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ADAMS, JOHN, President. Autograph letter signed in full TO RICHARD HENRY LEE of Virginia, Philadelphia, 15 November 1775. 3 pages, 4to, address panel in Adams' hand on page
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ADAMS, JOHN, President. Autograph letter signed in full TO RICHARD HENRY LEE of Virginia, Philadelphia, 15 November 1775. 3 pages, 4to, address panel in Adams' hand on page 4, with Lee's autograph endorsement: "Mr. Adams Plan of Government," the two leaves neatly rejoined at central fold, small patch at top edge of first leaf, discreet repairs at fold intersections (affecting two or three letters on page 4), a strip of silk reinforcement along one fold of first leaf, but otherwise in good condition.\n\nCREATING "THE WISEST AND HAPPIEST GOVERNMENT THAT HUMAN WISDOM CAN CONTRIVE": THE GERM OF ADAMS'S Thoughts on Government, A PROFOUND INFLUENCE ON THE CONSTITUTIONS OF VIRGINIA (1776), MASSACHUSETTS (1780) AND ULTIMATELY, THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION\n\nOne of the most influential letters ever written by an American on the subject of government, and one which, in its various incarnations, printed and manuscript, had a fundamental impact on the forms of government adopted by the newly independant states and, later, on the constitution and structure of the Federal government of the United States.\n\nAdams writes: "The Course of Events, naturally turns the Thoughts of Gentlemen to the Subjects of Legislation and Jurisprudence, and it is a curious Problem what Form of Government, is most readily & easily adopted by a Colony, upon a Sudden Emergency. Nature and Experience have already pointed out the Solution of this Problem, in the Choice of Conventions and Committees of Safety. Nothing is wanting in Addition to these to make a compleat Government, but the Appointment of Magistrates for the due Administration of Justice. Taking Nature and Experience for my Guide I have made the following Sketch, which may be varied in any one particular an infinite Number of Ways, so as to accomodate it to the different, Genius, Temper, Principles and even Prejudices of different People.\n\n"A Legislative, an Executive and a judicial Power, comprehend the whole of what is meant and understood by Government. It is by ballancing each of these Powers against the other two, that the Effort in humane Nature towards Tyranny, can alone be checked and restrained and any degree of Freedom preserved in the Constitution.\n\n"Let a full and free Representation of the People be chosen for an House of Commons.\n\n"Let the House choose by Ballott twelve, Sixteen, Twenty four or Twenty Eight persons, either Members of the House, or from the People at large as the Electors please, for a Council.\n\n"Let the House and Council, by joint Ballott choose a Governor, annually, triannually or Septennially as you will.\n\n"Let the Governor, Council, and House be each a distinct and independant Branch of the Legislature, and have a Negative [veto] on all Laws.\n\n"Let the Governor, Secretary, Treasurer, Commissary, Attorney General\nand Solicitor General, be chosen annually, by joint Ballott of both Houses.\n\n"Let the Governor with Seven Councillors be a Quorum.\n\n"Let all Officers and Magistrates civil and military, be nominated and appointed by the Governor, by and with the Advice and Consent of his Council[.]\n\n"Let no Officer be appointed but at a General Council, and let Notice be given to all the Committees, Seven days at least before a General Council.\n\n"Let the Judges, at least of the Superior Court, be incapacitated by Law from holding any Share of the Legislative or Executive Power, Let their Commissions be during good Behaviour, and their Salaries ascertained and established by Law.\n\n"Let the Governor have the Command of the Army, the Militia, Forts &c[.]\n\n"Let the Colony have a Seal and Affix it to all Commissions.\n\n"In this way a single Month is sufficient without the least Convulsion or even Animosity to accomplish a total Revolution in the Government of a Colony. If it is thought more beneficial, a Law may be made by this new Legislature leaving to the People at large the Priviledge [sic] of choosing their Governer, and Councillors annually, as soon as affairs get into a more quiet Course[.]\n\n"In Adopting a Plan, in some Respects similar to this[,] human Nature would appear in its proper Glory, asserting its own real Dignity, pulling down Tyrannies at a single exertion and erecting such new Fabricks, as it thinks best calculated to promote its Happiness.\n\n"As you were the last Evening polite enough to ask me for this Model, if such a Trifle will be of any Service to you, or any gratification of Curiosity, here you have it, from, Sir, your devoted Friend and humble Servant John Adams[.]"\n\nMonths before the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain it was evident to certain thoughtful Americans like Adams that it was imperative for the colonies to conceive and plan new systems of government to replace the King's government in each colony. Provincial congresses in three colonies, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Virginia, appealed directly to the Continental Congress for advice on how to maintain the normal functions of government while in rebellion against the Crown. On 10 May 1776 the Continental Congress resolved, "that it be recommended to the respective Assemblies and Conventios of the United Colonies...to adopt such government as shall in the opinion of the Representatives of the People best conduce to the happiness and safety of their Constituents in particular, and America in general." A preamble to this resolution, written by Adams, further asserted that all forms of Royal government should be "totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the Colonies for the preservation of internal peace, virtue and good order, as well as for the defence of their lives, liberties and properties..."\n\nAs a recent authority on the Federal Constitution has observed: "Adams and his contemporaries considered this resolution [of 10 May 1776] to be the effective instrument of American independence" (Richard B. Bernstein, Are We to Be A Nation? The Making of the Constitution, Boston: Harvard University Press 1987, p. 47). ibid., p. 47).\n\nBy the autumn of 1775, Adams had become one of the most influential and respected delegates in the Continental Congress and served on over 30 different committees. Other delegates, formally and informally, sought his well-reasoned advice on a host of political questions. In the wake of the armed hostilities at Lexington and Concord, Adams "became the major proponent for the creation of new governments and consititutions for each colony" (Ellis, p. 41). In his unpublished autobiography, Adams recalled that, "almost every day, I had something to say about Advizing the States to institute Governments" (quoted ibid.)\n\nOn the evening of November 14 Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, visited Adams at his lodgings in Philadelphia. It is not known if others were present for their discussion of "what form of government is more geadily and easily adopted by a colony upon a sudden emergency," but it is clear that Lee, conscious Virginia would soon need to draft its constitution, was sufficiently impressed by Adams's recommendations to request a written version. Adams obliged, the next day, with the present historic letter containing his detailed and prophetic "sketch" for a new form of republican government. His sketch was a constitutional model which, he pointed out, could be modified "in any one particular an infinite number of ways, so as to accomodate it to the different genius, temper, principles and even prejudices" of a particular colony. This casually furnished plan for a new government had remarkable ramifications.\n\nRichard Henry Lee also "perceived the value of Adams's approach to constitution making for persuading hesitant colonists that the practical difficulties of declaring independence were not as great as they feared" (John E. Selby, "Richard Henry Lee, John Adams, and The Virginia Constitution of 1776," in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 84:4 [October 1976], 391). Lee launched an industrious campaign to disseminate Adam's plan. First, he circulated manuscript copies of the letter, one of which, intercepted by a Virginia loyalist, was forwarded to the British colonial secretary, Lord Germain, in April 1776 (now in the Colonial Office papers, Public Record Office, London). Next, anxious to give the plan the widest possible circulation, Lee published it in two forms. He arranged, through John Page, a member of the Committee of Safety, for the issuance of a broadside or handbill headed, "Government Scheme," setting out Adams's plan. (The only recorded copy of the broadside is at the Chapin Library, Williams College; it was previously attributed, in error, to a Boston printer). In addition, the plan was published in an anonymous article entitled "A Government Scheme," in the Virginia Gazette of 10 May 1776. Because it closely parallels in style and content both the broadside and the present letter, Lee is now reliably thought to have been responsible for its publication. (On the attribution of the article and the broadside, and their relationship to the present letter, see Selby, op. cit.).\n\nIn January, Thomas Paine's exceptionally popular Common Sense was published in Philadelphia (many attributed it to Adams). Although Paine's main object was to arouse the republican sentiments of the Americans and stimulate them to resist British authority, he described, briefly, a form of government he thought might be a suitable replacement for the British colonial government. Paine suggested a unicameral legislature for each colony, subordinate to a unicameral continental congress. Paine's plan did not provide an executive at any level of government. No balance of powers and no separation of powers between branches was necessary, Paine maintained, because all functions of government would be exercised by the unicameral legislature, as representative of the will of the people.\n\nAdams thought Paine's radical plan a disaster. "In contrast to Paine, Adams maintained that the new governments should preserve the best of the Anglo-American traditions of government -- especially the idea of separation of powers" (Bernstein, p. 49). So important was this matter to Adams that in March he told Abigail that he was thinking of writing a response to Paine's ideas on government (The Adams Family Letters, ed. Butterfield et al., 1:363).\n\nIn the meantime, a procession of fellow delegates in Congress asked Adams "to write down for their conventions at home the ideas on government upon which he had been expounding orally for some time" (Selby, p. 394). In March 1776 two North Carolina delegates, John Penn and William Hooper, about to return to their colony to help draft their state's constitution, sought Adams's advice. In a letter to Joseph Warren, Adams recounted that, "the time was very short. However the Gentleman [Adams] thinking it an opportunity, providentially thrown in his way, of communicating some hints upon a subject, which seems not to have been sufficiently considered in the southern colonis, and so of turning the thought of gentlement that way, concluded to borrow a little time from his sleep and accordingly wrote with his own hand, a sketch, which he copied, giving the original to Mr. Hooper and the copy to Mr. Penn, which they carried with them to Carolina" (Adams, Papers, ed. Taylor et al, 4:131).\n\nGeorge Wythe of Virginia, Jefferson's law teacher, having seen Penn's or Hooper's copy, requested one. Adams laboriously obliged. Next Johnathan Dickinson Sergeant, a New Jersey delegate, requested yet another copy. Adams prepared for him a revised and expanded version (the most elaborate of the series, according to Adams himself), which is now lost. Finally, Richard Henry Lee, having seen or heard of the two North Carolina copies, asked Adams for a copy of the newer version of the plan he had received four months earlier. Adams, at this point exhausted by his endless copying, reclaimed Wythe's copy of the plan and gave it to Lee to publish. Lee sought out the Philadelphia printer John Dunlap (who three months later printed the famous Declaration of Independence broadside of 4 July 1776). Adams's constitutional plan was published anonymously as a small 28-page pamphlet entitled Thoughts on Government: Applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies, in a Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend (Evans 14639). It issued from Dunlap's presses by April 20. Adams and Lee immediately began to distribute copies. One Adams sent to his wife, Abigail, another to his Boston friend, Joseph Warren, (destined to fall to British bullets two months later at Bunker Hill). Lee in turn sent copies of the printed plan to a number of influential Virginians, including Robert Carter Nicholas and Edmund Pendleton (both delegates to the Virginia Convention), and to Landon Carter, General Charles Lee, Continental Commander in the south, and Patrick Henry. "I am not without hopes it may produce good here," Henry confided to Lee. "The sentiments are precisely the same I have long since taken up, and they come recommended by you" (Patrick Henry, 1:412-413). "We can be certain that others, including George Mason, saw it as well" (Selby, p. 396). Mason became the principal author of the Virginia declaration of rights and Virginia's republican constitution. It is probable that other copies of Thoughts on Government were simply handed to fellow delegates in Philadelphia. A (probably unauthorized) Boston edition followed (Evans 14640).\n\nThoughts on Government, which had its genesis in the present letter, which it author self-deprecating termed "a trifle," became, therefore, "perhaps the most influential" plan for government of the many proposed in America during this time of revolutionary thought (Bernstein, 48). In his preface to the published letter, Adams asserted boldly that "Since the blessing of society depend entirely on... constitutions of government, there can be no employment more agreeable ...than a research after the best." At the end, enthusiastically, he proclaimed to his readers that "You and I, dear friend, have been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawmakers of antiquity would have wished to live. How few of the human race have every enjoyed an opportunity of making an election [choice] of government, more than of air, soil, or climate, for themselves or their children! When, before the present epocha, had three millions of people full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wises and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?"\n\nTracing the immediate and long-term consequences of Adams's letter to Lee and its offspring, Thoughts on Government, is beyond the scope of this description and the literature is vast. As Bernstein aptly writes, "It is difficult to estimate the influence that Thoughts on Government had on the first state constitutions. Adams had intended...to spur constitution-making in the southern states in the direction of republicanism, in the hope that they would adopt governments as democratic as those in New England. But Thoughts on Governemnt found readers beyond Adams's intended audience. Most of the state constitutions framed after Adams wrote were consistent with his prescription, and his friends and colleagues in Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey and New York assured him that they had made good use of his advice. The constitutions of all these states established executives headed by a single governor and bicameral legislatures..." (Bernstein, p. 52 et seq.).\n\nAdams's ideas on government had been widely disseminated in Virginia, thanks to Lee and Wythe, and it became the first state to instruct its representatives to Congress to vote for independence (the resolution introduced by Richard Henry Lee); Virginia went on to adopt the first American declaration of rights and state constitution (on June 12 and 29 respectively), "classic examples of the political thought underlying the creation of the first major republic in the modern world..." The New York constitution of 17-- featured a sophisticated system of checks and balances, as recommended by Adams, and Adams himself termed it "by far the best" of those then adopted. But the 1780 constitution of Massachusetts, Adams's home state, nearly five years in the making, proved "the fullest working out of the theoretical issues of Revolutionary constitutionalism" (Bernstein, p.56). Adams served on the drafting committee and was assigned the task of writing the constitution, to produce what one historian has termed "rthe most eloquent of all American constitutions" (Ronald M. Peters, quoted by Bernstein, p.61.\n\nLater, when the shortcoming of the Articles of Confederation had become evident, the Federal Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia to draft a Federal plan of government (Adams was a delegate). On May 29 "The Virginia Plan," 15 resolutions drawn up by Madison, was presented to the convention; it provided for a bicameral legislature apportioned on the basis of population (the plan is reprinted in Clinton Rossiter, 1787: The Grand Convention, New York 1966, Appendix B). Modeled on Virginia's own 1776 constitution, the "Virginia Plan" constituted "the first incarnation of the Constitution of the United States" (Bernstein, p.161). It, and the final Constitution proposed by the Convention and ratified in 1789, owed much to Adams's great writings on constitution-making and his ideas, first expressed in the present letter, on the creation of "the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive."
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