Contrary to the conventional modern view, John Adams’s A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787) was deeply influential on the Constitutional Convention. Adams’s constitutional system, though not original with him, provided a useful synthesis that emphasized balance as a working principle, checks as the operational corollary, and institutional structures reflecting the many, the few, and the one. Through the contemporaneous serialization in the Pennsylvania Mercury beginning May 11, 1787, this system and Adams’s conceptual terminology were read by key Framers and infused the Convention debates. The debate over the Virginia plan responded to Adams’s structural arguments and revealed the instability of the word “monarchy.” During the subsequent debate over the Senate, Adams’s ambivalence over “aristocracy” led to recognition of the new American aristocracy of white slaveowners. Finally, the Committee of Style and Arrangement draft, despite abandoning Adams’s vocabulary, closely paralleled his structural recommendations. The apparent irrelevancy of the Defence to modern scholars arose, ironically, from its crystallization of then-conventional wisdom, the very feature that resonated with so many delegates and generated its significant influence on the Convention. Adams’s Defence thus provides one more example that the Convention’s decisions cannot be understood without including the larger Framing generation.
- Journal title
Journal of American Constitutional History
University of Wisconsin Law School
- Date submitted
17 February 2023
- Digital Object Identifier (DOI) URL