My dear Sir,

"A SOCIETY of gods would govern themselves democratically," says the eloquent philosopher of Geneva; who however would have agreed, that his "gods " must not have been the classical deities: since he knew from the highest authority, the poets, who had their information from those divinities the Muses, that all the terrors of the nod, the arm, and the thunderbolts of Jupiter with all the energy of his undisputed monarchy, were insufficient to hold them in order. As it is impossible to know what would have been his definition of the gods, we may quietly pursue our enquiry, whether it is practicable to govern men in this way. It would be very surprising, if, among all the nations that have existed, not one has discovered a secret of so much importance. It is not necessary for us to prove that no such government has existed; it is incumbent on him who shall embrace the opinion of Mr. Turgot, to name the age, the country, and the people, in which such an experiment has been tried. It might be easier to determine the question concerning the practibility or impracticability, the utility or inutility, of a simple democracy, if we could find a number of examples of it. From the frightful pictures of a democratical city, drawn by the masterly pencils of ancient philosophers and historians, it may be conjectured that such governments existed in Greece and Italy, at least for short spaces of time: but no particular history of any one of them is come down to us; nor are we able to procure any more satisfaction to our curiosity from modern history. If such a phenomenon is at this time to be seen in the world, it is probably in some of those states which have the name of democracies, or at least in such as have preserved some share in the government to the people. Let us travel to some of those countries, and examine their laws.

The republic of St. Marino, in Italy, is sometimes quoted as an instance; and therefore it is of some importance to examine, 1. Whether in fact this is a simple democracy; and, 2. Whether, if it were such, it is not owing to particular circumstances, which do not belong to any other people, and prove it to be improper for any other, especially the United States of America, to attempt to imitate it.

The republic of St. Marino, as Mr. Addison informs us, stands on the top of a very high and craggy mountain, generally hid among the clouds, and sometimes under snow, even when the weather is clear and warm in all the country about it.

This mountain, and a few hillocks that lie scattered about the bottom of it, is the whole circuit of the dominion. They have, what they call, three castles, three convents, and five churches, and reckon about five thousand souls in their community.

St. Marino was its founder, a Dalmatian by birth, and by trade a mason. He was employed, about thirteen hundred years ago, in the reparation of Rimini, and after he had finished his work, retired to this solitary mountain as very proper for the life of a hermit, which he led in the greatest austerities of religion. He had not been long here, before he wrought a reputed miracle, which, joined with his extraordinary sanctity, gained him so great an esteem, that the princess of the country made him a present of the mountain, to dispose of it at his discretion. His reputation quickly peopled it, and gave rise to the republic which calls itself after his name. The best of their churches is dedicated to the saint, and holds his ashes. His statue stands over the high altar, with the figure of a mountain in his hands, crowned with three castles, which is like wise the arms of the commonwealth. They attribute to his protection the long duration of the state, and look on him the greatest saint next the blessed Virgin. In their statute-book is a law against such as speak disrespectfully of him, who are to be punished in the same manner as those who are convicted of blasphemy. This petty republic has lasted thirteen hundred years, while all the other states of Italy have several times changed their masters and forms of government. Their whole history consists in two purchases of a neighbouring prince, and two wars, in which they assisted the pope against a lord of Rimini.

They would probably sell their liberty as dear as they could to any that attacked them; for there is but one road by which to climb up to them. All that are capable of bearing arms, are exercised, and ready at a moment's call.

The sovereign power of the republic was lodged, originally, in what they call the arengo, a great council, in which every house had its representative; but, because they found too much confusion in such a multitude of statesmen, they devolved their whole authority into the hands of the council of sixty. The arengo, however, is still called together in cases of extraordinary importance; and if, after due summons, any member absents himself, he is to be fined. In the ordinary course of government, the council of sixty, which, notwithstanding the name, consists but of forty persons, has in its hands the administration of affairs, and is made up of half out of the noble families, and half out of the plebeian. They decide all by ballotting, are not admitted until five-and-twenty years old, and choose the officers of the commonwealth.

No sentence can stand that is not confirmed by two thirds of this council; no son can be admitted into it during the life of his father, nor two be in it of the same family, nor any enter but by election. The chief officers or the commonwealth are the two capitaneos, who have such a power as the old Roman consuls had, but are chosen every six months. Some have been capitaneos six or seven times, though the office is never to be continued to the same persons twice successively. The third officer is the commissary, who judges in all civil and criminal matters: but because the many alliances, friendships, and intermarriages, as well as the personal feuds and animosities that happen among so small a people, might obstruct the course of justice, if one of their own number had the distribution of it, they have always a foreigner for this employ, whom they choose for three years, and maintain out of the public stock. He must be a doctor of law, and a man of known integrity. He is joined in commission with the capitaneos, and acts something like the recorder of London under the lord mayor. The fourth man in the state is the physician: another person, who makes no ordinary figure in the republic, is the schoolmaster. Few in the place but have some tincture of learning.

The people are esteemed very honest, and rigorous in the execution of justice, and seem to live more happy and contented among their rocks and snows, than others of the Italians do in the pleasantest vallies in the world. Nothing indeed can be a greater instance of the natural love mankind has for liberty, and of their aversion to arbitrary government, than such a savage mountain covered with people, and the Campania of Rome, which lies in the same country, almost destitute of inhabitants.

This is the account of St. Marino. Yet, if all authority is here collected in one center, that center is not the nation. Although the original representation in the arengo was of houses, that is to say, of property, rather than of the persons of the citizens, and consequently not very equal, as it excluded all personal property, as well as all who had no property; yet even such an agrarian, it seems, was not a sufficient check to licentiousness, and they found it necessary to institute a senate of forty men. Here, at least, commenced as complete an aristocracy as that of ancient Rome; or, to express it more exactly, as complete a separation of the aristocratical from the democratical part of the community: and there are two remarkable circumstances in confirmation of this; one is, that there are not only noble families in this illustrissim‚ republic‚ Sancti Marini, but the constitution has limited the choice of the electors so far as to oblige them to choose one half the senate out of these nobles; the other is, that the names of the agents for the commonwealth, of the notary, and the witnesses to two instruments of purchases made at seventy years distance from one another, one in 1100, the other in 1170, are the same. — It is not credible that they were the same persons: they were probably sons or grandsons — which is a strong proof of the attachment to aristocratical families in this little state, and of their desire to continue the same blood and the same names in public employments, like the Oranges, Fagels, De Lindens, &c. in Holland, and like innumerable other examples in all nations.

Another remarkable circumstance is, the reluctance of the citizens to attend the assembly of the arengo, which obliged them to make a law, obliging themselves to attend, upon a penalty. This is a defect, and a misfortune natural to every democratical constitution, and to the popular part of every mixed government. A general or too common disinclination to attend, leaves room for persons and parties more active to carry points by faction and intrigue, which the majority, if all were present, would not approve.

It is curious to see how many checks and limitations are contrived for this legislative assembly. Half nobles, half plebeians — all upwards of five-and-twenty years old — two thirds must agree — no son can sit with his father; never two of the same family.

The capitaneos have the executive, like the Roman consuls, and the commissary has the judicial. — Here again are remarkable limitations: he must be a foreigner, and he is for three years. This is to give some degree of stability to the judicial power, and to make it a real and powerful check both to the executive and legislative.

We are not indeed told whether the council of forty are elected annually or for life. Mr. Addison may, from his well-known character, be supposed to have been more attentive to the grand and beautiful monuments of ancient arts of every kind which surrounded him in Italy, than to this rough hillock, although the form of government might have excited his curiosity, and the simplicity of manners his esteem; he has accordingly given a very imperfect sketch of its constitution and history. Yet enough appears to shew incontestibly, that St. Marino is by no means a perfect democracy. It is a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, as really as Sparta or Rome were; and as the Massachusetts, New-York, and Maryland now are, in which the powers of the governor, senate, and assembly, are more exactly ascertained and nicely balanced, but they are not more distinct than those of the capitaneos, council of forty, and the arengo are in St. Marino.

Should it be argued, that a government like this, where the sovereignty resides in the whole body of the people, is a democracy, it may be answered, that the right of sovereignty in all nations is unalienable and indivisible, and does and can reside no where else; but not to recur to a principle so general, the exercise, as well as right of sovereignty, in Rome, resided in the people, but the government was not a democracy. In America, the right of sovereignty resides indisputably in the body of the people, and they have the whole property of land. There are no nobles or patricians — all are equal by law and by birth. The governors and senates, as well as representative assemblies, to whom the exercise of sovereignty is committed, are annually chosen. Governments more democratical never existed; they are vastly more so than St. Marino. Yet the annual administration is divided into executive, legislative, and judicial powers; and the legislature itself is divided into monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical branches; and an equilibrium has been anxiously sought for in all their deliberations and actions, with infinitely more art, judgment, and skill, than appears in this little Italian commonwealth.

The liberty and the honesty of these people is not at all surprising. In so small a state, where every man personally knows every other, let the form of government be what it will, it is scarcely possible that any thing like tyranny or cruelty can take place. A king, or a decemvirate intrusted with the government, would feel the censures of the people, and be constantly conscious of the facility of assembling the whole, and apprehensive of an exertion of their strength.

The poverty of this people appears, by the fine of one penny imposed upon absence from the arengo; and by the law, that an ambassador should have a shilling a day. This however is a salary in proportion to the numbers of the people, as thirty guineas a day would be to an ambassador from the United States. — It appears also, from the physician's being obliged to keep a horse, probably there is not a carriage, nor another saddle-horse, in the commonwealth.

An handful of poor people, living in the simplest manner, by hard labour, upon the produce of a few cows, sheep, goats, swine, poultry, and pigeons, on a piece of rocky, snowy ground, protected from every enemy by their situation, their superstition, and even by their poverty, having no commerce nor luxury, can be no example for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Georgia, or Vermont, in one of which there are possibly half a million of people, and in each of the other at least thirty thousands, scattered over a large territory.

Upon the whole, a stronger proof cannot be adduced of the necessity of different orders, and of an equilibrium between them, than this commonwealth of St. Marino, where there are such strong symptoms of both in a society, where the least occasion for them appears that can be imagined to take place in any conceivable situation.

Next | Previous | Contents | Text Version | John Adams Page | Liberty Library | Home | Constitution Society