This century witnessed the “return of history” in international affairs, and has now shown that we Americans are not immune from the tendencies of human nature toward excessive ambition, and of political society—particularly democracy—toward oligarchy and tyranny. Americans are not exceptional.
As historian Gordon Wood states in a recent interview at The Imaginative Conservative, John Adams knew this well. Precisely by recognizing that no people is exempt from the tendencies of human nature and political society, Adams helped construct an exceptionally balanced and constrained democratic republic, a system with the best chance of preventing tyranny, preserving liberty, and securing a measure of happiness. He helped forge an exceptional nation.
Imagine talking politics before the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence existed. Perhaps you find yourself in Boston in January of 1776. The air is abuzz with the debate over whether the American colonies should separate from England. The inescapable question: If we separate, what about the day after—how will we be governed? Imagine you are asked to set forth principles for constructing new governments for 13 soon-to-be independent states. Quoting the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence or the Preamble to the Constitution is not an option. You must justify your proposal based on principle, experience, or necessity.
John Adams faced exactly this challenge. His off-the-cuff response to a query from the Virginian George Wythe in private conversation formed the basis of a follow-up letter, which Wythe passed to publisher Richard Henry Lee. Lee published the letter in April 1776 as an essay entitled, “Thoughts on Government, in a Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend.” Authorship was kept anonymous at Adams’ request.
Pursuing a “research after the best” form of government in the style of the ancients, Adams uses this essay to defend the republic—not simple democracy—as the best that human wisdom can contrive. He calls it “an empire of laws and not of men,” and his version of the republican ideal is one that would not be universally admired in American political thought as it later developed.
Woodrow Wilson’s vision of government in Constitutional Government in the United States (1908) stands in stark contrast: “Government is not a body of blind forces; it is a body of men . . . with a common task and purpose.”
That would be an empire of men, not of laws.
Wilson explicitly names Adams’ formula as expressed in the Constitution of Massachusetts as one he is rejecting:
I am not repeating the famous sentence of the Massachusetts Bill of Rights, “to the end that this may be a government of laws and not of men.” There was never such a government. Constitute them how you will, governments are always governments of men, and no part of any government is better than the men to whom that part is entrusted.
He particularly has in mind the American President—which he would become four years after writing this. By Wilson’s lights, the President acts not just as the leader but almost the embodiment of the nation. Intuiting and channeling public opinion through “personal force,” he acts in the interest of the nation as a whole.
This expansive conception of the presidency has found expression in Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government, and Why We Need a More Effective Presidency (2016). Political scientists Terry M. Moe and William G. Howell make the case for more coordinated and centralized government than a “parochial” Congress—dysfunctional by design—can offer as long as it retains the sole prerogative of lawmaking. They argue that the Constitution, particularly its provision for the separation of powers, wasn’t built for “the United States of the twenty-first century”—a “modern, post-industrial, highly interconnected, technologically advanced, fast-changing country that is awash in serious social problems.” Separation of powers prevents effective governance.
Like Wilson, Moe and Howell want to rely on “the promise of presidential leadership.” Presidents’ concern for their legacies induces them to think about long-term national policy concerns, uninhibited by parochial or special interests. They propose shifting some of Congress’ legislative prerogatives to the executive branch, specifically requiring Congress to vote up-or-down on “fast-track” legislative proposals from the President. This change would, of course, require a constitutional amendment.
The argument Moe and Howell advance for giving Presidents more power is an application of Wilson’s claim that Darwinian change and adaptation are essential to constitutional government. The American Founders operated, according to Wilson, with a rigid and outdated view of government based on Newtonian physics. What was needed was a recognition that:
The underlying understandings of a constitutional system are modified from age to age by changes of life and circumstance and corresponding alterations of opinion. It does not remain fixed in any unchanging form, but grows with the growth and is altered with the change of the nation’s needs and purposes.
Liberty, on this reading, means that each new generation adopts its own idea of happiness and corresponding expectations of government.
But Adams sought to base his theory of government on what is constant, rather than what is changing in society. He and other Founders were not so much inspired by aesthetic enthusiasm for balanced order as what we might call a sense of “republican realism.” This is at the core of Adams’ constitutional design. For him, the best form of government can only be determined relative to its purpose: no less than securing the happiness of human society. In contrast with the Wilsonian, shifting notion of happiness, Adams judges that happiness consists in virtue, which runs counter to human nature. After eliminating forms of government based on fear—common but “sordid and brutal”—or honor, “truly sacred” but incomplete, Adams lands on the republic, the organizing “principle” or “passion” of which is “impartial and exact execution of the laws,” as most conducive to fostering virtue and therefore happiness.
Government must restrain human nature, notably the impulse toward ambition, wrote Adams. In Discourses on Davila (1790), meant to dispel the utopianism of the French Revolution and all revolutionary ideologies, he expounds his view of human nature and the “constitution of the human mind,” drawn from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Man is “gregarious” or social by nature, possessing a universal “passion for distinction” at least as constitutive as the need for food. The passion for distinction in its various manifestations “is a principal source of the virtues and vices, the happiness and misery of human life,” says Adams. History is “little more than a simple narration of its operation and effects.”
When this passion for distinction “aims at power” in the political arena, it manifests as ambition, which must be restricted and channeled to serve society rather than abolished. While aiming for the high goal of social happiness, Adams reflects—perhaps in the light of post-Independence experience and consternation toward the French Revolution—that terrestrial happiness and virtue are available only in a limited, preparatory sense.
As Adams details in “Thoughts on Government,” the structural outgrowth of this republican realism is the “much-celebrated separation of powers” that Moe and Howell wish to demystify. Adams says the powers of government should be distributed into the three branches; further, legislative power should be divided between a directly representative body and a “council”—a proto-Senate—rather than vested in a single assembly because
a single assembly is liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual—subject to fits of humor, starts of passion, flights of enthusiasm, partialities, or prejudice . . . A single assembly is apt to be avaricious and in time will not scruple to exempt itself from burdens which it will lay without compunction on its constituents . . . A single assembly is apt to grow ambitious and after a time will not hesitate to vote itself perpetual.
Constitutional principles and structural features grounded in Adams’ republican realism heavily shaped the state constitutions including the Constitution of Massachusetts, of which, as mentioned, Adams was the principle author. The longest enduring written constitution in the world, this work influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution. In Federalist #51, James Madison explicitly connects republican realism with the separation of powers, which pits “ambition” against “ambition” in order to safeguard the people’s liberty.
Wilson, with Moe and Howell in his wake, harbors no such qualms about human nature and ambition. In fact Wilson seems preoccupied with the opposite worry: that the President won’t have a “big” enough personality to “enforce his views” and lead the nation. Wilson’s self-fulfilling prophecy was that the American President would—and should—exercise increasing influence due to newfound American prominence on the world stage. His decidedly anti-republican conception of the presidency veers awfully close to a government of one individual, the one that can best play to the crowd—in a word, tyranny.
I hasten to add that the “fast-track” tweak at the core of Moe and Howell’s vision of reform is not entirely objectionable. As they present it, it would preserve separation of powers and Congress’ sole power to enact legislation. The tweak could, according to them, even reduce or at least redirect the presidential impulse to try to sidestep Congress. But the theory behind the proposal raises serious questions about the nature and function of representative government.
Does the President truly represent the unified interest and will of the nation, separate from the parochial interests of its citizens? If the problem with the Constitution is its vestment of the representative branch with lawmaking ability, oughtn’t we to give up on the very project of building a representative republic?
More importantly, a political theory embracing expansive executive leadership, centralized in a single person, subverts the notion of republican realism that our system presumes. Republican realism about human nature and ambition was the impetus for the institution of constitutional government in England over eight centuries ago, the basis on which checks against arbitrary authority found a permanent home in the Anglo-American political tradition.
There is no question that society changes, or that the interplay of circumstance, crisis, and response has shaped American political history, as in all societies. Twenty-first century America is very different from the agrarian society of the late 18th century. Still, the Founders’ advocacy of republican government was based on elements of human nature and political society they assumed to be constant—and recent political history would seem to vindicate that judgment. Before abandoning the notion of republican realism and its structural implications for constitutional government, we should consider any rival theory’s suppositions. We should examine whether they are rooted in a firm understanding of human nature and political society.
Adams once wrote to his beloved wife Abigail that he studied politics, government, and war so his sons could study “mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history . . . agriculture” and their children could study “painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” Clearly, Americans cannot yet graduate from the study of government, politics, and war. The 2016 election cycle ought to inspire fresh pondering of the first principles of our system of government. In that sense, Moe and Howell have done a service in forcing such reconsideration.
We can start our study by rereading and rethinking “Thoughts on Government.”