John Adams Defends the Constitution
- The Constitution of the United States of America
- View the original document: The Constitution of the United States of America
“That all men are born to equal rights is true,” Adams conceded in his 1787 Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. “But to teach that all men are born with equal powers and faculties, to equal influence in society . . . is as gross a fraud . . . as ever was practiced by . . . the self-styled philosophers of the French Revolution.” Adams described fifty babies in a single room, all four days old, all in identical cradles, all dressed and nursed alike, yet all strikingly different. “They were born to equal rights,” he concluded, “but to very different fortunes; to very different success and influence in life.”
Democrats like Jefferson and Paine couldn’t just wish away class differences, Adams argued. Just because America had no feudal heritage didn’t mean there was no elite. This “natural aristocracy” had its place in a republic— specifically, the Senate. The majority had its voice in the House of Representatives. And both the majority and the minority needed to be kept in check by a powerful presidency.
Adams did not deny that a government’s power ought to come from “the people.” Where he broke with more radical democrats was in insisting that the people—and the aristocracy—were potentially as great a danger as a king. “The fundamental article of my political creed,” he wrote Jefferson in 1816, “is, that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratical counsel, an oligarchical junto and a single emperor.”
Adams was advocating a system of checks and balances that remains a key part of American democracy. He saw himself as defending the Constitution; indeed, as defending the rule of law against attacks from left and right. He was, however, noticeably out of step with the majority of Americans, who thought class distinctions had no place in America and who saw kings and aristocrats, not ordinary people, as the greatest danger to their freedom. In her 1805 History of the American Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren, amidst what was overall a positive assessment of Adams’s contribution to the Revolution, wrote that during his various diplomatic missions to Europe, “by living long near the splendor of courts and courtiers” he became “beclouded by a partiality for monarchy.” This resulted in “a lapse from [his] former republican principles.”
Adams furiously denied the charge. In an 1807 letter to Warren, Adams challenged “the whole human race, and angels and devils too, to produce an instance of [his monarchical sympathies] from my cradle to this hour.” In another letter to Warren (he wrote ten in response to her book), he reiterated the key roles he had played in creating the American republic: it was he who wrote the decisive motion in the Continental Congress, it was he who negotiated the treaty that ended the war, it was he whose writings provided the model for the Constitution, it was he who had “done more labor, run through more and greater dangers, and made greater sacrifices than any man among my contemporaries living or dead, in the service of my country.”
Adams’s claims were certainly exaggerated, ignoring the facts that Richard Henry Lee introduced the motion for independence and that Benjamin Franklin played a key role in negotiating the treaty. These were not the words of an objective historian. These were the words of a man deeply wounded by his country’s failure to understand and appreciate him.
Excerpt from We Hold These Truths, co-published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
Aron, Paul. "John Adams." We Hold These Truths. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, in association with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2008. 15-17.