In 1786, John Adams wrote in his diary that a friend, “lamenting the differences of character between Virginia and New England,” welcomed from Adams a recipe for a Chesapeake makeover: “I recommended to him town meetings, training days, town schools, and ministers”; these “are the scenes where New England men were formed.” Because Adams started with what was so good at the base of a federal polity, he knew what the top should look like. Anything he might have to offer our current national chaos starts with that conviction.
His spiritual home was his farm in Braintree, and the institutions of New England represented to Adams about as happy a framework for republican government as mankind could hope for (and Adams knew more about the history of republics than any other American of his generation). He desired a federal republic that, first, could protect the New England nation and, second, keep the larger confederation intact.
If there was anything really “novus” in the novus ordo seclorum, it was truly limited government—a “law to limit law.” For probably the first time in history, constitution-makers (on local, state, and national levels) consciously tried to divide sovereignty, to keep it from locating in any one place, interest, or office. This went against all conventional political wisdom, but it perfectly reflected the fierce local patriotism of diverse peoples in several preexisting colonial (or state) polities who agreed that it was necessary to combine into a workable whole.
James Madison famously called their solution “partly national and partly federal”—a phrase he would regret when the Hamiltonians got their hands on the system. But to a New Englander such as Adams the covenantal origins of the federal—from the Latin foedus (“covenant”)—idea seemed to be ample protection against national power as well as ample opportunity for unity. To Adams, the key was balance. Balance required avoiding “simple” sovereignty in any one class, interest, or function of government—giving it rather “in fact, as well as morally,” to the “whole body of the people.” “My opinion is and always has been,” he wrote, “that absolute power intoxicates alike despots, monarchs, aristocrats, democrats, Jacobins, and sans-culottes.”
Adams learned the technique to achieve balance from his practical experience in drawing up the Massachusetts constitution of 1780. It required “mixed” government—in his mind, an American version of the ancient political problem of “the one, the few, and the many.” By balancing the functions of government, putting a small or big power here, snatching some of it away and putting it there, the legislative, executive, and judicial sovereignties could also be controlled. Mixed government, Adams and many others of his generation knew, might still result in centralization even at the state level, so he wrote into the commonwealth (a synonym, in his mind, for republic) the historic and traditional rights of its citizens, frequent elections controlled at the local level, and the authority of the towns to ratify and also to be perpetually represented as communal bodies. It gave Massachusetts a strong government: one capable of acting, but one that was still on a tight leash held by the people.
Adams’ Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was probably the most influential model of the age. Its striking similarities to the U.S. Constitution of 1787 testify to that, although, of course, Adams was not in Philadelphia that summer. He was, however, present in the central government during its first 12 years. If he had at times been a republican enthusiast, by 1800 Adams was convinced that Jeffersonian Republicans and Hamiltonian “high” Federalists were ideologues, alike practitioners of the “science of Idiocy.” As parties, they ate each other’s waste: “Hogs of Westphalia are a saving brood. / What one lets drop, the other takes as food,” he wrote in 1815. He still held that the federal constitution was “the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen,” but its balance was evermore in jeopardy.
Adams was an agrarian federalist. He loved real property, local government, and family life, and thought there was a considerable amount of virtue in Americans, in general, and New Englanders, in particular. He was suspicious of plutocracy in all its forms and in all its locations—banks, the military, government. He had no more use for “state sovereignty” than he did for its nemesis, nationalism. He wanted a modest, even isolationist, foreign policy (he always thought his greatest service to his country was keeping it out of war with France in 1798) that promoted exchange but not alliances.
Adams often judged the character of a nation by how carefully its farmers tended their manure piles. Such a man is not likely to become a despot.
This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.