Asked for advice by a fellow member of the Continental Congress who was going home to help draft a new constitution, Adams sketched his ideas in just under 3,000 words.
The purpose of government, he writes, is to promote “the happiness of society.”
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.
A review of the best thinkers on the subject, he goes on, will conclude that the best form of government is a republic, and “the very definition of a Republic, is ‘an Empire of Laws, and not of men.'” The best government, therefore, must ensure “an impartial and exact execution of the laws.”
Describing a government with powers divided between a bicameral legislature, an executive, and a judiciary, he notes that “Great care should be taken . . . to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections.” He believes that all executive officers should be elected for a single one-year term. “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.” Alternatively, he suggests longer terms, but again without the possibility of re-election. Judges, on the other hand, “should hold estates for life in their offices . . . during good behaviour” to ensure their freedom from influence.
To limit the accumulation of excessive wealth by a few individuals, he recommends sumptuary laws. “Whether our countrymen have wisdom and virtue enough to submit to them I know not,” he remarks.
Essential to such a government’s success—a government whose foundation is “some principle or passion in the minds of the people”—is universal education.
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 expence for this purpose would be thought extravagant.
Equal justice for all; honest government based on free and fair elections; a limit on the accumulation of personal wealth; and universal education aiming to produce an informed and intelligent citizenry. Still good ideas, and still more aspirational than realized.