“Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.” John Adams
John Adams is best known today for a presidency cut short by the Alien and Sedition Acts. In truth, he was the greatest expert on government in the colonies … at least until James Madison stepped to the forefront. Harvard educated, Adams was a champion of the founding principles, a firm proponent of Enlightenment teachings, and a constitutional scholar. He was a pious man of honor and character. He could be argumentative and self-righteous, but he was generally correct in his positions.
Adams was an early and fervent advocate for independence. He opposed the Stamp Act in speeches, articles, and a widely circulated dissertation (Essay on the Canon and Feudal Law). He served in the first and second Continental Congresses, where he was engaged in over ninety committees, many of which he chaired. Adams nominated George Washington to be commander-in-chief, and headed the Board of War and Ordnance, which was responsible for supplying Washington’s army. He succeeded in getting an early resolution passed for independence that eventually led to the Declaration, and then served on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence. Twice during the war he served as an envoy in Europe. In later Years, Thomas Jefferson said that Adams was “the pillar of [the Declaration’s] support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.”
Despite his flawless revolutionary credentials, Adams’ greatest contributions were as a thinker and writer. In 1772, he wrote Dispute with America, From Its Origin, in 1754, to the Present Time, arguing effectively against British imperial policy. His 1776, Thoughts on Government influenced numerous state constitutions. The treatise defended bicameralism, and argued for separation of power between three branches with checks and balances. In 1780, Adams largely wrote the Massachusetts state constitution, which included a strong executive with limited veto authority and a bicameral legislature. While in London (1787), Adams published his book, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, which was so popular with delegates to the Constitutional Convention that Adams could almost be considered the fifty-sixth delegate. Adams stridently pushed the idea of “checks and balances” and his thinking had a strong influence on James Madison.
The phrase checks and balances has become so commonplace, it is often spoken as if it were a single word, but in the eighteen century, it was two distinctly different concepts. John Adams may have been the first to put the words together in his, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, but balances and checks is the phrase used in The Federalist, and that is the sequence Madison would have thought appropriate. First balance powers between the branches of government, and then place checks on those powers so they are not abused.
John Adams was possibly the hardest working person during the Founding. He was everywhere, doing everything for each and every one of the thirty-six years between the Stamp Act and the end of his presidency. In all his activities, he always tried to keep the best interests of his country in mind. An ardent republican, he was an honorable man who truly believed his countrymen were up to the task of self-government.
John Adams second cousin, Sam Adams said, “Nothing is more essential to the establishment of manners in a state than that all persons employed in places of power and trust must be men of unexceptionable characters.”
The United States of America was indeed lucky to have a large cadre of unexceptionable characters to take principled action during the early days of our country. Then again, perhaps luck is not the proper word.