FFQF Reprise

Consider what John Adams wrote to his son:

Independence, my Boy and freedom from humiliating Obligations, are greater Sources of happiness, than Riches.

John Adams to John Quincy Adams, New York, July 9, 1789 (from J.P. Kaminski, The Founders on the Founders, p. 45)

What is the historical context? At this time, the Senate was debating the question of what titles it should confer on the leaders of the United States. Adams had previously written to Benjamin Rush to clarify his position:

I also, am as much a Republican as I was in 1775. I do not “consider hereditary Monarchy or Aristocracy as Rebellion against Nature.” On the contrary I esteem them both Institutions of admirable Wisdom and exemplary Virtue, in a certain Stage of Society in a great Nation. The only Institutions that can possibly preserve the Laws and Liberties of the People. And I am clear that America must resort to them as an Asylum against Discord, Seditions and Civil War and that at no very distant Period of time. I shall not live to see it—but you may: I think it therefore impolitick to cherish Prejudices against Institutions which must be kept in View as the Hope of our Posterity. I am by no means for Attempting any such thing at present. Our Country is not ripe for it, in many respects and it is not yet necessary but our ship must ultimately land on that shore or be cast away.

I do not “abhor Titles, nor the Pageantry of Government”—if I did I should abhor Government itself—for there never was, and never will be, because there never can be, any Government without Titles and Pageantry. There is not a Quaker Family in Penn, governed without Titles and Pageantry, not a School, nor a College, nor a Club can be governed without them.

“I love the People,” with you—too well to cheat them, lie to them or deceive them. I wish those who have flattered them so much had loved them half as well. If I had not loved them I never would have Served them—if I did not love them now, I would not Serve them another hour—for I very well know that Vexation and Chagrine, must be my Portion, every moment I shall continue in public Life.

John Adams to Benjamin Rush, New York, June 9, 1789

(from J.P. Kaminski, The Founders on the Founders, pp. 44-45)

This, of course, is totally counter-intuitive:  a Founding Father advocating Monarchy, Aristocracy, Titles, and Pageantry? Of course, a Southerner will not be surprised to see a Yankee presciently advocating monarchy in the case of civil war.

We need to put these paragraphs together with the last one, though. Adams was dedicated to serving his country, even though he was resigned to his service being full of vexation and chagrin. He was totally pragmatic with regard to the necessity of using strong government to preserve “the Laws and Liberties of the People.”

This is what it is like to be an honest, dedicated leader of a loose association of fractious people, especially if those people are committed to seeking their own ends over their common goals. I don’t like it, but I have to say I think it is accurate.

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3 thoughts on “FFQF Reprise

  1. What an intriguing letter. I, too, found myself bristling, but after some thought, a couple things occurred to me.

    1) If we had an example in our lifetime of righteous rulers, instead of politicians with an agenda; if any one of those politicians truly loved the people and weren’t on a personal trip to power and glory, then perhaps we would have more respect for their positions.

    2) While Adams included a Quaker family in his list, he did not specifically include the church. Considering servant leadership, and admonitions not to “lord it over one another,” I think the church might be the exception. And then the church truly would look different than the world, eh?

  2. Yes, this is a very interesting and intriguing letter. I think I understand Adams’ position, and I fully sympathize with his feelings.

    Reading this letter and the discussion that has now formed around it reminds me a little bit of my early studies in Hamilton’s political philosophy. While I don’t think he would have been such an open supporter for monarchy or aristocracy (by heredity, that is; Hamilton appears to have held such things in a lower view than Adams did), I think he and Adams rightly held this in common:

    The American people, then as now, have a certain prejudice against politicians (i.e., govt officer-holders) in general; traditionally, we have always tended to view them with suspicion. (I think akaGaGa is right though when she says that we might respect it more if we had more examples of honorable and honest men in government. Our distrust, in a great degree, has been earned.) However, civil stability is in a considerable measure dependent upon stable civil authority.

    When it comes right down to it, if we had to choose between the extremes of monarchy and democracy, monarchy would be probably safer; it is easier to restore justice, law, and the rights of the people in a system where only the minority is oppressive (monarchy), than for an oppressed minority to battle for their rights, as well as for justice, peace, and order in society, against the majority (democracy).

    So, I sympathize with Adams. I personally believe, however, that an American monarchy would be better than the system of international shadow government that turns the gears of power over us today.

    Thanks for participating, and for sharing some thought-provoking stuff!

    Happy FFQF!

  3. The bottom line is that we have to determine what we are willing to do to support our ideals. This always leads to ethical paradoxes, because ideals are in our minds and the world is not under our control. If one is incapable of living under less-than-ideal conditions, then basically one is incapable of living in this world. It also shows a lack of trust in God and a desire to idolize men and their creations.

    I would never advocate monarchy or inherited aristocracy, but I wouldn’t demonize it either. Likewise, although I consider anarchism to be a useful political idea in a safe, contemporary United States, I would never advocate “extreme democracy,” as in the French Revolution.

    There needs to be balance in the world, because there is no justification for completely trusting anyone but God. If anyone insists on always trusting one person, one kind of person, one group of people, a certain proportion of the population, or even the unanimous consent of the entire population, they are seriously in error and they do not understand the biblical doctrine of leadership.

    Adams is redeemed by his commitment to preserving the laws and liberties of the people, not by his commitment to a particular political configuration or method for achieving the best possible state.

Instigate some pointless rambling

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