John Adams on Government and Virtue

It is nice to have a couple of on-going "side-project" books, that I can pick up here and there between novels or books of theology.  Currently one such is a beautifully bound volume entitled, The Constitution of the United States of America and Selected Writings of the Founding Fathers.  It has been a wonderful read so far - and yes, for those whose minds immediately jump to this issue, this reading has demonstrated how misleading is that oft-repeated statement (among some of my college professors at any rate) that "all the Founding Fathers were Deists, not Christians."

For those interested in this "hot-button" topic, some of the Founders do indeed appear to be Deists (who hold a general belief in the Creator God, but not in Christ or the Bible); some are quite emphatically Christian - and emphatically Protestant Christian at that (which is a major foundation of Samuel Adams' speech, "American Independence"); and some who are often held up as 'Deists' might be more accurately described as Unitarian quasi-Christians (18th Century Unitarianism, like Arianism of the 4th Century, was a distortion or confusing of Christian theology, whereas Deism has no particular connection with Christ or the Bible).

Their religious beliefs are no secret, however, and their words speak plainly enough if we listen to them rather than project our own beliefs or expectations onto them (and this warning is for Americans of all political and religious persuasions).

Yet I'm reading this book more particularly attuned to their ideas about government: why Government exists, how far it should intrude upon our lives, and other questions relevant to this age of domestic spying, healthcare mandates, and accusations of government encroachment upon the freedom of speech, religion, and the press so clearly guaranteed in the 1st Amendment.
So I found very interesting the following from "Thoughts on Government" - a letter from John Adams to George Wythe in 1776:

"...the divine science of politics is the science of social happiness, and the blessings of society depend entirely on the constitution of government...

We ought to consider, what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form.  Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man.  From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue.  Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mohammed, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this.

If there is a form of government then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?"

John Wesley, the Anglican priest and leader of the Methodist revival movement of the 18th Century, would no doubt agree with Adams' statement that happiness consists in virtue, since he liked to say there is no happiness without holiness, and holiness yields the true happiness.

It could hardly be more clear that American society today believes that happiness consists in pleasure, not virtue.  We pursue pleasure as our birthright and look to it to fulfill our lives; we even construe the Declaration's great phrase "the pursuit of happiness" to mean the pursuit of pleasure, rather than the pursuit of that excellence and blessedness that comes in connection with a virtuous life.  Should anyone dare to tell us that our pleasures are in fact vice and immoral (and will ultimately lead to unhappiness or even spiritual death), we shout them down calling such people narrow-minded, intolerant and whatever other nasty names we will.

Yet we, as a society, are clearly also less happy than we used to be.  Depression, addiction, substance abuse, pornography, divorce, suicide, school-shootings, isolation, political discord, and loneliness have all exploded in the last couple of generations.  Why?  I believe the driving factor behind it all is the false belief that happiness consists in pleasure rather than in virtue and holiness.  This the the great lie that the diabolical Enemy of our souls has fed to us.  This is the mistake that leads us to waste away our lives in front of glowing screens.  This is the falsehood that leads people into shallow, self-indulgent relationships that end badly leaving regret, bitterness, and loneliness in their wake (not to mention fatherless children who will in all probability repeat a cycle of poverty, poor educational attainment, crime, and unhealthy relationships).

In short, this notion that happiness consists in pleasure is the enemy of our true happiness and joy.

True happiness, as not only the Founding Fathers, but also the saints, teachers, and Scriptures of the Christian tradition, those "authorities really sacred," all agree will instead be discovered only by the person seeking virtue, seeking holiness, and ultimately seeking things that really matter: seeking the ways of God.  

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Blogger Bill said...

That's a great quote and thanks for sharing it. The founders wrote frequently of "virtue" and the concept was extremely important in those days, especially in regard to civic life. These days if we hear the word at all we tend to understand it as synonymous with "morality" but in fact it meant much more than that. Characteristics of virtue (and virtuous persons) were frugality, thrift, moderation, self-control, self-reliance and duty. Our society characterized by debt, gluttony, overconsumption, dependency would not be recognizable to the founders as a "virtuous" society. In ancient Greek philosophy, which the founders were conversant with, the "cardinal virtues" were prudence, justice, temperance and courage--all of which are in short supply these days it seems.

Enjoyed the post.

8:01 PM, August 22, 2014  
Blogger danielhixon said...

Excellent points, Bill.

9:24 PM, August 23, 2014  

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