Papers of John Adams, volume 4

From Jonathan Trumbull

From Jeduthun Baldwin

65 Thoughts on Government: ante 27 March—April 1776 Thoughts on Government: ante 27 March—April 1776
Thoughts on Government
ante 27 March—April 1776




Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

One of the most influential of Adams' Revolutionary writings was the pamphlet Thoughts on Government, Applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies. In a Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend, Philadelphia, 1776 (T. R. Adams, American Independence , No. 205a; Evans, No. 14639). Actually its influence began before it appeared in print, for it took earlier form as letters to two other friends who made use of it during the deliberations regarding a government for North Carolina. The genesis of the pamphlet is a confused story, the confusion arising from Adams' imperfect memory of events to which he did not attach great importance at the time.

Adams' earliest, and thus most nearly accurate, account of the composition of the Thoughts was given in a letter to James Warren of 20 April (below). William Hooper and John Penn, delegates to the congress from North Carolina, had each been urged to return home to take part in the drafting of a plan of government for that colony and bring with him ideas on the subject. They applied separately to Adams for suggestions. In his own words, Adams “concluded to borrow a little Time from his sleep and accordingly wrote with his own Hand, a Sketch, which he copied, giving the original to Mr. Hooper and the Copy to Mr. Penn.” When George Wythe of Virginia saw the sketch, he wanted one for himself. Adams obliged, as he said, by writing one out from memory. The same thing happened when Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant of New Jersey put in his request, although this time the author “enlarged and amplified a good deal.”

Taking the account to Warren literally, Adams produced four manuscripts, the first two of which would be as nearly identical as one could expect from a laborious copying of five or six pages, and the third would reveal differences because it was done from memory. The fourth, expanded as it was, would show the greatest difference from the others. Adams told Warren that he had made five copies although he specifies only four. It has been postulated that the fifth may have been the letter Adams wrote to Richard Henry Lee the preceding November, but the lapse of months would seem to make that unlikely (Adams to Lee, 15 Nov. 1775, above). Adams probably miscounted (John E. Selby, “Richard Henry Lee, John Adams, and the Virginia Constitution of 1776,” VMHB , 84:394–395, note 20 [Oct. 1976]).


It is not surprising that when Richard Henry Lee also asked for a copy of Adams' latest composition, the hard-pressed author borrowed Wythe's, and Lee “put it under Types.” The pamphlet, then, probably reproduced the Wythe copy, though we cannot be certain, for the Wythe MS has not been found, nor, for that matter, has the Sergeant copy. As Adams wrote to Warren, it was a pity that Wythe's copy was used for the printer, for Sergeant's was “longer and more compleat, perhaps more correct.”

A comparison of the letters written to Hooper and Penn and the letter to Wythe as printed shows that Adams did not copy his initial effort, as he first claimed. Each proposal, though containing passages identical with one or both of the other versions, shows some difference in ordering of ideas and contains passages unique to it. Yet, given the nature of some of the verbatim passages, one can justifiably conclude that Adams had a set of notes or a rough draft, apparently no longer extant, on which he could draw in answering the separate requests for a plan of government. Although he declared the Sergeant version the most accurate and complete, even that in Adams' eyes was only a temporary expedient, for he was careful to note in all three extant versions of the Thoughts that the conditions of 1776 would change and that, as stress and danger eased, legislators might well want to alter several features of the original scheme. What those modifications might be are only hinted at, but the hints account for some of the differences from plan to plan. Most of these will be left to annotation, but a few general comments are appropriate here.

The letter to Penn is approximately two hundred words longer than that to Hooper, but the one to Wythe is perhaps one thousand words longer than that. The greater length of the third version is largely owing to the elaboration of some ideas and the introduction of topics not covered earlier: for example, the addition of a sixth and summary reason for the dangers of unicameralism, the discussion of the composition and command of the militia, the advisability of sumptuary laws, and the quorum for the Council when it acts as adviser to the governor.

Besides these additions there are other differences of substance. Thus, only the Hooper letter mentions an alternative to basing representation on numbers or geographic area—quantity of property. Although the Hooper letter is unique in this respect, the principle of basing representation on property was incorporated in 1779 in Adams' draft of the Massachusetts Constitution and was retained in the final version of 1780. The number of senators from specially designated districts was to be proportional to the taxes paid by the inhabitants of the district (The Report of a Constitution or Form of Government for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts . . . , Boston, 1779, p. 18; Constitution of 1780, ch. I, sect. II). Only the Wythe letter mentions the possibility of terms of office running three or seven years, or even for life, although Adams in all three letters makes plain his strong preference for annual elections. Here, as elsewhere, however, he would leave the decision to the people. The Wythe letter also enlarges somewhat the sphere of the congress. That it should provide for a post office is not surprising, but Adams' additional thought that the 67unappropriated royal lands should come under congressional jurisdiction shows his awareness of the issue of ownership of western lands. Virginia was particularly concerned with this issue because of its vast claims north and west of the Ohio River which overlapped the claims of other colonies (see Madison, Papers , 2:72–77). Obviously there was some development of Adams' thought even in the space of a few days; in this light the disappearance of the Sergeant letter is especially regrettable.

A very rough estimate of the length of the final version of the Thoughts may be extrapolated from Adams' statement to both Abigail (JA to AA, 15 April, Adams Family Correspondence , 1:383) and Warren that he had used ten sheets of paper to produce the four copies. Whenever Adams used a full sheet for a letter, he folded it in half to make four pages; hence if one makes no allowance for unfilled pages, his copying effort produced forty pages of writing. Extant MS versions for Hooper and Penn use five and seven full pages respectively. The printed Wythe version must have taken about twelve pages, for a total of twenty-four pages for the three versions we know. This means that the Sergeant version was about sixteen pages in length.

Not only did Adams create confusion about whether two of his letters were merely copies of the original, but with the passage of time he insisted upon a different order of composition. In 1814 John Taylor of Caroline co., Virginia, John Penn's son-in-law, published An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States, in which appeared an undated letter by Adams on government. Extracts from this letter, according to Taylor, had been printed some years before in newspapers (An Inquiry . . . , repr. New Haven, 1950, p. 452–458). When Adams saw the letter he was convinced that Taylor had written a confused account of its nature and wrote him “an unvarnished explanation,” stating that in January 1776 he and Wythe had had an evening's conversation about government. After Adams had put his ideas into writing at Wythe's request, Lee had secured Adams' permission to have the piece published on condition that the author's name be suppressed. Some weeks later the delegates from North Carolina called on Adams, bearing a letter from their state legislature requesting his advice on a form of government, a request he fulfilled with a letter that was never published in whole or in part (JA to Taylor, 9 April 1814, MHi: Washburn Papers). The letter in Taylor's book, of course, was that to John Penn. Adams had forgotten that he had written to Penn and to Hooper, not to the North Carolina legislature. This second account of the genesis of Thoughts on Government, erroneously making Wythe's the earliest version, parallels one that Adams had entered in 1811 on the flyleaf of Norton Quincy's copy of the Thoughts ([Feb.–April], Adams Papers, and see JA, Works , 4:191). Several years later still, Adams described the letter printed by Taylor as “an imperfect copy” of the Wythe letter (JA to Hezekiah Niles, 28 April 1817, Niles Weekly Register, 12:161 [March–Sept. 1817]).

Close examination of several letters that Adams wrote in the spring of 1776 permits establishment of an approximate chronology for the letters 68that led to the pamphlet. One can say at once that Adams did not have a conversation with Wythe in January 1776, since Adams did not return to Philadelphia until 8 February (JA to AA, 11 Feb., Adams Family Correspondence , 1:345). Furthermore, he apparently did not put down his ideas on government until after 19 March. On that day he answered Abigail's request for his opinion of Common Sense, which he had sent her from New York several weeks before. In noting that some people thought that he was the author, Adams remarks, “But altho I could not have written any Thing in so manly and striking a style, I flatter myself I should have made a more respectable Figure as an Architect, if I had undertaken such a Work. This Writer seems to have very inadequate Ideas of what is proper and necessary to be done, in order to form Constitutions for single Colonies, as well as a great Model of Union for the whole” (JA to AA, 19 March, italics supplied, same, 1:363).

The italicized clause indicates that Adams had not yet written his plan of government. Yet, on 27 March, Hooper and Penn left Philadelphia to attend the North Carolina convention, so that, given the account of events that Adams wrote to Warren on 20 April, Adams must have written out his scheme for Hooper and Penn before they left the city (Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 1:lviii). That fact would date the earliest versions of the Thoughts between 19 and 27 March. The Wythe version may well have been composed soon after 27 March, for Wythe saw either the Hooper or the Penn version before the men left Philadelphia; the Sergeant version followed, completed at the latest by 15 April, when Adams told Abigail he had used up ten sheets of paper. We know that on 11 April, Sergeant requested that Adams send to him a “Copy of a Paper I spoke with You about the Evening before I left Town,” which was very likely one of the first three versions of Thoughts on Government (Sergeant to JA, 11 April, below).

Put into pamphlet form by John Dunlap of Philadelphia, Thoughts on Government was advertised for sale on 22 April in the Pennsylvania Packet. Some months later a reprint was made available in Boston by John Gill, who gave notice in his Continental Journal of 10 October that it would be published on the 12th. Gill may have sensed a market for Adams' work. In Massachusetts for some time there had been agitation for a constitution to replace the makeshift government under which the province was operating. What had begun as opposition in Berkshire and Hampshire counties to continuation of the charter became after 4 July more general, and the House of Representatives in September asked the towns if they wanted the General Court to draft a constitution (Robert J. Taylor, Massachusetts, Colony to Commonwealth: Documents on the Formation of Its Constitution, 1775–1780, Chapel Hill, 1961, p. 36, 41). Moreover, on 31 August the Rev. William Gordon had begun a series of letters to the Independent Chronicle in which he discussed the features that a constitution should contain. In his first letter he quoted from Thoughts on Government the arguments of Adams against unicameralism. His series of letters ran through September and into October and was continued in 69the spring of 1777 (Independent Chronicle, 5, 12, 19, 26 Sept.; 3 Oct. 1776; 20, 27 March; 3, 10 April 1777). While Massachusetts towns in the fall of 1776 were voting overwhelmingly to give the General Court authority to draft a constitution, if one can judge by the returns preserved in the state archives, the first newspaper printing of Thoughts on Government, presumably taken from the Boston edition, appeared in the Newburyport Essex Journal of 1 November.

Similarly, local issues brought another printing of the Adams proposal. Writing as “Ludlow” in the Pennsylvania Journal, Benjamin Rush, who despised his state's constitution, quoted from the Adams pamphlet four of the reasons (nos. 1–3 and 6) why unicameralism was dangerous. “Whitlocke,” whose identity remains unknown, answered Rush in the Pennsylvania Gazette. He made the telling point that in the passage cited by Rush, Adams had inveighed not against vesting all legislative power in one body, but against centering all legislative, executive, and judicial power in a single assembly. Rush did leave out a key phrase in quoting Adams' sixth reason for opposing unicameralism: “execute all laws arbitrarily for their own interest” (Pennsylvania Journal, 28 May 1777; Pennsylvania Gazette, 4 June 1777; for an analysis of the debate over the Pennsylvania constitution see Robert L. Brunhouse, The Counter-Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1776–1790, Phila., 1942, p. 28–33, 240). The Gazette printed the text of Thoughts on Government to allow readers to see for themselves what Adams had said, but in doing so it omitted the last paragraph, which had requested suppression of the author's name.

In quoting, Rush became the first person publicly to assign authorship of the pamphlet to John Adams; moreover, he said Adams was addressing one of his friends in North Carolina, although the pamphlet makes no mention of that state and was, in fact, addressed to Wythe of Virginia. Somehow Rush had learned of one or both of the letters addressed to Hooper and Penn. (Rush's letters on the constitution were collected as Observations upon the Present Government of Pennsylvania in Four Letters to the People of Pennsylvania, Phila., 1777, the quotations from Adams being at p. 5–6.) When Adams learned how his proposal for government was being put to use in Pennsylvania, he was unhappy, for he did not want “to be impressed into the service of one Party.” However much he deplored unicameralism, he believed above all else that choice of governmental forms should be left to the people for decision (JA to AA, 4 June 1777, Adams Family Correspondence , 2:255; JA to Patrick Henry, 3 June 1776, below).

Thoughts on Government had influence apart from early reprintings. Its most obvious impact came in Virginia, where it called forth an ineffectual rebuttal: Carter Braxton's Address to the Convention of the Colony and Ancient Dominion of Virginia, (Phila., 1776), designed, Adams said, “as an Antidote to the popular Poison, in ‘Thoughts on Government’” (JA to James Warren, 12 May, below). Patrick Henry described it as “an Affront and Disgrace” to Virginia (to JA, 20 May, below). His ire was probably provoked by Braxton's too-great admiration for British forms and his attack 70on republican government as based on the impossible ideal of disinterestedness and equality. Quoting from Adams, Braxton held that he had confused public and private virtue. Braxton called for a governor elected by the House of Representatives to serve during good behavior and a Council, or second branch of the legislature, to serve for life. The representatives of the people were to be elected every three years (Force, Archives , 4th ser., 6:748–754). Although Braxton's pamphlet was reprinted in Dixon and Hunter's Virginia Gazette of 8 and 15 June, it appeared too late and was too far from the spirit of men's thinking to carry any weight.

Julian P. Boyd has demonstrated that George Mason, chief architect of the Virginia Constitution of 1776, was influenced by both Thoughts on Government and Adams' letter to Richard Henry Lee (Jefferson, Papers , 1:334–335, 369, note 6). John Selby's study of Lee and the Virginia Constitution reproduces the long-unidentified handbill on government that Lee ordered made up and that is based on, but not identical in substance to, the letter from Adams of 15 November 1775. The evidence is clear that the printing of Lee's handbill preceded the publication of Thoughts on Government by a week or two; nonetheless, Adams' pamphlet was in the hands of a number of Virginians before they attended the state convention. Lee became an ardent advocate of the Adams plan insofar as it demonstrated that government could be established in a form Virginians were used to even though independence was to be declared. Selby makes the important point that some Virginians had feared such a declaration might lead to “internal disruption.” Adams' work eased their fears and made them the more ready to embrace many of its features ( VMHB , 84:393–396).

In North Carolina, according to Elisha P. Douglass, Thoughts on Government was invoked by those who opposed a democratic faction that sought greater popular control in government, even to the extent of electing judges (Rebels and Democrats, Chapel Hill, 1955 [repr., Chicago, 1965], ch. 8). Douglass, unaware of the Hooper and Penn letters, confined his attention to the printed pamphlet, which arrived too late to exert much influence on the convention that met in April (same, p. 124–125). In fact, Hooper and Penn were put on the committee to prepare a constitution as soon as they arrived at the convention on 15 April (William L. Saunders, ed., The Colonial Records of North Carolina, 10 vols., Raleigh, 1886–1890, 10:516). Adams' letter to Hooper was copied into the executive letterbook, and Penn wrote to Adams that “We are endeavouring to form a Constitution as it is thought necessary to exert all the powers of Government, you may expect it will be a popular one” (Penn to Adams, 17 April, below). What Penn meant by “a popular one” apparently differed from what some North Carolinians meant, for a democratic group in the convention wanted a two-house legislature and a president and council functioning as the executive that would be directly elected by the people. Conservatives, according to Douglass, wanted the plan of Adams more closely followed (Rebels and Democrats, p. 120, 124, 125, note 30). As mentioned earlier, Adams had insisted that his specific pro-71posals were temporary and in his letter to Penn had suggested that in time people might prefer direct election of a governor by the people at large and of councilors by the freeholders. Thus, Adams was not so conservative as Douglass' analysis would imply. The outcome in North Carolina, however, was a more democratic government than men like Hooper and Penn desired (same, p. 129–135).

No study has yet been made of the precise impact of Thoughts on Government on constitution-making in New Jersey. Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant is credited with having written a draft before a committee of the provincial congress designated for the purpose could get started. The committee worked but two days to produce a constitution, and it was adopted on 2 July. John E. Pomfret has described it as following “the colonial model . . . throughout,” as not “a revolutionary document.” All officers, executive and judicial, were chosen by joint ballot of the two houses for terms that were brief, even for judges. The lack of judicial tenure and of a veto for the governor was an important departure from Adams' plan, but annual elections and bicameralism were significant parts of his scheme. Since familiar forms shaped Adams' thinking, the lack of revolutionary change would not necessarily rule out his influence (Pomfret, Colonial New Jersey, A History, N.Y., 1973, p. 261–264).

For the rest, there are but scattered hints that Thoughts on Government continued to be influential. Adams' recollection is that the pamphlet was useful in New York. In his Autobiography he remarks that John Jay and James Duane attended the New York Convention, “as I suppose for the Purpose of getting a Plan adopted conformable to my Ideas, in the Letter to Mr. Wythe.” When Duane returned to the congress and learned that Adams had seen New York's constitution (of 1777), he asked “if it was not agreeable to Adams' Ideas.” Adams responded that it was “by far the best Constitution that had yet been adopted” ( Diary and Autobiography , 3:398).

In Massachusetts the pamphlet was pressed into service again in 1778. That year the state's voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitution that the General Court had drafted. Among the reasons given for the rejection, the best known are those supplied by a county convention held in Ipswich, which were published and are familiarly known as the Essex Result. It quoted from and paraphrased those sections of Thoughts on Government dealing with equality of representation, the dangers of unicameralism, and the tenure of judges, as well as giving heavy emphasis to the system of checks and balances (Taylor, ed., Massachusetts, Colony to Commonwealth, p. 73–89, but esp. p. 81, 82, and 85). Writing about 1800, Adams remarked that the Essex Result was “in general agreable to the Principles” of Thoughts on Government, but that no credit was given to its author because his name was not known at that time. He added somewhat petulantly, “The Essex Junto however, need not be so vain glorious as to arrogate to themselves the honor of being the Founders of the Massachusetts Constitution” [Feb.–April 1776], Adams Papers).

While the state constitutional convention was meeting in 1779 to draft 72what would become the Constitution of 1780, John Gill reprinted Thoughts on Government in his Continental Journal of 23 September. It was preceded by a note, probably written by Adams, which identified the author of the pamphlet and said in part: “the Plan of Government was rather intended to familiarize to the people a way of making the transition from the old Governments to the new, and to set abler pens to work than as anything well digested. It was written in too great a storm, and by a person too much employed in business to be thoroughly considered.”

Additional reprintings in the 18th century are found in the Gazette of the United States for 29 September and 2 October 1790 and in the Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine, 5:392–397 (Dec. 1790). Although the magazine gives no explanation for its reprinting, the reappearance of Thoughts on Government in the Gazette may have been timed to coincide with the final adoption of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790, which in turning to bicameralism and a single executive more nearly exemplified Adams' ideas than had the first constitution of the state (Brunhouse, Counter-Revolution in Pennsylvania, p. 226–227). At the same time the Gazette was serializing Discourses on Davila, also by the then Vice President, John Adams.

In commenting in 1776 and afterward upon his efforts to sketch a plan of government, Adams always stressed that he had done the job in a hurry, that his proposals were meant to be temporary, that what he had written was “a poor scrap,” even that the plan was meant for southern governments only, which he regarded as likely to favor less popular government than New England would. For example, he did not expect the people of Massachusetts to accept a governor with a veto power (JA to James Warren, 12 May, and to Francis Dana, 16 Aug., below). Yet what he wrote did not spring full-blown from his mind. For some months he had been thinking about the form independent governments should take. In his Autobiography he claimed to have discussed this subject with friends as early as the spring of 1775 ( Diary and Autobiography , 3:351). Even if we set this claim aside as typical of his tendency in old age to push back in time his commitment to American independence, the evidence is incontestable that what he wrote down for Hooper and the others was an elaboration of earlier ideas. It has been mentioned that in 1775 Adams in a letter to Richard Henry Lee briefly sketched a plan of government that anticipates some of the ideas in Thoughts on Government, including bicameralism, a strong executive, and tenure during good behavior for the highest judges at least. Adams even suggested that when times were easier, the people might directly elect the governor and the upper branch of the legislature.

About a year before he wrote to Lee, Adams came into possession of an anonymous proposal to the Boston Committee of Correspondence which suggested annual elections, bicameralism, a strong executive, the election of governor and council by the house of representatives, and the appointment of officials other than treasurer, secretary, and captains of forts by joint action of the governor and legislature—all features, even though 73crudely stated, of Thoughts on Government (JA, Papers , 2:178–185). These similarities are not surprising, for all the plans draw heavily upon institutional forms long familiar in Massachusetts. But the emphasis in them upon the balancing of the elements of government expressed Adams' deeply held conviction that freedom under government could be achieved in no other way. As far back as 1763 we find him extolling the power of checks and balances, even that of the voters' power to check the legislature: “We Electors have an important constitutional power placed in our hands: We have a check upon two branches of the legislature, as each branch has upon the other two; the power I mean of electing, at stated periods, one branch, which branch has the power of electing another” (same, 1:81). The emphasis on checks and balances was to remain central in Adams' thought, based as it was upon his conviction that men are easily corrupted by power.

I. To William Hooper, 27 March 1776 JA Hooper, William


I. To William Hooper, 27 March 1776 Adams, John Hooper, William
I. To William Hooper
Dear Sir ante 27 March 1776

The Subject, on which you was pleased to request my Sentiments, is of infinite Importance to Mankind. Politicks is the Science of human Happiness—and the Felicity of Societies depends entirely on the Constitutions of Government under which they live. That puerile famous Couplet of a very great Poet, “For Forms of Government let Fools contest That's best administered, is best,”1 Shows him to have been less Attentive to the political and civil Part of History, than the poetical. He must have read and Studied for fanciful Images, not Social Institutions, because the Rectitude of Administration depends upon the Form; Some Species of Governments being always well administered, others never.

If you can determine, what Form of Government, will produce the greatest Quantity of human Happiness, you will at once decide which is the best, this being the only Criterion. If you determine what the Dignity of human Nature, and the Happiness of Mankind consists in, you will decide what it is that produces the greatest Quantity of Happiness. Divines, Moralists, Philosophers, and Men of Pleasure all agree that it consists in Virtue. If there is a Form of Government, therefore, whose Principle or Foundation, is Virtue, will not all those Kinds of Men acknowledge, it to be better calculated to promote the general Happiness, than another, the Principle of which is Fear, or even Honour.

I hold the Principle of Honour, Sacred—but am not ashamed to con-74fess myself So much of a Grecian, or Roman, if not of a Christian as to think the Principle of Virtue of higher Rank in the Scale of moral Excellence, than Honour. Indeed Honour is but a Part, a very Small Part of Virtue. As to Fear, it is so base and brutal a Passion, that it dont deserve the Name of a Principle, and I think no Gentleman of this Age and Country will think it a Foundation of Government proper for Americans.

The Spirit of the People, among whom I had my Birth and Education, which you know very well, was always republican, altho they never enjoyed a Constitution of Government conformable to that Spirit, as the whole of the Executive, with an enormous Prerogative, as well as two Branches of their Legislative, and the whole of their judicial Powers, were always in the Hands of the Crown. It was wholly owing to the Constitution of their Towns, which were Small Districts incorporated by an early Law, and vested with Powers to assemble frequently, deliberate, debate and act, upon many Affairs, together with the Establishment of Grammar Schools in every one of those Towns, that Such a Spirit was preserved, at all among the People.2

In my early Youth, the Works of Sidney, Harrington, Lock, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, Hoadley,3 were put into my Hands; and the miserable Situation of our Country, for fifteen Years past, has frequently reminded me of their Principles and Reasonings. They have convinced me that there is no good Government but what is Republican. The British Constitution itself is Republican, for I know of no better Definition of a Republic than this, that it is an Empire of Laws and not of Men:4 and therefore, as I look upon Republics to be the best of Governments So I think, that particular Form of Government, or in other Words, that particular Arrangement, and Combination of the Powers of Society, which is best calculated to Secure an exact and impartial Execution of the Laws, is the best Republic.

Of Republics there is an infinite Variety, because the Arrangements of the Powers of Society, are capable of innumerable Diversifications.

Now, sir, as good Government, is an Empire of Laws, the first Question, is, how shall your Laws be made?

In a Society, or Community consisting of any considerable Number of People, inhabiting any considerable Extent of Territory, it is impossible, that the whole Body should assemble, for the Purpose of making Laws. They would be too numerous. They could not afford the Time or Expence. The first step to be taken then, is to depute Power from the many to a few of the most wise and virtuous. But by what Rules Shall you choose your Representatives? Agree, upon 75the Number of Persons, who shall have the Benefit of choosing one, or agree upon a District of Ground, the Inhabitants of which shall have that Priviledge, or agree upon the Quantity of Property, which shall be intituled to one. The principal Difficulty lies, and the greatest Care should be taken in constituting this Representative Assembly. It should be, in Miniature, an exact Portrait of the People at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.5

That it may be the Interest of this Assembly, to do equal Right, and strict Justice upon all occasions, it must be an equal Representation of the People, or, in other Words, equal Interests among the People, Should have equal Interests in the Representative Body. No Art should be Spared to effect this, and to prevent, unfair, partial, and corrupt Elections: but Such Regulations are better made in Times of greater Tranquility than the present, and they will grow of themselves naturally when all the Powers of Society and Government, come to be in the Hands of the Peoples Friends. At present it will be wisest and Safest to go on in old established Methods to which the People are reconciled by Habit.

Having obtained a Representation of the People in one Assembly, the Question arises, whether it is wisest to leave all the Powers of Legislation in this single Body, or to make your Legislature more complex? I think a People cannot be long happy or free, whose Laws are made only by one Assembly: my Reasons for this opinion are these.

1. A Single Assembly is liable to all the Frailties, Vices and Follies of an Individual.—subject to fits of Humour, Caprice, Passion, Prejudice, hasty Results, and absurd Judgment, which ought to be corrected by some controuling Power.

2. A Single Assembly, is apt to be avaricious, and in time, would not Scruple to exempt itself from Burthens, which it would lay, without Feeling, upon its Constituents.

3. A Single Assembly is apt to grow ambitious, and vote itself perpetual. Witness the Case of Holland, whose Assembly first voted that they should hold their Seats Seven years, then for Life, and after some time they had the Modesty to determine, that when a Vacancy happened by Death or otherwise, they themselves would fill it up, without applying to the Constituents of the deceased Member.

4. An Assembly cannot exercise the executive Power, for Want of two essential Properties, Secrecy and Dispatch: now, if an executive Power is constituted distinct from the Legislature, and the Legislative consists of only one Assembly, there will naturally grow a Coldness, 76—an opposition—and at length a downright civil War, between the Legislative and Executive.

5. Because a Representative Assembly is Still less qualified to exercise the judicial Power, being too numerous, and generally too little Skilled in those voluminous Collections of Laws, which are necessary to be thoroughly understood, and most carefully observed, in order to obtain a uniform, Steady and impartial Administration of Justice.

Therefore I lay it down as a Maxim that the judicial Power should be distinct both from the Legislative and Executive. Now if you have your Legislative in one Assembly, and Executive in another, and the judicial Power leans to either, it will naturally join with that, and overballance, overbear, and overturn the other.

The Legislature, therefore, should consist of more than one Assembly. Let the Representative Body then, elect by Ballot, from among themselves or their Constituents, a distinct Assembly to consist of the most experienced, accomplished, and virtuous Men, which for the Sake of Perspicuity we will call a Council. It may consist of any Number you please—Say Twenty or thirty.

When these two Bodies are thus constituted, an Inquiry will arise, is the Legislature compleat? I think not. There should be a third Branch which for the Sake of preserving old Style and Titles, you may call a Governor whom I would invest with a Negative upon the other Branches of the Legislature and also with the whole Executive Power, after divesting it of most of those Badges of Domination call'd Prerogatives. I know that giving the Executive Power a Negative upon the Legislative, is liable to Objections, but it seems to be attended with more Advantages than Dangers, especially if you make this Officer elective annually, and more especially if you establish a Rotation by which no Man shall be Governor for more than three years. Annually elective, he may be allowed a free and independent Exercise of his Judgment, because he will have So much Regard for the People, the Representatives, and Council that he would Seldom exercise this Right, except in Cases, the public Utility of which would be conspicuous, and Some such Cases would happen. However, if you like it better, give him only a casting Voice in Council.

In the present State of America, when by an Act of Parliament, We are put out of the Royal Protection,6 and it is become necessary to assume Government for immediate Security, the Governor should be chosen by joint Ballot of both Houses. In the Same manner a Lieut. Governor, Secretary, Treasurer, Comissary, and Attorney General, may be chosen.


The Governor, by and with and not without the Advice and Consent of the Council should nominate and appoint all Judges, Justices, and all other Officers civil and military, who should have Commissions Signed by the Governor and under the Seal of the Colony. If you choose to have a Government more popular Still you may let all Officers be chosen by one House, concurred by the other and consented to by the Governor, Sheriffs should be chosen by the Freeholders of the Counties.

Indeed the whole of this Plan is callculated for the present Emergency. The Legislature thus constituted will have Power to make any Alterations from Time to Time, to Supply Defects which Experience may point out. It may indeed give the Election of the whole Government, annually to the People at large as in Connecticutt.

The Stability of Government, in all its Branches, the Morals of the People, and every Blessing of Society depends so much upon a true Interpretation of the Laws, and an impartial Administration of Justice, that the Judges Should always be Men of learning and Experience in the Laws, exemplary Morals, great Patience, Calmness, Coolness and Attention. Should not have their Minds distracted with complicated jarring Interests, or be Subservient to any Man or Body of Men, or more complaisant to one than another. To this End, they should hold Estates for Life in their Offices, and their Salaries Should be fixed by Law. By holding Estates for Life, I mean their Commissions Should be during good Behaviour.

Such a Constitution as this naturally and necessarily introduces universal Knowledge among the People, and inspires them, with a conscious Dignity, becoming Freemen; good Humour, good Manners and good Morals. Virtue, Honour, and Civility become fashionable. That Elevation of Sentiment, which is mechannichally introduced by such a Government, makes the common People bold, brave and enterprizing. That Ambition which is inspired by it into every Rank and order of Men, makes them industrious, sober and frugal. In such a Government, you will find some Elegance perhaps, but more Solidity. Some Politeness, but more Civility. Some Pleasure but more Business.

If you compare a Country where such a Government prevails with the Regions of Domination whether monarchical, or Aristocratical, you will think yourself in Arcadia or Elisium.

But must not all Commissions run in the Name of the King? No. Let them run thus “The Colony of North Carolina to A. B. Greeting,” and be tested by the Governor.

Must not all Writs run in the Name of the King? No. Let them run 78thus “The Colony of North Carolina, to the sheriff of &c.”—“you are hereby commanded,” &c. and let them be tested by the Chief Justice.

Must not all Indictments conclude “Contra Pacem Domini Regis”? No. Let them conclude “against the Peace of the Colony of North Carolina, and the Dignity of the same” or “Majesty of the same” if you will.

We have heard much, my dear sir, of a Continental Constitution—for my own Part I see no Occasion, for any but a Congress. Let every Colony please itself without Controul in its own Constitution. Let a fair and equitable Representation of every Colony, appear in Congress, and let the Authority of that great Council be Sacredly confined to three Cases, War, Trade, and Disputes between Colony and Colony.

If the thirteen Colonies, were all possessed of such Forms of Government, and a Confederation for the above Purposes, was agreed on in Congress and ratified by the Assemblies, they would be unconquerable by all Europe.

I must rely on your Friendship, not to expose me to ridicule or Censure, unnecessarily, for these imperfect Hints.

RC (Nc-Ar: David L. Swain Papers); docketed on attached slip and in hand of Thomas Burke: “Jno. Adam's Thoughts on Government.” For the recovery of this MS, see Adams Family Correspondence , 1:384–385, note 3.


Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle III, lines 303–304. These lines from Pope are not quoted in the letter to Penn (No. II, below).


The ideas in this paragraph are omitted from the other two letters.


For Marchamont Needham (1620–1678), Henry Neville (1620–1694), Gilbert Burnet (1643–1715), and Benjamin Hoadly (1676–1761), consult the DNB and Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman, Cambridge, 1959, passim.


In the Novanglus Letters JA used the phrase “a government of laws and not of men” in referring to the British Constitution ( Papers , 2:314). For a thoughtful essay on the meaning and origin of the phrase, which is traced back to James Harrington's Oceana, see L. H. Butterfield, “A Government of Laws and Not of Men,” Harvard Magazine, 77:19–20 (Nov. 1974).


A commonly held belief at this time and one used by Anti-Federalists later to criticize the makeup of the congress under the Constitution of the United States (Cecilia M. Kenyon, “Men of Little Faith,” WMQ , 3d ser., 12:10–13 [Jan. 1955]).


A reference to Parliamentary support for the King's speech of 26 Oct. 1775 declaring the colonies in rebellion ( Parliamentary Hist. , 18:695–697, 705–798).

II. To John Penn, 27 March 1776 JA Penn, John


II. To John Penn, 27 March 1776 Adams, John Penn, John
II. To John Penn
Dear Sir ante 27 March 1776

If I was possess'd of Abilities equal to the great Task you have imposed upon me, which is to sketch out the outlines of a Constitution for a Colony, I should think myself the happiest of Men in complying with your Desire: because as Politicks is the Art1 of Securing human 79Happiness, and the Prosperity2 of Societies depends upon the Constitution of Government, under which they live; there cannot be a more agreable Employment to a benevolent Mind than the Study of the best, Kinds of Governments.

It has been the Will of Heaven, that We should be thrown into Existence at a Period, when the greatest Philosophers and Lawgivers of Antiquity would have wished to have lived: a Period, when a Coincidence of Circumstances, without Example, has afforded to thirteen Colonies at once an opportunity, of beginning Government anew from the Foundation and building as they choose. How few of the human Race, have ever had an opportunity of choosing a System of Government for themselves and their Children? How few have ever had any Thing more of Choice in Government, than in Climate? These Colonies have now their Election and it is much to be wish'd that it may not prove to be like a Prize in the Hands of a Man who has no Heart to improve it.3

In order to determine which is the best Form of Government, it is necessary to determine what is the End of Government? and I suppose that in this enlightened Age, there will be no dispute, in Speculation, that the Happiness of the People, the great End of Man, is the End of Government, and therefore, that Form of Government, which will produce the greatest Quantity of Happiness, is the best.

All Sober Enquirers after Truth, ancient and modern, Divines, Moralists and Philosophers have agreed that the Happiness of Mankind, as well as the real Dignity of human Nature, consists in Virtue. If there is a Form of Government then, whose Principle and Foundation is Virtue will not every wise Man acknowledge it more likely to promote the general Happiness than any other.

Fear, which is Said by Montesquieu and all other political Writers to be the Foundation of some Governments, is so sordid and brutal a Passion that it cannot properly be called a Principle, and will hardly be thought in America a proper Basis of Governments.

Honour, is a Principle which ought to be Sacred: But the Grecians and Romans pagan as well as Christian, will inform Us that Honour at most is but a Part of Virtue, and therefore a feebler Basis of Government.

A Man must be indifferent to Sneer and Ridicule, in Some Companies to mention the Names of Sidney, Harrington, Lock, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, Hoadley;4 for the Lines of John Milton on one of his Sonnetts, will bear an application, even in this Country, upon Some Occasions. 80 “I did but teach the Age, to quit their Cloggs, by the plain Rules of ancient Liberty, When lo! a barbarous Noise surrounded me Of Owls and Cuckoo's, Asses, Apes and Dogs.”5 These great Writers however, will convince any Man who has the Fortitude to read them, that all good Government is Republican: that the only valuable Part of the British Constitution is so;6 for the true Idea of a Republic, is “An Empire of Laws and not of Men”: and therefore as a Republic is the best of Governments so, that particular Combination of Power, which is best contrived for a faithfull Execution of the Laws, is the best of Republics.

There is a great Variety of Republics, because the Arrangements of the Powers of Society are capable of many Variations.

As a good Government is an Empire of Laws, the first Question is, how Shall the Laws be made?

In a Community consisting of large Numbers, inhabiting an extensive Country, it is not possible that the whole Should assemble, to make Laws. The most natural Substitute for an Assembly of the whole, is a Delegation of Power, from the Many, to a few of the most wise and virtuous. In the first Place then establish Rules for the Choice of Representatives: Agree upon the Number of Persons who shall have the Privilege of choosing one. As the Representative Assembly, should be an exact Portrait, in Miniature, of the People at large, as it should think, feel, reason and act like them great Care should be taken in the Formation of it, to prevent unfair, partial and corrupt Elections. That it may be the Interest of this Assembly to do equal Right, and Strict Justice upon all Occasions, it should be an equal Representation of their Constituents, or in other Words equal Interests among the People, Should have equal Interests in the Representative Body. That the Representatives may often mix with their Constituents, and frequently render to them an Account of their Stewardship, Elections ought to be frequent. Like Bubbles on the sea of Matter borne They rise, they break and to that sea return7 These Elections may be septennial or triennial, but for my own Part I think they ought to be annual, for there is not in all science a Maxim more infallible than this “Where Annual Elections End, there Slavery begins.”8

But all necessary Regulations for the Method of constituting this 81Assembly, may be better made in Times of more Quiet than the present, and they will suggest themselves naturally, when the Powers of Government shall be in the Hands of the Peoples Friends. For the present it will be safest to go on in the usual Way.

But We have as yet Advanced only one Step in the Formation of a Government. Having obtained a Representative Assembly, what is to be done next? Shall We leave all the Powers of Government in this assembly?9 Shall they make and execute, and interpret Laws too? I answer no. A People cannot be long free, and never can be happy, whose Laws are made, executed and interpreted by one Assembly. My Reasons for this opinion are these.

1. A Single Assembly is liable to all the Vices, Follies, and Frailties of an Individual—subject to fits of Humour, Transports of Passion, Partialities of Prejudice: and from these and other Causes apt to make hasty Results and Absurd Judgments: all which Errors ought to be corrected, and Inconveniences guarded against by some Controuling Power.

2. A Single Assembly is apt to grow Avaricious, and in Time would not Scruple to exempt itself from Burdens, which it would lay upon its Constituents, without Sympathy.

3. A Single Assembly will become ambitious, and after Some Time will vote itself perpetual. This was found in the Case of the long Parliament: but more remarkably in the Case of Holland whose Assembly first voted that they should hold their Seats for seven Years, then for Life—and after some Time, that they would fill up Vacancies as they should happen without applying to their Constituents at all.

4. The Executive Power cannot be well managed by a Representative Assembly for Want of two essential Qualities, secrecy and Dispatch.10

5. Such an assembly is still less qualified to exercise the judicial Power because it is too numerous, too slow, and generally too little Skill'd in the Laws.

But shall the whole Legislative Power, be left in the Hands of such an Assembly? The three first, at least of the foregoing Reasons, will shew that the Legislative Power ought not to be wholly intrusted to one Assembly.

Let the Representative Body then elect, from among themselves or their Constituents, or both, a distinct Assembly, which We will call a Council. It may consist of any Number you please, Say twenty or thirty. To this Assembly should be given a free and independent 82Exercise of its Judgment, upon all Acts of Legislation, that it may be able to check and correct the Errors, of the other.

But there ought to be a third Branch of the Legislature: and wherever the Executive Power of the State is placed, there the third Branch of the Legislature ought to be found.

Let the two Houses then, by joint Ballott, choose a Governor. Let him be chosen annually. Divest him, of most of those Badges of slavery called Prerogatives. And give him a Negative upon the Legislature. This I know is liable to some Objections—to obviate which you may make him in a Legislative Capacity only President of the Council. But if he is annually elective, you need not Scruple to give him a free and independent Exercise of his Judgment, for he will have So great an Affection for the People, the Representatives, and Council that he would Seldom exercise his Right, except in Cases, the public Utility of which would soon be manifest, and some such Cases would happen.

In the present Exigency of American Affairs, where by an Act of Parliament We are put out of all Royal Protection, and consequently discharged from all Obligations of Allegiance; and when it has become necessary to assume Governments for immediate Security, the Governor, Lieut. Governor, Secretary, Treasurer, Attorney General should be chosen by joint Ballot of both Houses.

The Governor, by and with and not without the Advice and Consent of Council, should appoint all Judges, Justices and all other Officers civil and military, who should have Commissions Signed by the Governor and under the Seal of the Colony.

Sherriffs should be chosen by the Freeholders of the Counties.

If you chose to have a Government more popular all Officers may be chosen by one House of Assembly subject to the Negative of the Other.11

The Stability of Government, in all its Branches, the Morals of the People and every other Blessing of Society, and social Institutions depend so much upon an able and impartial Administration of Justice, that the judicial Power should be Seperated from the Legislative and Executive, and independent upon both; the Judges should be Men of Experience in the Laws, of exemplary Morals, invincible Patience, unruffled Calmness, and indefatigable Application: their Minds should not be distracted with complicated jarring Interests—they should not be dependent on any Man or Body of Men—they should lean to none, be subservient to none, nor more complaisant to one than another. To this End they should hold Estates for Life in their Offices, or in other 83Words their Commissions should be during good Behaviour, and their Salaries ascertained and established by Law. If accused of Misbehaviour, by the Representative Body, before the Governor and Council, and if found guilty after having an opportunity to make their Defence, they should be removed from their Offices and Subjected to such Punishment as their Offences deserve.12

A Rotation of Offices, in the Legislative and Executive Departments has many Advocates and, if practicable might have many good Effects. A Law may be made that no Man shall be Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary, Treasurer, Councillor, or Representative more than three Years at a Time, nor be again eligible untill after an Interval of three Years.

A Constitution like this, of which the foregoing is a very imperfect Plan naturally introduces generally Knowledge into the Community and inspires the People with a conscious Dignity, becoming Freemen. A general Desire of Reputation and Importance among their Neighbours, which cannot be obtained without, some Government of their Passions, some good Humour, good Manners and good Morals, takes Place in the Minds of Men, and naturally causes general Virtue and Civility. That Pride which is introduced by such a Government among the Common People makes them bold, brave and enterprizing. That Ambition which is introduced into every Rank makes them sober, industrious and frugal. You will find among them some Elegance, but more Solidity, a little Politeness but a great deal of Civility—some Pleasure, but much Business.

Let Commissions run thus “Colony of North Carolina to A. B. Greeting” &c. and be tested by the Governor.

Let Writs run “The Colony of &c. to the sheriff &c.” Let Endictments conclude “against the Peace of the Colony of North Carolina, and the Dignity of the same.” Or if you please against the Peace of the thirteen united Colonies.13

We have heard much of the Continental Constitution. I see no occasion for any But a Congress. Let that be made an equal and fair Representation of the Colonies, and let its Authority be confined to three Cases, War, Trade, and Controversies between Colony and Colony. If a Confederation was formed agreed on in Congress, and ratified by the Assemblies: These Colonies under such Terms of Government and such a Confederation would be unconquerable by all the Monarchies of Europe.

This Plan of a Government for a Colony you see is intended as a temporary Expedient under the present Pressure of Affairs. The Gov-84ernment once formed, and having settled its authority will have Leisure enough to make any Alteration that Time and Experience and more mature Deliberation may dictate. Particularly, a Plan may be devised perhaps and be thought expedient for giving the Choice of the Governor to the People at large, and of the Councillors to the Freeholders of the Counties. But be these Things as they may. Two Things are indispensibly to be attended to—one is some Regulations for securing forever an equitable Choice of Representatives—another is the Education of Youth, both in Literature and Morals.14

I wish, my dear sir, that I had Time to think of these Things more at Leisure, and to write more correctly. But you must take these Hints rough as they run. Your own Reflections assisted by the Patriots of North Carolina will improve upon every Part of them.

As you brought upon yourself the Trouble of reading these rude Thoughts, you can blame, your Friend.

RC (MHi: Washburn Papers); docketed in an unknown hand: “To Hon. John Penn 1776”; in a different hand: “Jno Adams's Thoughts on Governt in 1776 in his own hand writing.” At several points the MS has small tears.


In the letter to Hooper, JA defined politics as “the Science of human Happiness” (No. I, above).


The letter to Hooper has “Felicity” for “Prosperity” (same).


The ideas in this paragraph are missing from the letter to Hooper and are enlarged and rephrased near the conclusion of the letter to Wythe (No. III, below).


These eight names are in identical order in each of the three letters, suggesting that JA may have worked from notes.


On the Detraction Which Followed upon My Writing Certain Treatises (second part, “On the Same”), lines 1–4. This quotation, which is not exact, and which is not in the Hooper letter, concludes the Wythe letter.


The letter to Hooper calls the British Constitution republican without qualification; the phrasing here is repeated in the Wythe letter.


Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle III, lines 19–20. Lacking in the Hooper letter, this quotation appears much later in the text of the Wythe letter.


This quotation is not used in the Hooper letter, but is repeated in the Wythe letter. No source has been identified.


In the Hooper letter the phrase is “to leave all the Powers of Legislation in this single Body.” The Wythe letter is more explicit yet: “a question arises whether all the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judicial, shall be left in this body.” Had the Hooper version gone into print, there would perhaps have been less confusion in Pennsylvania over whether JA was rejecting unicameralism or just the concentrating of all governmental powers in a single body. See Editorial Note (above).


JA omits mention here of the conflict that will inevitably develop between the executive and a single-house legislature, which is mentioned in both the other letters.


In the Hooper version the governor in these circumstances would have had an equal role with the two houses of the legislature.


The Hooper letter omits any mention of the impeachment process for misbehaving judges.


Neither the Hooper nor the Wythe letter mentions indictments in the name of the thirteen colonies.


The emphasis on the necessary connection between equitable representation and the education of youth if free 85 image 86 government is to flourish is more explicit here than in the letter to Hooper, where JA points out that town government and grammar schools made it possible for the people to overcome the obstacle of a government dominated by the king.

III. Thoughts on Government, April 1776 JA


III. Thoughts on Government, April 1776 Adams, John
III. Thoughts on Government
My dear Sir, April 1776

If I was equal to the task of forming a plan for the government of a colony, I should be flattered with your request, and very happy to comply with it; because as the divine science of politicks is the science of social happiness, and the blessings of society depend entirely on the constitutions of government, which are generally institutions that last for many generations, there can be no employment more agreeable to a benevolent mind, than a research after the best. Pope flattered tyrants too much when he said, “For forms of government let fools contest, That which is best administered is best.” Nothing can be more fallacious than this: But poets read history to collect flowers not fruits—they attend to fanciful images, not the effects of social institutions. Nothing is more certain from the history of nations, and the nature of man, than that some forms of government are better fitted for being well administered than others.

We ought to consider, what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all Divines and moral Philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

All sober enquiries after truth, ancient and modern, Pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this.

If there is a form of government then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?

Fear is the foundation of most governments; but is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men, in whose breasts it predominates, 87so stupid, and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.

Honor is truly sacred, but holds a lower rank in the scale of moral excellence than virtue. Indeed the former is but a part of the latter, and consequently has not equal pretensions to support a frame of government productive of human happiness.

The foundation of every government is some principle or passion in the minds of the people. The noblest principles and most generous affections in our nature then, have the fairest chance to support the noblest and most generous models of government.

A man must be indifferent to the sneers of modern Englishmen to mention in their company the names of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, and Hoadley. No small fortitude is necessary to confess that one has read them. The wretched condition of this country, however, for ten or fifteen years past, has frequently reminded me of their principles and reasonings. They will convince any candid mind, that there is no good government but what is Republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; because the very definition of a Republic, is “an Empire of Laws, and not of men.” That, as a Republic is the best of governments, so that particular arrangement of the powers of society, or in other words that form of government, which is best contrived to secure an impartial and exact execution of the laws, is the best of Republics.

Of Republics, there is an inexhaustable variety, because the possible combinations of the powers of society, are capable of innumerable variations.

As good government, is an empire of laws, how shall your laws be made? In a large society, inhabiting an extensive country, it is impossible that the whole should assemble, to make laws: The first necessary step then, is, to depute power from the many, to a few of the most wise and good. But by what rules shall you chuse your Representatives? Agree upon the number and qualifications of persons, who shall have the benefit of choosing, or annex this priviledge to the inhabitants of a certain extent of ground.

The principal difficulty lies, and the greatest care should be employed in constituting this Representative Assembly. It should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them. That it may be the interest of this Assembly to do strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or in other words equal interest among the people should 88have equal interest in it. Great care should be taken to effect this, and to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections. Such regulations, however, may be better made in times of greater tranquility than the present, and they will spring up of themselves naturally, when all the powers of government come to be in the hands of the people's friends. At present it will be safest to proceed in all established modes to which the people have been familiarised by habit.

A representation of the people in one assembly being obtained, a question arises whether all the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judicial, shall be left in this body? I think a people cannot be long free, nor ever happy, whose government is in one Assembly. My reasons for this opinion are as follow.

1. A single Assembly is liable to all the vices, follies and frailties of an individual. Subject to fits of humour, starts of passion, flights of enthusiasm, partialities of prejudice, and consequently productive of hasty results and absurd judgments: And all these errors ought to be corrected and defects supplied by some controuling power.

2. A single Assembly is apt to be avaricious, and in time will not scruple to exempt itself from burthens which it will lay, without compunction, on its constituents.

3. A single Assembly is apt to grow ambitious, and after a time will not hesitate to vote itself perpetual. This was one fault of the long parliament, but more remarkably of Holland, whose Assembly first voted themselves from annual to septennial, then for life, and after a course of years, that all vacancies happening by death, or otherwise, should be filled by themselves, without any application to constituents at all.

4. A Representative Assembly, altho' extremely well qualified, and absolutely necessary as a branch of the legislature, is unfit to exercise the executive power, for want of two essential properties, secrecy and dispatch.

5. A Representative Assembly is still less qualified for the judicial power; because it is too numerous, too slow, and too little skilled in the laws.

6. Because a single Assembly, possessed of all the powers of government, would make arbitrary laws for their own interest, execute all laws arbitrarily for their own interest, and adjudge all controversies in their own favour.

But shall the whole power of legislation rest in one Assembly? Most of the foregoing reasons apply equally to prove that the legislative power ought to be more complex—to which we may add, that if 89the legislative power is wholly in one Assembly, and the executive in another, or in a single person, these two powers will oppose and enervate upon each other, until the contest shall end in war, and the whole power, legislative and executive, be usurped by the strongest.

The judicial power, in such case, could not mediate, or hold the balance between the two contending powers, because the legislative would undermine it. And this shews the necessity too, of giving the executive power a negative upon the legislative, otherwise this will be continually encroaching upon that.

To avoid these dangers let a distant1 Assembly be constituted, as a mediator between the two extreme branches of the legislature, that which represents the people and that which is vested with the executive power.

Let the Representative Assembly then elect by ballot, from among themselves or their constituents, or both, a distinct Assembly, which for the sake of perspicuity we will call a Council. It may consist of any number you please, say twenty or thirty, and should have a free and independent exercise of its judgment, and consequently a negative voice in the legislature.

These two bodies thus constituted, and made integral parts of the legislature, let them unite, and by joint ballot choose a Governor, who, after being stripped of most of those badges of domination called prerogatives, should have a free and independent exercise of his judgment, and be made also an integral part of the legislature. This I know is liable to objections, and if you please you may make him only President of the Council, as in Connecticut: But as the Governor is to be invested with the executive power, with consent of Council, I think he ought to have a negative upon the legislative. If he is annually elective, as he ought to be, he will always have so much reverence and affection for the People, their Representatives and Councillors, that although you give him an independent exercise of his judgment, he will seldom use it in opposition to the two Houses, except in cases the public utility of which would be conspicuous, and some such cases would happen.

In the present exigency of American affairs, when by an act of Parliament we are put out of the royal protection, and consequently discharged from our allegiance; and it has become necessary to assume government for our immediate security, the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, Secretary, Treasurer, Commissary, Attorney-General, should be chosen by joint Ballot, of both Houses. And these and all other elections, especially of Representatives, and Councillors, should 90be annual, there not being in the whole circle of the sciences, a maxim more infallible than this, “Where annual elections end, there slavery begins.”

These great men, in this respect, should be, once a year “Like bubbles on the sea of matter borne, They rise, they break, and to that sea return.” This will teach them the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation, without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.

This mode of constituting the great offices of state will answer very well for the present, but if, by experiment, it should be found inconvenient, the legislature may at its leisure devise other methods of creating them, by elections of the people at large, as in Connecticut, or it may enlarge the term for which they shall be chosen to seven years, or three years, or for life, or make any other alterations which the society shall find productive of its ease, its safety, its freedom, or in one word, its happiness.

A rotation of all offices, as well as of Representatives and Councillors, has many advocates, and is contended for with many plausible arguments. It would be attended no doubt with many advantages, and if the society has a sufficient number of suitable characters to supply the great number of vacancies which would be made by such a rotation, I can see no objection to it. These persons may be allowed to serve for three years, and then excluded three years, or for any longer or shorter term.

Any seven or nine of the legislative Council may be made a Quorum, for doing business as a Privy Council, to advise the Governor in the exercise of the executive branch of power, and in all acts of state.

The Governor should have the command of the militia, and of all your armies. The power of pardons should be with the Governor and Council.

Judges, Justices and all other officers, civil and military, should be nominated and appointed by the Governor, with the advice and consent of Council, unless you choose to have a government more popular; if you do, all officers, civil and military, may be chosen by joint ballot of both Houses, or in order to preserve the independence and importance of each House, by ballot of one House, concurred by the other. Sheriffs should be chosen by the freeholders of counties—so should Registers of Deeds and Clerks of Counties.2


All officers should have commissions, under the hand of the Governor and seal of the Colony.

The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people and every blessing of society, depends so much upon an upright and skillful administration of justice, that the judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that. The Judges therefore should always be men of learning and experience in the laws, of exemplary morals, great patience, calmness, coolness and attention. Their minds should not be distracted with jarring interests; they should not be dependant upon any man or body of men. To these ends they should hold estates for life in their offices, or in other words their commissions should be during good behaviour, and their salaries ascertained and established by law. For misbehaviour the grand inquest of the Colony, the House of Representatives, should impeach them before the Governor and Council, where they should have time and opportunity to make their defence, but if convicted should be removed from their offices, and subjected to such other punishment as shall be thought proper.

A Militia Law requiring all men, or with very few exceptions, besides cases of conscience, to be provided with arms and ammunition, to be trained at certain seasons, and requiring counties, towns, or other small districts to be provided with public stocks of ammunition and entrenching utensils, and with some settled plans for transporting provisions after the militia, when marched to defend their country against sudden invasions, and requiring certain districts to be provided with field-pieces, companies of matrosses and perhaps some regiments of light horse, is always a wise institution, and in the present circumstances of our country indispensible.

Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that to a humane and generous mind, no expence for this purpose would be thought extravagant.3

The very mention of sumptuary laws will excite a smile. Whether our countrymen have wisdom and virtue enough to submit to them I know not. But the happiness of the people might be greatly promoted by them, and a revenue saved sufficient to carry on this war forever. Frugality is a great revenue, besides curing us of vanities, levities and fopperies which are real antidotes to all great, manly and warlike virtues.


But must not all commissions run in the name of a king? No. Why may they not as well run thus, “The Colony of to A. B. greeting,” and be tested by the Governor?

Why may not writs, instead of running in the name of a King, run thus, “The Colony of to the Sheriff, &c.” and be tested by the Chief Justice.

Why may not indictments conclude, “against the peace of the Colony of and the dignity of the same?”

A Constitution, founded on these principles, introduces knowledge among the People, and inspires them with a conscious dignity, becoming Freemen. A general emulation takes place, which causes good humour, sociability, good manners, and good morals to be general. That elevation of sentiment, inspired by such a government, makes the common people brave and enterprizing. That ambition which is inspired by it makes them sober, industrious and frugal. You will find among them some elegance, perhaps, but more solidity; a little pleasure, but a great deal of business—some politeness, but more civility. If you compare such a country with the regions of domination, whether Monarchial or Aristocratical, you will fancy yourself in Arcadia or Elisium.

If the Colonies should assume governments separately, they should be left entirely to their own choice of the forms, and if a Continental Constitution should be formed, it should be a Congress, containing a fair and adequate Representation of the Colonies, and its authority should sacredly be confined to these cases, viz. war, trade, disputes between Colony and Colony, the Post-Office, and the unappropriated lands of the Crown, as they used to be called.

These Colonies, under such forms of government, and in such a union, would be unconquerable by all the Monarchies of Europe.

You and I, my dear Friend, have been sent into life, at a time when the greatest law-givers of antiquity would have wished to have lived. How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government more than of air, soil, or climate, for themselves or their children. When! Before the present epocha, had three millions of people full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive? I hope you will avail yourself and your country of that extensive learning and indefatigable industry which you possess, to assist her in the formations of the happiest governments, and the best character of a great People. For myself, I must beg you to keep my name out of sight, for this feeble attempt, if it should be 93known to be mine, would oblige me to apply to myself those lines of the immortal John Milton, in one of his sonnets,

“I did but teach the age to quit their cloggs By the plain rules of ancient Liberty, When lo! a barbarous noise surrounded me, Of owls and cuckoos, asses, apes and dogs.”

MS not found. Reprinted from (Thoughts on Government, Boston, 1776, itself reprinted from the Philadelphia edition of 1776).


A printer's error for “distinct.”


In the Hooper and Penn versions there is no mention of registers and clerks.


In stressing education for the “lower class of people” and implying support of it at public expense, the plea for education here is more specific than that in the other two letters.