By Shtuey at Oh…My Valve!
When I think about what I want this country to be, the ideals I want this republic to stand on and live by, I look to the man that Jefferson referred to as the “colossus of independence,” and his wife, (without whom the colossus would have floundered, and so too the cause of independency): John and Abigail Adams. Abolitionists and revolutionaries, John and Abigail Adams, above all their peers, understood the potential for what America could become. When Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal the Adamses knew that meant all men (and if John didn’t think all women as well, Abigail constantly reminded him).
I believe it is a misnomer to say that the principles of our nation are embodied in the Constitution. They are not. The Constitution is a reflection of those principles…to an extent. The three-fifths clause, or the so-called “Great Compromise” legitimated slavery in America for nearly another hundred years. In elementary school our teachers called it “Great” because without this compromise it is more than likely that the United States would not have survived. It is also because of this “compromise” that 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War. The sin of slavery was a blood debt America was going to pay in 1789 or the 1860s not because of conscience, but because of one simple principle: “Economic motivation is paramount in man,” (the Civil War was not fought to free the slaves, it was money money money). Yes, it was culturally accepted in the slave owning South, and in much of society at large in the North, that the African was inferior to Europeans, but the three-fifths clause was about money and power. It overrode any sense of conscience that southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention might have had, and ultimately the perceived need to form a stable system of national governance overrode the consciences of delegates from the North. And it wasn’t until the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791 that American principles of our freedoms were ameliorated and applied to our legal codex. But before all this, John and Abigail Adams were laying down principles that, though not always followed and too often ignored, are the compass by which Americans must now navigate if we are to have any hope of undoing what we have allowed to happen. Here are a few of my favorites from John Adams (Abigail deserves her own post, and so she shall have it).
Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have… a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean the characters and conduct of their rulers.
Society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.
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.
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.
How is it that we as a society have lost sight of these notions to such an extent that we are now witnesses to the very undoing of our republic, a potential end that has been long in coming, and that we have been dutifully ignoring? Untold millions of Americas indigenous people were slaughtered on this land. Women who sought the right to vote were jailed, beaten, and murdered to secure the right of franchise (For the record, the Constitution does not protect or guarantee our right to vote. It merely defines who in our society is allowed to vote–scary thought isn’t it?). And what have we done? We have squandered our freedoms and rights. We have allowed them to be usurped to the point where the overwhelming majority of Americans opposed the stimulus bill that was recently passed by Congress, and they did not listen. You are not being heard. Your desires, your needs, your opinions, your liberties do not matter to the people who are now heavily engaged in generating for themselves the greatest set of controls over our private lives in the history of this country. They already sanctioned the warrantless tapping of your phone. I certainly do not want the government having access to my medical records. Do you?
On independence, and creating a society for free people Adams said,
The object is great which we have in view, and we must expect a great expense of blood to obtain it. But we should always remember that a free constitution of civil government cannot be purchased at too dear a rate, as there is nothing on this side of Jerusalem of equal importance to mankind.
If Adams’ contention, that having the freedom to form and maintain a civil government, whose purpose he argued is to protect our rights and liberties to best allow for our common happiness, is so precious that the lives of enslaved Africans, our First Nations, and our citizens whose blood has been spilled at home and abroad was a price worth paying, then that blood is on all of our hands if we sit idly by and watch it all slip away.
So…what the heck are we going to do about this?