"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Saturday, October 10, 2015

John Adams on the Puritan contribution to liberty

John Adams (1735-1826) wasn't just a politician, but also had a long career as a political theorist and commentator, a career that pre-dated the American Revolution by over two decades. And in his work as a theorist and commentator, Adams addressed the Puritan contribution to human liberty. Interestingly enough, Adams's religious views do do not fit within the mould of orthodox Protestants. That being the case, it is noteworthy that in his early work Adams had a very high regard for those most orthodox of Calvinists, the Puritan fathers of New England.

In A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, written in 1765 (circa the time of the French and Indian War), Adams wrote as a subject of the British crown and a patriot of the Empire. He begins his discussion of the Puritans in that text by noting that the Puritans were seen as "enthusiastical, superstitious, and republican" by many of the proper people of Adams's day. Adams strongly attacks such views of the Puritans, stating that they were "grossly injurious and false." The Puritans, Adams contends, were no more enthusiasts than the other sects within the Christian religion, and that their religious fervor, while a "noble infirmity," was also a source of strength for the group: "far from being a reproach to them," Adams wrote, their devotion "was greatly to their honor." Adams then goes on to describe how the Puritans sought to fuse reason and religion, a commitment to biblical faith with the prudential considerations of practical men. "Human and benevolent principles," Adams wrote, were the basis of Puritan policy.

While modern readers and scholars might object to Adams's characterization of motivations of the Puritans, Adams saw in the Puritans a resolute commitment to fight "Tyranny in every form, and shape, and appearance." The Puritans were willing to face punishment and even death rather than to compromise their beliefs. Their convictions serve, Adams' contends, as an example of "steady, manly, pertinacious spirit." As noted above, at the time he wrote A Dissertation, Adams was still a loyal monarchist and he went out of his way to note that the Puritans, despite their resistance to certaion policies of the British kings, were not foes of the monarchy. They rather sought a balanced government, with proper checks on the authority of both the king & the church. "[T]hey saw clearly, that popular powers must be placed as a guard a control, a balance, to the powers of the monarch and the priest, in every government, or else it would soon become the man of sin, the whore of Babylon, the mystery of iniquity, a great and detestable system of fraud, violence, and usurpation."

The Puritan commitment was to limited government, not to any one particular form of it. And the reason for their commitment to limited government was grounded in their ultimately religious view that human nature is such to render a limitless government a mechanism of tyranny. The Puritans had a strong commitment to secular reform & an even stronger commitment to religious renewal, so much so that Adams characterizes ecclesiastical reform as "[t]heir greatest concern." For them, secular & religious reform were not separate & distinct, but built off each other. Thus, the Puritans sought, according to Adams, to live in a state that upheld "the dignity of human nature." This two-fold commitment lead the Puritans to seek thoroughgoing reform of both secular and ecclesiastical institutions, removing "feudal inequalities and dependencies as could be spared."

Undergirding all this, as Adams notes, was the Puritan hostility to the Catholic religion, with its rituals & its ecclesiastical doctrines. The idea of a priest, Adams writes, was one which "no mortal could deserve, and as always must, from the constitution of human nature, be dangerous in society." Thus, the Puritans sought to purge the Protestant church of the vestiges of Catholicism, to preserve the spiritual & secular liberty that they saw due to every man. Instead of a priesthood, Adams contents the Puritans looked to establish ministry "on the foundation of the Bible and common sense." In doing so, the Puritans stressed, in Adams's account, the characteristics of "industry, virtue, piety, and learning." This had the effect of creating a people who were far more "independent on the civil powers" than those who lived in "a scale of subordination, from a pope down to priests and friars and confessors -- necessarily and essentially a sordid, stupid, and wretched herd." That the church of England continued, in modified form, to uphold the same system of subordination earned it the same disdain from the Puritans & Adams alike.

With Adams's early presentation of the Puritans, one sees the blossoming of "the Puritan myth" in American history. While much of his analysis may be disputed in light of modern scholarship, Adams's overview encapsulates what was to become the dominant view of the Puritans in the early American Republic. And there is little doubt that the Puritan refusal to compromise principle when faced with the demands of unlimited government did much to inspire the American patriots in the time prior to, during and immediately after the break with the British Empire.


[Edited from a post I originally wrote for American Creation.]

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