While it’s clear enough that Thoughts on Government played a significant role in shaping many of the original thirteen states first constitutions, it’s also worth considering whether it played a similar role in shaping the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution, the two charters that have historically governed the US of A. Or if it’s impossible to determine whether Adams’ 1776 treatise really did shape those documents (and I suppose it is), it’s still worth comparing the three in an effort to reveal how the different strains of American political thought shifted and evolved between Adams’ early musings, the first attempt at US constitution-making in 1777, and the events of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.
Though I already discussed some of the weaknesses of the United States government under the Articles in a previous post, I’d like to take a moment to outline how and when they were written, and what it is they actually say.
At the same time in 1776 that a committee was formed within the Second Continental Congress to draft a formal declaration of independence (the celebrated Committee of Five), a second group of thirteen delegates was authorized to begin the process of drafted a formal constitution for the union of the various states. It was felt that such a charter was necessary in order to better facilitate the war effort, centralize trade and diplomacy, and present a unified front to the various European powers that the states were either at war with or courting the support of (either military or financial). The committee, led by Pennsylvania John Dickinson, managed to turn out a first draft after about a month, which was then debated at length and amended numerous times before finally being approved by Congress in November, 1777. The ratification process which followed took significantly longer, in no small part thanks to the refusal of certain states to abandon their land claims west of the Appalachians to the new federal government. Maryland was the last state to approve the Articles, in February, 1781, and did so only after Virginia and New York consented to give up their claims in the Ohio valley. Because they required the ratification of all thirteen states to come into force it was only then, over three years after they were completed, that government under the Articles of Confederation officially began.
To Americans familiar with the highly-structured government outlined by the United States Constitution, or even to someone who had read Adams’ Thoughts on Government, the Articles would no doubt seem rather sparse and anemic. Unlike the three-part government favored by Adams and the Framers of the Constitution, the authors of the Articles favored a much simpler arrangement. Lacking an executive branch or a federal judiciary, power was concentrated in the unicameral Congress, which could form its own administrative committees and elect its own president. Each state legislature was responsible for sending between two and six delegates to sit in said Congress, and each state represented therein was granted a single vote in all proceedings. Domestic authority was left almost entirely in the hands of the states themselves, while the United States government was given sole authority to determine peace and war, send and receive ambassadors, enter into treaties and alliances, grant letters of marque (in order to authorize privateers), appoint courts for the trial of crimes committed on the high seas (mainly piracy) set standard weights and measures, and serve as a final court for disputes between the various states. Individual states were prohibited from raising standing armies but were required to maintain trained militias and provide the necessary weapons and supplies, and Congress was empowered to requisition whatever funds it required from the various states legislatures (who regularly refused to comply).
Where Thoughts on Government seems to incline more towards the classical republican ideal of balanced government, the Articles are intent on providing as little government as possible. This is not, I think, because the authors of the Articles were consciously ignoring or rejecting Adams’ recommendations and the character of the various states constitutions that followed. Rather, it was because the state governments were so (relatively) strong, so structured, that a weak, outward-facing federal government was preferred. After all, the American Revolution was in many ways a conflict between central and delegated authority, between strict constructionism and assumed power. The colonies, and later states, had over the course of their existence become very jealous of the authority that tradition and law had set aside for them. Whether the body that claimed authority over them was a distant British Parliament or a near American Congress, the states were loath to give up the powers they had reserved as their own. Congressional delegates in 1777 were acutely aware of this, and structured the Articles accordingly.
None of this is to say that the state constitutions were without flaws. Many of them created governors that were beholden to legislatures, or legislatures that were volatile and easily influenced by popular, but ultimately destructive, sentiments. But, having emerged from the British tradition of an un-written constitution, the framers of the various state charters were treading new ground in attempting to draft plans of government that were not based in inherited tradition or legal precedent, but in commonly-held ideals of logic, reason, and justice. Thus it stands to reason that Americans’ first foray into constitutional government would prove to be a rocky one at the outset.
Bearing that in mind it’s interesting to contrast Thoughts on Government, as an example of early American ideas about government, with the United States Constitution. Drafted after several dysfunctional years under the Articles of Confederation, the structure of the Constitution aligns much more closely with Adams’ ideal 1776 arrangement, and consequently with the structure that had been adopted by most of the states themselves. As Adams suggested, it arranges the federal government into three distinct and independent branches: a bicameral legislature, one-man executive, and a judiciary. The lower house of the legislature was to be elected by qualified voters (who possessed the requisite amount of property) according to the districts in which they lived, while delegates to the upper house were to be selected by the various state legislatures (popular elections of Senators came only in 1913). Members of the federal judiciary were to be nominated by the president and confirmed by the legislature, and were to serve for life during good behavior. The president, unlike the governor in Adam’s outline, was popularly elected and chose his own cabinet (with the advice and consent of the upper house). Like Adams’ governor, however, the president was to serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, possess a veto, and reserve the ability to grant pardons. Though the notion of annual elections was abandoned by the Framers in 1787, term limits were enforced: six years for members of the upper house, two for members of the lower, and four for the president.
As with the individual state constitutions, and as Adams himself suggested, some changes were made to the overall formula that was put forward in 1776 in an attempt to create a government that more fully served the needs of the people. The notion of a popularly elected president no doubt spun out of the problems experienced in many states in the 1770s and 1780s. Taking into consideration the difficulties under the Congress of the Confederation (as the federal legislature was known between 1781 and 1788) wherein a complete lack of independent executive authority made rapid decision making exceedingly difficult, as well as the weakness of many of the state governors (who were elected by, and beholden to, the legislature), the Framers decided on a presidency that would have its own mandate, and that could respond to sudden crisis (such as the rebellion that broke out in Massachusetts in 1786) quickly and effectively. Similarly, because the proposed bicameral federal legislature would need to balance the interests of the people (via their representatives) and the states, it would not have seemed altogether proper for the lower house to elect the members of the upper house. Accordingly, the state legislatures were made responsible for electing senators since they were felt to best represent the states as individual political entities.
I’ll admit that I’m simplifying the narrative of the Constitution somewhat; every one of the issues I’ve described were tirelessly debated by the assembled delegates, and any number of plans were proposed, amended and scrapped before the final draft was agreed upon. That being said, I hope it’s become clear enough how fluid American political thoughts was in this era, and how, over the course of the early decades of the American Republic, theory and experience collided in order to produce better, more stable, and more flexible forms of government than had even been conceived before. The finished Constitution deviated from Adams’ 1776 proposal in any number of ways, but in spirit it adhered to the values that he most cherished: balance, accountability, and utility. It’s also worth noting that Adams was suggesting a balanced, three-part government in 1776, fully a decade before it would be adopted on the federal level. That it took several troubled years under the Articles of Confederation for most Americans to come around to the idea that their national government should more closely resemble their state governments is telling of how new and strange a project they were collectively engaged it.