Papers of John Adams, volume 4

From Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant

From Nathanael Greene

To James Sullivan, 26 May 1776 JA Sullivan, James


To James Sullivan, 26 May 1776 Adams, John Sullivan, James
To James Sullivan
Dear Sir Philadelphia May 26. 1776

Your Favours of May 9th. and 17th.1 are now before me; and I consider them as the Commencement of a Correspondence, which will not only give me Pleasure, but may be of Service to the public, as, in my present Station I Stand in need of the best Intelligence, and the Advice of every Gentleman of Abilities and public Principles, in the Colony which has seen fit to place me here.

Our worthy Friend, Mr. Gerry has put into my Hand, a Letter from you, of the Sixth of May, in which you consider the Principles of Representation and Legislation, and give us Hints of Some Alterations, which you Seem to think necessary, in the Qualification of Voters.2

I wish, Sir, I could possibly find Time, to accompany you, in your Investigation of the Principles upon which a Representative assembly Stands and ought to Stand, and in your Examination whether the Practice of our Colony, has been conformable to those Principles. But alass! Sir, my Time is So incessantly engrossed by the Business before me that I cannot Spare enough, to go through So large a Field: and as to Books, it is not easy to obtain them here, nor could I find a Moment to look into them, if I had them.

It is certain in Theory, that the only moral Foundation of Government is the Consent of the People. But to what an Extent Shall We carry this Principle? Shall We Say, that every Individual of the Community, old and young, male and female, as well as rich and poor, must consent, expressly to every Act of Legislation? No, you will Say. This is impossible. How then does the Right arise in the Majority to govern the Minority, against their Will? Whence arises the Right of the Men to govern Women, without their Consent? Whence the Right of the old to bind the Young, without theirs.

But let us first Suppose, that the whole Community of every Age, Rank, Sex, and Condition, has a Right to vote. This Community, is assembled—a Motion is made and carried by a Majority of one Voice. The Minority will not agree to this. Whence arises the Right of the Majority to govern, and the Obligation of the Minority to obey? from 209 image 210 Necessity, you will Say, because there can be no other Rule. But why exclude Women?3 You will Say, because their Delicacy renders them unfit for Practice and Experience, in the great Business of Life, and the hardy Enterprizes of War, as well as the arduous Cares of State. Besides, their attention is So much engaged with the necessary Nurture of their Children, that Nature has made them fittest for domestic Cares. And Children have not Judgment or Will of their own. True. But will not these Reasons apply to others? Is it not equally true, that Men in general in every Society, who are wholly destitute of Property, are also too little acquainted with public Affairs to form a Right Judgment, and too dependent upon other Men to have a Will of their own? If this is a Fact, if you give to every Man, who has no Property, a Vote, will you not make a fine encouraging Provision for Corruption by your fundamental Law? Such is the Frailty of the human Heart, that very few Men, who have no Property, have any Judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by Some Man of Property, who has attached their Minds to his Interest.

Upon my Word, sir, I have long thought an Army, a Piece of Clock Work and to be governed only by Principles and Maxims, as fixed as any in Mechanicks, and by all that I have read in the History of Mankind, and in Authors, who have Speculated upon Society and Government, I am much inclined to think, a Government must manage a Society in the Same manner; and that this is Machinery too.

Harrington has Shewn that Power always follows Property. This I believe to be as infallible a Maxim, in Politicks, as, that Action and Re-action are equal, is in Mechanicks. Nay I believe We may advance one Step farther and affirm that the Ballance of Power in a Society, accompanies the Ballance of Property in Land. The only possible Way then of preserving the Ballance of Power on the side of equal Liberty and public Virtue, is to make the Acquisition of Land easy to every Member of Society: to make a Division of the Land into Small Quantities, So that the Multitude may be possessed of landed Estates. If the Multitude is possessed of the Ballance of real Estate, the Multitude will have the Ballance of Power, and in that Case the Multitude will take Care of the Liberty, Virtue, and Interest of the Multitude in all Acts of Government.

I believe these Principles have been felt, if not understood in the Massachusetts Bay, from the Beginning: And therefore I Should think that Wisdom and Policy would dictate in these Times, to be very cautious of making Alterations. Our people have never been very rigid in Scrutinizing into the Qualifications of Voters, and I presume they 211will not now begin to be so. But I would not advise them to make any alteration in the Laws, at present, respecting the Qualifications of Voters.

Your Idea, that those Laws, which affect the Lives and personal Liberty of all, or which inflict corporal Punishment, affect those, who are not qualified to vote, as well as those who are, is just. But, So they do Women, as well as Men, Children as well as Adults. What Reason Should there be, for excluding a Man of Twenty years, Eleven Months and twenty-seven days old, from a Vote when you admit one, who is twenty one? The Reason is, you must fix upon Some Period in Life, when the Understanding and Will of Men in general is fit to be trusted by the Public. Will not the Same Reason justify the State in fixing upon Some certain Quantity of Property, as a Qualification.

The Same Reasoning, which will induce you to admit all Men, who have no Property, to vote, with those who have, for those Laws, which affect the Person will prove that you ought to admit Women and Children: for generally Speaking, Women and Children, have as good Judgment, and as independent Minds as those Men who are wholly destitute of Property: these last being to all Intents and Purposes as much dependent upon others, who will please to feed, cloath, and employ them, as Women are upon their Husbands, or Children on their Parents.

As to your Idea, of proportioning the Votes of Men in Money Matters, to the Property they hold, it is utterly impracticable. There is no possible Way of Ascertaining, at any one Time, how much every Man in a Community, is worth; and if there was, So fluctuating is Trade and Property, that this State of it, would change in half an Hour. The Property of the whole Community, is Shifting every Hour, and no Record can be kept of the Changes.

Society can be governed only by general Rules. Government cannot accommodate itself to every particular Case, as it happens, nor to the Circumstances of particular Persons. It must establish general, comprehensive Regulations for Cases and Persons. The only Question is, which general Rule, will accommodate most Cases and most Persons.

Depend upon it, sir, it is dangerous to open So fruitfull a Source of Controversy and Altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the Qualifications of Voters. There will be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of 212State. It tends to confound and destroy all Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common Levell. I am &c.

LbC (Adams Papers); notation: “Sent by Post June 1. 1776.” This is the first entry in JA's Letterbooks (Lb/JA/1, Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 89). For information about the Adams Letterbooks and JA's motives for beginning them, see Adams Family Correspondence , 1:xxviii–xxix; 2:3. Several letters suggest that, in this first Letterbook at least, JA wrote out his letter initially in the Letterbook and then copied it out for sending; thus, LbC's are sometimes Dft's rather than true copies. For example, see JA to Benjamin Hichborn, 29 May, to Samuel Cooper, 30 May, and to John Winthrop, 23 June (all below).


Sullivan's letter of the 17th is in the Adams Papers, but is not being printed in these volumes.


The pertinent part of Sullivan's letter to Gerry follows:

“Since I wrote last my Mind has been exercised much on the Subject of Civil Government; a new assembly is at hand in which there will be the most full and equal representation that this Colony ever saw. This Assembly will undoubtedly suppose it to be their duty to provide for a future less unweildly and more equal representation than themselves. And how this can be done is the question. In order to do it must we not lay aside our old patched and unmeaning form of Government? The Scars and blotches of the feudal Sistem, the Foot steps of Vassalage, and the paths to lawless Domination compose so great a part of it, that no friend to his Country can wish to See it ever put in exercise again.

“Laws and Government are founded on the Consent of the people, and that consent should by each member of Society be given in proportion to his Right. Every member of Society has a Right to give his Consent to the Laws of the Community or he owes no Obedience to them. This proposition will never be denied by him who has the least acquaintance with true republican principles. And yet a very great number of the people of this Colony have at all times been bound by Laws to which they never were in a Capacity to Consent not having estate worth 40/ per annum &c. But yet by Fiction of Law every Man is supposed to consent. Why a man is supposed to consent to the acts of a Society of which in this respect he is absolutely an Excommunicate, none but a Lawyer well dabled in the feudal Sistem can tell. These fictions and Legal Suppositions (founded in utter illegalty) are only other Names for blinders, and Shackles. The Language of them is, that men are unable to account for the principles of their own Actions, and therefore give them a name which alters not their Nature but induces the people to let their inquiries cease.

“Government is founded on the Authority of the people, and by them only is Supported and is as the writer of Common Sense observes, not founded so much in human Nature, as in the depravity of it. Men in a State of innocence would want Society for their mutual assistance, but the depravity of mens Minds demand Government for their defence.

“Government has two Ends in veiw—first to Enact Laws compelling men to do their duty to each other, and Secondly to Support Judicatories to see these Laws Executed. The Laws when made, affect the Subject in two ways. First personally—and Secondly pecuniarily. In either way each Subject is alike Interested. For where there is a personal or Corporal punishment provided, all Subjects are equally concerned—the persons of the Beggar, and the Prince being equally dear to themselves respectively—saving the distinction necessary to be made for some Stupid Souls, void of those delicacies and compunctions so ornamental to human Nature. And let me add that in Times like the present, such minds are as often found on the throne as on the Dunghill. Those Laws which Govern and controul the Liberty, will, and Affections of the Subject, are alike Interesting to all. And So are those Laws which provide Mulcts and pe-213cuniary punishments—for in all cases where a fine is exacted, Magna Charta which is generally founded on Natural Law ought to be attended to. And that directs that each man shall be amerced with a Salvo Sibi contenemento saving to himself that which is necessary for his support—they are to be punished according to their circumstances—the money not being taken to enrich the public Coffers, but that the pain of parting with property might deter them and others from Like Offenses in future. Again as the Laws of the State if well chosen and wholesome have the greatest tendency to correct the morals of the people and habituate their minds to Virtue each one however indigent he may be is materially interested in them.

“Thus Sir the poor and rich are alike interested in that important part of Government called Legislation, but in the Supporting the Executive parts of Civil Government by Grants and Supplies of money, men are interested in proportion to their Estates. And it is absurd for a man who has but 40/ per annum Estate to have as much weight and importance as he who has forty pounds while he who has 39/ only has no Share in the matter.

“Some how or other there must be a plan laid for those Grants to be made by an adequate Representation of property, while the Legislation is done by the Authority of every person out of wardship that is bound thereby”. (MHi: Gerry photostats)


Although Sullivan did not mention women, JA perhaps felt called upon to say something about their position since AA had more than once brought the subject up in letters to her husband. As the time for independence grew closer, she thought men ought to relinquish their power over women. For her plea to “Remember the Ladies” she received a witty reply from JA that refused to take her convictions seriously ( Adams Family Correspondence , 1:370, 382, 402).