I’ve written quite a few articles on the founders of the American Republic, but one founder I have yet to discuss is John Adams. This is due in part to the fact that I’ve never been a huge fan of Adams but I admittedly know less about him than some of the other founders.
Therefore, due to a reader request, I’m introducing you to John Adams, one of our more controversial and volatile American founding fathers.
Controversial because he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts and volatile because he was known for his, at times, volatile and emotional reactions.
And yet, this is where the beauty and uniqueness of the American founding is on display. These were not perfect men who put this beautiful American experiment together. Rather, America was established by flawed very human men, which is why the very existence of this nation is so astonishing.
Here’s the story of one of them.
Who Was He?
John Adams was born on October 13, 1735 in Massachusetts. His father was a farmer, Congregationalist deacon and councilman and his mother was a descendant of a prominent family, the Boylstons of Brookline, from Massachusetts.
He was a lawyer, politician, proponent of the Declaration of Independence, author of the Massachusetts constitution, first American ambassador, first Vice-President of the United States, second President of the United States, father and husband. (britannica.com)
Principled Yet Passionate
John Adams was known to be a passionate, often verbose and excitable man. His first foray into politics showed his vehement displeasure with the British and their treatment of the colonies. In 1765, he wrote and published an article called, “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” in which he defended the colonies against the every growing encroachment of the British throne. I’m going to give you a substantial portion of this writing here because it aptly displays the brilliance of Adam’s mind.
In it, he says, “The stale, impudent insinuations of slander and sedition, with which the gormandizers of power have endeavored to discredit your paper, are so much the more to your honor; for the jaws of power are always opened to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing …
The true source of our sufferings has been our timidity.
We have been afraid to think. We have felt a reluctance to examining into the grounds of our privileges, and the extent in which we have an indisputable right to demand them, against all the power and authority on earth.
But whatever the cause has been, the fact is certain, we have been excessively cautious of giving offence by complaining of grievances. And it is as certain, that American governors, and their friends, and all the crown officers, have availed themselves of this disposition in the people. They have prevailed on us to consent to many things which were grossly injurious to us, and to surrender many others, with voluntary tameness, to which we had the clearest right. Have we not been treated, formerly, with abominable insolence, by officers of the navy?
This spirit, however, without knowledge, would be little better than a brutal rage. Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government, ecclesiastical and civil. Let us study the law of nature; search into the spirit of the British constitution; read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome; set before us the conduct of our own British ancestors, who have defended for us the inherent rights of mankind against foreign and domestic tyrants and usurpers, against arbitrary kings and cruel priests, in short, against the gates of earth and hell.
These are not the vapors of a melancholy mind, nor the effusions of envy, disappointed ambition, nor of a spirit of opposition to government, but the emanations of a heart that burns for its country’s welfare. No one of any feeling, born and educated in this once happy country, can consider the numerous distresses, the gross indignities, the barbarous ignorance, the haughty usurpations, that we have reason to fear are meditating for ourselves, our children, our neighbors, in short, for all our countrymen and all their posterity, without the utmost agonies of heart and many tears.
In this piece, Adams shows both the restraint and the passion that he brought to the American founding. He, like some of the others, knew the dangers of anarchy, revolution and a thoughtless rebellion. Reacting emotionally with no knowledge, foresight or thought would be about as dangerous as doing nothing at all.
This restraint and respect for the rule of law was never more on display than in his early days when he chose to defend, in court, the British soldiers at the Boston Massacre. He was concerned that the rash and emotional rage of the citizens would threaten the rule of law. He felt strongly that America was a nation of laws, not of men.
The beauty of this restraint is that he also turned into one of the most passionate advocates for the Declaration of Independence… with reason.
I’m finding that there is too much to unpack about Adams in one article, so keep your eyes open for more to come. The key point I wanted to make in this article, he makes for me in his Dissertation. Our nation was blessed with men who not only knew the dangers of tyranny but also knew the horrors of anarchy. We could have rebelled as all other countries had–in a fit of passion and rage with no reason or forethought, no idea as to how to establish a new government once the old is overthrown–but we did not.
We did not because we had men like John Adams who called for restraint and passion, revolution with reason, and knowledge with fervor.
May we always remember that, even today in the middle what America is going through right now, may we never forget to temper our passion with reason while never squelching the passion.
The Liberty Belle