Thursday, December 30, 2010

Divine providence, liberty and equality in the thought of John Adams

An interesting essay on that topic by J.W. Cooke is now posted over at the First Principles blog:  The Fragile Balance:  John Adams on Liberty and Equality.  Adams' view of liberty was grounded in a belief in divine providence, as Cooke points out, a providence that decreed not only the fate of nations but also the fate of individuals.  Since providence would place different people in different circumstances, strict equality was not only undesirable, it was impossible.  What was possible, Adams believed, was equality of personhood before the law.  And as Cooke explains, Adams saw four vehicles by which such equality could be brought about:
Adams looked to four sources for a tolerable solution to this painful dilemma. The first was Christianity. “The only equality of man that is true,” he wrote,“was taught by Jesus: ‘Do as you would be done by.’ The same Jesus taught ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’’’ A second source of amelioration involved the inculcation of virtue and knowledge. “The way to improve society and reform the world,” he admonished his readers, “is to enlighten men, spread knowledge, and convince the multitude that they have, or may have, sense, knowledge, and virtue.” The latter, in particular, required a negation of selfishness that would do much to mitigate the rapacity of the rich and the misery of the poor. Third, if the poor could be indoctrinated in the virtues of thrift and industry, if they could be taught that their property might be improved by hard work and self-denial, then much envy would be deflected and much social unrest averted. A more mundane key to peace was balanced government. Adams argued that the Constitution had gone as far as man ought in establishing an “equality of rights.” The interests of the poor were balanced against those of the rich in the legislature, while the powers of the executive and those of the legislative and the judicial in turn were matched. The result, Adam hoped, would be an equilibrium of power (a balance of forces) that would prevent a factional or individual despotism.

Cooke's essay is an insightful glimpse into the thought of one of our most philosophical founders.  Well worth a read.

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