Though it’s not a very lengthy document, John Adams’ Thoughts on Government is relatively dense with information. And along with its various recommendations for the proper structuring of a republican constitution (which I’ll be discussing in my next post) it contains a handful of references, veiled and explicit, to theories or documents that Adams was influenced by in his deliberations on the topic of government. As with the Declaration of Independence I do believe it’s important to explore these influences, and discuss how they affect the way Adams’ writings and the things they put in motion are viewed, and how they connect the events of the American Revolution to the wider philosophical and political world of the 18th century.
Off the top, I’d say it’s worth noting that Adams beings and ends Thoughts on Government with quotations from English poets Alexander Pope and John Milton. In addition to being a poet, Pope was also a satirist and a noted friend and supporter of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, a politician and political philosopher who was extremely influential among the learned class in North America for his support of republicanism. And Milton, aside from penning the much-celebrated Paradise Lost, had supported the execution of Charles I in 1649 and subsequently served in the government of the Commonwealth of England (a republic which lasted from 1649 to 1659). That he chose to quote these men, using their words to punctuate his own, reveals Adams’ attachment to the republican philosophical movement that existed within the broader 17th-and-18th-century Enlightenment, and more specifically to a particular English strain of political thought.
This is further evidenced by a passage (by my reckoning in the tenth paragraph) in which Adams writes out the names of eight English republican political philosophers, claiming that the principles they represent would no doubt meet with scorn from “modern English men,” but that their writings would convince any rational mind that the only good government must be republican in form. In addition to the quoted Milton, these men included Algernon Sidney (who was executed in 1683 for plotting against Charles I), James Harrington (who wrote about the ideal republican constitution), John Locke (who I discussed in my first set of posts), Marchmont Nedham (propagandist for the Commonwealth of England), Henry Neville (another satirist), Gilbert Burnet (Scottish theologian and contemporary of Locke), and Benjamin Hoadly (clergyman and prominent defender of the Glorious Revolution). 17th-century republican philosophers, writers, and supporters of the ill-fated Commonwealth, they would not have been held in the highest esteem by the political class in Britain in 1776. For that reason Adams’ familiarity with them says something about his and his contemporaries’ education and influences. After all, for him to be able to say “the works of Harrington or Sidney are particularly instructive on this subject,” he had to be assured that his readers would know who he was referring to and what they had written. This evident familiarity with English republican philosophy of Adams and his colleagues provides further insight into the colonists’ self-identity as members of a distinctly English political tradition.
Particularly un-English, however, is Adams reference to the views expressed by Montesquieu (who I also mentioned in a previous post) in his Spirit of the Laws. Montesquieu, among other things, stated in his treatise that there were three basic forms of government, the republic, the monarchy, and the despotism. Each of these forms, he claimed, was grounded in a central motivating principle: republics were motivated by virtue, or the willingness of the people to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good; monarchies were motivated by honor, or the love of rank and privilege; and despotisms were motivated by fear, of the ruler or the ruling class, from which there was no legal protection. In the sixth through ninth paragraphs of Thoughts on Government Adams makes essentially the same argument, further claiming that Americans weren't fearful enough to fall prey to despotism and didn't love honor as much as virtue, being the noblest principle and the best foundation for “the most generous models of government.” Because Adams’ later life would show that his sentiments lay most definitely with Britain and its political traditions (though certainly not to the extent that some of his detractors claimed), it’s interesting to see him reference a prominent French philosopher so directly, and at such a relatively early stage in his career. Coming from someone like Thomas Jefferson or James Madison an affinity for Montesquieu would not have seemed remarkable, both being noted devotees of French culture and philosophy. But from Adams, the staid, sober Anglophile, it feels more than a little out of character. What this points to, I think, is an awareness on the part of Adams and his confederates of their connection to the larger intellectual world of the 18th-century. Though many viewed their conflict with Parliament and the Crown through a distinctly English political and historical lens, the educated class in the colonies were very conscious of the broader philosophical discussions that had been going on in Western Europe since the 17th century, and considered themselves a vital part of the conversation.
Adams makes two further references of note that connect with both his attachment to English history and his knowledge of Western European politics and government. In the fourteenth paragraph of Thoughts on Government, during a discussion of the faults inherent in a unicameral legislature, Adams refers to the English Long Parliament and the States General of the Dutch Republic as examples of assemblies that grew ambitious and voted themselves into permanent existence. Though he doesn't go into great detail as to how these examples help him make his point, I do believe that they reveal some of the elements of history and contemporary political science that Adams felt were worth drawing upon when setting about crafting an ideal republican constitution.
After an eleven-year period of ruling without legislative approval, Charles I summoned the Long Parliament in 1640 in an effort to pass much-needed financial legislation. The assembled members ultimately voted that Parliament should meet at least once every three years whether the king called an election or not in an attempt to prevent another period of personal rule by the monarch. Tensions between Charles and the assembly mounted over the years that followed as Parliament tried to standardise taxation and wrest control of the military away from the crown. The dispute came to a head in 1642 when, after moving his court from London to Oxford and effectively dividing the legislature between supporters of Parliament and the Crown, armed hostilities broke out and the English Civil War effectively began. The Long Parliament continued to sit throughout this period, was purged of its “disloyal” members in 1648, forcibly disbanded in 1653, recalled in 1659, and finally permanently dissolved in 1660. Because of its well-documented resistance to royal authority and the republican-leaning sentiments of many of its members the Long Parliament came to be looked upon favorably in post-Glorious Revolution Britain as a harbinger of parliamentary supremacy and constitutional monarchism. As a citizen of the colonies, who had long nurtured a rather tenuous relationship with the Crown, Adams was more than likely of this opinion. Indeed, his claim in Thoughts on Government was that the Long Parliament’s “one fault” was its perpetual nature. This reference, among other things, reveals both Adams’ dedication to the principle of government accountability, and his tendency to view the dispute between the colonies and the Crown and the prospect of ideal government in a distinctly English context.
Though in 1776 it was really the only republic in existence, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (or Dutch Republic) was not particularly representative of the people it governed or responsive to their needs and concerns. Having emerged out of a rebellion against Spanish rule in 1581, the Republic was governed by the States General, more a semi-feudal assembly than a modern legislature. In essence, each of the provinces had an assembly of its own consisting of representatives from each of the recognized towns and the local nobility. These assemblies each nominated delegates to the States General, who voted as provinces rather than as individuals. The States General was responsible for the military, foreign relations, and tariffs, and left most domestic issues to the individual provinces. The de-facto head of state, the Stadtholder, was initially appointed to his position by the respective provincial assemblies, though the office became hereditary by the mid-18th century. Similarly, the various provincial assemblies became less and less receptive to public opinion over time as executive authority in most towns became centralized in the hands of the wealthy business class. By the 1770s, in spite of its foundation amidst a popular revolt, the Republic had become highly aristocratic in nature and was dominated by large landowners, bankers, merchants, and the ruling princes. It is thus unsurprising that Adams looked to the Republic as a prime example of how governments intended to fairly and rationally administer a complicated set of interests could become unresponsive to the people. But more to the point, I think, Adams’ invocation of the Dutch model demonstrates his ability to occasionally see beyond just his favored English examples, and look to the broader Western world for inspirations and cautions in his quest to design a more perfect form of republican government.
Taken together, the references in Thoughts on Government to political philosophers and poets, English history and Dutch politics provide evidence of both the intellectual character of John Adams (as a man of meticulous habits and particularly English sympathies) and the way he approached the notion of the ideal republic. While he clearly viewed (along with some of his contemporaries) certain strains of English political thought and English history as a source of knowledge and inspiration, his willingness to invoke the writings of Montesquieu and the contemporary Dutch Republic demonstrates his sense of the American Revolution and the philosophical questions it raised as part of a broader discussion on the nature of government that was connected to the history and politics of the enlightened, 18th-century world.