American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American History, American Philosophical Society, American Revolution, Christopher Hitchens, founding, founding fathers, Government, James Bowdoin, James Warren, John Adams, John Hancock, letter, politics, Thomas Jefferson
“The management of so complicated and mighty a machine, as the United Colonies, requires the meekness of Moses, the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon, added to the valour of Daniel…
We may feel sanguine confidence of our strength: yet in a few years it may be put to the tryal.
We may please ourselves with the prospect of free and popular governments. But there is great danger, that those governments will not make us happy. God grant they may. But I fear, that in every assembly, members will obtain an influence, by noise not sense. By meanness, not greatness. By ignorance not learning. By contracted hearts not large souls. I fear too, that it will be impossible to convince and perswade People to establish wise regulations.
There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be attempted and most sacredly observed or we are all undone. There must be a decency, and respect… introduced for persons in authority, of every rank, or we are undone. In a popular Government, this is the only way of supporting order—and in our circumstances, as our People have been so long without any Government at all, it is more necessary than, in any other.”
John Adams, writing to his friend and Paymaster General of the Continental Army, James Warren, on April 22nd, 1776.
It’s critical to keep in mind exactly what Adams and the founders meant by “happy” in the context of writing about government and law. As Robert P. George recently clarified:
The term “happiness” in the 18th century—and, in fact, until quite recently—did not refer simply to a pleasing or desirable psychological state—one that might be induced by virtue, vice, or, for that matter, some pharmacological product. It included the idea of flourishing or all round well-being, which necessarily was understood to involve virtue. (As in “happy the man who walks the path of justice.”) In other words, it was a morally inflected locution.
Exactly two decades following the delivery of this letter, Adams himself would be elected to the Presidency. Commenting on that event, Christopher Hitchens noted, “It is perhaps both heartening and sobering to reflect that, in the contest between Jefferson and Adams in 1796, the electors were offered a choice between the President of the American Philosophical Society and the founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and chose both of them.” Jefferson was President of the APS in 1780 (Benjamin Franklin had founded the society in 1743), and John Adams founded the AAAS with John Hancock and James Bowdoin during the American Revolution. In the election of 1796, Adams carried 71 electoral votes to become President, barely edging Jefferson’s 68.
- Meet John Adams
- My favorite Adams letter: to his wife, on his self-esteem
- Adams’s spot on prediction of how we’d celebrate the Fourth of July