John Adams’s “Preface”: A Revolutionary Text
John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States and an Enlightenment thinker of the 18th century, wrote a preface to justify the American Revolution and promote his model of a balanced Republic. He shows both the inevitability and the superiority of the American Revolution to present a compelling case.
By arguing that the political system of England was incompetent to administer the newly enlightened and growing population, Adams shows a revolution as inevitable. He believes the then-existing republican system of England has a large room for improvement, especially regarding representations of the people. Though there were a parliament and Commons, the majority of citizens has little to no power in influencing policymaking and law enforcement. Adams wrote, “it will forever remain true, that a free government has a great advantage over a simple monarchy.” This claim demonstrates Adams’ absolute support of a democratic nation. In support of the American Revolution, Adams states that “if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history.” The words “artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition” all have negative connotations that imply the illegitimacy of a political structure based on traditions rather than rationality. As a result, Adams’ text conveys the message that the current state is unacceptable and must be changed, reinforcing revolutionary ideologies. Furthermore, Adams points out that “the people were universally too enlightened to be imposed on by artifice; and their leaders, or more properly followers, were men of too much honor to attempt it.” He argues that the monarch has lost its sources of power, which is the voluntary submission of people and the universal recognition of the king’s legitimacy. People were enlightened of the idea of popular sovereignty to perceive a legitimate government as one that derives power from the people rather than arbitrary tradition. Therefore, the monarchical regime collapses and a new kind of authority will rise. Thus, a revolution or a shift in authority was not only needed but also inevitable and ongoing.
After showing the inevitability of a revolution, Adams specifically justifies the American Revolution by showing its unique and superior influence on the course of the country’s future. Adams was a criticizer of revolutions because he recognizes the destruction of revolutions and rebellions. However, this “Preface” of his was a revolutionary text because its purpose is to garner support and acknowledgment of the American Revolution. Adams believes that creating a mixed form of government that exercises the principle of checks and balances through a revolution is imperative in ending the anacyclosis, which is the continuous cycle of revolutions. He primarily uses historical revolutions in Greece, specifically statistics of casualties to depict the costly instabilities and violence incurred by social/political unrests. Though this part of the text may seem to be counterrevolutionary, it serves his goal of justifying the American Revolution. By pointing out even in the most polished years in Greece more than 60 massacres took place, Adams showcases the urgency for finding a long-term solution, which is creating a republic that gives people representation, has an independent legislature, executive, and judiciary, and contains three separate departments in the legislature. He even asserted that the US will be “destined to frequent unavoidable revolutions” without creating a balance between three elements of his model of Republic. Thus, Adams gives the readers a developed solution for ending social and political unrest. The benefit of the proposal is so incentivizing that it makes the means of carrying it out — the American Revolution — an acceptable and desirable event.
Overall, the purpose of John Adams’s Preface is to legitimize the American Revolution by showing its inevitability and necessity. Though Adams does not favor revolutions, he tries to persuade the readers that this particular event was imperative through this revolutionary text.
- Adams, John. Preface. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856.
The Drastically Different Arguments of “Authority” and “Revolution” Made in the Petition of Rights and the Declaration of Independence
In 1628, the Petition of Right was assembled by the substantial cooperative work between the Parliament, Commons, and the Lords to voice their discontent of the England crown’s actions during the English Civil War. More than one hundred years later in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was decreed as the formal start of the American Revolution. Though both events aim to achieve better living conditions by criticizing the abuse of immense power of the English monarch, they are based on separate ideologies about authority and revolution. The former holds that authority is rooted in traditional, or long-standing beliefs and laws of a society, so no revolution against the king is legitimate or justified. On the other hand, the authority of the latter base on the modern political theory of natural law and social contract, thus perceiving revolutions against the government are necessary for securing basic human rights.
Though many asks in the Petition match the statutes that the Declaration support, they stem from different ideological foundations. For instance, both documents highlight the importance of property, fair trial by jury, general consent of taxation, and limited martial statutes, but they argued on different grounds. One justification that the Petition invokes is the “The Great Charter of the Liberties of England”, which is the Magna Carta. Agreed at Runnymede (in London) in 1215, the Great Charter establishes that all men, including the King, are subject to the law and everyone deserves a fair trial. The Petition repeatedly refers to the laws that King Charles permitted were “against the laws and customs of this realm” (“Petition of Right”, 1628), demonstrating their reliance on the legal history. However, neither the Charter nor the English Common law stipulates any specific consequences for the monarch when he/she breaches the laws. Thus, the entire Petition had no legal ground of accusing King Charles I for the actions he perpetuated to pressure him with a potential punishment. As a result, the document is granted by the King’s grace rather than presented as a right that the citizens possess (“Charles I and the Petition of Right”). This is demonstrated in the opening sentence of the Petition, which states “humbly show unto our Sovereign Lord the King” (“Petition of Right”, 1628). The use of “humbly” puts the petitioners as inferior and subjects to the King, implying their understanding that the monarch is the one who decides whether to take the suggestions or not. The phrase “Sovereign Lord” sends the message that, during the English Civil War, authority stems from the King as he is perceived as the God-chosen ruler on Earth. The religious culture and tradition of a monarchical political system shape the Petition to become a humble request that appeals to the mercy and compassion of the King rather than using rational reasoning to defend the rights of people. The second source of justification that the Petition invokes is statutes passed during the reign of Edward III between 1327-77. It was established that no men should be bereaved of their properties or lives without going through due process of law. The Petition tries to persuade King Charles I to respect those precedents by stopping arbitrary arrest and persecution. Again, the authority and legitimacy derive from traditions and law, rather than the people. There is not a single accusation of King for failing his duty of protecting the rights and safety of the people. Rather, the Petition asks the King “to declare your royal will and pleasure” (“Petition of Right”, 1628). This shows that the parliamentarians, lords, and commoners had little legal authority to compel the King to hear their grievances and abide by the laws, so it is up to the King’s whimsical “will” and “pleasure” to decide how to react to the petition. When people’s rights to make suggestions and pleads are not secured, they have no justification to start a revolution. The fact that Charles I was infuriated and dissolved the Parliament for more than ten years attests to the Petition’s weakness of lacking justification for claiming substantial power and legitimacy to start a revolution.
On the contrary, the American Declaration invokes the “Laws of Nature” to justify colonies’ independence by planting the ultimate power into the hands of the people rather than traditions or legal precedents. Laws of Nature states that there are certain rules that no human being can violate regardless of inheritance, socioeconomic status, and experiences. The Declaration asserts that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Jefferson, 1776). It completely rejects the “Divine Rights of Kings” theory that places the monarch above all other human beings to be immune to all illegal actions. Since people are the ones inherently holding all those basic rights, they decide when and to what degree they voluntarily give some of those power to a central government in exchange for the protection of safety, property, and liberty. The phrase “consent of the governed” clearly emanates the idea that the decision-making power lies in the hands of the people and the government’s legitimacy to rule depends on them it well on the terms of the social contract (Jefferson, 1776). The underlying message that the Declaration sends is that by breaking the social contract, the monarch turns into a tyrant that rages war against the state of nature. As the ruler and the people enter the state of war, the people retrieve their power to defend their inalienable natural rights for themselves. The voluntary submission to the authority of the government ends, and the people become equals to the ruler. Unlike the Petition that lists grievances against the laws or the executors and soldiers that perpetuates the unfair treatments, the Declaration calls the King out for abusing his power to diatribe the entire monarchical system. This idea that authority stems from people’s voluntary consent to be governed is depicted by the Declaration’s criticism that the King tyrannically ordered the “dissolution of Representative Houses repeatedly” and obstructed “Appropriations of Lands” (Jefferson, 1776). The idea that the King has no legitimacy in meddling with private properties and control public opinions and voice was a huge shift from the immense power that England King had during the Civil War, which is that King has the authority to use public lands and dissolve parliament as he wishes. With this new view on authority, the Declaration of Independence argues that revolutions are necessary and justified to replace a tyrant that is “unfit to be the ruler of a free people” (Jefferson, 1776). The contrast between a “tyrannical” ruler that disregard the sacred natural laws to oppress “good People of these Colonies” puts the American patriots at the moral high ground where disobeying the King becomes not just a necessary action but also a noble and irreproachable one (Jefferson, 1776).
In conclusion, the Petition of Rights adheres to the traditional and legal authority that uphold the Divine Rights of Kings while the Declaration of Independence groundbreakingly asserts that authority stems from the voluntary submission of the people in exchange for governmental protection of inalienable rights. Since the former humbly request for a change at the mercy of the ruler, it portrays a revolution as a political crime that requires condemnation and immediate suppression. By adamantly defending people’s rights to revolt on the ground of inherent natural laws, nevertheless, the Declaration argues that revolutions legitimately safeguard liberty, property, life, and happiness.
- “Charles I and the Petition of Right”. UK Parliament. https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/parliamentaryauthority/civilwar/overview/petition-of-right/.
- “Charles I and the Power to Tax”. Courses Lumen Learning. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory/chapter/charles-i-and-the-power-to-tax/.
- Jefferson, Thomas. “Declaration of Independence: A Transcription”. America’s Founding Documents Archives. July 4, 1776. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
- “The Petition of Right”. Antonin Scalia Law School. 1628. https://www.law.gmu.edu/assets/files/academics/founders/petitionofright.pdf.
Mexican Revolution of 1823
Latin America has been a hot spot of political and social unrest since the French Revolution. Enlightenment thinking and philosophies spread like wildfire to alter the minds and perceptions of Lain Americans, prompting series of independence movements and revolutions. This domino effect, however, manifests differently in every country due to the dynamic religious, ethnic, and historical makeup of the Latin American nations. The Mexican Revolution in the early 1820s was one of them that initiated almost a century of struggle and conflicts.
The Revolution was driven by new ideologies. The colonial rule by Spain for hundreds of years planted the seed of desiring autonomy in the heart of indigenous people. The American Independence War, the French Revolution, and the enlightenment thinking in general presented Mexicans with another potential form of government: a Constitutional Republic. Popular sovereignty was accepted by both conservatives and liberals, so immediately when gaining independence, insurrection against the First Mexican Empire broke out and the Mexican Republic was established along with the Federalist Mexican Constitution of 1824. In fact, the new republic modeled itself after the successful precedent of the American Revolution, naming itself the United Mexican States and adhering to federalism. Article 6 stated: “Its integral parts are independent, free, and sovereign States in that which exclusively concerns their administration and interior government” (“1824 Constitution of Mexico”). This acknowledgment of the self-governance jurisdiction and legitimacy creates a federalist system that was completely compared to the previous absolute or constitutional monarchy. Thus, the Mexican Revolution of the 1820s was primarily caused by the dissemination of a new set of philosophies and principles.
Meanwhile, one can also say that the Mexican Revolution was driven by a shift in authority. After the coronation of Iturbide as the monarch of the New Mexican Empire in 1822, harsh criticism and antagonism towards monarchy incremented (“American Revolutionary War”). Iturbide dissolved the Constituent Congress, making the threat of tyrannical rule of an absolute monarchy imminent (Anna). Thus, Iturbide lost support from the people and, most importantly, military leaders. Vicente Guerrero and Nicolás Bravo, who had supported Iturbide in the Independence War against Spain, allied with Santa Anna and successfully overthrown Iturbide in 1823. This development confirms the theory that authority stems from people’s voluntary submission. When the discontent of people has outweighed the long-lasting, traditional ideas of the monarchical system, the authority shifts from the ruler to the insurgent or revolutionary group.
There are three types of authority: traditional authority, rational-legal authority, and charismatic authority. Though many military leaders contributed to the Revolution, none of them became instrumental to the survival and the development of the republic. Santa Anna, who was elected president multiple times, was not interested in governing. He was even called the “Absentee president” for his lack of engagement in policymaking and administration. Even when Vicente Guerrero, a hero of independence and former president, was executed, no major economic or social instability occurred (Tepaske). So, the authority of the Republic government was not rested in a charismatic figure. Rather, the United Mexican States replied on rational-legal authority. The Constitution of 1824 set the foundation for the government’s legitimacy. Then, in 1857, a second Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States was ratified. It established individual rights such as freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and bear arms. Also, it determined the separation of church and state. With the constitutional base, many reformative laws, such as Lerdo law, were soon put into place to further the liberal agenda (Lerdo Law). Thus, the authority of the Republic is derived from laws and rules rather than an individual, inheritance, or religion.
All the revolutions we learned in class can be categorized into two kinds based on people’s different interpretation of the nature of revolutions. The first kind sees revolutions as a necessary means to form a balanced republican or democratic system (like the American Revolution). The second kind aims to bring a vaguely defined better future through continuous revolutions (like the French Revolution). The Mexican Revolution can be understood as the first type because the political agenda of the two sides were clearly stated without irrational fervor for revolutions. During the presidency of Valentín Gómez Farías, the dispute over Catholic Church’s role in the government became increasingly heated. While liberals pointed to the Enlightenment thinking to support a secular (separation of government and church) system, the Conservatives wanted to maintain the integration of Church and State to preserve Mexico’s Catholic identity. Though it might first appear as a religious struggle, at the essence of the issue, it was the form of government that people debated. If liberals obtained the victory, Mexico would establish a federal republic constitution. If they lost, a central, unitary government would reign. A great contrast to that is the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the Paris Commune revolt in France, both of which used the “future Utopia” to justify the permanent mode of revolutions. Instead of forming two camps of “Revolutionaries” and “Counterrevolutionaries” that led to fervent witch-hunt and paranoia, the Mexican Revolution in the 1820s focused on the intended political system.
In short, the Mexican Revolution in the 1820s conforms to the rational-legal authority theory and the criteria that revolution is identified by a shift of authority. Mostly influenced by Enlightenment thinking, it was driven by the discontent of people at the top of the social hierarchy, unlike the Chinese Cultural Revolution or French Revolution that consisted mainly of the peasantry and working-class men. Mexican Revolution’s focus on constitutional changes begot a lack of substantial social and economic reforms and the inability to create a balance between factions. Therefore, skirmishes, a civil war, and another revolution followed, fundamentally changing the country’s economic and social system.
- “American Revolutionary War.” ARW Fandom. https://arw.fandom.com/wiki/First_Mexican_Empire
- Anna, Timothy. Forging Mexico, 1821-1835. UTP Journals, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 104. March 31, 2016. https://doi.org/10.3138/cjh.34.1.143.
- “1824 Constitution of Mexico.” Wikiwand. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/1824_Constitution_of_Mexico
- “Lerdo Law.” Wikipedia. June 29, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lerdo_law.
- Tepaske, Jay. “The Politics of Penury: Debts and Taxes in Mexico: 1821–1856. By Barbara A. Tenenbaum. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986. Pp. Xviii, 250. $32. 50.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 47, no. 4, 1987, pp. 1037, doi:10.1017/S0022050700050233.