"A Powerful Engine in Forming Public Opinion"John Adams. A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. London: C. Dilly [vols. II-III: C. Dilly and John Stockdale], 1787-1788. Three volumes. Contemporary mottled calf, spines gilt, morocco labels, the third volume with less ornate spine and the label mistakenly reading "2", edges yellow. Bindings rubbed, second volume label chipped, joints slightly tender. Unobtrusive private library number at foot of second leaf in volumes one and two. Front fly-leaf of first volume diagonally trimmed. Third volume with dampstains to its front endpapers and first few leaves with a previous owner's ink signature on its title page. Pages with light edge wear, occasional foxing and few minor smudges or stains. A very good, attractive set. Rare.
First edition of A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, a classic of American political theory. Adams wrote this work while serving as envoy to the Court of St. James's in England. The first volume was published in early 1787; volumes II and II appeared later in 1787 and in 1788, respectively, and the complete work was also issued in collected form.
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Adams's work takes the form of a response to the radical French theorist A.-R.-J. Turgot, who espoused perfect democracy through a single legislative body. Adams saw this as nonsense and called instead for a system of government with checks and balances. His study of classical political theory, especially Cicero, led him in this work to call for a government of three parts: a bicameral legislature, a strong executive, and an independent judiciary.
"The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratical council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor" (John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson).
The first volume appeared during the constitutional convention of 1787, and the work had "much currency in the Federal Convention, and influence upon the members" (Evans). Convention member Benjamin Rush wrote that Adams's Defence had "diffused such excellent principles among us, that there is little doubt of our adopting a vigorous and compound federal legislature." James Madison concurred that the book was sure to be "a powerful engine in forming public opinion." On receipt of his copy, Jefferson wrote to Adams, "I have read your book with infinite satisfaction & improvement. It will do great good in America. Its learning & its good sense will I hope make it an institute for our politicians, old as well as young." Late that year Adams secured his recall from his post in England and returned home to the new nation he helped create.
Complete sets in period bindings are very scarce.
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