Today’s Americans revere the Founding Fathers as egalitarian exceptions within the eighteenth century’s hierarchical world. Yet, these men were neither uniform nor wholly democratic in their opinions. Among them, John Adams stands out as a particularly clear deviation, continuing to espouse support for the Old World’s system of natural hierarchy long after the American Revolution. In 1787, he still favored a mix of three types of government that mirrored the ancient orders of society even as his nation grew more republican in its values. Assuming his fellow Americans likewise harbored these traditional beliefs, Adams positioned himself as an anachronism even for his time.
The inaccuracy of Adams’ assumption is exemplified by his publication of A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States. Written in response to Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot’s letter criticizing the US state constitutions, the three-volume work in favor of tripartite government was penned and published in haste between 1787 and 1788. Modern scholars have criticized Defence for its “increasingly antirepublican character” and “disordered, repetitious style,” a sentiment echoed by Adams’ contemporaries. Analysis of Turgot’s letter, Defence itself, and private correspondence reacting to the series reveal that the author misjudged his political climate. Deeply anxious, Adams convinced himself there was a conspiracy within the nation against the states’ tripartite governments, and this paranoia led him to pen Defence as an antiquated response to Turgot’s benign letter. Despite this oversight, however, Adams’ work remains indispensable as a reflection of the Founding Era, epitomizing the ideological clash between hierarchy and egalitarianism that rattled the new nation.
To understand the failure of Defence as a work of political theory, one must first understand how John Adams viewed the world. Instead of seeing Turgot’s letter for what it was, a private correspondence expressing one man’s opinion, Adams saw a larger danger at hand that threatened to dismantle the existing state constitutions, which he prized for their tripartite structure with a governor, senate, and assembly. In Defence’s preliminary observations, Adams claimed that since their conception in 1776, every state had “entertained sentiments similar to those of Mr. Turgot.” Specifically, Turgot and these scattered Americans supported a single assembly, which Adams ardently opposed for lacking balance. A few had put their ideas into practice by instituting a unicameral government, and to Adams’ horror, even his home state of Massachusetts appeared to be losing faith in its need for a governor and senate. As support for a single assembly was already present in the United States, its tripartite governments remained insecure. The words of any significant philosopher could ignite these pro-unicameral sentiments, destroying Adams’ cherished state institutions and condemning these governments to perpetual instability.
To Adams, Turgot manifested that threat of a respected theorist who favored unicameralism. In early 1778, the former French finance minister wrote to the British philosopher Richard Price expressing his dissatisfaction with the American state constitutions. A firm supporter of the revolutionary cause, Turgot lamented that “instead of collecting all authority in one center, that of the nation,” the states had divided their governments into an assembly, senate, and governor simply “because there is in England a House of Commons, a House of Lords, and a King.” For a people attempting separation, this duplication of England’s structure appeared both arbitrary and unwise. This letter, Turgot emphasized, was to be kept in strict confidence lest he “be found much too great a friend to liberty for a minister.” Little did he know, his greatest critique would not come from his countrymen, but rather John Adams. Out of respect for Turgot’s wishes, Price withheld publishing the letter until after the minister’s death. From 1784 onwards, however, he included the message in new editions of his book Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution. Turgot had the political experience, education, and patriot-friendly spirit necessary to attract American readers. Having served as France’s comptroller of finance, he was a credible commentator on government. More importantly, his letter exalted the Revolution’s ideals and potential, claiming that it was “impossible not to wish ardently that [Americans might] attain to all the prosperity of which they are capable.” He saw America as the world’s great hope for a truly representative government and yearned for its people to succeed in establishing it.
Adams recognized that such an amicable author poised a much greater threat to the state constitutions than an overtly hostile one. Though he claimed that Americans were “too enlightened to be bubbled out of their liberties, even by such mighty names as Locke, Milton, Turgot, or Hume,” the sheer length of Defenceproved that he thought otherwise. Turgot’s letter was a mere seventeen pages, yet Adams’ response was well over a thousand across three volumes. The disproportionate length reflected his overestimate of the letter’s potential for dangerous influence. Adams hypothesized that already, the publication of Turgot’s letter had “contributed to excite such discontents among the people” against tripartite government. In his mind, those Americans already predisposed against the state constitutions had finally found a philosopher to substantiate their beliefs and spur them into action.
Compounding this anxiety, Adams was not in the United States while writing Defence. Instead, he found himself abroad acting as the US ambassador in London, and he had only just returned there from a visit to the Netherlands. Owing to this physical divide, he could not accurately gauge American support for the ideas in Turgot’s letter. Thus, Adams defaulted to his worst fear, that the nation had turned against its tripartite state constitutions. To prevent the further spread of such sentiments, he rushed to write Defence, omitting fluidity and style out of perceived necessity. The volumes came from a place of extreme anxiety, leaving him little room to make accurate judgements.
Adams acknowledged that he wrote Defence in haste out of fear, but he attributed his concern to Shays’ Rebellion. In the summer of 1786, impoverished farmers in western Massachusetts demanded that the state’s upper house be abolished for vetoing the lower house’s debt relief bill.This discontent intensified into what became known as Shays’ Rebellion, with its namesake, Daniel Shays, leading disaffected farmers against the state’s county courts. Though these farmers were provoked by economic depression rather than Turgot’s letter, they still threatened to topple the state’s tripartite structure. Writing to his brother-in-law Richard Cranch, Adams asserted, “the Disturbances in New England made it necessary to publish [Defence] immediately in order to do any good.” He did not acknowledge his anxiety over Turgot, instead attributing any lapse in clear-headedness to the events in Massachusetts. It is unlikely, however, that Shays’ Rebellion was the driving force behind Defence. While writing the first volume of this work, Adams had no knowledge of any mob action, and the farmers’ demand for abolishing the state senate only reached him when the book was in proof. Given this incongruity, Adams’ rush to print Defence more likely came from his fear of latent American support for unicameralism and his supposition of Turgot’s influence.
While some Americans did indeed favor a single assembly, Adams still grossly overestimated the threat that Turgot’s letter posed. In a letter to Virginia congressional delegate and future President James Madison, Rev. James Madison noted that Adams had little reason to believe the states would abandon their tripartite governments. He explained that Turgot’s opinion was “innocent in itself,” and contrary to Adams’ claim, it“had no, or but very few Advocates in America, if we judge from the Govts. wch. have been established.” Indeed, by 1787, the structural component of tripartite government was firmly entrenched in the United States. The tradition dated back to before the Revolution, when Great Britain had established the colonial governments as miniatures of its own system. Their resemblance, however, stopped at their structure. Though the American colonies had royal governors and councils, these entities had far less power than their counterparts in England—the King and the House of Lords. Instead, colonial assemblies held the bulk of government authority. The state governments then inherited both this structure and custom. Long-established and far more responsive to the public than their European predecessors, they were at little risk of being overhauled. Turgot’s opinions did not have as volatile of an audience as Adams believed.
Further contradicting Adams’ fears, it is unclear whether Turgot’s letter even argued for a unicameral legislature without other offices. Unfortunately, the late French minister gave no definition for his recommended “one center” of authority, allowing others to manufacture one. In Defence, Adams interpreted this as “an assembly of representatives . . . chosen by the nation, and vested with all the powers of government.” He feared a unicameral legislature without an executive, so he superimposed that meaning onto Turgot’s letter. Critics of Defence, however, offered a different interpretation. They posited that Turgot’s recommended government had an assembly with a governor and a senate, but to pass a law, it required “the general appropriation of the people in its favor.” If the public agreed with a proposed piece of legislation, the single administration with its multiple officers could enact it. This reading had its own prejudice against Adams, but if viewed as accurate, it removed the necessity for Defence. Yet, without a living Turgot to clarify, both readings remained subjective inferences. Modern scholars echo this uncertainty, pointing out that Adams was the first to interpret Turgot’s letter as a justification for a single, all-powerful assembly. He drew from his own concerns rather than from the letter itself. Ultimately, Defence responded to a biased inference, not a biting rebuke of tripartite government.
Blinded by his anxiety, Adams was left to pointlessly defend tripartite government with his own outdated opinions. Though he spent the bulk of Defence listing off foreign governments and comparing them to the states, his overarching supposition was that American constitutions succeeded because they reflected natural inequalities. While the United States had no legal hierarchy, Adams was adamant that there were “inequalities which God and nature have planted . . . which no human legislator ever can eradicate.” These differences created three orders, the preeminent figure, the nobles, and the commoners. Each demanded a corresponding form of government, an executive, aristocracy, and democracy. Through a tripartite structure, all three bodies were held in balance. Should these divisions be eliminated, the government would “be imperfect, unstable, and soon enslaved.” This hierarchical view of society had formed the basis of politics since Roman times, and Adams believed it was still applicable to the United States. His anxiety over Turgot left him no time to consider real competing arguments, and consequently, he wrote Defence based entirely on this antiquated idea.
What Adams neglected to consider was that his nation was beginning to abandon this concept. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence famously asserted that “all men are created equal,” forming a new basis for American political theory. This new creed held that white men had no inherent distinctions which automatically elevated one over another in society. A growing number of supporters were loath to see this ideal explicitly denied, so politicians and philosophers alike embraced egalitarianism in their writings. Adams was a blatant exception, refusing to even pay lip service to the idea.
To be fair, there were those that shared in Adams’ traditional views. John Jay, for example, praised Defence for educating its readers about the merits of tripartite government “when the strongest arguments are necessary to remove Prejudices.” Like Adams, Jay alluded to there being a pervasive threat in favor of unicameralism. According to him, there were those prejudiced against the state constitutions’ structure, and Defence had succeeded in addressing these unwarranted opinions. Cotton Tufts, one of Adams’ cousins in Massachusetts, assured him that Defence was“well calculated . . . to warn the People here of the Ruin that awaits them” should Shays’ Rebellion succeed. Echoing Adams’ view that the people needed to be cautioned against unicameralism, especially in light of the new mob violence, he believed Defence had served its original and newly assigned purposes well.
These few accolades, however, were drowned out by advocates of egalitarianism. Continuing his critique of Defence, Rev. James Madison lambasted Adams for arguing that government should reflect a natural hierarchy. He countered that America had “no Distinction amongst Men, but such as Nature has established,” suggesting a very different notion of government than that of the Old World. Both schools of thought believed in distinctions established by nature, but most Americans contended that such differences could not be mapped onto three distinct social classes. Though one man might be more intelligent than another, he was not destined to be segmented off as a noble. Thus, the state could not base its constitutional structure off these artificial groupings. By contrast, Adams claimed that natural distinctions should be reflected in a tripartite government. This harkened back to an aristocratic past and doomed Defence, as the volumes could not be politically significant in a country that had moved past their core premise.
Rejecting Defence’s hierarchical presumptions, Reverend Madison went on accuse Adams of writing with a far more sinister motive than countering Turgot. With the exception of a few interjections in support of the states, Adams, according to Reverend Madison, was “insidiously attempting . . . to overturn our present Constitutions, or at least to sow the Seeds of Discontent.” Branding Adams as a traitor, he charged that Defence, not Turgot’s letter, was the threat to state governments. Reverend Madison then interpreted Adams’ support of a strong executive as a hope that kings would “rise in America with new Splendor.” This drew on American fears of empowering a single leader after just escaping from monarchy. His sentiment was echoed by the future President James Madison, who in a letter to Thomas Jefferson characterized Adams’ views as “unfriendly to republicanism” and likely to “to revive the predilections of this Country for the British Constitution.” Despite its faulty arguments, Madison warned, Defence endangered the new nation by renewing support for the old hierarchical system of governance. Just like Adams, he feared that the United States would be led astray by a prominent politician, just to a different cause.
Defence was responding to the same instability that prompted other founders to reconfigure the general government. Adams just had a different approach. It is no coincidence that the first volume of Defence was published the same year that the Constitution was written. The Articles of Confederation had created a weak central government incapable of responding to major internal conflict, leaving the nation in turmoil. Without a system robust enough to stand for itself, the founders feared that Americans would be easily swayed towards unwise reforms. They differed, however, in what aspects of the existing system they believed should to be preserved. With Defence, Adams headed a shrinking body of elites favoring traditional hierarchy.On the other side, Madison and Jefferson lead those in support of egalitarianism and republicanism. These ideas sparred in the field of political theory as the nation struggled to retain its union. Defence reflected this greater conflict.
It is easy to think of founding era politics as a homogenous, purely democratic movement building to the Constitution. This, however, could not be farther from the truth. In the late eighteenth century, the United States saw a clash between traditional views of governance, which were distinctly hierarchal, and emerging ideals of equality, all the while facing internal rebellion. In the context of this chaos, Defence makes perfect sense. Fearing Turgot had exacerbated a domestic conspiracy against the state constitutions, John Adams was desperate to preserve their tripartite structure. Without thoughtfully considering his audience, he defended these administrations in the traditional manner, claiming governments should reflect natural divisions among men. However, as most Americans favored egalitarian arguments, his work was criticized and relegated to political insignificance.
Yet, the importance of a historic document is not limited to its immediate impact. Writers can never be sure of their work’s reception, but they write nonetheless, moved by the impulses of their time. Despite its lack of political influence, Defence is not without value. The volumes and the reactions they elicited provide insight into the pervasive anxiety of the American founding era. Thus, by studying Defence and other initially irrelevant documents, modern historians can improve their understanding of each distinct period.
Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, “Translation to Dr. Price, London. Paris 22d March, 1778” in Observations on the importance of the American revolution, and the means of making it a benefit to the world: to which is added, a letter from M. Turgot, late comptroller-general of the finances of France: with an appendix, containing a translation of the will of M. Fortuné Ricard, lately published in France, Richard Price, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, and Charles-Joseph Mathon de La Cour (Dublin: Printed for L. White, W. Whitestone, P. Byrne, P. Wogan, J. Cash, and R. Marchbank, 1785), 113.
Gregg L. Lint et al., “Volume 1 of John Adams’ A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America: Editorial Note,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-18-02-0290.
John Adams to Richard Cranch, January 15, 1787,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-18- 02-0289.
“From the Reverend James Madison, 11 June 1787,” The Papers of James Madison Digital Edition, ed. J. C. A. Stagg (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2010), rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/JSMN-01-10-02-0027.
New York Packet, June 26, 1787, quoted in Will Slauter, “Constructive Misreadings: Adams, Turgot, and the American State Constitutions,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 105, no. 1 (March 2011): 35.
Thomas Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independence,” (1776), www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
John Jay to Adams, July 25, 1787,The Selected Papers of John Jay Digital Edition, ed. Elizabeth M. Nuxoll (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2014), rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/JNJY-01-04-02-0246.
Cotton Tufts to Adams, May 15, 1787, The Adams Papers Digital Edition, ed. Sara Martin (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008–2021), rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/ADMS-06-19-02-0052.
“To Thomas Jefferson, 6 June 1787,” The Papers of James Madison Digital Edition, ed. J. C. A. Stagg (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2010), rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/JSMN-01-10-02-0019.