John Adams, the first vice president of the United States, second president and illustrious Founding Father, was one of the great political thinkers in history.
After American independence was achieved, and the federal Articles of Confederation showed their weaknesses, Adams became a supporter of a new federal charter, or constitution, for the United States. In 1787 he wrote and had published a collection of essays in support of revamping the federal government. Entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America, the book argued in support of a strong chief executive, a sovereign and superior bicameral legislature, and a system of checks and balances to control any possible dangerous concentration of power.
Adams’ book brought up examples of historical attempts at democracies and republics, including those of Greece, Rome, England and Poland. He devoted two chapters to Poland, using its example as a nation threatened by its neighbors with little freedom for the common man due to its weak central government. He showed himself to be well educated as to the current situation in that country and in its history.
Adams drew this picture of the political situation in Poland:
“The king of Poland is the first magistrate in the republic, derives all authority from the nation. He has not the power to make laws, raise taxes, contract alliances, or declare war, nor to coin money, nor marry, without the ratification of the diet [senate or sejm]. The senate is composed of the clergy and nobility; the third estate, or people, is not so much as known...The peasants are slaves to the gentry; having no property, all their acquisitions are made for their masters, and are exposed to all their passions, and are oppressed with impunity.”
Mr. Adams further commented on the great power of the Polish nobles, to the detriment of the nation:
“Here again is no balance; a king, and an assembly of nobles, and nothing more: the nobles here discover their unalterable disposition, whenever they have the power, to limit the king’s authority; and there being no mediating power of the people, collectively or representatively, between them, the consequence has been what it always will be in such a case, confusion and calamity.”
Too much power in a single assembly, Adams argued, would result in disaster. A two house legislature should be created, one close to the people. Further, an executive, or president, must be endowed with adequate powers to counter those of the legislature, lest the U.S. end up like Poland, corrupted and dominated by an aristocracy controlled by foreigners and oppressing the common man. Again, on the general situation in Poland, Adams commented:
“A king without authority; a body of nobles in a state of uncontrolled anarchy; and a peasantry groaning under the yoke of feudal despotism: the greatest inequality of fortune in the world; the extremes of riches and poverty, of luxury and misery, in the neighborhood of each other; a universal corruption and venality pervading all ranks; even the first nobles not blushing to be pensioners of foreign courts; one professing himself publicly an Austrian, another a Prussian, a third a Frenchman, and a fourth a Russian; a country without manufactures, without commerce, and in every view the most distressed in the world.”
Poland, Adams warned in this book, was a country whose government should not in any way be emulated, but should stand as a warning, one whose situation should be avoided like the plague.
He also commented on Count Pulaski in the book. He was critical of Pulaski’s involvement in the Bar Confederacy in Poland. He asserted, correctly, that the Confederacy supported religious intolerance, and indeed it did seek the dominance of Roman Catholicism. Adams also disapproved of the Confederacy’s, and Pulaski’s, plot to assassinate Poland’s King Stanisław Poniatowski, calling it much to his dishonor, for Adams believed that nothing good ever came out of political murder.
Adams concluded that absolute monarchy was preferable to such a republic as Poland. This opinion undoubtedly contributed to the view of Mr. Adams as a monarchist, a tag that dogged him for much of his career and lowered his standing in the eyes of many of his fellow Americans. John Adams summarized his harsh opinion of the government of Poland in a somewhat sarcastic tone: “Such is Polish liberty, and such the blessings of a monarchy elective by a body of nobles.”
Written by Mark Nowak. Originally posted in Polish-American Journal.
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Check John Adams: A Life, by John Ferling