The Founders and the Constitution, Part 2: John Adams
By Rob Natelson – March 24, 2023
Unlike the other Founders profiled in this series, John Adams of Massachusetts didn’t attend the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He was America’s ambassador to England when the convention met, and he didn’t return home until the ratification process was well underway. His contribution was in laying the groundwork for the Constitution, both when in Massachusetts and when abroad.
Constitution-drafting is a three-step process, although in practice the steps often overlap:
Step 1: Identify the goal of the prospective constitution and the principles that will govern it.
Step 2: Determine the general outline of a government that achieves the goals, is consistent with the principles, and is acceptable to the citizenry.
Step 3: Draft the document using the best wording possible.
Adams’s writings assisted the framers at all three steps.
Personal Life Until 1788
Adams was born on Oct. 19, 1735, in the Massachusetts town then called “Braintree,” but after 1792 “Quincy.” As a boy he enjoyed the outdoor life, and wanted to be a farmer. However, his academic success, first in grammar school and later at Harvard College, convinced him to become a lawyer.
In his choice of a wife, he was both wise and fortunate. Abigail Smith Adams was devoted and loyal, and during John’s long absences, she proved to be a competent manager of family affairs. She was also intellectually brilliant.
Abigail and John raised four children. One of the four was John Quincy Adams, who served as Secretary of State (1817–1825), President of the United States (1825–1829), and in Congress as a legendary warrior against slavery (1831–1848).
John wasn’t driven by a hunger for political office, but he was driven by an exacting moral code and the quest for fame.
During the events leading up to the Revolution, he exploded upon the public scene. Adams pressed the colonial cause as a lawyer, writer, and member of the First Continental Congress (1774). As a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and as a diplomat, he did as much as any man (George Washington excepted) to make Independence a reality.
Diplomatic tasks kept him in Europe throughout 1778 and early 1779. When he returned home, he was immediately elected a delegate to the Massachusetts constitutional convention, and the conclave tabbed him as the new charter’s primary drafter. (In heavily amended form, that constitution is still in effect.) Later in 1779, Adams returned to Europe and remained there continuously until the spring of 1788. Abigail was with him for the last four years.
Adams and Constitutional Principles
Adams’s chief contribution to “Step 1” in writing the U.S. Constitution—identifying goals and principles—was the first volume of his three-volume set, “A Defence [sic] of the Constitutions of the United States,” published in early 1787. It circulated at the Constitutional Convention. Participants in the debates over the Constitution’s ratification (Sept. 17, 1787 – May 29, 1790) mentioned it often.
Adams was motivated to write the “Defence” by criticism of American state constitutions from the prominent French economist and statesman Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (the name is masculine). In his book, Adams enlisted many of the thinkers profiled in my earlier Epoch Times series, “The Ideas That Formed the Constitution.” Adams quoted Polybius, Cicero, James Harrington, John Locke, Baron Montesquieu, and others.
In his “Defence,” Adams emphasized four basic constitutional principles: First, just laws are enacted by the consent of the governed or by their chosen agents. Second, for a people to be free, the rule of law must prevail. Third, the best government mixes democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical features. Finally, the best mixed government consists of a bicameral legislature (with distinct aristocratic and democratic houses), an independent chief executive, and an independent judiciary.
Sentiments expressed in the “Defence” seem to put Adams in the “high nationalist” portion of the Founding-era political spectrum, which I discussed in my previous essay. He obviously admired the British system, with its hereditary monarch, hereditary House of Lords, and elected House of Commons—even if he didn’t want to replicate it precisely in America.
Of course, the American framers refused to adopt the “high nationalist” model. More importantly, however, after some vacillation they did adopt all four of Adams’s basic constitutional principles.
‘Thoughts on Government’
In 1776, Adams wrote a short pamphlet entitled “Thoughts on Government.” The ideas in that pamphlet helped guide the framers during Step 2 of constitution-making (developing a general outline of government). Adams’s approach in “Thoughts on Government” was a good deal more populist and democratic than the British model he praised in the “Defence.”
In “Thoughts on Government,” Adams proposed a bicameral legislature, with the lower house elected by the people and the upper house elected by the lower house—all for fixed terms. Both chambers of the legislature, voting together, would elect a chief executive, also for a fixed term. Constitutional wonks may recognize these as the basic features of the Virginia Plan, the outline presented to the Constitutional Convention by the Virginia delegation, which served as a basis for discussion for several weeks thereafter.
“Thoughts on Government” also suggested that the duties of the upper house be structured so it could “mediate” between the executive and the lower house. The Constitution reflects this idea by granting the Senate certain executive powers, including the authority to “advise and consent” on presidential treaties and executive-branch nominations.
“Thoughts on Government” also foreshadowed several other features in the final Constitution: the president’s power to commission (and therefore instruct) officers, presidential appointment and senatorial approval of judges, and judicial lifetime service (“during good behavior”).
The Massachusetts Constitution
The Bay State’s Constitution served the framers as a source of ideas for both Steps 2 and 3 of constitution-making.
Adams divided the Massachusetts Constitution into “Part the First”—a “Declaration of Rights”—and “Part the Second:” “Frame of Government.” The former listed essential liberties; the latter created the state government’s structure.
“Part the Second” provided much of the inspiration and wording for the U.S. Constitution’s structure. Specifically:
- It provided for strong independent executive and judicial branches. This contradicted the decision in most states to grant the legislature supreme power.
- The legislature consisted of two houses: a senate and a house of representatives. (Compare U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 1.)
- Each house was “the final judge of the election, returns and qualifications of their own members.” (Compare U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 5, Clause 1.)
- The house of representatives had power to impeach, and the senate power to try, but “[t]heir judgment … shall not extend further than to removal from office and disqualification to hold or enjoy any place of honor, trust, or profit … but the party so convicted shall be … liable to indictment, trial, judgment, and punishment, according to the laws of the land.” (Compare Article I, Section 3, Clause 7.)
- The governor was elected separately, had the power to pardon (except in cases of impeachment), was commander-in-chief of the state military forces, and could veto bills, subject to override by two-thirds votes in both houses. (Compare Article I, Section 7, Clause 3 and Article II, Section 2, Clause 1.)
- The position of lieutenant governor was much like the vice president, except he didn’t preside over the senate.
Some features from “Part the First” also appeared in the original U.S. Constitution: freedom of legislative debate, protection from “ex post facto” laws (retroactive criminal laws), and trial by jury in criminal cases.
Other aspects of “Part the First” entered the U.S. Constitution later, by ratification of the Bill of Rights: freedom of assembly and of the press, the right to keep and bear arms, protection of the home from the quartering of troops and from unreasonable searches and seizures, due process of law, and protection from excessive bail and fines and from cruel or unusual punishment.
The Massachusetts constitution also protected freedom of religion, but less completely than the U.S. Constitution and its First Amendment. Both documents required officeholders to take an oath or affirmation, which under 18th-century law required belief in God. However, the Massachusetts charter protected religious freedom only for Christians—although on a non-denominational basis. Moreover, towns could use tax money to promote religion—although not necessarily Christianity.
In matters of faith, therefore, the Massachusetts document was midway between the formal state religious establishments Americans had known as British colonists and the “non-preferential theism” embodied in the U.S. Constitution (pdf).
As most readers probably know, in 1789 Adams was elected vice president of the United States, serving two terms under the presidency of George Washington. In 1796, he was elected to the presidency himself, but in 1800 Thomas Jefferson defeated his bid for reelection.
Adams generally is rated as a good president, in part for his courageous resistance to “war fever” against France and for his wise appointments, especially that of John Marshall to be chief justice of the United States.
After his presidency, Adams retired to his home in Massachusetts. For the rest of his life, he immersed himself in classical literature and maintained an extensive correspondence. In later years, his correspondents included Jefferson.
Like some other Founders (such as James Madison and John Dickinson), Adams paid careful attention to his health. Into his late 80s, he walked three miles each day. He died on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the same day Jefferson passed. Adams was just three months short of his 91st birthday.