Sunday, November 14, 2010

John Adams: "Thoughts on Government"

“Thoughts on Government” was written by John Adams during the spring of 1776 in response to a resolution of the North Carolina Provincial Congress which requested Adams's suggestions on the establishment of a new government and the drafting of a constitution. Adams says that "Politics is the Science of human Happiness -and the Felicity of Societies depends on the Constitutions of Government under which they live." Many of the ideas put forth in Adams's pamphlet were adopted in December 1776 by the framers of North Carolina's first constitution.  Adams describes the purpose (or end) of government, which is happiness, and the source of happiness, which is virtue, which provides the only sure foundation for government.  Following are excerpts from his essay:

“MY DEAR SIR,--If I was equal to the task of forming a plan for the government of a colony, I should be flattered with your request, and very happy to comply with it; because, as the divine science of politics is the science of social happiness, and the blessings of society depend entirely on the constitutions of government, which are generally institutions that last for many generations, there can be no employment more agreeable to a benevolent mind than a research after the best…

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.

All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this.

If there is a form of government, then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?

Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.

Honor is truly sacred, but holds a lower rank in the scale of moral excellence than virtue. Indeed, the former is but a part of the latter, and consequently has not equal pretensions to support a frame of government productive of human happiness.

The foundation of every government is some principle or passion in the minds of the people. The noblest principles and most generous affections in our nature, then, have the fairest chance to support the noblest and most generous models of government…

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? I hope you will avail yourself and your country of that extensive learning and indefatigable industry which you possess, to assist her in the formation of the happiest governments and the best character of a great people.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Good and Bad Magistrate

Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) wrote his Discourses Concerning Government in argument against the divine right of Kings, and in support of individual liberty and representative government. Discourses was first published in England in 1698 (with several later printings), and was first in America in 1805.  Thomas Jefferson cited Algernon Sidney’s writings as one of the sources for the “authority” of the Declaration of Independence. He endorsed Sidney's "Discourses Concerning Government" as "a rich treasure of republican principles" and "probably the best elementary book of the principles of government, as founded in natural right which has ever been published in any language."1
 
In Discourses, Sidney reviews the history of governments from Biblical, through Greek, Roman and English eras.  In one of its most significant passages, he discusses and analyzes the characteristics of "Good and Bad Magistrates."  This selection is quoted verbatim by Trenchard and Gordon in their Cato's Letters (published as pamphlets in Great Britain from 1720-1723) which were popular in the American colonies at the time of the revolution.  Sidney's insights into what makes a magistrate (a government leader) "good" or "bad" are still applicable today:

"Reason and experience instruct us, that every man acts according to the end he proposes to himself. The good magistrate seeks the good of the people committed to his care, that he may perform the end of his institution: and knowing that chiefly to consist in justice and virtue, he endeavors to plant and propagate them; and by doing this he procures his own good as well as that of the public. He knows there is no safety where there is no strength, no strength without union, no union without justice; no justice where faith and truth, in accomplishing public and private contracts, is wanting. This he perpetually inculcates, and thinks it a great part of his duty, by precept and example, to educate the youth in a love of virtue and truth, that they may be seasoned with them, and filled with an abhorrence of vice and falsehood, before they attain that age which is exposed to the most violent temptations, and in the which they may, by their crimes, bring great mischiefs upon the public. He would do all this, tho' it were to his own prejudice. But as good actions always carry a reward with them, these contribute in a high measure to his own advantage. By preferring the interest of the people before his own, he gains their affection, and all that is in their power comes with it; whilst he unites them to one another, he unites all to himself: in leading them to virtue, he increases their strength, and by that means provides for his own safety, glory, and power.

"On the other side, such as seek different ends must take different ways. When a magistrate fancies he is not made for the people, but the people for him; that he does not govern for them, but for himself; and that the people live only to increase his glory, or furnish matter for his pleasures; he does not inquire what he may do for them, but what he may draw from them. By this means he sets up an interest of profit, pleasure, or pomp, in himself, repugnant to the good of the public, for which he is made to be what he is. These contrary ends certainly divide the nation into parties; and whilst every one endeavors to advance that to which he is addicted, occasions of hatred for injuries every day done, or thought to be done, and received, must necessarily arise. This creates a most fierce and irreconcilable enmity, because the occasions are frequent, important, and universal, and the causes thought to be most just. The people think it the greatest of all crimes, to convert that power to their hurt, which was instituted for their good; and that the injustice is aggravated by perjury and ingratitude, which comprehend all manner of ill; and the magistrate gives the name of sedition or rebellion to whatsoever they do for the preservation of themselves, and their own rights. When men's spirits are thus prepared, a small matter sets them on fire; but if no accident happens to blow them into a flame, the course of justice is certainly interrupted, the public affairs are neglected; and when any occasion, whether foreign or domestic arises, in which the magistrate stands in need of the people's assistance, they, whose affections are alienated, not only shew an unwillingness to serve him with their persons and estates, but fear that by delivering him from his distress, they strengthen their enemy, and enable him to oppress them; and he, fancying his will to be unjustly opposed, or his due more unjustly denied, is filled with a dislike of what he sees, and a fear of worse of the future. Whilst he endeavors to ease himself of the one, and to provide against the other, he usually increases the evils of both and jealousies are on both sides multiplied. Every man knows that the governed are in a great measure under the power of the governor; but as no man, or number of men, is willingly subject to those who seek their ruin, such as fall in so great a misfortune continue no longer under it than force, fear, or necessity, may be able to oblige them. But as such a necessity can hardly lie longer upon a great people, than till the evil be fully discovered and comprehended, and their virtue, strength, and power, be united to expel it; the ill magistrate looks upon all things, that may conduce to that end, as so many preparatives to his ruin; and by the help of those, who are of his party, will endeavor to prevent that union, and diminish that strength, virtue, power, and courage, which he knows to be bent against him. And as truth, faithful dealing due performance of contracts, and integrity of manners, are bonds of union, and helps to good, he will always by tricks, artifices, cavils, and all means possible, endeavor to establish falsehood and dishonesty; whilst other emissaries and instruments of iniquity, by corrupting the oath, and seducing such as can be brought to lewdness and debauchery, bring the people to such a pass, that they may neither care nor dare to vindicate their rights, and that those who would do it, may so far suspect each other, as not to confer upon, much less to join in, any action tending to the public deliverance.

"This distinguishes the good from the bad magistrate, that faithful from the unfaithful; and those who adhere to either, living in the same principle, must walk in the same ways. They who uphold the rightful power of a just magistracy, encourage virtue and justice; teach men what they ought to do, suffer, or expect from others; fix them upon principles of honesty; and generally advance every thing that tends to the increase of the valour, strength, greatness, and happiness of the nation, creating a good union among them, and bringing every man to an exact understanding of his own and the public rights. On the other side, he that would introduce an ill magistrate, make one evil who was good, or preserve him in the exercise of injustice when he is corrupted, must always open the way for him by vitiating the people, corrupting their manners, destroying the validity of oaths and contracts, teaching such evasions, equivocations, and frauds, as are inconsistent with the thoughts, that become men of virtue and courage; and overthrowing the confidence they ought to have in each other, make it impossible for them to unite among themselves. The like arts must be used with the magistrate: he cannot be for their turn, till he is persuaded to believe he has no dependence upon, and owes no duty to the people; that he is of himself, and not by their institution; that no man ought to inquire into, nor be judge of his actions; that all obedience is due to him, whether he be good or bad, wise or foolish, a father or an enemy to his country. This being calculated for his personal interest, he must pursue the same designs, or his kingdom is divided within itself, and cannot subsist. By this means those who flatter his humor, come to be accounted his friends, and the only men that are thought worthy of great trusts, whilst such as are of another mind are exposed to all persecution. These are always such as excel in virtue, wisdom, and greatness of spirit: they have eyes, and they will always see the way they go; and, leaving fools to be guided by implicit faith, will distinguish between good and evil, and chose that which is best; they will judge of men by their actions, and by them discovering whose servant every man is, know whether he is to be obeyed or not. Those who are ignorant of all good, careless, or enemies to it, take a more compendious way; their slavish, vicious, and base natures, inclining them to seek only private and present advantages, they easily slide into a blind dependence upon one who has wealth and power; and desiring only to know his will, care not what injustice they do, if they may be rewarded. They worship what they find in the temple, tho' it be the vilest of idols; and always like the best which is worst, because it agrees with their inclinations and principles. When a party comes to be erected upon such a foundation, debauchery, lewdness, and dishonesty, are the true badges of it. Such as wear them are cherished; but the principal marks of favor are reserved for those, who are the most industrious in mischief, either by seducing the people with allurements of sensual pleasures, or corrupting their understandings by false and slavish doctrines. By this means, a man who calls himself a philosopher, or a divine, is often more useful than a great number of tapsters, cooks, buffoons, players, fidlers, whores, or bawds. These are the devil's ministers of a lower order; they seduce single persons; and such as fall into their snares, are for the most part men of the simpler sort; but the principal supporters of this kingdom are they, who by false doctrines poison the springs of religion and virtue, and by preaching or writing (if their falsehood and wickedness were not detected) would extinguish all principles of common honesty, and bring whole nations to be best satisfied with themselves, when their actions are most abominable. And as the means must always be suitable to the end proposed, the governments that are to be established or supported by such ways must needs be the worst of all, and comprehend all manner of evil." (Discourses, III:19:342-45).


1 Thomas Jefferson to John Trumbull, 18 January 1789, in "The Papers of Thomas Jefferson," ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 14:467-68; Thomas Jefferson to Mason Locke Weems, 13 December 1804, in "Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson," ed. W. Millicent Sowbery (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1953), 3:13.