While he was ambassador to Britain, John Adams wrote a series of letters and
essays that he collected and published as three volumes from 1787 through
1789, the first volume of which appeared in the United States just before the
Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Entitled _Defence* of the
Constitutions of Government of the United States of America_, they are a
review of the most significant writings of philosophers and historians, and of
the historical models of republics, from the ancient era to that time, that
were read by and that influenced the thinking of Americans. As such they
provide a good source for examining just which writings and models were most
influential, and how they were interpreted and discussed among the Founders.
Volume I is devoted to arguing for three main propositions:
(1) That to be well-designed, a government should be divided into three main
branches, legislative, executive, and judicial.
(2) That those branches should each be able to check, or obstruct, the actions
of the other two.
(3) That the legislative branch should be divided into two houses, both of
which must concur to pass legislation, and which represent the "democratical"
and "aristocratical" elements of society, respectively.
It must be kept in mind that these volumes were written during the Articles of
Confederation period, so the constitutions Adams is defending are those of the
Thirteen States. However, he is clearly arguing for the kind of stronger
central government that the 1787 Federal Convention was to propose, and which
incorporated many of the ideas that Adams discusses.
We don't have much positive evidence of how much these writings themselves
influenced the attendees at the Federal Convention, but many of the key
members knew Adams or corresponded with him, and his stature makes it likely
that his book would have been read by many of them as soon as it became
These writings were also to play a role in the later debates during the Adams
administration and later, as they were used both to justify a stronger central
government, and as a basis for attacking Adams as having "monarchist"
leanings. This latter line of attack is not entirely fair, based on these
writings alone, but they led to such rebuttals as that of John Taylor of
Caroline, in his 1814 book, An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the
Government of the United States.
This work should be considered essential reading for students of
constitutional history and law. Putting the remaining two volumes online is
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