On July 2, 1776, two hundred and thirty-eight years ago today, the Continental Congress voted that "These United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states." John Adams, who more than any other single individual, helped push the resolution through Congress, was elated. The next day he wrote home to Abigail twice. "Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony "that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent…
The home and birthplace of John Adams—and his son, John Quincy Adams, diplomat, president, legislator and, most important, translator of the indispensable The Origins and Principles of the American Revolution, compared with the Origins and Principles of the French Revolution, more on which presently—sits on Hancock Street in Quincy, Massachusetts. The next time a U.S.-French Presidential duo desires a photo-op at the home of a historic American executive, they might skip Monticello and visit the Adams manse instead.
Editor’s note: This Fourth of July oration was first delivered by G. M. Curtis III on July 1, 1989 in Lone Mountain, Montana, for a conference on American citizenship.
As an American historian and as an American citizen who looks forward to the 21st. century, I place great stock in John Adams’s early 19th. century exhortation to future generations that they remember and celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Technically speaking, I suppose that we are jumping the gun by about one day, since the Continental Congress first agreed to the Declaration on the 2nd. of July 1776. Actually, the past five days in one way or another has represented a remembrance and a reconsideration of many of those values and beliefs that John Adams cherished enough to tender the ultimate sacrifice: his life and property. It is altogether fitting and proper, then, as my historical footnote for these discussions and as a remembrance of the Declaration of Independence, to return to the first principles therein contained, principles that not only retain their merit today, but more importantly, offer us hope for the years to come.
What is American Government?
A recent Democratic Party campaign commercial suggests that “the government is the only thing that we all belong to.”
At first glance, the commercial seems to be suggesting that we the people are servants of the government–and belong to it the way my pen belongs to me. A more fair construction would be to read it as saying that we all are part of the government. We belong to it the way we belong to a church congregation, or a sports club. The language implies that the American people and the American government are inseparable and indistinguishable.
John Adams reconciliation of natural right with popular consent is the task of constitutional politics.
Timothy Sandefur seems to let his dislike for John Adams get in the way of his analysis. Sandefur thinks that the issue is “the transition from the common law principle of ‘toleration’ to the natural-rights principle of religious liberty.” More generally, he suggests the issue is the transition from the idea that law creates rights to the idea that men, by nature, have rights. That is not the issue here. Adams had robust ideas of individual rights, including the rights of conscience, from the time he was a young man, as Brad Thompson has demonstrated in his John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty. That’s why, as Sandefur notes, in one of the letters to which he links, Adams said that the effort to secure the rights of conscience in Virginia were “worth all the blood and treasure which has been or will be spent in this war.” It is also why he refused to endorse Massachusetts’s religious establishment. Many historians have mistakenly attributed the establishment, in Article III, of the Massachusetts’s Constitution’s Declaration of Rights, to Adams. Sandefur accepts the correction in the narrow sense, but does not consider what that means for our understanding of Adams.
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.