As elaborated thus far, natural law teaches that legitimate government is circumscribed by liberty in a dual sense: It derives from the consent of equally free individuals, and it aims at securing the natural rights which comprise the independence of the individuals. But while natural law circumscribes legitimate government, it does not indicate the necessity of government. Indeed, men could live without government “if they would consult their reason, and obey their consciences,” for reason and the conscience dictate justice.[28] Why, then, can men not live together “naturally” at peace, with the justice of their relations emerging immediately from the operation of reason in each individual? The answer, according to John Adams, lies in the fact that “passions and appetites are parts of human nature, as well as reason and the moral sense.”[29] And the natural tendency of the passions is to dominate reason. They “are all unlimited; nature has left them so…. They certainly increase too, by exercise, like the body.” Against reason’s dictate of justice, then, the passionate preference for self rules action like “a usurping domineering, cruel tyrant.”[30] Since men are dominated by passion, they cannot be trusted to direct their own lives according to the demands of reason. The passions will conform to nature’s laws only if compelled to do so by some force other than the reason of the individual. Government is the agency which can accomplish the task of bringing the passions into conformity with reason, provided that government is properly constructed to meet the requirements of the task.

It is against this background of Adams’ understanding of natural law and its natural weakness that we should view his assertions about the nature of republican government. Adams used the term “republic” to denote “the best of government,” but he was acutely aware of the tendency of men of education to abuse that term and thereby confuse the science of politics.[31] Some men used the word to denote all governments, including the most tyrannical; for these men, “republic” could mean only “public affairs” or the political per se and was robbed of any utility for distinguishing the public good from the public evil. Others, like Montesquieu, used the term to identify any government in which rule is vested in more than one person. This usage has the advantage of distinguishing despotism from all other forms of government, but its emphasis on the number or class of men who rule obscures the “true and only true definition of a republic.” That true definition, which men have in mind when they use the term republic “more rationally,” is a government “in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws.” A republic, then, is a government distinguished by the fact that the laws rule. The importance of this rule of civil law can be seen if we recall our previous discussion of natural law. Good civil laws stand in the place of natural law. The two kinds of law dictate the same actions, but their mode of operation differs in a decisive respect. Natural law could be said to rule directly only where each man’s reflection on the requirements of natural rights governs his action, and this direct rule of reflection, as we have seen, is not to be expected of most men. Civil law, in contrast, uses external mechanisms to move men’s passions, which in turn impel men to act as the law requires. Civil laws are thus in one sense an improvement on natural law, for they effectively constrain men to act as natural law requires in vain. Given the passionate “weakness” of men’s nature, this civil substitute for the direct rule of natural law is “the greatest blessing which mortals can aspire to.”[32]

But what are good civil laws? Adams’ most explicit answer to this question is presented in the first volume of Defence of American Constitutions as a response to Ann Robert Jacques Turgot and, incidentally, to Richard Price. The Frenchman had written Price, commending him as “the first of his country men who has given a just idea of liberty, and shown the falsity, so often repeated by almost all republican writers, that liberty consists in being subject only to the laws.” In the work which had elicited Turgot’s letter of praise, Price had argued:

Liberty is too imperfectly defined when it is said to be ‘a Government of LAWS ind not of MEN’. If the laws are made by one man, or a junto of men in a state…a government by them is not different from slavery.

Price had attempted, with only partial success, to go beyond this imperfect description of free government by identifying the nature of the law which should rule in a republic. Specifically, Price had insisted that legitimate government “consists only in the dominion of equal laws made with common consent, and not in the dominion of any man over other men.” Adams readily concurred with the added criterion of good law, though he pointed out that republican writers “have always explained their meaning” when they discussed the rule of law to be “equal laws made by common consent or the general will.” That criterion is necessary but still does not complete the notion of just law.

Turgot seemed to have understood the shortcoming of Price’s effort, for immediately after commending Price, he had observed that liberty would not consist of being subject only to laws, “even if we suppose all laws to be the work of the entire nation assembled, because, in fact, the individual has certain rights which the nation cannot take from him, but by violence and an illegal use of force.” Adams was quick to “cheerfully agree” with Turgot on the need for a second criterion of just law. Indeed, Adams put forward a bold case to emphasize Turgot’s point:

a nation may be unanimous in consenting to a law restraining its natural liberty, property, and commerce, and its moral and religious liberties too, to a degree that may be prejudicial to the nation and to every individual in it.

These, he said, “would be all equal laws made with common consent.” To accommodate Turgot’s correct observation, then, “we must add to Dr. Price’s ideas of equal laws made by common consent, this other—for the general interest or the public good.” In the passage under consideration, Adams’ treatment of the general interest seems at first almost flippant: “it is generally supposed,” he said, “that nations understand their own interest better than another; and, therefore, they may be trusted to judge the public good.”[33] We are left with no indication of how the general interest differs from common consent.

Later in the Defence, Adams returned to the subject of the rule of law and focused especially on the question of the public good or general interest. The passage deserves to be quoted in full, for it gives Adams’ most extended statement of the “true and only true definition of a republic.”

The word res, everyone knows, signified in the Roman language wealth, riches, property; the word publicus, quasi populicus, and per syncope populicus, signified public, common, belonging to the people; res publica, therefore, was publica res, the wealth, riches, or property of the people. Res populi, and the original meaning of the word republic could be no other than a government in which the property of the people predominated and governed; and it had more relation to property than liberty. It signified a government, in which the property of the public, or people, and of every one of them, was secured and protected by law. This idea, indeed, implies liberty: because property cannot be secure unless the man be at liberty to acquire, use, or part with it, at his discretion, and unless he have his personal liberty of life and limb, motion and rest for that purpose. It implies, moreover, that the property and liberty of all men, not merely of a majority, should be safe: for the people or public, comprehends more than a majority, it comprehends all and every individual; and the property of every citizen is a part of the public property, as each citizen is a part of the public, people, or community. The property, therefore, of every man has a share in government, and is more powerful than any citizen, or party of citizens; it is governed only by the laws.[34]

In Adams’ careful formulation a republic is “a government in which the property of the people predominated and governed.” “The people” and “property” now figured as the decisive terms in his statement of what he meant by the rule of law. By “the people” he clearly continued to mean “all and every individual,” not merely a majority. The passage on res publica thus incorporated a crucial part of Adams’ earlier discussion of law: The law which should rule is equal law made by common consent. But Adams here went on to refine the other major term of good law: It serves the public good or general interest. The public good is identical with the property of the people, which should be the object of the law. This proposition warrants elaboration.

We may take for granted that when Adams used the term property, his meaning included the whole range of things which human beings can possess. The striking thing about the passage on res publica, however, is that Adams meant more than simple possession. Property, he said, “implies liberty.” One does not securely possess a thing unless he is “at liberty to acquire, use, or part with it, at his discretion.” Property, then, implies the opportunity to use one’s possessions to acquire more property; property, in general, is secure only if capital is included among protected things. Moreover, property can be disposed of at will only if the owner is himself at liberty. Property, then, also implies that one’s life and one’s capacity to “move” under his own determination are protected by government; property, in general, is secure only if the rudimentary civil liberties are maintained, especially the liberties which consist in the ability to appeal to the law for protection in one’s own case. Adams thus used an expansive understanding of property to set forth a particular articulation of natural rights. He avoided any cleavage between “property rights” and “human rights” by taking property as the central human right and connecting the other rights to it. He indicated by this articulation that good law is to have one primary object—what we might call “liberal” property—because by pursuing that object fully, government will encompass all of its proper objects. It is with this meaning in mind that he says elsewhere in the Defence that in a republic “the property of the people should…decide the rule of justice.”[35]

Adams’ characterization of the law which should rule man brings us to the point at which an inquiry into principles of liberty must give way to an investigation of principles of political architecture. A republic is a government in which law rules in the place of men, and the only law which can truly be said to rule in the place of men (i.e., instead of the personal preferences of some men) is the law which is equally determined by both the will and the interest of all men. Put differently, civil rules most fully approximate reason or natural law when both their origin and their end are determined by what all men have in common by nature. But, as Adams has told us, men are moved by passion and “laws are neither made by angels, nor by horses, but by men.”[36] How, then, can good civil laws be created and enforced by passionate men?

The Principles of Political Architecture

Adams’ major task in the Defence and Discourses on Davila was to present and correctly settle the problem of constructing an effective government. Having identified the constituents of the law which should rule, Adams turned to the “great question”:

what combination of powers in society, or what form of government, will compel the formation, impartial execution, and faithful interpretation of good and equal laws, so that the citizens may enjoy the benefit of them, and may he sure of their continuance?

The laws will rule only if men can find a method of compelling the formation, impartial execution, and faithful interpretation of them. In order to discover that method of compelling, the political architect must take “an extensive view of the subject; and the first inquiry should be, what kind of beings men are?” An adequate science of political architecture thus requires a prior inquiry into the elements of man’s nature which can be made to support the rule of law. Only by understanding these elements and their operations can we adequately address the question of how to arrange political power so that men are made to act in favor of just law.[37]

In his attempt to identify the relevant elements of human nature, Adams found most of his modern predecessors in political science singularly misguided. On the one hand stood the French circle of Turgot, Condorcet, and their disciples, all deriving their understanding of man from Voltaire and Rousseau. These men based their dangerous political prescriptions on a false hope that “knowledge and benevolence” would spread universally among mankind and would incline men toward just actions.[38] On the other hand stood the great English defenders of the principles of liberty, like John Locke, whose political prescriptions were erroneously grounded on the view that man is naturally asocial and that human nature, moved solely by the concern with self-preservation, is devoid of supports for man’s unselfish obligations.[39] Both strands of modern political science had given insufficient attention to the “first inquiry” and had consequently drawn mistaken conclusions about human nature. [40] The French overestimated the power of human benevolence, while the English underestimated the possibility of finding a substitute for benevolence. Adams’ task was to correct the French view by showing the power of human passion over benevolence but also to correct the English view by delineating the true nature of human passion.

Adams described men, not as asocial, but as naturally gregarious. Their gregariousness consists of various “passions, appetites, and propensities, as well as a variety of other faculties,” but in Adams’ view, the key elements of human gregariousness are two. First, nature has added to the second law of nature (respecting the rights of others) “simple Benevolence, or an affection for the good of others.” That is, just as nature supports the first law (preserve self) by providing men with inclinations toward their own good, so she lends support to the second law by including in man’s nature a desire or passion for the good of others.[41] Benevolence, however, is only “in some degree” a support for the second law of nature for two reasons. First, the scope of benevolence in most men does not encompass society; rather, most men “confine their benevolence to their families, relations, personal friends, parish, village, city, county, province” but seldom “extend it impartially to the whole community.” Second, benevolence is not an adequate support for the second natural law because “alone it is not a balance for the selfish affections.” Unlike the selfish affections, which provide sufficient support for the law of self-preservation, the benevolent affections themselves require further support in order to “make us good members of society.” Nature has, therefore, “not confided wholly in [man’s] laudable improvement of these divine gifts” of conscience and benevolence, but has “kindly added to benevolence, the desire of reputation. Spectemur agendo expresses the great principle of activity for the good of others,” for by that desire nature has attached effective rewards and punishments to men’s unselfish obligations.[42]

Nature has ordained it, as a constant incentive to activity and industry, that, to acquire the attention and complacency, the approbation and admiration of their fellows, men might be urged to constant exertions of beneficence. By this destination of their natures, men of all sorts, even those who have the least of reason, virtue or benevolence, are chained clown to an incessant servitude to their fellow creatures; laboring without intermission to produce something which shall contribute to the comfort, convenience, pleasure, profit, or utility of some or other of the species, they are really thus constituted by their own vanity, slaves to mankind [43]

Adams used the word “slave” advisedly: Under the irresistible stimulus of the passion for distinction, men are, to recall the words of one of Adams’ favorite authors, “instruments in the hands of another, in the hands of Providence, to carry on ends…which they themselves have not in their view.”[44] Nature has thus not only “intended [men] for society,” but has “furnished them with passions, appetites, and propensities…calculated…to render them useful to each other in their social connections.”[45]

One might well raise the question of whether the passion for distinction is not itself a part of the “selfish system,” since, unlike benevolence, it does not move men toward the good of others as its primary object. There is, however, a key difference between spectemur agendo and selfishness as it had been understood in the Lockean perspective. In the latter, the natural human goods are solely individual and private; men may well be led by their “selfish” desires to relate peacefully to each other, but such relationships are calculated instruments for the attainment of essentially solitary goods. In contrast, the passion for distinction constitutes a sphere of human good which depends essentially on human relatedness; men can have the pleasure of notice only when they live with others and act in ways which induce their attention.

This is the second essay in a series of four essays. Republished with gracious permission from Political Science Reviewer (Fall 1976).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[28] All of Adams’ public writing can be found in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States 10 vols., edited by Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1850-56), hereafter cited as Adams, Works and relevant volume. VI, 141. Cf. IV, 407 and VI, 114.

[29] Ibid., VI, 115.

[30] Ibid., IV, 406-07.

[31] Ibid., V, 452-53.

[32] Ibid., IV, 370.

[33] Ibid., IV, 401-03.

[34] Ibid., V, 453-54.

[35] Ibid., IV, 295, discussing Cicero.

[36] Ibid., IV, 404, discussing James Harrington.

[37] Ibid., IV, 406.

[38] Ibid., VI, 414-15: letter to Samuel Adams, 18 October 1790.

[39] Adams praised Locke’s investigation of the human understanding and his defense of the principles of liberty; on both these matters, Adams was deeply indebted to him. But on the principles of political architecture, Adams once said to Jefferson, “I did say in my Defence and my Discourses on Davila, though in an uncouth Style, what was new to Lock [sic], to Harrington, to Milton, to Hume, to Montesquieu, to Reauseau [sic], to Turgot, Condorcet, to Rochefaucault, to Price, to Franklin and to yourself; and at that time to almost all Europe and America.” See The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. Ed. by Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959) 2 vols., hereafter cited as Adams-Jefferson Letters and relevant volume; the present quotation occurs at IL 357: letter to Thomas Jefferson, 15 July 1813. For Adams’ specific criticism of Locke’s legislative proposals, see Adams, Works, IV, 463-64.

[4o] Adams, IV, 406.

[41] Ibid., VI, 234.

[42] Ibid., VI, 8,234 and 246.

[43] Ibid., VI, 245.

[44] The quotation is from the first of fifteen sermons by Joseph Butler which are appended to many editions of his Analogy of Religion. Adams read Butler and copied parts of Butler’s works into his commonplace book shortly after graduation from Harvard.

[45] Adams, Works, VI, 232.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email