James Leroy Wilson's blog

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Was John Adams Full of Crap?

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 only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

- John Adams, Oct.11, 1798 Address to the military

I Googled these words: "address to the military" "john adams" oct 11 1798.

100 results, all of them quoting just this passage, and often just the part in bold. Apparently, if I want the manuscript of the full address, or find out if such an address actually exist, I'll have to go to a real live library. Even then, I'm uncertain if I will find anything.

Which is too bad. The context for this address is important. Right next to Washington, there is no other Revolutionary as important as Adams, and if one believes the Revolutionary War was just and necessary, Adams belongs in the front ranks of our heroes for steering the Continental Congress to declare Independence, secure the aid of France, and negotiate the peace.

I knew that Adams was not present at the Constitutional Convention. But I always assumed the above quote (I was familiar with the bold) was something he said or wrote shortly after the Constitution was announced, or during the Washington Administration. An important piece of sage insight from one of the Founding Fathers. Religious conservatives like to quote it.

But here's the stark truth: by the late 1790's Adams was corrupted by partisan politics. The Sedition Act was passed in July 1798 as a means to censor Republican (that is, Jeffersonian Democrat) critics of the Federalist Congress and Federalist President. In clear violation of the First Amendment, the Sedition Act "made it a crime to publish 'false, scandalous, and malicious writing' against the government or its officials. Enacted July 14, 1798, with an expiration date of March 3, 1801" - that is, when Adams' term ended. John Adams, in clear violation of his oath of office, signed this outrageous bill into law. Two months later, he gave the Address to the Military with the passage quoted above.

See why reading the full speech is important? Was Adams - at this time of his life consumed by "ambition" and "revenge," trying to justifiy his signing of the Sedition Act? Or was he just uttering an empty platitude? Does the full address place this passage in context? Or is this just a throw-away line?

Until we learn more, I don't think it's a good idea to invoke this passage to make a point. It is actually safer to assume that this was just b.s.ing from a partisan politician. Adams may as well have said, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people - that is, Federalists like us. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other - especially the Republicans."

Or, to put it more bluntly: "Because they are neither moral nor religious, Republicans are not entitled to Constitutional rights."

I don't know for sure this is what Adams meant, but it is the safest assumption.


  1. Great post as always. What is usually the point of using the quote? To advocate ignoring the Constitution or to be smug about the morality of Americans?

  2. I usually see it in defense of the role of religion in the public square.

  3. A couple years ago, I read David McCullough's bio of Adams, but I am NO expert. I think it is fair to say that his signing of the Sedition Act was a serious mistake of judgment - stupid and wrong, plainly and simply. But it is also not fair to dismiss everything else he said and did on the basis of it. The venom between the Republicans and Federalists was intense at the time, and, arguably, the Jeffersonians were just as partisan, if not more so.
    You might want to check out the Adams and Jefferson correspondence they had in their old age, and judge Adams by the re-union of these old friends turned adversaries.

  4. Anonymous4:38 AM PDT

    I'm quite surprised to discover how many people fail to grasp the point Adams was making. I suppose it shouldn't surprise me: Americans (though "lagging behind" other so-called "progressive" Westerners) are increasingly irreligious, and thus wouldn't "get" the importance of the Judeo-Christian worldview in their heritage. Adams' point was that if the majority of Americans reject the Judeo-Christian worldview, they cannot in the long run sustain the Constitution or the freedoms it proclaims and defends. In other words, the Constitution *assumes* that the populace are, in general, God-fearing moral agents committed to behaving morally and justly in accord with the Judeo-Christian worldview, because many of the principles of that worldview are given expression in the moral outlook of the Constitution.

    Adams was *not* saying--contrary to some postmodern critics--that the Constitution is "only meant to protect the rights of Christians." He was saying that if you subscribe to some other worldview--be it pagan, Muslim, Hindu, or atheistic--your worldview will not mesh well with the Constitution. And if the majority of the populace goes that way--then the Constitution will be undermined.

    And that is *precisely* what we see happening in the U.S. these days. The hodge-podge of American culture has now produced a very humanistic wannabe-dictator in Barack Obama, who regularly seeks to get around the Constitution in order to extend his personal power and, more broadly, the power of the federal government. The Constitution is pro-justice and pro-liberty, but Obama subscribes to a worldview that favors socialism/communism--because in a humanistic worldview (either literally atheist or *practically* atheist), the dominant ethic is "might makes right."

    Humanism always leads to dictatorships.

    1. Anonymous4:52 AM PDT

      I should add that other correspondence by Adams shows clearly the worldview-context out of which he was speaking: that by "religion" and "religious," he had in mind specifically the Christian worldview. See: