H105, American History I

John Adams, 1765, 1776, 1790.

John Adams, diary entry (December 18, 1765)

....The Year 1765 has been the most remarkable Year of my Life.  That enormous Engine, fabricated by the british Parliament, for battering down all the Rights and Liberties of America, I mean the Stamp Act, has raised and spread, thro the whole Continent, a Spirit that will be recorded to our Honour, with all future Generations.  In every Colony, from Georgia to New-Hampshire inclusively, the Stamp Distributors and Inspectors have been compelled, by the unconquerable Rage of the People, to renounce their offices.  Such and so universal has been the Resentment of the People, that every Man who has dared to speak in favour of the Stamps, or to soften the detestation in which they are held, how great soever his Abilities and Virtues had been esteemed before, or whatever his fortune, Connections and Influence had been, has been seen to sink into universal Contempt and Ignominy.

The People, even to the lowest Ranks, have become more attentive to their Liberties, more inquisitive about them, and more determined to defend them, than they were ever before known or had occasion to be.  Innumerable have been the Monuments of Wit, Humour, Sense, Learning, Spirit, Patriotism, and Heroism, erected in the several Colonies and Provinces, in the Course of this Year.  Our Presses have groaned, our Pulpits have thundered, our Legislatures have resolved, our Towns have voted, The Crown Officers have every where trembled, and all their little Tools and Creatures, been afraid to Speak and ashamed to be seen....

John Adams, letter to James Sullivan (May 26, 1776).

....It is certain in Theory, that the only moral Foundation of Government is the Consent of the People, But to what an Extent Shall We carry this Principle?  Shall We Say, that every Individual of the Community, old and young, male and female, as well as rich and poor, must consent, expressly to every Act of Legislation?  No, you will Say, this is impossible.  How then does the Right arise in the Majority to govern the Minority, against their Will?  Whence arises the Right of the Men to govern Women, without their Consent?  Whence the Right of the old to bind the Young, without theirs.

But let us first Suppose, that the whole Community of every Age, Rank, Sex, and Condition, has a Right to vote.  This Community, is assembled -- a Motion is made and carried by a Majority of one Voice.  The Minority will not agree to this.  Whence arises the Right of the Majority to govern, and the Obligation of the Minority to obey?  from Necessity, you will Say, because there can be no other Rule.  But why exclude Women?  You will Say, because their Delicacy renders them unfit for Practice and Experience, in the great Business of Life, and the hardy Enterprises of War, as well as the arduous Cares of State.  Besides, their attention is So much engaged with the necessary Nurture of their Children, that Nature has made them fittest for domestic Cares.  And Children have not Judgment or Will of their own.  True.  But will not these Reasons apply to others?  Is it not equally true, that Men in general in every Society, who are wholly destitute of Property, are also too little acquainted with public Affairs to form a Right Judgment, and too dependent upon other Men to have a Will of their own?  If this is a Fact, if you give to every Man, who has no Property, a Vote, will you not make a fine encouraging Provision for Corruption by your fundamental Law?  Such is the Frailty of the human Heart, that very few Men, who have no Property, have any Judgment of their own.  They talk and vote as they are directed by Some Man of Property, who has attached their Minds to his Interest.

Upon my Word, sir, I have long thought an Army, a Piece of Clock Work and to be governed only by Principles and Maxims, as fixed as any in Mechanics, and by all that I have read in the History of Mankind, and in Authors, who have Speculated upon Society and Government, I am much inclined to think, a Government must manage a Society in the Same manner; and that this is Machinery too.

Harrington has Shewn that Power always follows Property.  This I believe to be as infallible a Maxim, in Politicks, as, that Action and Re-action are equal, is in Mechanics.  Nay I believe We may advance one Step farther and affirm that the Ballance of Power in a Society, accompanies the Ballance of Property in Land.  The only possible Way then of preserving the Ballance of Power on the side of equal Liberty and public Virtue, is to make the Acquisition of Land easy to every Member of Society to make a Division of the Land into Small Quantities, So that the Multitude may be possessed of landed Estates.  If the Multitude is possessed of the Ballance of real Estate, the Multitude will have the Ballance of Power, and in that Case the Multitude will take Care of the Liberty, Virtue, and Interest of the Multitude in all Acts of Government.

I believe these Principles have been felt, if not understood in the Massachusetts Bay, from the Beginning And therefore I Should think that Wisdom and Policy would dictate in these Times, to be very cautious of making Alterations, Our people have never been very rigid in Scrutinizing into the Qualifications of Voters, and I presume they will not now begin to be so.  But I would not advise them to make any alteration in the Laws, at present, respecting the Qualifications of Voters.

Your Idea, that those Laws, which affect the Lives and personal Liberty of all, or which inflict corporal Punishment, affect those, who are not qualified to vote, as well as those who are, is just.  But, So they do Women, as well as Men, Children as well as Adults.  What Reason Should there be, for excluding a Man of Twenty years, Eleven Months and twenty-seven days old, from a Vote when you admit one, who is twenty one?  The Reason is, you must fix upon Some Period in Life, when the Understanding and Will of Men in general is fit to be trusted by the Public.  Will not the Same Reason justify the State in fixing upon Some certain Quantity of Property, as a Qualification.

The Same Reasoning, which will induce you to admit all Men, who have no Property, to vote, with those who have, for those Laws, which affect the Person will prove that you ought to admit Women and Children: for generally Speaking, Women and Children, have as good Judgment, and as independent Minds as those Men who are wholly destitute of Property these last being to all Intents and Purposes as much dependent upon others, who will please to feed, cloath, and employ them, as Women are upon their Husbands, or Children on their Parents.

As to your Idea of proportioning the Votes of Men in Money Matters, to the Property they hold, it is utterly impracticable.  There is no possible Way of Ascertaining, at any one Time, how much every Man in a Community, is worth, and if there was, So fluctuating is Trade and Property, that this State of it, would change in half an Hour.  The Property of the whole Community, is Shifting every Hour, and no Record can be kept of the Changes.  Society can be governed only by general Rules.  Government cannot accommodate itself to every particular Case, as it happens, nor to the Circumstances of particular Persons.  It must establish general, comprehensive Regulations for Cases and Persons.  The only Question is, which general Rule, will accommodate most Cases and most Persons.

Depend upon it, sir, it is dangerous to open So fruitfull a Source of Controversy and Altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the Qualifications of Voters.  There will be no End of it.  New Claims will arise.  Women will demand a Vote.  Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State, It tends to confound and destroy all Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common Levell.  I am &c.

Adams, John.  “Discourses on Davila; A Series of Papers on Political History.”  Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia) (1790).

VI....  There is a voice within us, which seems to intimate, that real merit should govern the world; and that men ought to be respected only in proportion to their talents, virtues, and services.  But the question always has been, how can this arrangement be accomplished?  How shall the men of merit be discovered?  How shall the proportions of merit be ascertained and graduated?  Who shall be the judge?  When the government of a great nation is in question, shall the whole nation choose?  Will such a choice be better than chance?  Shall the whole nation vote for senators?  Thirty millions of votes, for example, for each senator in France!  It is obvious that this would be a lottery of millions of blanks to one prize, and that the chance of having wisdom and integrity in a senator by hereditary descent would be far better.  There is no individual personally known to an hundredth part of the nation.  The voters, then, must be exposed to deception, from the intrigues and manoeuvres without number, that is to say, from all the chicanery, impostures, and falsehoods imaginable, with scarce a possibility of preferring real merit.  Will you divide the nation into districts, and let each district choose a senator?  This is giving up the idea of national merit, and annexing the honor and the trust to an accident, that of living on a particular spot.  A hundred or a thousand men of the first merit in a nation, may live in one city, and none at all of this description in several whole provinces.  Real merit is so remote from the knowledge of whole nations, that were magistrates to be chosen by that criterion alone, and by a universal suffrage, dissensions and venality would be endless.  The difficulties, arising from this source, are so obvious and universal, that nations have tried all sorts of experiments to avoid them.

As no appetite in human nature is more universal than that for honor, and real merit is confined to a very few, the numbers who thirst for respect, are out of all proportion to those who seek it only by merit.  The great majority trouble themselves little about merit, but apply themselves to seek for honor, by means which they see will more easily and certainly obtain it, by displaying their taste and address, their wealth and magnificence, their ancient parchments, pictures, and statues, and the virtues of their ancestors; and if these fail, as they seldom have done, they have recourse to artifice, dissimulation, hypocrisy, flattery, imposture, empiricism, quackery, and bribery.  What chance has humble, modest, obscure, and poor merit in such a scramble?  Nations, perceiving that the still small voice of merit has drowned in the insolent roar of such dupes of impudence and knavery in national elections, without a possibility of a remedy, have sought for something more permanent than the popular voice to designate honor.  Many nations have attempted to annex it to land, presuming that a good estate would at least furnish means of a good education; and have resolved that those who should possess certain territories, should have certain legislative, executive, and judicial powers over the people.  Other nations have endeavored to connect honor with offices; and the names and ideas at least of certain moral virtues and intellectual qualities have been by law annexed to certain offices, as veneration, grace, excellence, honor, serenity, majesty.  Other nations have attempted to annex honor to families, without regard to lands or offices....