thursdays. What distinguished it was advance notice of the day it would act upon specific business.


JA was firm in his conviction that privileges and rights were not given to the people; they were theirs inherently. It was they who gave powers to their government. He repeatedly stressed to later correspondents that what the people wanted should be accepted.


Comma supplied here.


Lee circulated copies of this letter and probably made it into a handbill with some modifications. At least one copy of the letter found its way to England. The handbill was printed in Purdie's Virginia Gazette on 10 May 1776 and had some influence on the form the Virginia constitution took (John E. Selby, “Richard Henry Lee, John Adams, and the Virginia Constitution of 1776,” VMHB , 84:387–400 [Oct. 1976]; P.R.O.:C.O. 5, vol. 93: 395, via DLC:British Reproductions; Jefferson, Papers , 1:334–335).