Gordon S. Wood: “Adams, Jefferson, and American Constitutionalism”
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Gordon S. Wood: “Adams, Jefferson, and American Constitutionalism”

September 15, 2019


[ Music ]>>David L. Boren:
If I could ask you to just quietly complete
your dessert. We need to start
so that we can stay on schedule for this afternoon. Again, we’re very glad
that all of you are here, and our distinguished
luncheon speaker today has, we were just talking, we can’t
remember if it’s been five or six times that he’s visited
the University of Oklahoma, shared his thoughts and
his insights with us. But we’re the better for
it, and I think he just, we feel like he’s a
member of the OU family. He is so familiar to all of us. He has former students of
his teaching on our faculty. He’s very imbedded in this
place, and of course is so well respected by
all of his colleagues. He’s one of the leading scholars
and historians in the country and continues his fine work. In fact, we were just
talking, far from retiring from his scholarship, he’s going to be publishing a book this
year on the relationship between Adams and Jefferson. So, we know that that’s
bound to be a very, very interesting subject
that he’s going to share some of those thoughts
with us at lunch. He is a Pulitzer Prize
winning author and historian. Professor Gordon Wood is
the author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which won the 1983
Pulitzer Prize for History and also the Ralph
Waldo Emerson Prize. His most recent work
is Empire of Liberty, a History of the Early
Republic, 1789 through 1815, which was a finalist for
the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. It was part of the series of
The Oxford University History of America and one of the
volumes in that collection. He’s also the author
of The Creation of the American Republic, which
garnered the Bancroft Prize and the John Dunning Prize,
and The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin,
a fascinating and insightful biography, as well as many other
articles and books. He’s a frequent contributor
to the New York Times Review of Books and The New Republic. He taught for almost four
decades at Brown University, where he serves currently as the Alva O. Way
Professor Emeritus of History. He’s also served on the
faculties of Harvard University, Northwestern University School
of Law and Cambridge University in England, among others. He earned his master
and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He’s been a trustee
of Tufts University, and also of Colonial
Williamsburg from 1993 to 2006. He is a fellow of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American
Philosophical Society. No one has explained better
than Gordon Wood the factors that came together to
produce the wisdom and insight of the founding generation
of this country, and how fortunate we are to have
had those founders and those who participated in the
beginning of this country in its first two or
three formative decades. So, it’s a real pleasure
to have him back and to have him share
his insights with us. Let’s welcome back to the OU
family, Professor Gordon Wood. Professor Wood. [ Applause ]>>Gordon S. Wood: Well
thank you Mr. President. It is a second home for
me academically here. I’m delighted to be back again. Now, as the president mentioned,
I’ve just completed a book on John Adams and
Thomas Jefferson that’s to be published next month. So, I thought it might be
appropriate, given the theme of this teach-in,
to say something about the contributions
of these two men to American Constitution making. Now these two are members of
the group of major founders that we historians
call the gang of six. You know them. The other four are Washington,
Franklin, Madison and Hamilton. Now these four that I just
mentioned were present at the Constitutional Convention
in Philadelphia that drew up the Constitution in 1787. Adams and Jefferson were not. They were ministers abroad. One in France and the
other in Britain, and thus, they have no direct
influence it seems on making the Constitution. Yet what I want to suggest
in this talk, this noon time, that both Adams and Jefferson
ultimately had more to do with shaping America’s
understanding of constitutionalism, including
the new Federal Constitution, than any of the other
four great founders who were present
in Philadelphia. Now, their influence began
with the imperial debate between the colonists and the
British in the 1760s and 70s. In that debate, John Adams
became the first American to deny in print the authority
of Parliament over the colonists in all cases whatsoever. In January 1773, Governor
Thomas Hutchinson of, the Royal Governor of
Massachusetts, naively thinking that he could settle
the imperial debate once and for all, lectured
the people of his colony on the stark alternatives
that they faced. If the colonists accepted some
of Parliament’s authority, which of course they had in
matters of trade, they had, he said, to accept all of
Parliament’s authority. Or, he went on, if
they denied one iota of Parliament’s authority, which
they had with the Stamp Act, they denied that the Stamp
Act was applicable to them, then they had to deny all
of Parliament’s authority. There was, in other words, said
Hutchinson, no middle ground. Hutchinson was invoking the
doctrine of sovereignty, the 18th century doctrine. The belief that they had to
be, in every state, one final, supreme, indivisible
lawmaking authority. Otherwise, the government
would end up with the absurdity of imperial in imperial, that
is a power within a power. Hutchinson believed
that the colonists, confronted with this stark
alternative of accepting all or nothing of Parliament’s
authority, would finally cease
their opposition. Like other British
officials, good weak officials, they assumed that no
one in his right mind, certainly no good Whig, would
want to abandon Parliament and be left to confront the
power of the crown naked without Parliament’s protection. After all, Parliament
was the august author of the Bill of Rights of 1689. It was the historical guardian
of the people’s property, and the eternal [inaudible]
of their liberties against the encroachments
of rapacious kings. That’s the general
English view of Parliament. Adams, writing on behalf
of the Massachusetts’ House of Representatives, took
up Hutchinson’s challenge and accepted the one alternative that the governor
had least expected. If there be no line, as
the governor has put it, between the supreme
authority of Parliament and the total independence
of the colony, said Adams. The consequence is either that
the colonies are the vassals of Parliament, or they
are totally independent. As it cannot be supposed,
Adams went on, to have been the intention of
the parties to the compact, that we should be reduced
to a state of vassalage. The conclusion is, said
Adams, that it was their sense that we were thus independent. Since, as Governor
Hutchinson has said, having two independent
legislatures in the same state was
impossible, the colonists, said Adams, had to be distinct
spheres, distinct states from the mother country,
united and connected only through the king, in one
head and common sovereign. Now, this was the first
published expression of what historians came
to call the dominion or commonwealth theory
of the empire. And it’s been called that because it anticipated the
nature of the British Empire, worked out in the Statute
of Westminster of 1931, that created the modern
British Commonwealth, establishing the legislative
independence of each of the separate dominions,
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, that are held together by their
common allegiance to the queen. By 1776, the widespread
acceptance of this dominion theory, it soon
spread in other intellectuals, including Jefferson,
picked it up and repeated what
Adams had said. This theory explains
why Jefferson and the congress
scrupulously avoided any mention of Parliament in the
Declaration of Independence. When you read it, it
is quite incredible. Parliament had passed all
of these, most of the things that the colonists
objected to, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Duties,
the Coercive Acts, and yet Parliament’s not
mentioned in this indictment of the British Government and why the colonists
should declare independence. The closest Jefferson came to
acknowledging Parliament was when he said that George the
Third had combined with others, with others, to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign
to our constitution. Now of course, this was
not a very accurate account of the colonist’s history. For over a century, they had
accepted Parliament’s authority to regulate their trade. They had simply surrendered, and
that’s the only way to put it. They surrendered to the
doctrine of sovereignty. It was easier than trying
to convince the British to divide Parliament’s
power, which they had tried to do right up until 1773. Now, the realization that Parliament’s power was not
always benign prepared Adams and Jefferson, and
other Americans I think, to think freshly about placing
limits on legislative authority. Out of this fresh thinking
emerged the peculiarly American conception of a constitution
as a written document, as a fundamental law that’s
circumscribed a popularly elected legislature. Now, nowadays, nearly everyone
thinks of a constitution as a written document
that prescribes the form of government and embodies
rights that are protected from legislative tampering. Since World War II, there
have been dozens upon dozens of constitutions created
throughout the world, and nearly all of them have
been written documents. Israel’s constitution is, as unwritten is a
notable exception. But this was not true in
the 18th century prior to the American Revolution. Back then, a constitution
was something unwritten. There was no thought that it
had to be a written document, and it was really
ever distinguished from the government and the
government’s operations. Traditionally, in
English culture, a constitution referred
both to the way that the government was put
together, or constituted, and to the fundamental rights
of government that were supposed to protect the rights
of the people that the government was
supposed to protect. The 18th century English
Constitution was an unwritten mixture of charters, customs,
principles, institutions and laws, including all
Parliamentary enactments, all bundled together without
any separation from government. Therefore, for Englishmen, as the great English 18th
century jurist William Blackstone declared, there
could be no distinction between the constitution
and the system of laws. In other words, every act
of Parliament was a part of the Constitution, and
all law, both customary and statutory, was
thus constitutional. Therefore, said William
Paley, that acute summarizer of conventional 18th
century thinking, the terms constitutional and unconstitutional
mean legal and illegal. Now, nothing could be
more strikingly different from what we Americans
came to believe. Indeed, it was precisely on
this distinction between legal and constitutional
that the American and the English constitutional
traditions diverge, separate, at the time of the revolution. During the 1760s and 70s, the
colonists came to realize that, although acts of
Parliament like the Stamp Act of 1765 might be legal, that
is, they might be in accord with the acceptable
way of making law, such an act could never
thereby be constitutional. That is in accord with the basic
principles of rights and justice that made the English
Constitution what it was. It was true that the English
Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement of 1701 were
only statues of Parliament, but surely, the colonists
insisted, they were of a nature
more sacred than those which established
a two-pike road. By the end of the Revolutionary
era, the American’s idea of a constitution had
become very different from that of the English. Americans came to believe that
a constitution should be no part of the government at all. It had to be a written document
that both prescribed the form of government and the
circumstances of its operations. It was a fundamental
law that was superior to all ordinary legislation. A constitution, as Thomas
Payne put it in 1791, was a thing antecedent
to government, and a government is only the
creature of a constitution. And, said Payne, it was not a
thing in name only, but in fact, it was something that could
be possessed by every family and carried about
like the Bible, and quoted from article
to article. If 18th century Englishmen
thought this American idea of a constitution was, as the British writer Arthur
Young caustically suggested in 1792, as a pudding made from
a recipe, the Americans had come to believe that the English
had no constitution at all. Now, both Adams and Jefferson,
I think, contributed mightily to this peculiar American
idea of a constitution. Both men emphasized
the experience that the early colonists had
had with written charters. Although the 17th
century charters that had initially been
grants from the crown to commercial companies to
carry out certain public ends, by the end of the
Revolution, or by the eve of the Revolutionary period, they had become defensive
documents. Or as Adams called them,
contracts between the king and the people in
which protection and allegiance were
the considerations. These charters both set forth
structures of government and protected the rights of the
people from encroaching power. Consequently, in 1776,
Americans were, in a sense, primed because of this
experience with charters, primed to think of
a constitution as a written document set
apart from the government, and that somehow both ordered
and limited that government. By the early spring of 1776,
months before the Declaration of Independence, the colonists
began already thinking of creating new constitutions
in anticipation of their break from
Great Britain. Constitutions that would
inevitably be written documents. But what form should the
new governments take? Some of the delegates knew
that Adams was interested in the science of politics,
and asked his advice about the structure
of the new governments that they would be drawing up. After writing separate
letters to several people, so many letters, that
he finally decided, well I just better
publish my letter. And he published
it as a pamphlet, Thoughts on Government,
Applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies. Published anonymously
in April of 1776. It was the most important
and influential work that Adams ever wrote. Adams was sure that the new
American Governments had to be republics. He was certain of that,
but for Adams, this was not such an innovation as it
was for other Americans. A newspaper asked, as
he had written in 1775, the year before, he defined
a republic as a government of laws and not of men. This definition, borrowed from the 17th century theorist
James Harrington, meant, he said, that the British
Constitution is nothing more nor less than a republic of which
the king is first magistrate. Now, the English had one
kind of republic, he said, but there could be other kinds,
because the powers of society, meaning in his mind, the
one, the few and the many, could be combined
in different ways. There was, said Adams,
an inexhaustible variety of republics, including that
of the British Monarchy. Now, Adams tried to explain that having a hereditary
monarch did not mean that England was
no less a republic, as long as the government was
founded, was bound by fixed laws and the people had a role
in making those laws, then it was a republic. But he was never able, never
able throughout his whole life, to convince his fellow Americans
that the British Monarchy, even with the House of
Commons, was really a republic. And the result and
confusion plagued him, plagued Adams, the
rest of his life. Now, Adams was fascinated with the British
Constitution to say the least. He thought it was the
finest under heaven. Not only had it nixed the three
simple forms of government known to the western world since
antiquity, that is monarchy, aristocracy and democracy,
and had balanced them in the institutions of the
crown, House of Commons and the House of Lords. But it has as well, embodied
the three estates of the realm. That is, as Adams called
them, the powers of society, estates, social states. The powers of society, the
king, the peers and the people, and had embodied them in the three political
institutions of Parliament. Adams assumed that he could
replicate this marvelous English Constitution, mixed and
ballasted English Constitution, in the republican
states of America. He thought the three powers
of society, the one, the few and the many, existed
in all societies. The secret was to embody them into the government
institutions and balance them. So, each state constitution
should contain a three part, or tricameral legislature,
composed of a governor or an executive, a
house of representatives and an upper house or senate. Adams thought that the
governor, like the English King, could be a full participant
in the legislature. Thus, the governor’s
approval would be required for all legislation,
all lawmaking. Which meant, of course, that the
executive would have an absolute veto over all laws. The legislature would
also contain a house of representatives,
representing the people, and an upper house
containing the wisest members of the society, the aristocracy. This upper house would not
be another representation of the people, instead
it would be an embodiment of the social power of the few. That’s how Adams
thought about it. The aristocracy, in accord with
the theory of mixed government. Now in his pamphlet of 1776, he assumed that this upper
house would arbitrate struggles between the royal
governors and the people. If the legislature,
the legislative power, is wholly in one assembly,
and the executive is in a single person, he wrote,
these two powers will oppose and enervate upon each other until the contest
shall end in war. To avoid this danger,
another house in the legislature
was necessary, the upper house, or the senate. That’s the term that most
states gave to the upper house. The upper house would act
as the House of Lords did in the English Constitution,
as a mediator, arbitrator, between the people
and the executive. This was how Montesquieu had
described the role of the House of Lords in the English
Constitution. In other words, Adams conceived of the republicanized
aristocracy mediating the classic struggle between
monarchy and democracy that he and other Whigs assumed had gone on throughout the entire
trajectory of English history. A constant struggle
between people and king. Magna Carta is a
contract between the two. Adams’ fellow Americans
paid little attention to the English theory that
lay behind his recommendation. Although Americans tended
to divide their society into categories of
gentleman and commoners, they did not really think of
their society as separated into European type
estates, or social powers. But they had been used to
having bicameral legislatures and single executives,
or single governors, in their colonial governments, and thus they readily
accepted much of Adams’ advice about how their new governments
should be structured. What they would not stomach,
however, was his suggestion that a veto power be
given to the governors, similar to what the King of
England theoretically possessed. In fact, in all the state
constitutions drafted in 1776, the governors were stripped of
nearly all prerogative powers, including the power of
appointment to offices, and in some cases, even
the power to pardon. And they were given no role
in legislation whatsoever. That is no veto power
over lawmaking. Now it’s true that the
constitution makers originally assumed that the houses of representatives
represented the people, and the senates supposedly
embodied the wise men, or the aristocracies
of their society. Certainly, they did not
think of their senates as having constituents. But many were unclear as to
just what the senate stood for. It actually took us 200 years,
the Supreme Court and a series of decisions in the
1960s, finally decided that the state senates
were representative bodies, despite the name House
of Representatives. But that, at the time
there was confusion about what the senates were. When some critics began charging
that the supporters of senates, or upper houses, were attempting
to force a House of Lords on the American people, the
Constitution makers replied, no, no, no, not at all. The upper houses were
not Houses of Lords, they were just double
representations of the people. That’s all that would
be politically correct that you could say by 1777, 78. Of course, representing
the people more than once in the government not
only violated the theory of mixed government and was
not what Adams meant at all, but it also opened
up a can of worms about just what representation
meant in the American Governments. Thus, although nearly all the
states followed Adams’ advice, and created mixed and
balanced republics with houses of representatives,
senates and governors, most scarcely conceived of their
new governments the way Adams intended as a balancing
and mixing of social powers,
or social estates. But Adams did make
other recommendations that powerfully affected
American Constitutionalism. He wanted each functional branch
of the government, legislative, executive and judicial,
set apart from one another. By forbidding members of the
executive or the judiciary from simultaneously
sitting in the legislature, Adams and others who followed
his lead, set Americans off into decidedly different
constitutional direction from that of the mother country. This separation of powers,
as it came to be called, ensured that America would
not, as England eventually did, develop a parliamentary system of responsible cabinet
government. For, as you know, that system
depends on the executive or cabinet ministers, simultaneously being
members of the legislature. If one of British Cabinet
loses his or her seat in the legislature, they have
to get out of the cabinet. They have to be members of the
legislature, either the House of Lords or the House
of Commons, in order to be in the cabinet. For Adams and other
Americans in 1776, this kind of dual office
holding smacked of corruption, and they wanted no part of it. So he went off in an
entirely different direction. Now both Adams and Jefferson
realized that no constitution, however well written, and
however well balanced and mixed, could long endure without
sufficient moral character in the people, and this
was the theme particularly of Eric’s paper this morning. The listing of rights, the
structure of government, these were never enough. That is why today we see
states in the world that have, on paper, the same institutions
that exist in the United States or in England, but
which are in disarray and plagued by corruption. No republican constitution
can work without sufficient
virtue in the people. They said that over and over. The founders said that
over and over again. Virtue being the
willingness of the people to sacrifice their
personal selfish interests for the sake of the public good. For this reason, the
race publica [phonetic], the public things. For this reason, both
Adams and Jefferson knew that republics were
very fragile polities and always had been
throughout history. Both thought that
republics were liable to corruption and
eventual decay. Although Jefferson thought that
it tended to see the corruption of a society coming from
the government itself, Adams believed that,
more likely, inherent in human nature. But both patriots agreed that republics demanded far
more morally from their citizens than monarchies did
of their subjects. In monarchies, we might
think of monarchies in terms of authoritarian governments,
where authority flowed from the top down, each man’s
desire to do what was right in his own eyes could be
restrained by patronage or honor, by fear or force. We can understand why
some states today resort to authoritarian governments. They have an unvirtuous
population. People who lack the
self-restraint required of stable societies,
and thus they have to be governed by fear or force. In republics however, where
authority came from below from the people themselves, each citizen must
somehow be persuaded to sacrifice his
personal desires for the sake of the public good. In their purest form,
republics had no adhesives, no bonds holding their societies
together except their citizens’ voluntary patriotism
and willingness to obey public authority. Without virtue and
self-sacrifice, republics would fall apart. Now Adams had doubts
from the start that Americans had
sufficient virtue to sustain their
republican experiments, and his doubts only
grew with time. By the mid-1780s, he had,
I think, as dark a picture of American society
as any American in our history has ever had. Even Jefferson at first thought that his fellow Americans
might succumb to the same kinds of corruption that
afflicted other nations. But after he lived in France for
a few years in the mid-1780s, and saw what real luxury
and corruption was, he changed his tune
about America, and he became all
the more positive about the American people. So confident was he in the
people that he was willing to put up with a little
popular rebellion now and then. What did a few lives lost
every few decades matter? The tree of liberty, he said
in 1787, must be refreshed from time to time by the
blood of patriots and tyrants. It’s its natural manure. Now Jefferson was
especially concerned with maintaining the fundamental
character of a constitution. In drafting their
constitution in 1776, nearly all the states had relied
on congresses or conventions that were usually just
their legislature meeting without their royal governors. Now this presented a problem. Since the constitutions were
created by the legislatures, they presumably could also be
altered by the legislatures. Some of the constitution
makers in 1776 realized that their constitutions
were supposed to be a kind of fundamental law, different
from ordinary statutes, and they sought anxiously
and, I think, confusedly, to deal with this distinction. Delaware, for example,
provided for a super majority, five-sevenths of the
legislature is required for changing the constitution. Maryland said that its
constitution could only be amended by two-thirds vote of
two successive legislatures. And some, but most of
them simply enacted their constitutions as if they were
statutes, ordinary statutes. Everyone believed that the
constitutions were special kinds of law, but no one knew
quite how to make them so. Now, no one struggled
with this problem of distinguishing fundamental from statutory law more
persistently than Jefferson. He knew from experience
that no legislature elected by the people for the ordinary
purposes of legislation, could restrain the acts of
succeeding legislatures. Thus, he realized that
to declare his great act for religious freedom in
Virginia, to be irrevocable, would be of no effect in law. Yet we are free, we are free, he wrote into his 1779
bill in frustration. We are free to declare,
and do declare, that if any act shall
be hereafter passed or appeal a present act,
or to narrow its operation, such an act will be an
infringement of natural right. In other words, all he could
was place a curse, so to speak, on future legislators who
might violate his act. He realized that such a paper
declaration was not enough, and that something more was
needed to protect natural rights and the fundamental
law of the Constitution from legislative tampering. By the early 1780s, he was eager to form a real constitution
for Virginia. The existing one, he said,
was merely an ordinance with no higher authority than other ordinances
of the same session. He wanted a constitution
that would be perpetual and unalterable by
other legislatures. The only way that
could be done was to have the Constitution
created, as he put it, by a power superior to
that of the legislature. By the early 1780s, the answer
had become clear to Jefferson. To render a form of government
unalterable by ordinary acts of assembly, he wrote, the people must delegate
persons with special powers. They have accordingly chosen
special conventions to form and fix their governments. Moreover, the constitutions
then had to be sent to the people directly
for ratification. Massachusetts had shown the way. It had demonstrated to
the country the procedure by which a constitution could
be created that was unalterable by ordinary statute law. By 1779, the Massachusetts’
legislature authorized the election of a special convention to draft a new constitution
for the state. In order for further
distinguished this constitution-making body
from the regular legislature, every male inhabitant over 21
years of age was allowed to vote for the members of
the convention. A much broader suffrage
than existed for that of the legislature. Then the constitution, they
said, had to be ratified by two-thirds of the
state’s free males, again, 21 years or older. Now, this thereafter
became the model of how to make a constitution that was
superior to mere legislation. When the Philadelphia
Convention met, created this new federal
constitution a few years later in 1787, it knew what to do. It couldn’t just, in order
to make it fundamental, it couldn’t just be sent to the state legislatures
for ratification. If the Constitution were to become a truly
fundamental law superior to state constitutions,
it had to be ratified by specially elected
conventions, distinct from the
state legislatures. The French followed this
example a few years later with their revolutionary
constitution making, and today, most framers of new constitutions
follow this kind of model. Now, Adams was the
principle drafter of the Massachusetts
Constitution, which became the most
important constitution, state constitution, of
the revolutionary era. It represented his revised
thinking about what society and English history,
and thus the nature of a properly balanced
and mixed constitution. By 1779, when he returned
from abroad for a few months, to create his state’s
constitution, Adams had read a book by the Swiss jurist Jean
Louis De Lolme entitled, in the English translation,
The Constitution of England. The first English translation
had been published in 1775. Adams called De Laolme’s
book the best defense of the political
balance of three powers that was ever written. He had earlier praised
Montesquieu, but De Lolme had
replaced Montesquieu. And consequently, he now
followed De Lolme in claiming that the principle conflict
in English history was not, as Montesquieu had thought,
between the king and people with the aristocracy
acting as mediators, but instead was a conflict
between the aristocracy and the democracy,
with the king acting as the mediator or arbitrator. This revised theory
of the basic conflict in society was reinforced,
in Adams’ case, by extensive reading and
history, and more important by his appreciation of what
was happening in his own state of Massachusetts between
the rich patrician easterner creditors and the
western debtor farmers. A conflict that of course would
climax in Shay’s Rebellion. Adams’ draft of the Massachusetts
Constitution reflected his new thinking. The biggest change in this
constitution from those of 1776 was the immense
authority he now gave to the governor. Adams’ executive was much
more powerful and independent than the executives in
all the other states. Adams gave back to the
Massachusetts’ governor many of the prerogative
powers, including the power of appointment, that
the constitution makers in 1776 had taken away. Thinking of the governor
as the embodiment of the [inaudible] element
in the society, the one, Adams had always
wanted the governor to be a full participant in
the legislative process just as the Kling of England was, and to have an absolute
veto over all lawmaking. Now, with the governor’s
new role as the mediator between the aristocracy and
the democracy, between the few and the many, that veto power
became all the more essential. But once again, the
proposal was too much for his fellow, for
his colleagues. They were, however,
at least willing to grant the governor
a limited veto power, which could be overridden by
two-thirds of the legislature. This was more than
any other state, governors in any
other state possessed. And of course, as you
know, it set the pattern that later reform of
the state followed, and it set the pattern,
of course, for the Federal Constitution. Over the following decade, most states granted their
executives limited veto authority over their
legislation. And the Philadelphia Convention
in 1787 followed the model of the Massachusetts
Constitution, and granted the president
a limited veto power over all laws. There was nothing like it
in the rest of the world. Although Adams was not
present in Philadelphia, he and his Massachusetts
Constitution had a profound influence on the structure of
the new federal government. Jefferson, of course, was not
present in Philadelphia either, which was probably a good thing. The Constitution, if he
had been in Philadelphia, the Constitution would have been
a very, very different thing, and his buddy James
Madison, would not have dared to do what he did
do in Philadelphia if Jefferson had been there. When Jefferson learned of
the document, he was shocked. He told Adams he didn’t think
a new federal constitution was at all necessary. Three or four new articles,
he said, might have been added to the good old,
invariable fabric of the Articles of
Confederation. Jefferson especially objected
to the office of the president. It seems, he says, to be a bad
addition of a Polish King who, once elected, could
serve for life. Which, of course, is what
Jefferson feared would happen with the American president. Instead, Jefferson
wanted the president to serve only four years and be
ineligible for a second term. By contrast, Adams was
pleased that the Articles of Confederation had
been totally scrapped. This new constitution, so
much resembled the balanced government and the
separation of powers of his Massachusetts
Constitution, that he naturally was
satisfied with much of it. Unlike Jefferson, he approved
of the office of the president, and having the president
chosen over and over, he said, so much the better. Since Adams favored
aristocracy more than monarchy, he told Jefferson, feared
aristocracy more than monarchy, he told Jefferson that he would
have given much more power to the president, and much
less power to the senate, especially in its
role in appointments of executive officials. There were too many elected
officials in the new government as it was, Adams said. Elections to office, which
are great objects of ambition, Adams told Jefferson, ought
to be regarded with terror. With terror, an extraordinary
remark for, that demonstrated just how
pessimistic Adams had become about republican government. By 1791, Adams becomes so
fearful of the partisanship, the corruption, in elections,
much worse than anything that we think we’re
experiencing, he thought. He advocated having
the president and a senate serve for life. Sooner or later, he thought
things would become so bad, so bad in America, that we would
have to follow the English model and make the executive and
the upper house hereditary. I ask you, do you think
it’s come to that? [ Laughter ] Thank you. [ Applause ]

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