Wednesday, July 1, 2009

John Adams: Thinking about the American Revolution

“The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligation. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
— John Adams

John Adams was a member of both the 1st and 2nd Continental Congresses. He had extensive diplomatic experience including the negotiation of the "Treaty of Paris of 1783" with the English and was the first Ambassador to the Court of St. James. He served two terms as President Washington’s Vice President and then as the 2nd President of these United States; his son, John Quincy Adams, became the 6th President. This is quite a résumé for one of our more notable founding fathers.

Adams was a Federalist, by both a philosophy and by later party affiliation. He believed that the colonial legislatures should be equal partners with the British parliament, with the right to control the taxing and governance of the populace of the colonies. He was one of the five members charged by the 2nd Continental Congress with writing the Declaration of Independence although it was primarily written by Thomas Jefferson. He was, however, the chief defender of this amazing document on the floor of the congress which eventually approved it and signed it on July 4th of 1776.

"The people have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge — I mean of the character and conduct of their rulers”
— John Adams

He was philosophically a republican, that is, one who favored a government based upon the direct selection of their leaders by the people. He did not believe that the American colonies needed a new aristocracy as was believed by some of the other founding fathers or wealthy landowners (especially in the south). This put him in constant conflict with Alexander Hamilton, another member of the 2nd Continental Congress and a founding father. Being from Massachusetts, he believed that the new government should represent the people, as exemplified by the opening words of the future U.S. Constitution“We the people…”

His contributions have gained additional respect in recent times. During his lifetime, his work for our fledgling democracy was under-appreciated and he was not considered one of the more important founding fathers. Let’s take a closer look at why this was not the case…

John Adams (1735 – 1826)

“The way to secure liberty is to place it in the people’s hands, that is, to give them the power at all times to defend it in the legislature and in the courts of justice.”
— John Adams

“I am persuaded there is among the mass of our people a fund of wisdom, integrity, and humanity which will preserve their happiness in a tolerable measure.”
— John Adams

Adams’ thoughts were greatly molded by his Puritan heritage. He became an influential constitutional lawyer during the colonial revolutionary period and demonstrated a solid understanding of the revolution’s historical context. He, along with Patrick Henry of Virginia, came into prominence after the imposition of the “Tax Act of 1765” which was passed by the British Parliament to help pay for England’s war with France; it also funded the stationing of British troops in the colonies. Adams’ main argument in this battle was based on the premise that all free men deserved the “rights to be taxed only by consent and to be tried only by a jury of one’s peers.” This became an effective rallying point for the colonists against these abuses by the British Parliament.

Furthermore, Adams argued that the colonies were NEVER under the rule of the British Parliament. The colonial charters had been issued by the British crown, not the parliament. His Thoughts on Government laid the foundation for numerous colonial constitutions. This treatise advocated a bicameral legislature, an independent executive, and an independent judiciary. This was based, to a large extent, on the earlier writing of Montesquieu.

…there is no good government but what is republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; because the very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws and not of men.’”
— John Adams, Thoughts on Government

Adams career after the Revolutionary War included both political and diplomatic roles. The new United States of America includes the territory south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi, excluding the Florida territory, which was given to Spain. This was part of the terms of the “Treaty of Paris of 1783” which was negotiated by Adams. He later became the first Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Years later, during our bicentennial year, Queen Elizabeth II referred to Adams’ introduction to the court of King George III as:

“John Adams, America’s first Ambassador said to my ancestor, King George III, that it was his desire to help with the restoration of ‘the old good nature and the old good humor between our peoples.’ That restoration has long been made, and the links of language, tradition, and personal contact have maintained it.”
— Queen Elizabeth II, during a visit to the White House, 1976

We have John Adams to thank for our transition from subservient colonies to an independent nation. He promoted the separation of powers in our Constitution that has endured for these many years. But, above all, we have Adams to thank for resisting Alexander Hamilton’s push for an American aristocracy; Adams helped create a government where the power of the state reverted to the people.

"I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.”
— John Adams

This transition must have worked — John Quincy Adams, his son, became the 6th President of our country. Thank you for this legacy of freedom Mr. Adams.

Next Time: We will continue our study by looking at John Adams’ nemesis — Alexander Hamilton. Join us for that installment…

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