Appendix to the Defence of the Constitutions

Appendix to the Defense of the Constitutions, 1787 (On the good effects of local institutions)

Letter to the Abbé de Mably, on the Proper Method of Treating American History
In the Appendix to the Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America

The foreign gazettes and journals have announced to the world that the AbbÈ De Mably was applied to by the United States of America for his advice and assistance in the formation of a code of laws. It is unnecessary to say any thing to this, only that it is a part of a million volumes of lies, according to the best computation, which are to be imposed upon posterity, relative to American affairs. The AbbÈ himself, in his observations, has said that I desired his sentiments. This is true; but the manner of the request ought to be known, that those who think it of any consequence may understand in what sense it is true. Upon my arrival in Paris, in October, 1782, upon the business of the peace, the AbbÈ de Mably's book, upon the manner of writing history, was put into my hands. At the conclusion of that publication, he declared his intention of writing on the American Revolution. Meeting the AbbÈ soon afterwards, at dinner, at Monsieur De Chalut's, the farmer-general, my friends, the AbbÈs De Chalut and Arnoux, who were of the party, informed me that their friend was about writing the history of the American Revolution, and would be obliged to me for any facts or memorials that might be in my power. The question was asked, What part of the revolution he intended to write? The whole. Where had he obtained the materials? It was supposed they might be obtained from the public papers, and inquiry of individuals. In answer to this a few difficulties were started, and the conversation spun into length. At last the gentlemen asked to have, in writing, what had been then said upon the subject, as, the conversation being in French it might not have been fully comprehended. Accordingly, in a few days, I wrote the AbbÈ a letter, the translation of which, by a friend, into French, is here inclosed; the original, in English, not being in my possession. By this it will be seen, that the request to the AbbÈ to write upon American affairs, was a mere civility; and rather a desire that he would not expose himself, by attempting a history that he was altogether unprovided for, than any formal request that he should write at all. We ought to be obliged to any gentleman in Europe who will favor us with his thoughts; but, in general, the theory of government is as well understood in America as it is in Europe; and by great numbers of individuals is every thing relating to a free constitution infinitely better comprehended than by the AbbÈ De Mably or M. Turgot, amiable, learned, and ingenious as they were.


It is with pleasure that I have learned your design to write upon the American Revolution; because your other writings, which are much admired by Americans, contain principles of legislation, policy, and negotiation, which are perfectly analogous to their own; so that you cannot write upon this subject, without producing a work instructive to the public, and especially to my fellow-citizens.

But I hope, sir, you will not accuse me of presumption, of affectation, or of singularity, if I venture to express my opinion, that it is yet too soon to undertake a complete history of that great event; and that there is no man, either in America or Europe, at this day, capable of performing it, or who is in possession of the materials requisite and necessary for that purpose.
To engage in such a work, the writer ought to divide the history of America into several periods.
1. From the first establishment of the Colonies, in 1600, to the commencement of their disputes with Great Britain, in 1761.
2. From the commencement of those disputes in 1761, occasioned by an order of the board of trade and plantations in Great Britain, sent to the officers of the customs in America, to carry into execution in the strictest manner the acts of trade, and to apply to the courts of judicature for writs of assistance for that purpose, to the commencement of hostilities on the nineteenth of April, 1775. During this period of fourteen years, there was little more than a war of the quill.
3. From the battle of Lexington to the signature of the treaty with France, on the sixth of February, 1778. During this period of three years, the war was exclusively between Great Britain and the United States.
4. From the treaty with France to the commencement of hostilities between Great Britain and France, in the first place; afterwards, with Spain; then to the gradual progress of the armed neutrality, and the war of England against Holland. Finally, all these scenes have their catastrophe in the negotiations of the peace.
Without a distinct knowledge of the history of the colonies in the first period, a writer will find himself embarrassed, from the beginning to the end of his book, to account for events and characters which will present themselves in every step of his path, as he advances to the second, third, and fourth periods. To acquire a sufficient knowledge of the first period, it will be necessary to read all the charters granted to the colonies, and the commissions and instructions given to governors, all the codes of laws of the different colonies, (and thirteen volumes in folio, of dry, disgusting statutes, cannot be read with pleasure, or in a short time,) all the records of the legislatures of the several colonies, (which cannot be found but in manuscript, and by travelling in person from New Hampshire to Georgia); the records of the board of trade and plantations in Great Britain, from its institution to its dissolution; as also the files in the offices of some of the Secretaries of State.
There is another branch of reading which cannot be neglected, if the former might be omitted. I mean those writings which have appeared in America from time to time. I pretend not, however, in the place where I am, at a distance from all books and writings, to make an exact enumeration. The writings of the ancient Governors Winthrop and Winslow, Dr. Mather, Mr. Prince, Neal's History of New England, Douglas's Summary, the Progressive Amelioration of the Lands and the present state of the British Colonies, Hutchinson's History of the Massachusetts Bay, Smith's History of New York, Smith's History of New Jersey, the Works of William Penn, Dummer's Defence of the New England Charters, the History of Virginia, and many other public writings. All these were anterior to the present quarrel, which began in 1761.
During the second period, the writings are more numerous, and more difficult to be procured. There were then given to the public, works of great importance. In the controversies between those who were actors in this scene, as writers, there are some who ought to be distinguished. Among them are the Governors under the king, Pownall, Bernard, and Hutchinson, Lieutenant-Governor Oliver, Mr. Sewall, the Judge of Admiralty for Halifax, Jonathan Mayhew, D. D., James Otis, Oxenbridge Thachcr, Samuel Adams, Josiah Quincy, Joseph Warren; and perhaps the following have not been less important than the foregoing, namely,--the writings of Mr. Dickinson, Mr. Wilson, and Dr. Rush, of Philadelphia; of Mr. Livingston, and Mr. McDougall, of New York; of Colonel Bland and Arthur Lee, of Virginia, and of many others. The records of the town of Boston, and especially of the Committee of Correspondence, the records of the Board of Commissioners of the Customs in Boston, the journals of the House of Representatives, and of the Council of Massachusetts Bay. Moreover, the gazettes of the town of Boston, not forgetting those of New York and Philadelphia, ought to be collected and examined from the year 1760. All this is necessary in order to write with precision, and in detail, the history of the discussions, before hostilities commenced, during the period from the year 1761, to the nineteenth of April, 1775.
During the third and the fourth periods, the records, pamphlets, and gazettes of the thirteen states ought to be collected, as well as the journals of Congress, (of which, nevertheless, a great part is still secret,) and the collection of the new constitutions of the several states. The Remembrancer, and the Annual Register, periodical papers, published in England. The Affaires de l'Angleterre et de l'AmÈrique, and the Mercure de France, published in Paris, and the Politique Hollandois, printed at Amsterdam. The whole course of the Correspondence of General Washington with Congress, from the month of July, 1775, to this day, which has not yet been published, and which will not be published till Congress shall order or permit it. Allow me to say, that until this vast source of information shall be opened, it will be scarcely possible for any man to undertake the history of the American War. There are still other writings of importance, in the office of the Secret Committee of Congress, in the Committee of Foreign Affairs, in the Committee on the Treasury, in the Marine or Naval Committee, in the Board of War, as long as it existed, and of the Departments of War, of the Navy, the Finances, and of Foreign Affairs, from their institution. There are also letters of American ministers in France, Spain, Holland, and other parts of Europe.
The greatest part of the documents and materials being still secret, it is premature to undertake a general history of the American Revolution. But too much labor and care cannot be employed in making collections of those materials. There exist, however, in part, already two or three general histories of the American War, and the American Revolution, published in London, and two or three others published in Paris. Those in the English language are only materials, indigested and confused, without discernment; and all these histories, both in French and English, are only monuments of the complete ignorance of the writers of their subject. The whole of a long life, to begin at the age of twenty years, will be necessary to assemble from all nations, and from all parts of the world in which they are deposited, the documents proper to form a complete history of the American Revolution, because it is indeed the history of mankind during that epoch. The histories of France, Spain, Holland, England, and the neutral powers, must be united with that of America. The materials ought to be assembled from all those nations; and the documents, the most important of all, as well as the characters of actors and the secret springs of action, are still concealed in cabinets, and enveloped in ciphers. Whether you, sir, undertake to give a general history, or only observations and remarks, like those you have published concerning the Greeks and Romans, you will produce a work very interesting and instructive in morality, policy, and legislation; and I shall esteem it an honor and a pleasure to furnish you with any little assistance in my power to facilitate your researches.
It is impossible for me to say whether the government of France would wish to see any work profoundly written, and by an author of great celebrity, in the French language. Principles of government must be laid open, so different from those which we find in Europe, especially in France, that such an essay, perhaps, would not be seen with indifference; but of this I am not a competent judge.
Permit me, sir, before I finish this letter, to point at a key to all this history. There is a general analogy in the governments and characters of all the thirteen states; but it was not till the debates and the war began in Massachusetts Bay, the principal province of New England, that their primitive institutions produced their first effect. Four of these institutions ought to be amply investigated and maturely considered by any person who wishes to write with correct information upon this subject; for they have produced a decisive effect, not only in the first determinations of the controversies in writing, and the first debates in council, and the first resolutions to resist in arms, but also by the influence they had on the minds of the other colonies, by giving them an example to adopt more or less the same institutions and similar measures. The four institutions intended are:--
1. The towns or districts.

3. The schools.
2. The congregations.

4. The militia.
The towns are certain extents of country, or districts of territory, into which Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, are divided. These towns contain upon an average, say, six miles or two leagues square. The inhabitants who live within these limits are formed by law into corporations, or bodies politic, and are invested with certain powers and privileges, as, for example, to repair the great roads or highways, to support the poor, to choose their selectmen, constables, collectors of taxes, and above all, their representatives in the legislature; as also, the right to assemble, whenever they are summoned by their selectmen, in their town halls, there to deliberate upon the public affairs of the town, or to give instructions to their representatives in the legislature. The consequences of these institutions have been, that the inhabitants, having acquired from their infancy the habit of discussing, of deliberating, and of judging of public affairs, it was in these assemblies of towns or districts that the sentiments of the people were formed in the first place, and their resolutions were taken from the beginning to the end of the disputes and the war with Great Britain.
2. The congregations are religious societies, which comprehend the whole people. Every district contains a parish or religious congregation. In general, they have but one, though some of them have several. Each parish has a temple for public worship, and a minister, maintained at the public expense. The constitutions of these congregations are extremely popular, and the clergy have little influence or authority beyond that which their own piety, virtues, and talents naturally give them. They are chosen by the people of their parishes, and receive their ordinations from the neighboring clergy. They are all married, have families, and live with their parishioners in an intimate and perfect friendship. They visit the sick; they are charitable to the poor; they solemnize marriages and funerals, and preach twice every Sunday. The smallest imputation on their moral character would destroy their influence, and ruin them forever. They are, therefore, wise, virtuous, and pious men; their sentiments are generally conformable to those of their people, and they are jealous friends of liberty.
3. There are schools in every town, established by an express law of the colony. Every town containing sixty families, is obliged, under a penalty, to maintain constantly a school and a schoolmaster, who shall teach his scholars reading, writing, arithmetic, and the rudiments of the Latin and Greek languages. All the children of the inhabitants, the rich as well as the poor, have a right to go to these public schools. There, are formed the candidates for admission as students into the colleges at Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, and Dartmouth. In these colleges are educated future masters for these schools, future ministers for these congregations, doctors of law and medicine, and magistrates and officers for the government of the country.
4. The militia comprehends the whole people. By virtue of the laws of the country, every male inhabitant between sixteen and sixty years of age, is enrolled in a company, and a regiment of militia completely organized with all its officers. He is enjoined to keep always in his house, and at his own expense, a firelock in good order, a powder horn, a pound of powder, twelve flints, four-and-twenty balls of lead, a cartridge box, and a knapsack; so that the whole country is ready to march for its own defence upon the first signal of alarm. These companies and regiments are obliged to assemble at certain times in every year, under the orders of their officers, for the inspection of their arms and ammunition, and to perform their exercises and manoeuvres.
Behold, sir, a little sketch of the four principal sources of that prudence in council and that military valor and ability, which have produced the American Revolution, and which I hope will be sacredly preserved as the foundations of the liberty, happiness, and prosperity of the people.
If there are any other particulars, concerning which I can give you any information, be so good as to point them out.

I have the honor to be,
John Adams