The Key to Humans Humaning
While modern humans have existed for at least a few hundred thousands years, we didn’t really start massively progressing from our earliest ancestors until we began forming large and very complex societies after transitioning away from small hunter-gather groups for various reasons. Critical to all this being able to happen was creating sets of rules which members of each society agreed to live by. As John Wick’s Winston Scott so sagely stated, “Rules. Without them, we live with the animals.” While what specific laws these earliest agricultural societies functioned under has been largely lost to history outside of things we can infer from archaeological evidence, over the ensuing 10,000 years or so, humans have had a lot of ideas on what the best ways for societies to function are, and what sets of fundamental principles and laws to implement to get there. Perhaps not coincidentally, our biggest leaps in recent centuries came on the back of a major shift in such societal rules and government structure in many prominent nations- not only away from a system of hereditary elite who everyone and the system is meant to serve on some level, but also to systems where those who would abuse such power when given it are kept in check as much as possible and, in theory, those placed in power also are meant to serve the system and those very people who put them there, not wholly the other way around.
Of course any system is rife for abuse, and, for example, the Soviet Union had just such a system setup which included in their latter two constitutions giving its citizens the rights of freedom of speech, the press, religion, and the right to assemble peacefully. In reality, however, if citizens used these constitutionally guaranteed freedoms in a way the authorities didn’t like, being imprisoned or even executed for it was a thing. Thus, even in clearly defined systems, if safeguards aren’t put in place to ensure these principles are enforced regardless of who is holding the positions of power, then the paper they are written on would perhaps more usefully be used to wipe one’s backside after doing their necessaries.
Further, mobs are relatively easily swayed by exploiting facets of human psychology built into all of us. At all levels, while many may strive to be the ideal human and version of ourselves, we are all still human- subject to the same weaknesses, biases, and prejudices as those who came before us for tens of thousands of years. And even the most intelligent of us can be manipulated in various ways relatively easily, whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not. Thus, how an ideal society and government may function in theory, and one that can actually function well in the real world, are two VERY different things. Let alone forming a structure of government and laws that stands the test of time and provides some level of stability across many generations, with, unsurprisingly, the vast majority of constitutions going the way of the dodo within a decade or two of their establishment.
Unsurprisingly from all this, forming effective and stable governments is extremely difficult, and I don’t think anyone would argue any government that exists today has yet reached the ultimate ideal for all. As the “Father of the U.S. Constitution”, James Madison, would sum up, “no Government of human device, & human administration can be perfect; [thus] that which is the least imperfect is therefore the best Govt.”
But in the last several hundred years we humans have come a long way in this regard, and, perhaps not coincidentally, much like our progress starting 10,000 years ago or so through to relatively modern times made our progress the previous few hundred thousand years seem glacial, in the last few hundred years, humanity has advanced to a level in that timespan that makes our progress the previous 10,000 years seem at a snail’s pace. While countless things went into that, at its core many of these factors derive and were the indirect product of these more modern structures for civilization that allow extra freedoms, education, and relative stability for its populaces’ to prosper on an individual level. And, indeed, areas of the world where such relative stability hasn’t been a thing, generally haven’t seen the same level of advancements.
The OG Constitution
This all brings us to the topic of today, the oldest still functioning codified constitution, which not only was the culmination of all the ideas humans have come up with over the last several thousand years on government, but also just so happened to massively influence a more well known Constitution that would be drafted only a few years later in the United States’ Constitution, which also has withstood the test of time to date, and for a while was one of the most influential Constitutions in the world, only relatively recently being usurped there as we’ll get into later. And while the author of this former constitution rarely gets any credit whatsoever when speaking of those who drafted the U.S. Constitution, in fact, he was arguably one of the chief architects of the U.S. Constitution despite not directly being involved at all, in fascinating, mostly forgotten, ways.
So what was this earlier constitution that is the oldest still functioning today, who was the man, and what were his ideas that have proven so extremely effective and resilient since?
First, as a point of clarity on what constitutes the oldest still functioning constitution, there are elements of uncodified or partially unwritten constitutions much older that still function today, with the most prominent example being with the UK where there is no real single defining constitution, but rather a system that has developed over time which is continually evolving by rulings of the courts and acts of parliament. Some elements from that system are older than what is generally considered “The world’s oldest still functioning constitution,” but the whole is not. Thus why it’s generally not given the top spot.
Similarly, it’s sometimes claimed that the Constitution of San Marion is the oldest still functioning constitution because it was enacted in 1600… Except this, also, doesn’t quite tell the whole story, as it is also, similar to the UK, uncodified, with simply some of the documents comprising their constitution still active from then- in this case 6 works helping to define their present uncodified system.
For most of the nations of the world, however, when we say their “Constitution” we are referring to a single, codified document that defines the fundamental principles and laws for which all other laws in the nation are measured against, and which outlines the general structure of the government and how it operates, as well as usually defines the basic rights of the citizens within that nation.
Moving on to codified constitutions, the honor of oldest that is still functioning today is often given to the United States’ Constitution, which was also the constitution that really popularized the idea of a codified constitution in the first place, along with many other staples of constitutions now quite normal worldwide.
But, as alluded to, this isn’t quite accurate either. There was one that came before that is still running smoothly to this day- the Massachusetts state constitution, written in late 1779 almost wholly by one man, John Adams, who was, at the time, attempting to take facets of all the best ideas man had ever had on government, and very carefully trying to apply them to a system that would function in the real world. Not a perfect system, because the world and humans are imperfect, but that would attempt to balance everything to create something extremely functional and to the benefit of the society and individuals in it that operated under it. In authoring the Massachusetts Constitution and one other work we’ll get to, he not only helped define the U.S. Constitution, with these two the oldest codified constitutions still functioning, but so many others after that were based on it.
What’s even more remarkable about all this is that, as previously alluded to, the average Constitution lasts only about a decade. And, indeed, discussing this fact, Thomas Jefferson noted in a letter to James Madison that he felt that these brief lifespans were a good thing, writing, “Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19. years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.” As to why, he stated, “The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please…. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please.”
And, funny enough, a figure often thrown about is that the average life of a given codified constitution is only about 17-19 years. Although, it should be noted, this isn’t quite telling the whole story as a large number of constitutions don’t make it even a year (about 10%), and there are also a great number that don’t make it 10, all driving down that number. Nonetheless, a codified constitution that lasts for centuries largely unchanged is exceptionally rare.
So what made John Adams’ work and ideas on government so special that they have endured for nearly two and a half centuries largely unchanged? Well, let’s dive into it, shall we?
Doing a Bad Job in a Good Way
As we’ve previously discussed, in our video That Time Ben Franklin and John Adams Slept Together and the Hilarity That Ensued, in the late 18th century John Adams found himself rather discontented and shunted to the side in France where he’d been sent to help convince the French to support the traitors to king and country in the British American colonies.
Unfortunately, his rigid morals and somewhat abrasive, hard nosed personality simply didn’t fit with the French courts. In contrast, his partner in all this at the time in Ben Franklin would seemingly do absolutely nothing but carouse with women who wanted to meet one of the most famous men in the world in himself, noting “The French ladies have however 1000 other ways of rendering themselves agreeable by their various Attentions and Civilities, & their sensible Conversation. ‘Tis a delightful People to live with.” When he wasn’t charming the ladies, he was attending parties to all hours and just having a great time.
However, for as much as on the outside it appeared to Adams that Franklin was doing little but leering at women and partying like it’s 1799, there was method to Franklin’s madness, and in all of this, his influence in French Court became extreme and the nation as a whole, including the elite among them, came to adore Franklin. In fact, upon Franklin’s death in 1790, the Constitutional Assembly in Revolutionary France declared a 3 day period of mourning in Franklin’s honor, and memorial services for Franklin were held across the country.
More on all this and the genuinely fascinating story of this oddcouple working together in several critical, history changing instances in our documentary That Time John Adams and Ben Franklin Slept Together and the Hilarity that Ensued. But for now, suffice it to say, Franklin was getting the job done in France, and Adams was not. Seeing this, partially at the suggestion of Adams, Franklin was appointed sole Minister Plenipotentiary to France and Adam’s reduced to private citizen, temporarily returning home to Massachusetts. While his pride may have been hurt in all this, his failure in France became a major boon to the United States back home.
You see, while Adams may not have been ideal for the partying lifestyle and intrigues of French Court, when it came to matters of law and drawing up documents, from treaties to forming the ideal government system, few of his time could match him. Which is in large part why, despite, as Adams described himself, being “obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular,” he was nonetheless respected by his peers to an extreme degree for his brilliance, knowledge, and deep seated love of his nation and passion to try to help make it the best it could be.
Thus, a mere week after Adams’ returned to the United States, he was chosen as a delegate to help form a new Massachusetts constitution, and then quickly after this, chosen among over 300 delegates to author the thing.
Noteworthy here, just before this, a Massachusetts Constitution that had been crafted while Adams was away had been rejected by the voting populace. What’s important about this is that, in making this constitution, the legislature had gone against Adams’ previous suggestion to them that any such constitution needed to be drafted and ultimately ratified or not by a convention of delegates elected by the people, rather than drafted by the legislature and then voted on by the people. Stating, the people should “erect the whole Building with their own hands upon the broadest foundation. That this could be done only by conventions of representatives chosen by the People…”
This notion would also be critical to how the U.S. Constitution was formed. And, indeed, why the first version of the Massachusetts constitution was rejected was in part as a consequence of the flawed process of the legislature drafting the new constitution. If you guessed because the legislature coming up with a new constitution would be prone to give the legislature a disproportionate, or even total, power, you win this round of Humans Humaning Bingo.
Thus, after this failure, the second time around, they decided to follow Adams’ suggestion of a separate body needed, with delegates selected from the people to represent them in it.
In the end, despite 311 other delegates peripherally involved, what Adams ended up writing was largely left as is when it was presented more widely, with only a handful of trivial modifications.
For example, ever the realist, the idea that all men are born “equal” was a notion Adams didn’t feel wholly accurate. In his view, all men deserve equal rights. But he felt it was not technically correct to say all men are equal except in the eyes of God. Rather, he thought that some people are superior or inferior to others in character, intelligence, strength, and other such attributes and abilities. Thus, his original version of the Massachusetts Constitution said, “All men are born equally free and independent.” And if you’re wondering, Adams abhorred slavery and very much was including those of African descent in that statement as well. However, the other delegates would modify this “born equally free and independent” to “All men are born free and equal.”
Both sentiments, “All men are born equally free and independent” and “all men are born free and equal” more or less accomplished the same thing from a practical standpoint, but one of them is slightly less accurate than the other. And both were inaccurate given the present state of things with slavery in Massachusetts. But we’ll get to the super interesting part about this shortly.
But in any event, this lack of significant changes to what Adams came up with is a feat perhaps unsurpassed in the forming of any other government, ever, where everyone wants their say and heated arguments abound.
So how did he do it and what, specifically, did he come up with?
As to the former question, Adams, like his son after him, John Quincy Adams, who is generally considered to have been the U.S. President with the highest ever IQ, had an extremely keen and analytical mind, and retained information at a genuine genius level. He had also spent his life obsessively studying both law and the classics and basically every work that could be found on the formation of government, from Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, Politics, and Nicomachean Ethics, to John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, to Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws.
In all of this, Adams analyzed the pros and cons of different systems and, critically, was well aware of human faults which often get in the way of forming an ideal real world governing system.
Factoring all of this in, he came up with a system that, while arguably no single element was unique or hadn’t been done before somewhere, even borrowing elements from the other colonies’ Constitutions at the time, the specific ways in which it was all put together was unique, even right down to the way he structured the single document itself in chapters, sections, and articles, instead of more or less just a list of provisions, as had been typical before. This was a subtle, but very important improvement that was later adopted by the U.S. Constitution and beyond since.
But going back to the idea that humans are gonna human and you’ve got to account for that, much more significant in his system were the extreme checks and balances on every branch of power, and sometimes, as with the bicameral legislature, even checks within itself.
In all, as he so aptly put, attempting to make a “government of laws, not of men”, and one where the government was designed to promote the well-being of all its citizens, not just those in charge or the elite of a society.
So this brings us back to the question of what specifically did he come up with then? Well, see if this sounds familiar to you. To begin with, he proposed a three branched government comprising the executive branch, a bicameral (two house) legislature, and a judicial branch, with each branch having a check on the others.
For just one example here, unique among the colonies at the time was the existence of a governor elected by the people, not the legislature, and giving that governor veto power as an additional check against the legislature. At the time in most of the colonies, their constitutions had power largely concentrated in the legislatures who would in turn elect their chief executives, but this system could be, and indeed was at the time, being heavily abused in some of the colonies. But with Adams’ system, this allowed the people to choose that head honcho, who could then check the legislature, and, to an extent, the legislature checking that person in turn.
Adams first proposed something like this general system in his pamphlet Thoughts on Government, which heavily influenced several state constitutions including Virginia, New York, and, of course, Massachusetts. A half philosophical and half practical document, he begins,
“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…”
He then goes on in great detail outlining how to create a system where all the necessary powers needed in a government are present, but where all possible checks against abuse of that power are put in place, while still empowering the government to be an effective one at producing the end goal of a prosperous and ultra stable society that maximizes the happiness of its subject.
To do this, he, once again, recommends, “A Legislative, an Executive and a judicial Power, comprehend the whole of what is meant and understood by Government. It is by balancing each of these Powers against the other two, that the Effort in human nature towards Tyranny can alone be checked and restrained and any degree of Freedom preserved in the Constitution.”
As for the judicial branch, he notes, “The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people and every blessing of society, depends 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 always be men of learning and experience in the laws, of exemplary morals, great patience, calmness, coolness and attention. Their minds should not be distracted with jarring interests; they should not be dependent upon any man or body of men. To these ends they should hold estates for life in their offices, or in other words their commissions should be during good behaviour, and their salaries ascertained and established by law. For misbehaviour the grand inquest of the Colony, the House of Representatives, should impeach them before the Governor and Council, where they should have time and opportunity to make their defence, but if convicted should be removed from their offices, and subjected to such other punishment as shall be thought proper.”
He also proposed in it a bicameral (two house) legislature with one meant to be the more aristocratic branch and the other more representative of the people, with both placing a check on the other. On this, he noted a unicameral (one house) legislature is too “liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual.” And that the executive branch further helped check the legislature via its veto power. And, as alluded to, it was essential that the judicial branch be separate from the other two to ensure those who make the laws or have the most power weren’t also the ones who were prosecuting them, nor had any real power over the judges in this way. And with a Supreme Court overseeing this branch- essentially making sure judges weren’t subject to the will of the rulers in making their decisions.
Adams concluded the pamphlet noting that despite the extremely tumultuous and stressful time they were then going through, how lucky he felt to be there doing just that, stating, “You and I, my dear Friend, have been sent into life, at a time when the greatest law-givers of antiquity would have wished to have lived. 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?”
This pamphlet was originally inspired by a discussion Adams had had with Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee in late 1775. After being impressed by Adams’ ideas, he requested he formally write a pamphlet on it, which Lee then used to help convince Virginia to take the plunge and separate from Britain, which was critical to the rebellion happening in the first place.
In the end, Adams simply applied these and similar ideas in his pamphlet to the Massachusetts constitution he crafted.
Going back to that, he began the constitution with a Preamble, then the Declaration of Rights, including such things as prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure, right to a trial by jury and “right of every citizen to be tried by judges as free, impartial and independent as the lot of humanity will admit”, as it is “essential to the preservation of the rights of every individual, his life, liberty, property, and character, that there be an impartial interpretation of the laws, and administration of justice.” He also included freedom of religion, right to petition the government, etc.
In all of this, with the clear statement of the entire purpose of this constitution is to ensure, once again, “it may be a government of laws and not of men”.
We Hold These Truths to Be Self Evident
He also very purposefully put this Declaration of Rights before the Frame of Government portion in order to give extra emphasis on it. We’ll get to in a bit why the U.S. Constitution originally left such a Bill of Rights out. But for now, Adams thought defining an enforceable basic set of rights each citizen has under their government was essential for any government to have as core tenants, both in providing extra stability to the citizenry, as well as another check to help stave off abuses from all those in power.
Or as Thomas Jefferson would later ring in when discussing the U.S. Constitution, writing to James Madison on December 20, 1787, “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.”
Once again, coming up with very little original himself, with Adams’ Declaration of Rights, he collected elements from countless other governments, such as the British government, and ideas from individuals’ works throughout history on the subject to develop his list of fundamental rights. He also borrowed heavily from the Declaration of Independence, which in turn borrowed heavily from other ideas, and on and on. Again, all of this was more of a culmination of previous works and ideas all put together to try to come up with the best combined system overall.
Speaking of the Declaration of Independence, at this point in history it had been largely dismissed as having no significant importance to the budding United States in terms of how it was governed. This only really changed thanks to John Adam’s son, John Quincy Adams, and then Abraham Lincoln continuing John Quincy’s push to make the Declaration of Independence a defining element of how the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted.
Going back to the Massachusetts constitution and borrowing other ideas, John Adams and the delegates would, as alluded to, begin the Declaration of Rights section stating a version of some very familiar words, but this time explicitly putting it in the Constitution from the start: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”
You might then at this point wonder how Massachusetts could be a state with slavery yet, once approved, had this in their constitution. Well, several slaves would almost immediately wonder the same thing- most famously in the case of Mum Bett, a slave of one John Ashley in Sheffield Massachusetts. Bett, represented by one Theodore Sedwick, after hearing the shiny new Massachusetts Constitution read, claimed in court that her status as a slave was, thus, unconstitutional in Massachusetts. After all, it quite literally leads off with- “All men are born free and equal.”
The case was heard in August 1781, and a jury agreed that the Massachusetts Constitution did indeed now make slavery illegal in the state, and Mum Bett was, thus, freed. She then changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, and became a housekeeper in her lawyer’s family household. As for her lawyer, Thoedore Sedgewick, he would go on to rise to the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts.
Later cases in the state had the judges ruling the same way and, finally, in 1783, the Supreme Judicial Court got to ring in once and for all on the matter. On this, Justice William Cushing summed up, “Our Constitution of Government . . . sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal – and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it safeguarded by the laws, as well as life and property, and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case… the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our conduct and Constitution.”
Intimate knowledge of all this may have been why John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams pushed so hard in his post presidency fight to end slavery to make the Declaration of Independence a defining document in the nation, rather than largely just a piece of propaganda as it originally was. John Quincy Adams also cited the Declaration of Independence in this same way in his arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in defending the crew of the Amistad, who’d risen up against their captors aboard that ship in order to free themselves from a life of slavery. More on all this in our recent documentaries The Horribly Dressed, Socially Awkward, Genius President, as well as The True Story of the Amistad.
In the end after a little under two months of work, John Adams completed his draft of the Massachusetts Constitution on October 30, 1779. Then almost immediately left once again for France as, a month before, on September 27th, he had been appointed by the Continental Congress to go negotiate treaties for peace and commerce with Britain.
While the Massachusetts Constitution has been amended 120 times through today, it is still the guiding core document for that states’ government. Making it the oldest codified constitution still functioning today.
So what does this have to do with the formation of the United States Constitution?
Too Good an Opinion of Human Nature
After John Adams, Ben Franklin and co. successfully negotiated the end of the American Revolution with the Treaty of Paris, signed by both sides on September 3, 1783, the United States had a major problem. Despite the name, its states weren’t exactly actually united, generally out to serve their own interests first and, if convenient, those of their loose union. During the war this was less of a problem as they had pressing need to work together. Now, they didn’t.
Not only that, but in their quest to make a central government that was as purposefully weak as possible so as never to come to dominate in the way their former government did over them, they had gone too far, creating a government in the Articles of Confederation, or the so-called “league of friendship,” that had, as George Washington so famously put “no money” and no real way to get any outside of printing some that was worthless. This was a rather glaring issue for countless reasons, right down to the then complete inability for the government to pay its debts or its soldiers or for anything at all really.
The central government also had very little power it could exert over its states, or make anything happen in many cases unless all the states agreed on it, which was an extreme rarity. This was a major immediate problem when considering, for example, the aforementioned Treaty of Paris between Britain and the U.S. that ended the war and gave incredibly favorable terms to the new country. The issue was, many of the states saw little need to adhere to the treaty, and, indeed were not, and there was very little the federal government could do about it. This could have potentially blown up in the young nations’ face had Britain decided to also renege on the deal, potentially plunging the nation right back into war it couldn’t afford against a still very superior adversary.
In short, Congress had no real power to govern anything, the states knew it, and at a certain point it even mostly ceased trying. All of this had been done very intentionally given the political minds among the colonists knew well most such attempts at similar governments in the past had ultimately devolved into some form of tyranny, whether tyranny of the majority or by those placed in power, regardless of what any laws put in place said. Not just in governments far afield or in the past, but this was something they themselves had seen with some of the then state legislatures abusing their positions in the colonies.
George Washington would write of all this, “We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation.“ And, he further states, the government they had made was “a shadow without the substance”.
Thus, it became clear to all that the Articles needed, at the very least, amended heavily if the nation in some form was to survive at all.
A Rising, Not a Setting Sun
After some deliberation about this, it was decided to convene to fix the problem, and, much like Massachusetts had done the second time around, they decided to select delegates from each state to represent the people in these changes.
And so it was that 70 delegates were chosen from the 13 states, of which 55 ultimately attended the Convention. Noteworthy here, Rhode Island, who liked things as they were and wanted no changes, did not send any delegates. This group of who’s who in the nation, over the course of several weeks slowly began to trickle into Philadelphia. Also notably absent were arguably two of the most capable at such an endeavor in Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both of whom were overseas at the time- Jefferson serving in France, and Adams serving as America’s ambassador to England.
Critically, however, Adams had not been idle in Britain. During his time there, he began to hyperfocus and obsess over the United States’ issue, as well as on theory of government. The result was the first volume of his A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, which was essentially a treatise on the various state governments in the United States, as well as an extremely in depth survey on theory of government in general.
On this work, Abigail Adams would write, John was “as much engage upon the Subject of Government as Plato was when he wrote his Laws and Republick”. His obsession and abandoning all but the most critical of his other duties in working on it was not just to correct rampant monarchical European criticisms in defending his new nation. But also because he was well aware that sometime soon the new nation would convene to improve upon the Articles, and Adams wanted his work and the philosophies in it read by those who would make these changes. Thus, he rushed to complete it, with the first volumes arriving in the U.S. in April of 1787, directly before the Constitutional Convention.
The work was expansive, borrowing ideas from everyone from Cicero to John Locke, in the end noting that at its core, the best government is one that takes features from democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical governments, with a balanced government with independent checks on all level of power required for long term stability.
Once again hammering home his ideas implemented in the Massachusetts Constitution, he states that no realistic government could function without, to quote “men of large influence” like the rich. And that, “there is a natural inclination in mankind of a Kingly Government”, but that it was critical to put in place checks to reign in their “ambition and avarice”, with his suggestion, once again, being to create the bicameral legislature with it intended that the Senate would more or less be comprised of this more elite class, and the Congress more representative of the general public. Important to understand in this idea was that mob rule, or tyranny of the majority, was seen as just as important to check as tyranny of the elite. Thus, again, the two branches would balance each other.
Adams would write of his intention of this work to show “the best Models for Americans to Study, in order to Show them the horrid Precipice that lies before them in order to enable and Stimulate them to avoid it.” He concluded of all this, “all nations, under all governments, must have parties; the great secret is to control them: there are but two ways, either by a monarchy and standing army, or by a balance in the constitution. Where the people have a voice, and there is no balance, there will be everlasting fluctuations, revolutions, and horrors, until a standing army, with a general at its head, commands the peace, or the necessity of an equilibrium is made appear to all, and is adopted by all.”
As for the completed work and its influence on the U.S. Constitution, founding Father Benjamin Rush would write, “Mr. Adams’ book has diffused such excellent principles among us that there is little doubt of our adopting a vigorous and compounded federal legislature.”
Thomas Jefferson would write to Adams of it, “I have read your book with infinite satisfaction and improvement. It will do great good in America. Its learning and its good sense will, I hope, make it an institute for our politicians, old as well as young.”
Founding father David Ramsay would further note, “This work is universally admired in Carolina & I flatter myself it will be instrumental in diffusing right notions of government.” And that, “I devoutly wish that the sentiments of it were engraven on the heart of every legislator in the United States.”
As previously mentioned, as Adams had hoped, when the delegates began to convene on Philadelphia, the first copies of his book also made their way across the pond to find their way into architects of the constitution’s hands. On top of this, the Pennsylvania Mercury began publishing a serialized version of it in May of 1787, and papers in Massachusetts, New York and, critically, Philadelphia, followed suit, coming out weekly while the U.S. Constitution was being drafted.
And its influence on those proceedings appear to have been significant, once again not because of any original ideas in it, but because of how it crystallized the existing ideas into concise, well organized form. Ben Franklin noted of the book during the Convention, it was “in such Request here”, with the then existing 40 full copies available in the United States being circulated among the delegates. Because there wasn’t enough to go around, efforts were quickly made to get an American printer to create an edition of it.
While historians to this day still debate how much influence this work had on the delegates, noteworthy, the “Father of the Constitution”, James Madison, himself referenced it in in his June 6 speech in the Convention, and countless other delegates brought it up explicitly, and frequently in the ideas they advocated, in many cases practically quoting the work. For example, with early criticism of the Virginia plan, James McHenry would state, “Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our constitutions… None of the constitutions have provided sufficient checks against the democracy” and thus the need for a powerful senate, or, as Adams would advocate, for a body comprised of the elite class as a check against the tyranny of the majority.
Or as William Pierce would state that the senate should “be less [in numbers] than the House of Commons” and “such a check as to keep up the balance, and to restrain, if possible, the furry of democracy.”
Similarly, George Mason would argue that the other branch should be made of individuals who “know and sympathise with every part of the community,” mirroring Adams’ May 18th serialization that such an assembly should be “chosen by the people… communicate all the wants, knowledge, projects, and wishes of the nation.”
Gourverneur Morris would further argue on July 2, if the common and the elite were to be mixed in one legislature, “The rich will strive to establish their dominion and enslave the rest… They always did. They always will.” And he suggested, as Adams had, “The only security against them is to form them into a separate interest.” If not done, Morris argued, once again as Adams had in his book, “The result of the contest will be a violent aristocracy, or a more violent despotism.”
On July 6th, the Mercury would also publish more of Adams’ book, in particular, speaking of the elite in society, “There is but one expedient yet discovered, to avail the society of all the benefits from this body of men, which they are capable of affording, and at the same time to prevent them from undermining or invading the public liberty.” And that was, once again, to put them together in their own branch and “to keep all the executive power entirely out of their hands”. As well as give the executive power “a negative against them.”
That very same day, Morris would argue, as Adams had, that there “never was, nor ever will be a civilized society without an aristocracy” even if many didn’t quite like the term. And that, as Adams had written, the “endeavor was to keep it as much as possible from doing mischief,” in this case Morris arguing by putting them in their own assembly. But yet again, this group, for all its benefits as a group of distinguished individuals, must be feared, lest, “With all the subtlety and all the sagacity and address which is characteristic of this order of men in every age and nation,” they would, over time slowly gather all governing power to themselves.
When arguing against the proposed New Jersey plan in favor of a version of the Virginia Plan (which would more mirror John Adams’ ideas- more on this in a bit), Wilson would also mirror Adams’ supposition that “If the Legislative authority be not restrained, there can be neither liberty nor stability; and it can only be restrained by dividing it within itself, into distinct and independent branches.”
Or as Alexander Hamilton would sum up on June 18, 1787, “Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to [the] few they will oppress the many.”
Speaking of Hamilton, when it came to the Committee of Style and Arrangement, the five member committee comprising Morris, Hamilton, and Madison had all frequently referenced Adam’s arguments, and the two remaining members in Kin and Johnson were also known to have purchased copies of the book to study during the debates.
This all brings us to the Father of the Constitution, James Madison. As noted, he also read Adams’ A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States, but dismissed it, writing to Thomas Jefferson on June 6,1787, “Mr. Adams’ Book… has excited a good deal of attention.” But that, “Men of learning will find nothing new in it. Men of taste find many things to criticize. And men without either not a few things which they will not understand… It will nevertheless be read, and praised, and become a powerful engine in forming the public opinion. The name and character of the Author, with the critical situation of our affairs, naturally account for such an effect.”
And, of course, he was correct on all fronts. As for it becoming a powerful engine in forming opinion, while, as mentioned, scholars still debate its influence to this day, with prominent advocates on both sides, historian Gilbert Chinard would note in 1933, “Even a casual glance at the records of the Federal Convention will show that Adams’ book was used as a sort of repertory by many speakers.”
So, why the debate today on its influence? As Madison wrote in his letter to Jefferson, none of the ideas proposed were original and thus already would have been debated by the delegates. But, once again hammering the point home, much like with the Massachusetts Constitution, the brilliance of John Adams’ work was not in its originality, but rather digesting basically all of human theory of government down to a single work that more or less tried to suggest the best of all worlds, while still living in the real world and not an idealized one.
As Dr. Mary Sarah Bilder of Boston Law School would state in her The Soul of Free Government: The Influence of John Adams’s A Defence on the Constitutional Convention, “The apparent irrelevancy of the Defence to modern scholars arose, ironically, from its crystallization of then-conventional wisdom, the very feature that resonated with so many delegates and generated its significant influence on the Convention. Adams’s Defence thus provides one more example that the Convention’s decisions cannot be understood without including the larger Framing generation.”
Going back to the story of the formation of the U.S. Constitution, the first delegates to arrive were those from Virginia, including James Madison. It took some time before enough would arrive to form a quorum, and those delegates did not use their time idly. Madison, Washington, and co, spent many sessions in the Indian Queen tavern coming up with a much greater plan than simply amending the Articles of Confederation. But rather, to come up with a completely new constitution. In so doing, they began borrowing heavily from existing state constitutions, including, as mentioned Adams’ Massachusetts constitution.
When the necessary number of representatives had arrived, they then, despite it being the heat of the summer and they all dressed in their typical many layered outfits of the day, quite literally all shut themselves in, closing windows and all, to discuss something completely different. They also agreed on strict secrecy about what they were doing and with regards to anything that was said, so as to ensure that everyone could speak their minds freely without fear of the wider public learning of it. On this one, the secrecy was so tantamount that the only reason we really know much at all about the internal discussions and happenings was thanks to limited insights, such as James Madison’s notes, which were in turn by agreement kept secret until over a half century later in 1840 when most all involved were deceased.
Once windows closed and secrecy sworn, they got to work, as Washington would state, probing “the defects of the Constitution to the bottom, and [providing] radical cures.”
While a few different core plans were proposed, ultimately a version of the aforementioned “Virginia plan” won out, with the chief architect of this being James Madison. While the original Virginia plan was heavily modified over the course of the debate, it outlined, much like John Adams had advocated for and created in the Massachusetts constitution, the formation of a three branch government as well as a bicameral legislature, executive, and judicial branches and checks and balances at all levels.
Interestingly, what it did not do was give a Bill of Rights. The reasons for forgoing this were complex. Everything from that it was argued that the state governments already handled this in what way they respectively pleased, to more practical ones, like that it was already a huge deal to propose a brand new constitution. Thus, trying to come up with a Bill of Rights to add on to it that everyone would agree to would extend matters potentially many months and could very well see the entire thing fall apart and the states go their separate ways.
A core underlying issue with the Bill of Rights was that some states depended on slavery and some did not, and it would be incredibly difficult, though not impossible, to come up with a Bill of Rights that both groups would agree to. The issue of slavery was also a matter the delegates had already very explicitly decided was something that would have to be put off for another generation to solve if they were to form a government at all right then.
Thus, they tabled the matter for later, though this would cause some, like Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, to refuse to sign the final document because of the lack of Bill of Rights.
But in the end, enough delegates, 39, were willing to sign the completed document despite that pretty much everyone had issues with elements of it. Nonetheless, as Thomas Jefferson, whose main issue with the Constitution was the lack of Bill of Rights, would state after he’d late read it, despite all its flaws it “is unquestionably the wisest ever yet presented to men.”
A notion Ben Franklin would expound upon, stating,
“There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve… I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an Assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me… to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”
After everyone signed, Franklin would further muse while looking at a painting of the sun on the chair George Washington, who had presided over the assembly, sat in,
“Often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, [I] looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”
As to what happened after they all signed, according to George Washington, the remaining delegates all went out to City Tavern and had a party of sorts.
It was done.
…Well, almost. There was still the matter of the Bill of Rights.
Wherever There is an Interest and Power to Do Wrong, Wrong Will Generally Be Done
Enter James Madison once again. There is a reason he is named the Father of the Constitution, from his pivotal role in coming up with the Virginia Plan, to, as William Pierce would state, “in the management of every great question he evidently took the lead in the Convention… he always comes forward as the best informed man of any point in debate,” to the aftermath, with his considerable efforts helping to prevent the calling of a second constitutional convention to potentially throw out or heavily re-write the first one. He also in the aftermath wrote almost 100 essays expounding on elements of the proposed Constitution in order to help persuade the various states to ratify it.
During the course of all this, Madison would change his mind on one thing. He became convinced a Bill of Rights should be added as soon as possible, writing to Thomas Jefferson on October 17, 1788, a few months after the Constitution was ratified, that while he didn’t feel it was strictly necessary to have one given the way the new U.S. Government was setup, and with many states already defining this, he nonetheless felt it would be beneficial, mirroring Adams’ argument on the matter, writing, “Wherever there is an interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done, and not less readily by a powerful & interested party than by a powerful and interested prince.”
He thus went about studying hundreds of proposed amendments by the various states and whittled it down to just 10 that he then proposed as the first amendments to the U.S. Constitution in the Bill of Rights. These advocated protecting things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to assemble peacefully, as well as that “No state shall violate the equal rights of conscience, or the freedom of the press, or the trial by jury in criminal cases.”
If this all sounds pretty familiar, in all of this, much like Madison had criticized John Adams’ thoughts on government as including “no original ideas,” neither did Madison’s, with the system he advocated for largely simply mirroring that which Adams’ had already developed in the Massachusetts constitution, and had expanded upon including in his A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States, that had been daily reading for the delegates and often loosely quoted in their arguments as they formed the U.S Constitution.
In Madison’s case, this seeming mirroring of ideas is perhaps no coincidence as he, too, had spent considerable time studying the history and philosophy of government the same as Adams’ had, including seemingly reading all the same works, as well as Adams’ thoughts on the matter, seeing how the different systems in the 13 states had worked up to that point, and, in all, seemingly having come to largely the same conclusions as his equally brilliant colleague in Adams.
And so it should perhaps come as no surprise that when John Adams read the U.S. Constitution, he would heartily give his consent, noting in his opinion it was the “greatest single effort of human deliberation that the world has ever seen.”
The Test of Time
Since all this, the U.S. Constitution has endured longer than any other codified constitution beside Massachusetts’s. In part, this is because of the very structure of it, right down to its length, being one of the shortest Constitutions in the world. The crafters didn’t want to make a document that tried to handle every scenario, but rather a set of timeless principles to help guide future decisions and help ensure stability as much as possible. Just as critically, because it is a living document, they made sure it was able to be amended as needs arise, though with difficulty in order to aid in that stability. For example, in the 247 years since the U.S. Constitution was ratified, almost 20,000 amendments have been proposed to the Constitution, but only 27 have been approved.
Unsurprisingly from its resilience and the elements that have worked well, and how revolutionary it was at the time compared to most governments of the day, in the aftermath, the U.S. Constitution became one of the most influential constitutions on earth, with elements borrowed by countless other nations since.
That said, given the normally short lifecycle of constitutions, and that humanity has continued to progress in ideas of governing bodies, in recent decades other constitutions have begun to gain in prominence, with the U.S. Constitution’s influence slowly beginning to wane. With some, such as Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, even stating in 2012, “I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.” Indeed, a study also done in 2012, by David Law of Washington University in St. Louis looking at over 700 federal constitutions from around 200 countries indicate that The United States’ hat isn’t just on top physically, but the no doubt printed in flannel 1982 Constitution of Canada has recently taken over the top spot for most influential Constitution in recent times.
But to sum up, humans have existed for at least a few hundred thousand years in our modern form, but it was only when we began perfecting our systems of government that we truly began advancing at a rapid pace, with such organization critical to being able to do that. And it is perhaps no coincidence that in the last few hundred years we have progressed massively more rapidly, as our systems of government have continued to evolve and begun focussing more and more on systems for the people’s benefit, rather than solely for the elite, as well as implementing systems that balance high minded ideals with practical measures, to limit abuse of power by both the elite and by the majority. The relative stability and individual freedoms provided by all of this has, in turn, helped humanity advance at unprecedented rates.
Thus, while not a perfect system by any stretch, and the road in between has occasionally been a rocky one, in particular owing to the Founder’s choice to not adhere more closely to the idea of “all people are created equal” from day 1, it would seem the U.S. Constitution has mostly fulfilled its very explicit purpose, where it states: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In the end, 5,000 years from now when the United States has long since gone the way of the dodo and hopefully even better governments have been formed, it is likely only two things that came out of the U.S. will be considered truly worth remembering for its significance to history- The Constitution, and the true greatest thing ever created by humans- Star Trek the Next Generation.
Expand for References https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3327546/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic_demographic_transition https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic_Revolution https://memory.loc.gov/service/mss/mtj/mtj1/011/011_0912_0958.pdf https://www.masshist.org/publications/adams-papers/index.php/view/ADMS-06-08-02-0161-0001 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Madison https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Plan https://www.constitutionfacts.com/us-constitution-amendments/fascinating-facts/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_the_United_States https://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/default.xqy?keys=FOEA-print-02-02-02-3066 https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/more-perfect-union https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=E9TOxypjZY4C&pg=PA224&lpg=PA224&dq=All+men+are+born+equally+free+and+independent+to+All+men+are+born+free+and+equal+adams&source=bl&ots=4hfMoDx_nn&sig=-H0We_ksIGJuP5OQDeVhCFu2iLw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=M6vkUOSPDsTMtAbzkIHgDA&ved=0#v=onepage&q=All%20men%20are%20born%20equally%20free%20and%20independent%20to%20All%20men%20are%20born%20free%20and%20equal%20adams&f=false https://guides.ll.georgetown.edu/constitutionallaw https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Massachusetts https://malegislature.gov/Laws/Constitution https://www.jstor.org/stable/986331 https://www.westfield.ma.edu/historical-journal/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018-Winter-Scherr-John-Adams-Political-Moderation-and-the-1820-Massachusetts-Constitutional-Convention.pdf https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/constitutional-convention/6-key-players-at-the-constitutional-convention/ https://www.raptisrarebooks.com/product/a-defence-of-the-constitutions-of-government-john-adams-1797-rare-book/ https://www.bartleby.com/lit-hub/respectfully-quoted/john-adams-17351826-7/ https://csac.history.wisc.edu/2020/10/30/happy-birthday-john-adams/ https://allthingsliberty.com/2022/05/john-adams-and-the-rule-of-law/ https://digitalcommons.nyls.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2009&context=fac_articles_chapters https://www.masshist.org/publications/adams-papers/index.php/view/ADMS-06-08-02-pb-0235 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_the_United_States https://www.heritage.org/the-essential-constitution/the-genius-the-constitution https://constitutioncenter.org/the-constitution/white-papers/the-declaration-the-constitution-and-the-bill-of-rights https://constitutionus.com/constitution/who_wrote_the_constitution/ https://ed.ted.com/lessons/who-made-the-american-constitution-judy-walton https://billofrightsinstitute.org/primary-sources/constitution https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4362192 https://billofrightsinstitute.org/videos/john-adams-thoughts-on-government-primary-source-close-reads-explained https://deliverypdf.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=712085084074108103028085026074067002122081004009095091026100084078100121069009003026018029054101050127023017085088101116011076058082046034028105102096096016098010039021095117076127002088123090120112104029118093080105068088025082101006104115025099115&EXT=pdf&INDEX=TRUE https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-18-02-0290 https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/plan-new-government-1775 https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/T-03864.pdf https://www.mass.gov/guides/john-adams-architect-of-american-government https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-04-02-0026-0004 https://www.heritage.org/the-constitution/report/the-formation-the-constitution https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_United_States_Constitution https://supreme.findlaw.com/documents/consthist.html https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CONAN-2017/pdf/GPO-CONAN-2017-4.pdf https://www.johnwittejr.com/uploads/5/4/6/6/54662393/a67.pdf https://americanantiquarian.org/proceedings/44517652.pdf https://constitutingamerica.org/massachusetts-constitution-1780-john-adams-fundamental-liberties-of-the-people-guest-essayist-tony-williams/
|Share the Knowledge!