John Adams - Political theory





By the time he took office, no American had read or written more about government than John Adams. It is difficult to discover an important volume on law, political theory, moral philosophy, or economy from classical Greece and Rome to Enlightenment Europe that had escaped his critical eye. He was not an abstract political thinker; rather, he read and wrote to understand and solve the problems of society in his own day. At the outset of the Revolution he believed that the superior virtue of the American people would prove sufficient to maintain a balance between liberty and order in the new republics being formed by the states. In his Thoughts on Government , written early in 1776, and in his draft of the Massachusetts Constitution three years later, he advocated popular governments with checks on the abuse of power adequate to maintain their republican purity.

As he viewed the American experiments in government from Europe during the 1780s, Adams lost faith in the political virtue of his countrymen. He saw them repeating the mistakes of Europe, especially in the feverish pursuit of luxury, with its inevitable social and political corruption and its nurturing of class antagonisms. More controls and authority were now needed to govern a society dividing into the aristocratic few and the democratic many. In his last two years abroad he hastily wrote the three volumes of A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America . This cumbersome work declared that a strong, independent executive was essential to mediate between opposing interests. The continued growth of corruption would in the distant future make free elections impossible and a hereditary executive preferable. This concept in the Defence would plague the remainder of Adams' career with the charge of being a monarchist, even though he never advocated hereditary succession for his own day. The French Revolution further strengthened his belief that political freedom could be preserved only by a balanced government effectively controlling the natural rivalry of men for wealth and distinction. The quest for equality, he predicted, would inevitably bring chaos and the loss of the freedom that the French revolutionaries sought.

By the time he returned home in 1788, Adams had transferred his hope for the future of American republicanism from the states to the national government. He readily approved the new federal Constitution, which so much resembled his handiwork in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, but he wanted an even stronger executive than provided for by the Philadelphia convention. The president, he thought, should be freed from the shackles of the Senate in making appointments and approving treaties. He wrote to Jefferson of his fear that Congress was certain to encroach on the powers of the president in these and other areas where executive independence was essential; the president needed an absolute veto over acts of the legislature if he was to mediate effectively between opposing interests. Vice President Adams argued in the Senate that the president should be addressed by some such title as "His Highness" or "His Majesty, the President," in keeping with the near-monarchical office to which he had been elected.





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