University of Wisconsin–Madison

John Adams and the Responses to A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America

While serving as the U.S. minister to Great Britain, John Adams believed that the nation was at a critical moment as Americans experimented with various constitutional forms. Consequently, in September 1786 he began collecting material for what would become A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. His technique was to examine different republics and to illustrate that civil war was inevitable without balanced governments. He favored the English Constitution with its balance of the democratic, aristocratic, and monarchic elements. Adams most feared the democratic and aristocratic elements. They were natural enemies and were constantly warring with one another. The seemingly chaotic conditions in America during the 1780s only intensified this feeling. To prevent the rupture of American society, Adams favored a government in which a strong executive balanced the aristocratic and democratic elements.

Advocates of a strong central government welcomed the Defence, particularly since its arrival coincided with the meeting of the Constitutional Convention and Congress’ discussion of government for the Northwest Territory. However, the impact of the Defence on the Constitutional Convention is difficult to determine. Many observers assumed that the work was bound to influence the delegates, but in reality the Defence probably did little more than crystallize the thinking and catalog the knowledge of the Convention delegates. There is not a single recorded reference to Adams or his work in the debates. In June 1787 James Madison, a Convention delegate who, like Adams, had made a study of governments, perhaps best understood the role of the Defence, when he wrote that “Men of learning find nothing new in it. Men of taste many things to criticize. And men without either not a few things, which they will not understand. It will nevertheless be read, and praised, and become a powerful engine in forming the public opinion.”

Opponents of the Defence responded quickly and filled newspapers with either hostile English reviews of the Defence or with original articles, many of them satirical, attacking both Adams and his work. Most American newspaper critics attacked Adams for his admiration of the British Constitution. They charged that Adams’s strong executive was in reality a monarch, that Adams diminished the role of the people, and that he gave too much prominence to the rich and wellborn.

During the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, Adams’s Defence continued to evoke mixed responses, both public and private, but such comments did not play a major role in the debate. Antifederalists were angered by the Defence because they believed that it had influenced the members of the Constitutional Convention. “Centinel” I charged that the Defence had “misled some well designing members of the late Convention.” Federalists defended Adams. “A By Stander” attacked Antifederalists who claimed that Adams had influenced the Convention; that they could make such an assertion revealed that they had not read the volume.

Adams later in 1788 would declare that the Constitution was an acknowledgment of the principles of the Defence, and that it was “without all partiality or prejudice, if not the greatest exertion of human understanding, the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen.”