Separation of Powers

I just read significant portions of The Political Writings of John Adams, a collection of writings from 1765-1820’s; some letters, some critiques of political writings of others. The main portion of the book is made up of his A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America written in 1787 in response to calls from some French and more democratic-leaning English writers for a single representative assembly embodying the executive, legislative, and judicial powers.


These writers had criticized the model in most states of the Union (then under the Articles of Confederation) which had a separate executive, a bicameral house of legislature (one to represent the aristocracy and the other to represent the demos (the common man)), and an independent judiciary. The principles put forth by these critics were that the structure of the American state constitutions allowed for a strong executive: their great fear was of monarcy because of centuries of powerful, arbitrary, and tyrannical kings or queens. They felt that the answer to the problem was to place the power entirely in the hands of the representatives of the common man in a single legislative assembly. John Adams spends the entire Defence arguing the historical and philosophical failings of such a system.

Adams discusses, and I believe essentially establishes, the point that in every state there exists naturally persons who embody monarchy (rule by one), aristocracy (rule by “the best”), and democracy (rule by the many/masses/commons). In order to establish a stable government that will not be tyrannical (at least won’t become so quickly) one must recognize that these categories naturally exist. Adams discusses the history of government in the Western world, beginning initially with Greece (with small reference to Sumarian governments). Greece had a long history of monarchy, as did any tribal system. Slowly there began to be landed wealth and an aristocracy developed that challenged the monarch for power. This history of the world is essentially a history of aristocracy fighting the monarchy for power. Occasionally a democracy will arise and the citizens (remember that in Athens, Sparta, and Rome this only meant those who owned land, who were male, and who had been born in those areas; therefore it was a very limited democracy) would rise up and demand a voice in government.

Generally the pattern has been that this rare democracy gains control for a few (generally less than twenty) years, fights with the aristocracy, uses force and intimidation (often the tyranny of a majority is more brutal than a monarchical tyranny), devolves into chaos and anarchy, chooses a leader (or a demogogue chooses them), and creates a tyrant. This is the history. There has never, in Western history, been an exception: except in forms which Adams terms a mixed government. This mixed government allows for blending the tendencies and interests of all men into one form of government to allow them to check each other. Obviously the executive is the form of the monarch, a senate (or House of Lords) is the representative of the interests of the aristocracy, and the house (or House of Commons) represents the everyday individual.

So where am I going with this? First, a short look at French history after Adams wrote this demonstrates that he was precisely correct: a pure democratically elected assembly with all executive power, legislative power, and judiciary power would rapidly deteriorate into anarchy (see the French revolution of 1790’s) until they would choose a demogogue to be their tyrant (Napoleon). This pattern repeated itself almost every 20 years (sometimes in Les Miserables it’s difficult to keep up with which revolution is going on, they were so common and similar).

The implications for today will be discussed in an upcoming post…stay tuned.

One Reply to “Separation of Powers”

  1. My brother, Reluctant, felt that my last post was too long and recommended that I shorten and serialize the long posts. This is an attempt. Hopefully your aren’t left with an incomplete thought of the point.

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