John Adams: Thoughts on Government

I was flipping through a nice collection of primary documents from the Revolutionary era, and re-read an entry I found interesting.

John Adams wrote Thoughts on Government in the spring of '76 to a colleague and future fellow signatory of the Declaration of Independence, George Wythe. In it, Adams outlines his brainstorming on an ideal form of democratic government, and it is very close to the government that is later formed by the U.S. Constitution in 1789. It is worth reading if one is interested in the rationale behind our three-branch government. He discusses:

  • The need of a Legislature (distinct from direct democracy)
  • The need of some kind of internal division within the Legislature (he recommends a council within the chamber, vs. what we have today with the Senate)
  • The need for an independent Executive to administer the Militia, treasury, considerations of trade, etc.
  • And critically, a Judiciary to make legitimate and fair the administration of laws.

Some interesting quotes below.

On the purpose of government:

We ought to consider what is the end of government, before we determine  which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will  agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all  divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the  individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that  the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or,  in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the  greatest degree, is the best.

Of judges:

The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals  of the people, and every blessing of society depend so much upon an  upright and skillful administration of justice, that the judicial power  ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and  independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both  should be checks upon that. The judges, therefore, should be always men  of learning and experience in the laws, of exemplary morals, great  patience, calmness, coolness, and attention.

And in closing, his genuine excitement at the moment in which they were living:

You and I, my dear friend, have been sent into life at a time when the  greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live. How few of  the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of  government, more than of air, soil, or climate, for themselves or their  children! When, before the present epocha, had three millions of people  full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and  happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?

John Adams was about 40 years old, and Thomas Jefferson 31, when this was written. It's never too soon or too late to get involved.

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