Thursday, February 3, 2011

John Adams on Virtue

The Founding Fathers held that virtue was a prerequisite for a sustainable republic. But what did they mean by “virtue?” Here are a few quotes from John Adams’ Novanglus, published in the Boston Gazette in 1774. After 200 years we do not exactly use the word in the same way. As an experiment, ask people today what comes to mind when they hear the word virtue and see if they sound like any of the quotes below.

Adams argues that without virtue, liberty cannot survive.
"When a people are corrupted, the press may be made an engine to complete their ruin; and it is now notorious, that the ministry are daily employing it, to increase and establish corruption, and to pluck up virtue by the roots. Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence, than the body can live and move without a soul. When these are gone, and the popular branch of the constitution is become dependent on the minister, as it is in England, or cut off, as it is in America, all other forms of the constitution may remain; but if you look for liberty, you will grope in vain; and the freedom of the press, instead of promoting the cause of liberty, will but hasten its destruction, as the best cordials taken by patients in some distempers become the most rancid and corrosive poisons." (Novanglus III)
The converse holds as well: without liberty, virtue withers. Dependency begets corruption which begets more dependency.
"Obsta principiis, nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society." (Novanglus III)
Odd, that sounds familiar! Speaking of familiar here is Adams on the debt problem:
"That is the reason that the Massachusetts has paid its debt [for the French and Indian War], and the British minister, in thirteen years of peace, has paid none of his? Much of it might have been paid in this time, had not such extravagance and speculation prevailed, as ought to be an eternal warning to America, never to trust such a minister with her money. What is the reason that the great and necessary virtues of simplicity, frugality, and economy cannot live in England, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as America?" (Novanglus IV)

"But when luxury, effeminacy, and venality are arrived at such a shocking pitch in England; when both electors and elected are become one mass of corruption; when the nation is oppressed to death with debts and taxes, owing to their own extravagance and want of wisdom, what would be your condition under such an absolute subjection to parliament? You would not only be slaves, but the most abject sort of slaves, to the worst sort of masters! at least this is my opinion." (Novanglus II)
Since virtue is a public concern, the clergy are asked to speak out against political corruption.
"It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted. For example,—if exorbitant ambition and venality are predominant, ought they not to warn their hearers against those vices? If public spirit is much wanted, should they not inculcate this great virtue? If the rights and duties of Christian magistrates and subjects are disputed, should they not explain them, show their nature, ends, limitations, and restrictions, ..." (Novanglus IV)
Now, how does that compare to today's everyday use of the word virtue?


Anonymous said...

I have been reading the peoples history of the united states too and really trying to learn about virtues and our evolution, I also have written articles on virtue as well, and find the american constitution to be very similar to the old persian constitution. I have written a piece on virtue a few years ago and you can read it at . the internet is our only hope before we have to die for some other financial reason

Always On Watch said...

luxury, effeminacy, and venality are arrived at such a shocking pitch in England

Why am I reminded of the United States today?