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A Founding Father on the Constitution

Extraordinary autograph letter signed "J. Q. Adams" to William Cranch, on the proposed Constitution, detailing at length his objections to various sections of Article 1, criticizing the proposed document as not in the democratic interests of the people to protect their liberties, quoting from Blackstone and his father's Defense of the Constitutions, and concluding: "We shall in a short time slide into an aspiring aristocracy, and finally tumble into an absolute monarchy, or else split into twenty separate and distinct nations perpetually at war with on another; which God forbid!"

Newburyport: December 8, 1787.

Price: $95,000.00

About the item

4pp. 4to. A Founding Father on the Constitution. Usual folds. Docketed by the recipient at the top left corner of the first page. Provenance: William Cranch; by descent to Eugene Dubois; Gilder Lehrman Collection (deaccessioned in 2023). The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution Digital Edition, 293d. A 19th century transcription with minor variations is located in the Adams Family Papers, vol. 327, MHi.

Item #366584

Both John Quincy Adams and his first cousin William Cranch (1769-1855), whose mother was Abigail Adams's sister, graduated Harvard in 1787. Cranch would go on to read the law in Boston under Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge Thomas Dawes, while Adams studied under jurist Theophilus Parsons in Newburyport. Cranch would would become one of the most learned legal minds of the United States, becoming the reporter of decisions of the Supreme Court and a distinguished professor of law; Adams, of course, would become a U.S. Senator, Ambassador, Secretary of State and eventually the sixth President of the United States.

Roughly a month after the Constitution was referred to the states for ratification, Adams and Cranch began a correspondence on the merits and shortcomings of that document. Much of their discussion focussed on Article 1, which laid out the bicameral legislative branches of government and their respective powers. In the first letter in their correspondence on the subject (WC to JQA, Oct. 5, 1787), Cranch posed some general and brief queries about the aristocratic nature of the Senate, the absence of absolute veto power of the President, and on the extensive enumerated powers of the House articulated in Art. I, §.8, though noting he "have got but half thro yet." Adams replied nine days later (JQA to WC, Oct. 14, 1787), beginning his letter, "Since politics is the word, let politics rule the roast..." That letter detailed his objections to the Constitution, which largely focussed on the powers of Congress not being democratic enough in protecting the liberties of the people. Among his objections were the frequency of elections in the house (Art. I, §.2), the conflict of interest to allow Congress to regulate its own elections (Art. I, §. 4), the inability of states to pay their debt without the ability to levy duties (Art. I, §9), the broad powers allowed Congress in Art. 1, §8 and the apparent contradiction between Art. VII and the Articles of Confederation concerning the number of votes needed for ratification (with Art. 13 of the latter requiring unanimous consent).

Cranch was delayed in his reply to Adams (WC to JQA, Nov. 26, 1787) but offered a number of explanations to Adams's critique, including that the biennial elections being a matter of timing with state elections occurring at non conforming dates, that it was impossible logistically to allow the people the right to recall their representatives, presciently suggesting that the Federal government would assume the state revolutionary war debts, and arguing that the powers given to Congress in §8 with the balance of powers between the branches was consistent with "your father's idea of a perfect Government"; i.e. as delineated in John Adam's Defence of the Constitutions.

In this, the final letter in their correspondence on the subject, Adams outlines his democratic objections to the Constitution, which he believed did not do enough to protect the liberties of the people, beginning: "Your answers to the objections which in my last letter I stated against the proposed form of Government, are ingenious and plausible yet I readily confess they have not convinced me: I will state the reasons which induce me to adhere to my former opinion, and wish you to reply after which we shall have gone through a regular forensic, and then we may drop the subject, which will soon be discussed by the proper judges."

He next turns to the issue of the frequency of elections in the House, arguing that every two years is not frequent enough: "You say in answer to the objection to §2 of Article 1, that we must make allowances for the local prejudices of the different gentlemen who framed the Constitution, and consider biennial elections, as a medium between those in the different State Constitutions. But I conceive the State Constitutions are nothing to the purpose. The only question to be answered is, whether annual or biennial elections are the best. Now I can conceive they ought to be annual for the security of the people. You argue that upon my principle the representations ought to be chosen weekly; but may I not retort, and say that upon yours they ought to be chosen for the longest possible term, to wit for life?"

He next turns to Cranch's argument that the reason the ability of the people to recall their representatives was not included was for logistical reasons: "You allow the objection, to the inability of the people to recall their representatives, but quere—who would recall them? The people you say, (and you say truly) could not do it, and it would therefore be a right without a remedy. This answer, I think rather fortifies than refutes my objection for, I contend that no government ought ever to be established, in this country, which should deprive the people of this right, by rendering the remedy impracticable."

Adams continues by addressing the issue of state debts and the inability of the states to raise revenue, deriding his suggestion that the Federal government would assume those debts as unsubstantiated: "You say perhaps the Congress intend to pay our debts from the continental treasury, but pray upon what foundation do you ground this conjecture? You cannot surely think that the present Congress will pay the State debts, since they cannot get money to pay the continental one. Nor can you suppose that a Congress which is not yet in esse, intend any thing. I imagine therefore, you mean that the future Congress will perhaps pay these debts. But I ask whether such a conjecture is any security for the creditors of the States? Do you usually find either an individual or a body of men, so wager to pay debts, which they are under no obligation to discharge? If you can name instances I will then admit the weight of the argument."

Arguably the crux of the letter, however, is the defense of his position on the problems with Art. 1, §8 and how those issues portend a greater problem with the proposed Federal government. Using his own father's words from his Defence of the Constitutions and from Blackstone's Commentaries, he fears that such a government would be unable to protect the liberties of the people: "As to the powers granted to the Congress I objected to them only as they were indefinite; but I am more and more convinced, that a continental government, is incompatible with the liberties of the people. 'The plan of three orders,' you say, 'in government is consistent with my father's Idea of a perfect government.' Very true, but he does not say that such a government is practicable, for the whole continent. He does not even canvass the subject, but from what he says, I think it may easily be inferred that he would think such a government fatal to our liberties. But I am far from being convinced that upon the proposed project, the three orders would exist; it appears to me, that there would in fact be no proper representation of the people, and consequently no democratical branch of the constitution. It is impossible that eight men should represent the people of this Commonwealth. They will infallibly be chosen from the aristocratic part of the community, and the dignity, as well as the power of the people must soon dwindle to nothing. Blackstone Vol. I, p. 159 supposes it necessary that the commons should be chosen 'by minute and separate districts, wherein all the voters, are, or easily may be distinguished.' Now if this Commonwealth be divided into eight districts, each of which shall elect one person, will any of these districts be minute? I wish if you have time you would again peruse the defence of the constitutions; it appears to me, there is scarcely a page in the book, which does not contain something that is applicable against this proposed plan: see particularly the 54th Letter; one passage of which I will quote because it is very much to the purpose. 'The liberty of the people depends entirely on the constant and direct communication between them and the legislature, by means of their representatives. Now in this case, there could not possibly be any such communication, and this you yourself admit when you prove the inability of the people to recall their representatives even if the right should be given them."

He continues by correcting Cranch on misquoting his father concerning the powers of Congress and on the ratification process for the Articles of Confederation: "You are mistaken I believe when you say the jealousy of the people is considered as an error on the right side. It is said, 'the caution of the people is much to be applauded,' and it is not usual to applaud an error, even if it be on the right side. As to the 13th Article you ask whether it was not made by a majority of the people? If you enquire for information I can answer no. It was made by the whole people. The confederation did not take place till all the States had acceded to it; Maryland delayed the matter I think as much as two years longer than any of the other States, so that the confederation which was made in July 1778 was not ratified till March 1781, and thus upon your own argument, I say, that what was made by the whole, can with propriety be altered by the whole."

Adams closes the letter with what he perceived as the greatest problem with the proposed Constitution, that because of its undemocratic undertones America would either devolve into an aristocracy, or even worse a return to monarchy, or even worse still, split into warring sectional factions: "In short, I must confess I am still of opinion that if this constitution is adopted, we shall go the way of all the world: we shall in a short time slide into an aspiring aristocracy, and finally tumble into an absolute monarchy, or else split into twenty separate and distinct nations perpetually at war with one another; which God forbid!"

Following ratification and the passage of the Bill of Rights, Adams's thoughts on the Constitution evolved, though he was never an ardent Federalist. It is telling, however, that at his presidential inauguration, rather than taking the oath of office on the Bible, he did so with a volume of laws.