John Adams and Religious Liberty: What Our Second President Can Teach Us About Constitutional Compromise
John Adams’ name is in the news again. And once again he is being misrepresented. As in life, so too in death. In the past few month, then noted historian Rosemarie Zigarri wrote in the Washington Post that (in the Post’s words) “John Adams believed that the state should provide support for ministers.” In a much discussed essay on Ricochet, the distinguished historian Paul Rahe recently made the same claim.
Everyone knows that Adams wrote the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, and everyone knows that Article III of the Constitution’s Declaration of Rights created a church establishment. QED, it would appear. The trouble is that Adams did not write Article III of the Massachusetts Constitution. Indeed, he refused to write it because, in his words, “I found I could not sketch [it], consistent with my own sentiments of perfect religious freedom, with any hope of its being adopted by the Convention, so I left it to be battled out in the whole body.” In that refusal lies an important story of democratic statesmanship.
Throughout his life, Adams believed in religious liberty. As a young man, he decided not to become a minister because he could not follow that career path in good conscience: “the Reason of my quitting Divinity was my Opinion concerning some disputed Points.”
He wrote at the time that “men ought, (after they have examined with unbiased Judgments, every System of Religion, and chosen one System on their own Authority, for themselves) to avow their Opinions and defend them with boldness.” Such intense study and robust debate can only exist where there is religious liberty. Late in life he told Jefferson that Massachusetts’ law against blasphemy was “a great embarrassment,” lamenting that it presented “great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind.”
Given these beliefs, drafting the Massachusetts constitution posed Adams with a problem. He thought it was important to show that republican constitutionalism could work. The Massachusetts constitution was drafted by a special convention which would, in turn, submit its work to the people for their approval. As of 1780, no other state had tried that experiment. Adams recognized that it was the best way to embody, in law, the principle that republican government was built upon the consent of the governed. If it succeeded, it would be imitated.
Completing that process, however, entailed creating a constitution with a major flaw, for the people wanted an establishment. To be sure the establishment the constitution created was peculiar, and far less severe than other establishments–the people of each town, in their town meeting, were to decide which denomination or denominations in the town were to receive their tax money. But it was still an establishment.
Facing that dilemma, Adams punted. He drafted Article II of the Declaration of Rights which declared “no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshiping GOD in the manner most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or for his religious profession or sentiments; provided he doth not disturb the public peace, or obstruct others in their religious worship.”
And he let others draft Article III. When the state convened a convention to revise the constitution in 1820, the 85-year-old Adams attended. He wanted them to repeal Article III, but it was not yet time.
There’s an important lesson here in democratic politics. Democratic politics, even constitutional politics, entails compromise. One cannot claim “here the people rule,” and, at the same time, deny that the people have the right to put their preferences into law. To be sure, our republic seeks to restrain and refine the will of the people with constitutional guarantees and with checks and balances. But it is also important to keep public opinion, and the consent of the governed, in a prominent place. A democratic republic cannot simply dismiss the wishes of the majority, however problematic those wishes sometimes are.
And why did the establishment in Massachusetts die? Adams had placed a time bomb in the state constitution. Article II, the guarantee of religious liberty, allowed religious pluralism to flourish in Massachusetts. As a result, the town-by-town establishment broke down. There were simply too many different churches, within and among the towns, for it to work. In 1832, the people of the choose to end the establishment.
Helping the people to embrace religious liberty by choice, rather than by force, is not a bad achievement for a democratic statesman. In a democratic republic, the people will have their say. Constitutional politics takes time, but, as Adams realized, constitutional change is best secured when it is chosen, rather than forced upon the people.