Thoughts on Government
Apr. 1776 Papers 4:86-93
MY DEAR SIR, — If I was equal to the task of forming a
plan for the government of a colony, I should be flattered
with your request, and very happy to comply with it; because,
as the divine science of politics is the science of social
happiness, and the blessings of society depend entirely on the
constitutions of government, which are generally institutions
that last for many generations, there can be no employment
more agreeable to a benevolent mind than a research after the
Pope flattered tyrants too much when he said,
"For forms of government let fools contest,
That which is best administered is best."
Nothing can be more fallacious than this. But poets read history
to collect flowers, not fruits; they attend to fanciful
images, not the effects of social institutions. Nothing is
more certain, from the history of nations and nature of man,
than that some forms of government are better fitted for being
well administered than others.
We ought to consider what is the end of government,
before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point
all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of
society is the end of government, as all divines and moral
philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual
is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that
the form of government which communicates ease, comfort,
security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number
of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.
All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern,
pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man,
as well as his dignity, consists in virtue. Confucius, Zo-
roaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really
sacred, have agreed in this.
If there is a form of government, then, whose principle
and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge
it better calculated to promote the general happiness
than any other form?
Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is
so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose
breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans
will not be likely to approve of any political institution
which is founded on it.
Honor is truly sacred, but holds a lower rank in the
scale of moral excellence than virtue. Indeed, the former is
but a part of the latter, and consequently has not equal
pretensions to support a frame of government productive of
The foundation of every government is some principle
or passion in the minds of the people. The noblest principles
and most generous affections in our nature, then, have the
fairest chance to support the noblest and most generous models
A man must be indifferent to the sneers of modern
English men, to mention in their company the names of Sidney,
Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, and Hoadly.
No small fortitude is necessary to confess that one has
read them. The wretched condition of this country, however,
for ten or fifteen years past, has frequently reminded me of
their principles and reasonings. They will convince any
candid mind, that there is no good government but what is
republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution
is so; because the very definition of a republic is
"an empire of laws, and not of men." That, as a republic is
the best of governments, so that particular arrangement of the
powers of society, or, in other words, that form of government
which is best contrived to secure an impartial and exact
execution of the laws, is the best of republics.
Of republics there is an inexhaustible variety,
because the possible combinations of the powers of society are
capable of innumerable variations.
As good government is an empire of laws, how shall
your laws be made? In a large society, inhabiting an extensive
country, it is impossible that the whole should assemble to
make laws. The first necessary step, then, is to depute power
from the many to a few of the most wise and good. But by what
rules shall you choose your representatives? Agree upon the
number and qualifications of persons who shall have the benefit
of choosing, or annex this privilege to the inhabitants of
a certain extent of ground.
The principal difficulty lies, and the greatest care
should be employed, in constituting this representative assembly.
It should be in miniature an exact portrait of the
people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like
them. That it may be the interest of this assembly to do
strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation,
or, in other words, equal interests among the people
should have equal interests in it. Great care should be taken
to effect this, and to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt
elections. Such regulations, however, may be better made in
times of greater tranquillity than the present; and they will
spring up themselves naturally, when all the powers of government
come to be in the hands of the people's friends. At
present, it will be safest to proceed in all established
modes, to which the people have been familiarized by habit.
A representation of the people in one assembly being
obtained, a question arises, whether all the powers of government,
legislative, executive, and judicial, shall be left in
this body? I think a people cannot be long free, nor ever
happy, whose government is in one assembly. My reasons for
this opinion are as follow:--
1. A single assembly is liable to all the vices,
follies, and frailties of an individual; subject to fits of
humor, starts of passion, flights of enthusiasm, partialities,
or prejudice, and consequently productive of hasty results and
absurd judgments. And all these errors ought to be corrected
and defects supplied by some controlling power.
3. A single assembly is apt to grow ambitious, and
after a time will not hesitate to vote itself perpetual. This
was one fault of the Long Parliament; but more remarkably of
Holland, whose assembly first voted themselves from annual to
septennial, then for life, and after a course of years, that
all vacancies happening by death or otherwise, should be
filled by themselves, without any application to constituents
4. A representative assembly, although extremely well
qualified, and absolutely necessary, as a branch of the legislative,
is unfit to exercise the executive power, for want of
two essential properties, secrecy and despatch.
5. A representative assembly is still less qualified
for the judicial power, because it is too numerous, too slow,
and too little skilled in the laws.
6. Because a single assembly, possessed of all the
powers of government, would make arbitrary laws for their own
interest, execute all laws arbitrarily for their own interest,
and adjudge all controversies in their own favor.
But shall the whole power of legislation rest in one
assembly? Most of the foregoing reasons apply equally to
prove that the legislative power ought to be more complex; to
which we may add, that if the legislative power is wholly in
one assembly, and the executive in another, or in a single
person, these two powers will oppose and encroach upon each
other, until the contest shall end in war, and the whole
power, legislative and executive, be usurped by the strongest.
The judicial power, in such case, could not mediate,
or hold the balance between the two contending powers, because
the legislative would undermine it. And this shows the necessity,
too, of giving the executive power a negative upon the
legislative, otherwise this will be continually encroaching
To avoid these dangers, let a distinct assembly be
constituted, as a mediator between the two extreme branches of
the legislature, that which represents the people, and that
which is vested with the executive power.
Let the representative assembly then elect by ballot,
from among themselves or their constituents, or both, a distinct
assembly, which, for the sake of perspicuity, we will
call a council. It may consist of any number you please, say
twenty or thirty, and should have a free and independent
exercise of its judgment, and consequently a negative voice in
These two bodies, thus constituted, and made integral
parts of the legislature, let them unite, and by joint ballot
choose a governor, who, after being stripped of most of those
badges of domination, called prerogatives, should have a free
and independent exercise of his judgment, and be made also an
integral part of the legislature. This, I know, is liable to
objections; and, if you please, you may make him only president
of the council, as in Connecticut. But as the governor
is to be invested with the executive power, with consent of
council, I think he ought to have a negative upon the legislative.
If he is annually elective, as he ought to be, he will
always have so much reverence and affection for the people,
their representatives and counsellors, that, although you give
him an independent exercise of his judgment, he will seldom
use it in opposition to the two houses, except in cases the
public utility of which would be conspicuous; and some such
cases would happen.
In the present exigency of American affairs, when, by
an act of Parliament, we are put out of the royal protection,
and consequently discharged from our allegiance, and it has
become necessary to assume government for our immediate security,
the governor, lieutenant-governor, secretary, treasurer,
commissary, attorney-general, should be chosen by joint ballot
of both houses. And these and all other elections, especially
of representatives and counsellors, should be annual, there
not being in the whole circle of the sciences a maxim more
infallible than this, "where annual elections end, there
These great men, in this respect, should be, once a
"Like bubbles on the sea of matter borne,
They rise, they break, and to that sea return."
This will teach them the great political virtues of humility,
patience, and moderation, without which every man in power
becomes a ravenous beast of prey.
This mode of constituting the great offices of state
will answer very well for the present; but if by experiment it
should be found inconvenient, the legislature may, at its
leisure, devise other methods of creating them, by elections
of the people at large, as in Connecticut, or it may enlarge
the term for which they shall be chosen to seven years, or
three years, or for life, or make any other alterations which
the society shall find productive of its ease, its safety, its
freedom, or, in one word, its happiness.
A rotation of all offices, as well as of representatives
and counsellors, has many advocates, and is contended
for with many plausible arguments. It would be attended, no
doubt, with many advantages; and if the society has a sufficient
number of suitable characters to supply the great number
of vacancies which would be made by such a rotation, I can see
no objection to it. These persons may be allowed to serve for
three years, and then be excluded three years, or for any
longer or shorter term.
Any seven or nine of the legislative council may be
made a quorum, for doing business as a privy council, to
advise the governor in the exercise of the executive branch of
power, and in all acts of state.
The governor should have the command of the militia
and of all your armies. The power of pardons should be with
the governor and council.
Judges, justices, and all other officers, civil and
military, should be nominated and appointed by the governor,
with the advice and consent of council, unless you choose to
have a government more popular; if you do, all officers, civil
and military, may be chosen by joint ballot of both houses;
or, in order to preserve the independence and importance of
each house, by ballot of one house, concurred in by the other.
Sheriffs should be chosen by the freeholders of counties; so
should registers of deeds and clerks of counties.
All officers should have commissions, under the hand
of the governor and seal of the colony.
The dignity and stability of government in all its
branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of
society depend so much upon an upright and skillful administration
of justice, that the judicial power ought to be distinct
from both the legislative and executive, and independent
upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should
be checks upon that. The judges, therefore, should be always
men of learning and experience in the laws, of exemplary
morals, great patience, calmness, coolness, and attention.
Their minds should not be distracted with jarring interests;
they should not be dependent upon any man, or body of men. To
these ends, they should hold estates for life in their offices;
or, in other words, their commissions should be during
good behavior, and their salaries ascertained and established
by law. For misbehavior, the grand inquest of the colony, the
house of representatives, should impeach them before the
governor and council, where they should have time and opportunity
to make their defence; but, if convicted, should be
removed from their offices, and subjected to such other punishment
as shall be thought proper.
A militia law, requiring all men, or with very few
exceptions besides cases of conscience, to be provided with
arms and ammunition, to be trained at certain seasons; and
requiring counties, towns, or other small districts, to be
provided with public stocks of ammunition and entrenching
utensils, and with some settled plans for transporting provisions
after the militia, when marched to defend their country
against sudden invasions; and requiring certain districts to
be provided with field-pieces, companies of matrosses, and
perhaps some regiments of light-horse, is always a wise institution,
and, in the present circumstances of our country,
Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially
of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful,
that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this
purpose would be thought extravagant.
The very mention of sumptuary laws will excite a
smile. Whether our countrymen have wisdom and virtue enough
to submit to them, I know not; but the happiness of the people
might be greatly promoted by them, and a revenue saved sufficient
to carry on this war forever. Frugality is a great
revenue, besides curing us of vanities, levities, and fopperies,
which are real antidotes to all great, manly, and warlike
But must not all commissions run in the name of a
king? No. Why may they not as well run thus, "The colony of
to A. B. greeting," and be tested by the governor?
Why may not writs, instead of running in the name of
the king, run thus, "The colony of to the sheriff," &c., and
be tested by the chief justice?
Why may not indictments conclude, "against the peace
of the colony of and the dignity of the same?"
A constitution founded on these principles introduces
know ledge among the people, and inspires them with a conscious
dignity becoming freemen; a general emulation takes place,
which causes good humor, sociability, good manners, and good
morals to be general. That elevation of sentiment inspired by
such a government, makes the common people brave and enterprising.
That ambition which is inspired by it makes them sober,
industrious, and frugal. You will find among them some elegance,
perhaps, but more solidity; a little pleasure, but a
great deal of business; some politeness, but more civility.
If you compare such a country with the regions of domination,
whether monarchical or aristocratical, you will fancy yourself
in Arcadia or Elysium.
If the colonies should assume governments separately,
they should be left entirely to their own choice of the forms;
and if a continental constitution should be formed, it should
be a congress, containing a fair and adequate representation
of the colonies, and its authority should sacredly be confined
to these cases, namely, war, trade, disputes between colony
and colony, the post office, and the unappropriated lands of
the crown, as they used to be called.
These colonies, under such forms of government, and
in such a union, would be unconquerable by all the monarchies
You and I, my dear friend, have been sent into life
at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have
wished to live. How few of the human race have ever enjoyed
an opportunity of making an election of government, more than
of air, soil, or climate, for themselves or their children!
When, before the present epocha, had three millions of people
full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the
wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?
I hope you will avail yourself and your country of that extensive
learning and indefatigable industry which you possess, to
assist her in the formation of the happiest governments and
the best character of a great people. For myself, I must beg
you to keep my name out of sight; for this feeble attempt, if
it should be known to be mine, would oblige me to apply to
myself those lines of the immortal John Milton, in one of his
"I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs
By the known rules of ancient liberty,
When straight a barbarous noise environs me
Of owls and cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs."