Papers of John Adams, volume 4

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).