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John Adams on America, Democracy, Morality, and More

John Adams brilliant insights on America, democracy, morality, and a wide range of issues and ideas deserve more attention than this almost forgotten – and recently rediscovered – Founding Father has sometimes received.

Our first vice president and second president was John Adams, who stepped out of the shadows of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and other Founding Fathers in the modern consciousness with the surprise bestselling biography by David McCullough and the HBO miniseries based on it.

Here are just a few quotes from the Massachusetts school teacher, lawyer, and politician – who went to Harvard to study for the ministry at his father’s encouragement – and the father of a political dynasty, including his son, John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States. But just a warning. Of all the Founding Fathers, perhaps none was more of a curmudgeon than Adams.

I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.

In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.

Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.

Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people.

Be not intimidated… nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberties by any pretense of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery and cowardice.

The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.

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Walking With God in America …

Anyone who doesn’t believe God has blessed America just needs to take a long walk and witness her beauty posits Ken Duncan, a world renowned Australian photographer, who visited all 50 states with his camera and notepad.

In the intro to his book, Walking With God In America, Duncan writes:
It might seem funny that although I am Australian, God has given me a real burden for America. No nation in the world has been more naturally blessed than the United States, and I believe God has done that so people will understand how much He cares for the nation. America’s faith in God is what had made it one of the greatest countries on earth, and faith is a beacon of hope for other struggling nations around the world.

From “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (the phrase was upheld in 2004 by the Supreme Court 5-4 because Sandra Day O’Connor argued that the phrase is “meaningless” — “any religious freight the words may have been meant to carry has long since been lost”) to removing references to God in textbooks on American history, the place or name of God in America’s public square — literally — is an ongoing political and legal powder keg.

I’ll defer any attempts at an argument that maintaing liberty requires virtue — and virtue requires true religion, to John Adams:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

For now, I’ll leave debates on whether or Constitution intends for there to be freedom of religion or freedom from religion and follow Duncan’s simple advice to look for America’s spirit in her beauty!
Acknowledgments: Panographic photographs are (c) Ken Duncan and used by permission; all rights reserved. The quote from Sandra Day O’Connor and John Adams are from Rediscovering God In America by Newt Gingrich (Thomas Nelson).