As we prepare to celebrate July 4th in this year of 2020, we do so as a people in turmoil. Everyone can see that. The only question is, who is at fault and what are we to do about it?
John Adams was a political philosopher, the first vice president, the second president of the United States, and one of the geniuses to whom we owe our thanks for this great country in which we live. But in addition to all of that he was an excellent student of human nature, and, as it turns out, seemingly a bit of a prophet, though he himself did not always practice what he preached.
On October 11, 1798, Adams penned a letter to the Massachusetts Militia. In that letter he said this.
“While our Country remains untainted with the Principles and manners, which are now producing desolation in so many Parts of the World: while she continues sincere and incapable of insidious and impious policy: We shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned Us by Providence. But should the people of America, once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another and towards foreign nations, which assumes the Language of Justice and moderation while it is practicing Iniquity and Extravagance; and displays in the most captivating manner the charming Pictures of Candour and frankness and sincerity while it is rioting in rapine and Insolence: this country will be the most miserable Habitation in the World. Because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or galantry, 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.”
To see our founding fathers write or speak so often of God, religion, and morality, is not a surprise to any student of our history. They did so with great regularity. But in these modern tumultuous times Adams’ warnings in this letter seem incredibly prescient.
Adams looked ahead and saw the potential for our country to become “the most miserable habitation in the world.” And, as much as we would love to blame government for all of our woes, his words showed the bulk of the problem coming not from government but from the citizenry. He said “we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and religion.” This political man went on to list the daily sins of the common man, “avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry.”
Avarice, extreme greed for material gain. Ambition, meant here in the negative sense, being driven or motivated but for wrong reasons and toward wrong ends. Revenge, refusing to forgive, choosing instead to pursue retribution. Gallantry, meant here in a negative sense, viewing women as sexual objects to gain rather than behaving with honor toward them.
Adams also warned in this letter of rioting, iniquity, extravagance, rapine (the violent taking of what belongs to others) and insolence (rude and disrespectful behavior).
Sort of seems like he was reading any major newspaper in America of 2020, or maybe had a Twitter account.
Adams’ most oft quoted phrase from this letter sums up both the problem of today and the solution. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and Religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Since our government is, in the famous words of Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, “of the people, by the people, for the people,” we the people are the root of government, and the ultimate determiners of what becomes of our land. Lincoln’s and Adams’ views were much the same; if we are an immoral and irreligious people, our government will never be able to produce a land of peace and prosperity out of a people whose behavior tends toward strife and destruction.
That being the case, freedom and the American dream must be re-won in each generation by the pastor scalding sin as much as by the president in the White House, by parishioners hungrily receiving the Word as much as by the soldier in the field, by parents correcting their children as much as by the policeman in the streets, by neighbors loving neighbors as much as by the congressman making laws, and by the business owner being generous with his employees as much as by the bureaucrat making deals.
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is still wholly inadequate to the government of any other.