Why John Adams
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.
-President John Adams to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, 1798.1
These words of President Adams remind us of what used to be a common idea–liberty entails responsibility, and absent religion (even with it, alas) many people will choose immorality and irresponsibility. President Washington said much the same thing in his “Farewell Address”: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”2 Because the American republic is a free republic, therefore, it was designed for a religious people. That is the proper context in which to understand Adams’ 1790 comment on the French Revolution, “I know not what to make of a republic of 30 million atheists.”3 By then Adams was already on record predicting the collapse of the French revolution.
To modern ears, the suggestion that our constitution is made for a religious people raises concerns about the “separation of church and state” and “theocracy.” That is not what Adams, Washington, and the others had in mind. Jefferson’s famous “Bill for Establishing Religious Liberty” declares us to be “well aware . . . that Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and suggests that disestablishment is what religion demands.4 As Adams and the others saw it, there was a connection between religion, rightly understood, and the ideas of 1776. Adams had no qualms about signing the Declaration, or defending it on the floor of Congress because he agreed that we are “endowed by our Creator” with certain rights. Absent a Creator who was the Author of nature, and who made man in His image, Adams wondered, what could justify the proposition that all men are created equal? In a striking passage, Adams declared that “In spite of Bolingbroke and Voltaire, I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation.” And he continued, “If I were an atheist . . . I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and to propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.”5
Morality requires religion in two ways, Adams thought. Religion, conventionally understood, is the source of moral instruction for most men and women. Morality also requires religion because any moral argument begins by taking some thing or some things as given. There is no philosophy whose premises may not be questioned. A well read and thoughtful man soon realizes that there is more than one school of philosophy. One can only choose among them after one has chosen a point of departure. That choice, not being strictly logical, was religious in nature. Hence, Adams reasoned, “there can be no philosophy without religion.”6 Adams thought that the most reasonable such point of departure was one that presumed that the world around us may be understood, well enough at least, by human reason. Why was that the case? The Creator made it so.
That brings us to law and politics. Adams said several times that the best definition of a free republic is “a government of laws, not of men.”7 Note he did not say “a government of laws.” Law was a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the rule of law. The laws had to be reasonable or they were arbitrary, and arbitrary government was government of men, not laws. In his main work, The Defence of the Constitutions, Adams quoted Cicero discussing “Those laws, which are right reason, derived from the Divinity, commanding honesty, forbidding iniquity; which are silent magistrates, where the magistrates are only speaking laws.” In sum, laws, “as they are founded on eternal morals, are emanations of the Divine mind.”8
To be sure, Adams understood that men are imperfect creatures. Hence no set of laws would be perfect. We are also creatures of habit. Hence no one set of laws can be universally applicable. The challenge of “a government of laws, not of men” was to adapt “eternal morals” to particular circumstances. That was no easy task. But it was an essential one for any republic that wished to endure, and for any republic that would to be worth preserving. To that end, statesmen–or what we in modern, and perhaps less accurate terms, call “leaders”–have to negotiate between the customs, mores, and manners of their lands, as they shift over time, and the demands of eternal morals. Moreover, they must do that in a world in which necessity demands different things at different times.
Where can one find such statesmen? That was the task of education. Liberal education, Adams noted, is the education of gentlemen. “By gentlemen are not meant the rich or the poor, the high-born or the low-born, the industrious or the idle; but all those who have received a liberal education.”9 Liberal education, rightly understood, teaches men and women about human nature, the nature of their society, and the nature of the world in which we live. It also teaches the connection of all that with the great ideas of right and wrong. It teaches men and women to recognize that religion and morality are inseparable from law and politics, even in a land without an established church, perhaps especially in such a land.
A founding father, Adams always worried about the fate of the American republic. He worried that the an excess of democracy would subvert the liberal education that makes it possible. That is why, when he drafted the state constitution of Massachusetts, he included an article stating that “it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them.” And what was to be the heart of that education? Elsewhere in the Massachusetts Constitution, Adams addressed that question: “A frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution, and a constant adherence to those of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty, and to maintain a free government.”10 The fundamental principles of American government, best outlined by Congress in 1776, are the keystone of American education. But without training in the moral and religious virtues, such education will fail. In our day, as in his own, John Adams challenges us to pay due attention to what is best in our republic and in ourselves.
— Richard Samuelson
1 JA, The Works of John Adams, ten vols. (Boston: Little and Brown, 1850-1856), IX: 229. The Works of John Adams is available here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php&title=2098
2 George Washington, “Farewell Address,” in Washington: Writings, John
Rhodehamel, ed. (New York: Library of America, 1997), 971. Also available at: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=82
3 JA to Price, Works of JA: IX
4 Thomas Jefferson, “Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Liberty,” in Jefferson:
Writings, Merrill Peterson, ed. (New York: Library of America, 1984), 346. Also available at:
5 JA in Works of JA, IX:609.
6 JA to TJ, July 15, 1813, In Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), p. 358.
7 JA, “Novanglus,” No. 7, in Works of JA, IV:106. Adams used this definition in all his major writings of the 1770s and 1780s.
8 Cicero in Defence, Works of JA, VI:56.
9 JA, Defence of the Constitutions, Works of JA, VI:185.
10 The Constitution of Massachusetts, in Works of JA, IV:259, 227.