John Adams’ Thoughts on Government, Religion, and Freedom

 “And liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain has given them understandings and a desire to know.” ((The numbers document the page for the quote in John Adams by David McCullough, 2001. 60)

“Statesmen, my dear Sir, plan and speculate for Liberty but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom securely stand.” (Letter to Zabdiel Adams, June 21, 1776)

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  (Message to Massachusetts’ military officers, October 11, 1798)

“Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.”  (Article III of the Northwest Ordinance)

“The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved. . . .”

“There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.”  (70)

“. . . that form of government with virtue as its foundation was more likely than any other to promote the general happiness.” (102)

In his Thoughts on Government, he called for a “government of laws, and not of men.”

Advocating the principle of separation and balance of powers, he wrote in A Constitution or Form of Government for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, “. . . the legislative, executive and judicial power shall be placed in separate departments, to the end that it might be a government of laws, and not of men.” (223)

“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties, and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in visionary parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, esp. the university at Cambridge, public schools, grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.” (223)

Adams has no illusions about what determined the actions of nations. “It is interest alone which does it,” he had once told Congress, “. . . and it is interest alone which can be trusted.” (233)

In 1787 Adams published A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America in which he continued to make his case for checks and balances in government. He said that the people of America now had “the best opportunity and the greatest trust in their hands” that Providence had given any since Adam and Eve. He stated that there must be three branches of government–executive, legislative, and judicial–and to achieve balance it was essential that it be a strong executive, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary.” He said that the “people’s rights and liberties, and the democratical mixture in a constitution, can never be preserved without a strong executive, or, in other words, without separating the executive from the legislative power.” Still the legislative power was to be “naturally and necessarily sovereign and supreme over the executive.  (374-375)

He opposed hereditary monarchy and hereditary aristocracy in American, as well as hereditary titles and distinctions of any kind. (375)

He believed reliance on a single executive or single legislature would result in ruin and despotism. If the single legislature has all power, “What was there to restrain it from making tyrannical laws, in order to execute them in a tyrannical manner?” He emphasized balance in the branches of government.  (376)

After the French revolutionaries beheaded Louis XVI Adams wrote a correspondent in England, “Mankind will in time discover that unbridled majorities are as tyrannical and cruel as unlimited despots.” (443-444). Adams agreed with Edmund Burke’s prediction that the French Revolution would end in dictatorship. (535)

Adams rejected the perfectibility of man advocated by the eighteenth-century philosophers. He considered unacceptable any perfectibility “abstracted from all divine authority.” He recognized that all men had sins that needed repentance. “I consider the perfectibility of man as used by modern philosophers to be mere words without a meaning, that is mere nonsense.” (590-591)

“The doctrine of human equality in the Christian doctrine that we are all children of the same Father all accountable to Him for our conducts to one another, all equally bound to respect each other’s self-love.” (619)

In 1820, at age eighty-five, Adams was a delegate to a state convention to revise the Massachusetts constitution he wrote forty years before. He offered an amendment guaranteeing complete religious freedom in the commonwealth. Believing all men were equal before God, he believed they should be able to worship God as they pleased. (631)

Adams asked what are “the general principles on which the fathers found independence?”

“I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all these young men united, and which united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that these general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial mundane system.” (Letter to Jefferson, June 28, 1813, in The Works of John Adams Second President of the United States, Vol. 10, 45-56)


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