Sunday, March 14, 2010

Thoughts on Adams' "Thoughts on Government"

John Adams published a wonderfully short and readable guide to constitution-making entitled "Thoughts on Government" in 1776, coinciding with a recommendation from Congress that the colonies should establish new governments. This essay of Adams' is a window into his thinking on why government should have the forms he was advocating. It is a short read, and well worth the effort.

Before getting into the details of government, Adams lays out an important point, perhaps easily overlooked today: the purpose of good government is to foster good society, defined as virtuous society, and this is clearly distinguished from a society of virtuous people. Adams puts it as follows:

"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... [and] 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, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this."

Two points to take from this are: [1] Adams is reifying society, and specifically anthropomorphizing it (society is a real thing distinct from its members, and it has the same sorts of qualities that people have); and [2] happiness as a goal of people (and societies) is not what a casual reader might think is happiness (the philosophers' technical term for the casual sort of happiness is "contentment"), but rather happiness is virtue, or moral goodness.

Government does not exist to make individual people happy/virtuous; that is what mankind in general exists for ("the happiness of the individual is the end of man"). Instead, government exists for the complementary purpose of making society happy/virtuous ("the happiness of society is the end of government").

This matters because it addresses some of the foundation-level questions of the Christian-Nation hypothesis, such as "what on earth can it mean for a nation to be Christian?". An answer would be that if a nation (society) is an anthropomorphic entity, then it is a person capable of being Christian, or at least capable of acting as a Christian. In other words a nation is capable of humility, charity, forgiveness, contrition, and all the rest.

This also matters, of course, because of Jefferson's easily misunderstood phrase "pursuit of happiness" in the DoI, which readers in the founder's era would have understood as pursuit of virtue (self-development, moral improvement) rather than pursuit of entertainment or diversions. God didn’t give us a fundamental right to seek entertainment; or at least few in the founder’s era would have thought so. This is not to say that Jefferson agreed with Adams on everything, only that he used terms like “happiness” in the same way as Adams did, so that Jefferson and Adams could converse on these subjects without talking past one another.

Anyway, what has this to do with a Christian nation, rather than a merely anthropomorphic nation? Only this, that the founders would have taken the same approach to coercion of the conscience of a nation as they took to coercion of the conscience of individuals. As
I have argued before, the Christianity of the founding era placed heavy emphasis and expended great theological energy on things we don’t think too deeply about anymore, and one of those things was non-coercion in conversion.

For a nation to be truly Christian it must first be truly free, and then in freedom choose to be Christian. If the constitution of the government of the nation is in any way an embodiment of the conscience of the nation, then it must not be hard-wired in any Christian sense, for to do so would preclude the conversion experience necessary for true Christianity. For the nation to be free it is also necessary, but not sufficient, that the government be well administered, and persistent good administration (generation after generation) was Adams’ pragmatic goal for the rest of the essay (“Nothing is more certain, from the history of nations and nature of man, than that some forms of government are better fitted for being well administered than others.”)

Anyway, there are all sorts of other gems in the essay, such as this swipe at English political philosophy: “A man must be indifferent to the sneers of modern Englishmen, to mention in their company the names of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, and Hoadly. No small fortitude is necessary to confess that one has read them. The wretched condition of this country, however, for ten or fifteen years past, has frequently reminded me of their principles and reasonings. They will convince any candid mind, that there is no good government but what is republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; …”

Another is this radical thought on what we now call second-amendment issues: “A militia law, requiring all men, or with very few exceptions besides cases of conscience, to be provided with arms and ammunition…”. This goes beyond a right to keep and bear arms, it recommends an entitlement to arms and ammunition.

Adams’ ending sums up his anticipated effects paternalistically: “A constitution founded on these principles introduces knowledge among the people, and inspires them with a conscious dignity becoming freemen; a general emulation takes place, which causes good humor, sociability, good manners, and good morals to be general. That elevation of sentiment inspired by such a government, makes the common people brave and enterprising. That ambition which is inspired by it makes them sober, industrious, and frugal.” The point, quite clearly, is not freedom for freedom’s sake, but rather freedom to make people morally better. So, as an end, the purpose of good government is happiness/virtue of society, and in pursuing that end a fortuitous effect will also be happiness/virtue of individuals.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

The Founding generation was indeed more "socially oriented", because they were far from modernity's embrace of solitary individualism. Neither is morally superior, they are just results of historical development.

Society is not an organism, as the socio-environmenalists would like us to believe (like biological organisms)...unless you want to suggest that social organizations are dependent on its members to participate in their society, which is really a "social contratual view" of society...Government exists or rules under the consent of the governed. Otherwise, government ceases to be "good", no matter its "ends".

This view seems more about government's focus of becoming virtuous, and that is obtained by its citiznes...being virtuous and participatory.

I think a lot of the resitance in America today is because of this view being promoted as "global" in scope, without understanding the need to distinguish, discern, and maintain boundaries around individuals, society and nation-states.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Society is not an organism

Sez who?

.Government exists or rules under the consent of the governed.

Why is that not organic?

Now, it's not necessarily organic, as Revolutionary France and the Soviet Union proved. But as Montesquieu suggests, "good" government reflects the manners and mores of its people.

In support of Kristo's argument, civic happiness as eudaimonia per Aristotle.

However, I was reading something yesterday [that I can't relocate] that argued jefferson wouldn't have bought Aristotle, and recommended Kames or Bulamaqui as his influence in using the phrase.

However, like most equivocations of the Founding, although clearly there was more than one sense of the same common term, they were all close enough for everyone to hang with them.

[Nice to see you, Kristo.]

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Angie!

I'm not necessarily defending Adams' view, although as a recovering Social Democrat and practicing systems (holistic) engineer I have to admit I find it appealing...

But my point here is that Adams would take issue with you when you say that government becomes virtuous through its citizens becoming virtuous. For Adams, the arrow of causation seems to point the other way (and, as a minor nit, it is not government that becomes virtuous but society).

Government is or is not well-administered; society is or is not virtuous; people are or are not virtuous. Well-administered government contributes to a virtuous society, and a virtuous society brings about virtuous people.

Hi Tom!

Good to be back. Whatever you find on Jefferson w/r alternatives to Aristotle would be of interest...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Government or the act of governing in our country should be by those who adhere to ethical behavior, which is above mere legality, but attempts to hold to representation. This is virtuour governing, not from the top down but the bottom up.

Society or social units that make up our country are volutional places of identity. These make for the behavior statndards that are probably more specified than the larger scale of nation-state.

The individual who volutarily participate in these social units are free to choose which ones best suit their values.

Otherwise, we have co-ercive top down approaches which we see happening in our healthcare debate and it is tearing our country apart.

And I understand how you "appreciate" the systems approach, but human sciences dont' all agree as to systems. In fact, family systems theory and social psychological theory, rather, define groupish think as resulting in many disatraous consequences for those that are so involved.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't like "systems" atall, Angie. Unless they evolve organically, per Edmund Burke, and have a proven track record of getting man out of caves and the primordial slime.

And even then, "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation."

However, the modern scheme does not even recognize the existence of an underlying society: a state, a nation, is its government, no more, no less. Godless Constitution, blahblahblah.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Tom, I'm not sure I am understanding you.

I think all societies MUST adhere to laws to be civil. This is the beauty of equality under law, a Constitutional government.

We are protected by these laws to petition our government, and we have the right to assembly to voice our differences to our representatives.

I am not quite sure that I am understanding what you mean be "Godless" Constitution. The Constitution is "God", in one sense, if one is atheistic or agnostic or one values civil society.

But, if one values humans and human rights, then sometimes reform must take place so that civil society can be "expanded, enlarged" and en-nobled by including those in its midst.

And this is where the "rubber meets the road", I think. We will value different things, depending on our persepctives. I, for one, do not think that dissolving nation-states or their laws is the way to "do globalism". Laws define the nation state, even if unwritten, as in social custum...etc.

Human rights is a universal, but does that trump civil behavior, when the terroists are "abiding by their "laws"? NO! We must not surrender our values of citizen protections in national security, or de-value our culture of "trial by jury". But, these are criminals to our interests and those abroad. So, what is our responsibility to other nations? Or do we have any responsibility? How do we value the 'life" of the terrorists? Or do we value that life? And on what basis?

The ACLU defends the civil liberties in our courts, but our society is wrought with discord because we have no social norm that over-rides civil rights...This is a problem. So, I agree that virtue is a both/and...

King of Ireland said...

"For a nation to be truly Christian it must first be truly free, and then in freedom choose to be Christian"

Well put!