Republican Government

CHAPTER 4 | Document 30

Benjamin Rush to John Adams

21 July 1789Letters 1:522--24

From an unfortunate concurrence of circumstances, I find myself under the influence of the same difficult command in corresponding with the Vice-President of the United States which the King of Syria gave to the captains of his chariots: "Fight ye not with small or great, save only with the KING of Israel."

The subjects upon which we differ are monarchy, titles, and the Latin and Greek languages.

I repeat again that republicanism has never yet had a fair trial in the world. It is now likely to be tried in the United States. Had our government been more completely balanced, that is, had the President possessed more power, I believe it would have realized all the wishes of the most sanguine friends to republican liberty. Licentiousness, factions, seditions, and rebellions have not been restrained by monarchy even in Great Britain. They have been more numerous in that country than in any of the less free monarchies or more free republics of Europe. The factions, seditions, and rebellions of republics arose wholly from the want of checks or balances and from a defect of equal representation. The wisdom of modern times has discovered and in part remedied these evils. We may hope therefore that our republican forms of government will be more safe and durable than formerly. When we reject a republic, I wish we may adopt an absolute monarchy, for governments (like women, among whom it is said no one between a virtuous woman and a prostitute ought ever to please) should know no medium between absolute republicanism and absolute monarchy. There cannot be a greater absurdity than to connect together in one government the living principle of liberty in the people with the deadly principle of tyranny in an hereditary monarch. They must in time, with the best balance in the world, overset each other. They are created with implements of war in their hands. Fighting will be natural and necessary to each of them to preserve an existence. From a variety of circumstances, the victory 99 times in an 100 will be in favor of the monarch, and hence will arise the annihilation of liberty.

An hundred years hence, absolute monarchy will probably be rendered necessary in our country by the corruption of our people. But why should we precipitate an event for which we are not yet prepared? Shall I at five-and-twenty years of age, because I expect to be an old man, draw my teeth, put on artificial gray hairs, and bend my back over a short cane? No, I will enjoy the health and vigor of youth and manhood, and leave old age to take care of itself. I will do more. I will husband my health and vigor, and try to keep off old age as long as I can by temperance, proper clothing, simple manners, and the practice of domestic virtues.

The characters you so much admire among the ancients were formed wholly by republican forms of governments.

Republican forms of government are more calculated to promote Christianity than monarchies. The precepts of the Gospel and the maxims of republics in many instances agree with each other.

Please to take notice that when I speak of a republic I mean a government consisting of three branches, and each derived at different times and for different periods from the PEOPLE. Where this circulation is wanting between rulers and the ruled, there will be an obstruction to genuine government. A king or a senate not chosen by the people at certain periods becomes a sebimus, a bubo, or an abscess in the body politic which must sooner or later destroy the healthiest state.

A simple democracy, or an unbalanced republic, is one of the greatest of evils. I think with Dr. Zubly that "a democracy (with only one branch) is the Tivil's own government." Those words he uttered at my table in the spring of 1776, upon my giving as a toast the "Commonwealth of America." At the same instant that he spoke the words, he turned his glass upside downwards and refused to drink the toast.

I have no objection to men being accosted by the titles which they derive from their offices. Mr. President, Mr. Vice-President, Senator, Councilor, Judge, or even Constable may all be used with propriety, but why should we prefix noble, honorable, or elective to them? Such epithets are a transgression of a rule in composition which forbids us to use unnecessary adjectives, inasmuch as they always enfeeble the sense of a sentence. I cannot think with you that titles overawe or restrain the profligate part of a community. The very atmosphere of London is impregnated with the sounds of "my Lord," "my Lady," "Right honorable," "your Honor," "Sir John and Sir James"--and yet where will you find more profligate manners than among the citizens of London? The use of titles begets pride in rulers and baseness among the common people. Among the Romans, whom you so much admire, Caesar was Caesar, and Scipio was Scipio in all companies. The conquered provinces I believe first introduced titles. Among the Quakers the highest degrees of order are preserved without titles. But if we begin with titles in the United States, where will they end? A new vocabulary must be formed to provide for all the officers of the federal and state governments, for the states still retain the power of creating titles. If titles are given to men, must not their women be permitted to share in them? By what rule shall we settle precedency? Shall a law or a title office be necessary for this purpose? In a word, my friend, I see no end to the difficulties, disputes, and absurdities of admitting titles into our country. They are equally contrary to reason and religion, and in my opinion are no more necessary to give dignity or energy to a government than swearing is to govern a ship's crew, or spirituous liquors to gather in the fruits of the earth.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 4, Document 30
The University of Chicago Press

Letters of Benjamin Rush. Edited by L. H. Butterfield. 2 vols. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 30, parts 1 and 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, for the American Philosophical Society, 1951.

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