portraitofjohnadamsbywilliamwinstanley1798
Portrait of John Adams. By: William Winstanley.

At the time of the American Revolution, it was commonly believed amongst Americans that formulating the ideal government would require a different system than any previously conceived. The Founding Fathers had their own ideas.

John Adams explained in an oration at Braintree, Massachusetts (present-day Quincy, Massachusetts) in 1772 that there were three forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 198.

A monarchy existed when a government entrusted to the “entire ruling power . . . to the discretion of a single person.” Id. quoting John Adams, Notes for an Oration at Braintree, 1772, Butterfield, ed., Diary of Adams, II, 57-60 (internal quotations omitted). A monarchy’s best quality was that it fostered “order or energy.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 198.

An aristocracy existed when a government placed power “in the hands of a few great, rich, wise men.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 198 quoting John Adams, Notes for an Oration at Braintree, 1772, Butterfield, ed., Diary of Adams, II, 57-60 (internal quotations omitted). An aristocracy’s best quality was that it capitalized on the wisest and richest men. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 198.

A democracy existed when “the whole power of the society was lodged with all the people.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 198 citing John Adams, Notes for an Oration at Braintree, 1772, Butterfield, ed., Diary of Adams, II, 57-60. Democracy’s greatest strength was that it promoted “honesty and goodness.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 198.

Each of the three forms of government, according to Adams, led to perversion. Monarchies had a tendency to lunge “toward its extremity and ended in a cruel despotism.” Id. Aristocracies tended to be “pulled in both directions and create[] ‘faction and multiplied usurpation.'” Id. quoting John Adams, Notes for an Oration at Braintree, 1772, Butterfield, ed., Diary of Adams, II, 57-60. Democracies had a propensity for degenerating “into anarchy and tumult.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 198.

Adams theorized that combining the best elements of these three forms of government into one constitution would ensure that “political fluctuations would cease.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 198 citing John Adams, Notes for an Oration at Braintree, 1772, Butterfield, ed., Diary of Adams, II, 57-60. To maintain stability in government, Adams believed, power must be shared between “the one, the few, and the many.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 198.

As Adams himself said at his oration: “Liberty depends upon an exact Ballance [sic], a nice Counterpoise of all the Powers of the state . . . . The best Governments of the World have been mixed.” John Adams, Notes for an Oration at Braintree, 1772, Butterfield, ed., Diary of Adams, II, 57-60; see also Blackstone, Commentaries, I, 48; Adams and Leonard, Novanglus and Massachusettensis, 169; John Witherspoon, “Lecture on Moral Philosophy,” Works of Witherspoon, III, 432-35.

Adams’ theory was not so different from many theories propounded at that time, as many believed England had this system on paper but that it was poorly executed. Richard Henry Lee, a Whig, closely held that belief. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 200-01.

To put all governments in three categories, with shades of those three categories coming out in some governments may be oversimplifying a complicated subject. But nonetheless, Adams’ theory was crucial to understanding what the general scope and tone of the Constitution should be. Adams was propounding these theories in 1772, a full fifteen years before the Constitution would be drafted and begin the ratification process.

As is so often the case in studying the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers’ collective wisdom and prescient knowledge of government helped ensure the proper framing of the institutions comprising the federal government. While Adams may have become disconnected from what America needed later in his life, when he was speaking at Braintree, Adams had his finger on America’s pulse.

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