Round Table Discussion

Adams’ Federalism

Limiting Power Through Balance

In 1786, John Adams wrote in his diary that a friend, “lamenting the differences of character between Virginia and New England,” welcomed from Adams a recipe for a Chesapeake makeover: “I recommended to him town meetings, training days, town schools, and ministers”; these “are the scenes where New England men were formed.”  Because Adams started with what was so good at the base of a federal polity, he knew what the top should look like.  Anything he might have to offer our current national chaos starts with that conviction.

His spiritual home was his farm in Braintree, and the institutions of New England represented to Adams about as happy a framework for republican government as mankind could hope for (and Adams knew more about the history of republics than any other American of his generation).  He desired a federal republic that, first, could protect the New England nation and, second, keep the larger confederation intact.

If there was anything really “novus” in the novus ordo seclorum, it was truly limited government—a “law to limit law.”  For probably the first time in history, constitution-makers (on local, state, and national levels) consciously tried to divide sovereignty, to keep it from locating in any one place, interest, or office.  This went against all conventional political wisdom, but it perfectly reflected the fierce...

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