Tuesday, July 04, 2006

John Adams' advice for the current president on the 4th of July

Americans tend to wallow in the cult of the founding fathers every July 4th. To hear the rhetoric celebrating the day our nation declared its independence in 1776 you might not suspect there were multiple visions of the future of the country and many of the founders distrusted one another.

Two of them, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were political rivals and, coincidently, died within hours of one another on this day 180 years ago. They were both were signers of the Declaration of Independence and were Unitarians but otherwise had little in common. They became political rivals and that rivalry reached its peak during the acrimonious election of 1800. They both mellowed over time and began corresponding during their later years. In their correspondence they wondered what it would be like to visit their new republic from time to time in the future.

In the current issue of UU World (the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association), Rev. Forrest Church explains a little of the history of that tumultuous time at the turn of the century and speculates on some advice Adams may have for the current President. He writes,
Were they to choose this particular holiday weekend for a visit, Adams
would find the religious nationalism proclaimed in many pulpits familiar,
perhaps even to his liking. Although he drifted from the doctrines of his
ancestors, Adams remained a Puritan at heart. As leader of the law–and–order
Federalist Party, he devoutly believed that the Republic must be founded on
strong Christian principles. (His brand of Unitarianism is rare indeed these
days.) Besides, he loved going to church. Even so, if after worship he were to
drop by the White House, he might offer his latest successor a lesson on the
dangers of religious politics.

As the election of 1800 drew near, Adams faced a looming electoral
rematch against Jefferson, his vice president and political enemy. The
Federalists derided the politically potent Virginian as an "atheist" (untrue), a
"Deist" (true), and a "Jacobin" (i.e., "French"). The Federalists summed up
their two greatest nightmares in the "Jacobin" epithet: atheism and democracy.
Adams had no sympathy for the French revolution. "I know not what to make of a
Republic of thirty million atheists," he declared. Years later, he looked back
bitterly on the "hot, rash, blind, headlong, furious efforts to ameliorate the
condition of society, to establish liberty, equality, fraternity, and the rights
of man." Adams especially disliked Democratic–Republicans like Jefferson who
admired the revolutionary French Republic.

The Democratic–Republicans wore tri–color cockades (tri–corn cocked
hats with a knot of red, white, and blue ribbons—French colors—pinned to the
side) in saucy contrast to the less frivolous black cockades Federalist
stalwarts wore, hearkening back to Revolutionary days. To Federalist eyes,
Democratic–Republicans with their tri–color cockades had taken the Fourth of
July hostage by drawing undue attention to the Preamble to the Declaration of
Independence. In writing the Declaration, Jefferson had introduced three lofty
principles—the right to liberty, God–given equality, and popular sovereignty—and
one incendiary one: the people's authority to overthrow the government. The
Federalists' problem, they recognized, lay in the Declaration of Independence

Early in Adams's presidency, proper Philadelphians boycotted
Independence Day, which might as well have been Bastille Day as far as the local
Federalists were concerned. Nary a black cockade was to be seen on the
anniversary of the nation's birth. Many church bells remained silent. Every
reveler crowding Independence Square, however, was indecently festooned in
heretical red, white, and blue. In New England, separate tri–color and black
cockade Fourth of July celebrations became the rule. In their orations,
Federalist preachers and politicians dedicated their energies on the nation's
birthday to critique the un–American, anti–Christian dogma that Jefferson so
impudently inserted into the nation's founding document. In his Boston
Independence Day Oration in 1799, John Lowell warned his listeners to beware
"the seductive doctrines of 'Liberty' and 'Equality.'"

So in 1798, Alexander Hamilton had no difficulty convincing Adams
that a National Fast Day would honor and galvanize his more conservative
Federalist political base. Indeed it did. Raising a host of traditional black
cockades, hundreds of New England preachers seized this governmentally
sanctioned opportunity to pronounce French and Jeffersonian infidelity a demonic
double threat to the future of America's Christian Republic.

Later in life, Adams looked back ruefully on his decision to
promote a religious event for political gain. He went so far as to claim that it
cost him the presidency. For one thing, it left the plausible impression that he
had buckled under pressure from Presbyterian Church leaders, who urgently were
calling for the president to proclaim a day of national worship. Declaring a
National Fast was like poking a stick into a nest of hornets. In alarm,
Dissenting Christians (Baptists, Methodists, and the like) howled that Adams was
compromising church–state separation. For sound religious reasons, they came out in droves to support Jefferson, the more secular candidate. "Nothing is more
dreaded than the national government meddling with religion," Adams concluded in 1812, years too late to save him from his ill–calculated experiment in Christian

I suspect, for all his piety, that Adams would want our current
president to grasp this insight, too.

1 comment:

LaReinaCobre said...