October 30 is the 285th anniversary of the birth of John Adams. Recognized as one of America’s great Revolutionary-era leaders, most historians maintain that it was fortuitous that Adams did not attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Instead, Adams, like Jefferson, was serving abroad—Adams as U.S. minister to Great Britain; Jefferson as U.S. minister to France. The argument goes that both Adams and Jefferson would have been disruptive in the Constitutional Convention hindering the many compromises needed to agree to an entirely new form of government. Such reasoning, however, greatly misses the mark as these two great leaders surely would have been constructive members of the Convention and, in fact, would have made for an easier ratification and perhaps even a better Constitution. Both men, in their prime physically and mentally, were excellent legislators—they knew how to work in committees and they were adept at crafting compromises.
Although John Adams was not a delegate in attendance at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia from May through September 1787, he was there in spirit. Eleven years earlier, in the spring of 1776, Adams wrote the extremely influential pamphlet Thoughts on Government which described the best kind of state constitutions to be adopted. Eleven of the states adopted constitutions that followed Adams’s recommendations for a balanced government as opposed to the extremely democratic form of government advocated by Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense in January 1776.
When briefly home from Europe in 1779, Adams served in the Massachusetts constitutional convention where he drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, which still functions as the oldest and most long-lived constitution in the world. In 1783 and again in 1786, Congress had ordered a printed volume containing all of the state constitutions. This volume was readily available to the delegates at the Constitutional Convention. To a great degree, the Constitutional Convention used the state constitutions, particularly the Massachusetts constitution, as its most important model in drafting the new federal Constitution.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention also had available Adams’s new book A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States. Published in London in late 1786, the first of three volumes reached America in April 1787. The book examined ancient and modern republics and showed that civil war was inevitable without balanced governments in which a president served as a fulcrum between an aristocratic senate and a democratic assembly. Excerpts from the book were published in newspapers throughout America. Writing to his business agent in Massachusetts, Adams hoped that his volumes would serve “as 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” (to Cotton Tufts, 23 January 1788). Tufts responded saying that the book would serve as “a Beacon to warn the People here of the Ruin that awaits them” (15 May 1787). Henry Knox, the Confederation’s secretary at war, wrote that Adams’s book should have been entitled “The Soul of a Free Government.” According to Knox, the Defence was “a word spoken in season” (to Mercy Otis Warren, 30 May 1787). Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia wrote that “Mr. Adams’ book has diffused such excellent principles among us that there is little doubt of our adopting a vigorous and compounded federal legislature” (to Richard Price, 2 June 1787). Jefferson wrote Adams on 23 February 1787 hoping that the Defence would “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.” David Ramsay, a Charleston physician and politician, wrote Adams that “This work is universally admired in Carolina & I flatter myself it will be instrumental in diffusing right notions of government.” Ramsay “devoutly wish[ed] that the sentiments of it were engraven on the heart of every legislator in the United States” (20 September 1787). Many of the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention were influenced by Adams’s ideas.
Adams made his mark on the Constitution in another way. When the First Federal Congress met in 1789, many then and now believed that it acted as a second constitutional convention putting flesh, muscle, and blood into the skeletal Constitution. As Vice President of the United States, Adams presided over the U.S. Senate and frequently lectured on procedural and policy matters. Most importantly, Adams broke twenty-nine tie votes with his casting ballot, more than any other vice president except for John C. Calhoun. Thus, Adams greatly shaped how the new Constitution was implemented. Though not present in Philadelphia in 1787, the Constitution created there bears the mark of John Adams.Further reading: Founder of the Month, John Adams