Article 1, Section 6, Clause 1

Document 6

John Adams to John Jebb

21 Aug. 1785Works 9:532--36

As I had the misfortune, the other day, not to agree fully with you in opinion concerning the 36th article of the Constitution of Pennsylvania, I beg leave to state to you my objections against it, and then to ask you if there is not some weight in them.

My first objection is, that it is not intelligible. It is impossible to discover what is meant by "offices of profit." Does it mean that there can be no necessity for, nor use in, annexing either salary, fees, or perquisites, to public offices? and that all who serve the public should have no pay from the public, but should subsist themselves and families out of their own private fortunes, or their own labor in their private profession, calling, trade, or farm? This seems to be the sense of it, and in this sense it may make its court to the Quakers and Moravians, Dunkers, Mennonites, or other worthy people in Pennsylvania, that is to say, to their prejudices, and it will recommend itself to whatever there is of popular malignity and envy, and of vulgar avarice, in every country. But it is founded in error and mischief. For public offices in general require the whole time, and all the attention of those who hold them. They can have no time nor strength of body or mind for their private professions, trades, or farms. They must then starve with their families unless they have ample fortunes. But would you make it a law that no man should hold an office who had not a private income sufficient for the subsistence and prospects of himself and family? What would be the consequence of this? All offices would be monopolized by the rich; the poor and the middling ranks would be excluded, and an aristocratic despotism would immediately follow, which would take by fraud and intrigue at first, and by open avowed usurpation soon, whatever they pleased for their compensation.

My second objection to the article is, that it is inconsistent. After seeming to require that offices should have no emoluments, it stumbles at its own absurdity and adds: "But if any man is called into public service to the prejudice of his private affairs, he has a right to a reasonable compensation." Is not this contrary to the doctrine that there can be no use in offices of profit? Are not the profits of offices intended as a reasonable compensation for time, labor, and neglect and prejudice of private affairs? If you look into the salaries and fees of offices in general, that is, into the legal profits, you will find them, not only in America, but in France, Holland, nay in England, far from being extravagant. You will find them but a moderate and reasonable compensation for their unavoidable expenses and the prejudice to their private affairs. It is not the legal profit, but the secret perquisites, the patronage, and the abuse, which is the evil. And this is what I complain of in the article, that it diverts the attention, jealousy, and hatred of the people from the perquisites, patronage, and abuse, which is the evil, to the legal, honest profit of the office, which is a blessing.

3. The dependence and servility in the possessors and expectants, and the faction, contention, corruption, and disorder among the people, do not proceed from the legal profits of offices, which are known to all, but from the perquisites, patronage, and abuses, which are known only to a few.

4. Nor is it by any means a good rule, that whenever an office, through increase of fees or otherwise, becomes so profitable as to occasion many to apply for it, the profit ought to be lessened by the legislature.

We are so fond of being seen and talked of, we have such a passion for the esteem and confidence of our fellow-men, that wherever applications for office are permitted by the laws and manners, there will be many to apply, whether the profits are large or small, or none at all. If the profits are none, all the rich will apply, that is to say, all who can live upon their own incomes; all others will be excluded, because, if they labor for the public, themselves and families must starve. By this means an aristocracy or oligarchy of the rich will be formed, which will soon put an end by their arts and craft to this self-denying system. If many apply, all applications should be forbidden, or, if they are permitted, a choice should be made of such out of the multitude as will be contented with legal profits, without making advantage of patronage and perquisites.

I do not mean by this, that the legal profits should be very great. They should afford a decent support, and should enable a man to educate and provide for his family as decent and moderate men do in private life; but it would be unjust as well as impolitic in the public, to call men of the best talents and characters from professions and occupations where they might provide for their families plentifully, and let them spend their lives in the service of the public, to the impoverishment and beggary of their posterity.

I have given you this trouble, because I think these to be fundamental errors in society. Mankind will never be happy nor their liberties secure, until the people shall lay it down as a fundamental rule to make the support and reward of public offices a matter of justice and not gratitude. Every public man should be honestly paid for his services; then justice is done to him. But he should be restrained from every perquisite not known to the laws, and he should make no claims upon the gratitude of the public, nor ever confer an office within his patronage, upon a son, a brother, a friend, upon pretence that he is not paid for his services by the profits of his office. Members of parliament should be paid, as well as soldiers and sailors.

I know very well that the word "disinterested" turns the heads of the people by exciting their enthusiasm. But although there are disinterested men, they are not enough in any age or any country to fill all the necessary offices, and therefore the people may depend upon it, that the hypocritical pretence of disinterestedness will be set up to deceive them, much oftener than the virtue will be practised for their good. It is worth while to read the lives of the Roman Catholic saints; your St. Ignatius Loyolas, your St. Bernards, and hundreds of others. It was always disinterestedness, which enabled them to excite enthusiasm among the people, and to command their purses to any amount, in order to establish their wild and pernicious institutions. The cry of gratitude has made more men mad, and established more despotism in the world, than all other causes put together. Every throne has been erected on it, and every mitre has sprung out of it; so has every coronet; and whenever any man serves the public without pay, a cry of gratitude is always set up, which pays him, or his cousins or sons, ten times as much as he ever deserved. Let government, then, be founded in justice; and let all claims upon popular gratitude be watched with a jealous eye. Hang well and pay well, conveys to my understanding infinitely more sense and more virtue than this whole article of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

I have long wanted to communicate with some of the enlightened friends of liberty here upon some parts of our constitutions, and I know of none who merits the character better. If you are willing, I will take some future opportunity to write you a few thoughts upon some other things. Meantime, let this remain between ourselves, if you please.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 6, Clause 1, Document 6
The University of Chicago Press

The Works of John Adams. Edited by Charles Francis Adams. 10 vols. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1850--56. See also: Butterfield; Cappon; Warren-Adams Letters

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