Saturday, November 6, 2010

John Adams

John Adams by David McCullough

Revolution. War. Independence. Republicanism. Democracy. Constitution. Federalism. Government. Freedom. Justice. Rights. Each of these words has been integral to our national dialogue ever since King George III decided that England was more entitled to wealth created in the American colonies than those who created the wealth. Anger and resentment in the colonies spawned this dialogue which eventually led to a war for independence in 1776. The decision to fight the King – an act of treason – was made by a group of men led by some of America’s, indeed, history’s, greatest thinkers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin immediately come to mind but there was one more: John Adams, without whom the war for independence from England might have been lost before it began.

Of all the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts was the most passionate about independence from Great Britain. Almost until the eve of war, the delegates were about equally divided on the question of declaring independence, with a few on the fence. Mr. Adams’ greatest accomplishment was obtaining a unanimous vote for going to war against England, hence the phrase “united we stand, divided we fall”. Of the 13 colonies, only Georgia did not send a delegation to the first congress because that colony depended on British soldiers to fight the Creek Indians who were preparing for a series of attacks. Fifty-five delegates of high social standing in the other twelve colonies journeyed to Philadelphia to convene the first Congress on September 5, 1774. A year earlier, Benjamin Franklin had tried unsuccessfully to call such a meeting; but it took the closing of Boston Harbor by the English in response to the Boston Tea Party to provoke a sense of urgency amongst the colonists.

The first session of Congress was aimed at gaining the respect of the Monarchy and Parliament which had recently established the “Coercive Acts”. These laws were intended to punish the Massachusetts Colony for dumping tea shipments into Boston Harbor, and were referred to in the colonies as “The Intolerable Acts”. England legitimized capital crimes in the name of the King, required colonists to provide quarters to English soldiers, intruded in the governance of Massachusetts, and closed the port at Boston to coerce payment for the dumped tea. Several colonies realized that King George’s treatment of Massachusetts was the beginning of a widespread crackdown on personal liberty and pursuit of wealth. “No taxation without representation” became a rallying cry in New England and beyond.

In order to get the attention of the King and Parliament, the First Continental Congress developed a “bill of rights” for the colonies defining what each citizen was entitled to by virtue of being alive. Additionally, this Declaration of Rights and Grievances explained specific objections to English laws infringing on the American colonies. Finally, the petition to the king stated that if the colonies’ demands for redress were not met, then there would be a boycott against all trade with Britain.

England responded by billeting solders in Boston and using punitive measures to quash the growing rebellion. As tensions escalated and Britain’s military became more aggressive, a Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1776. England was unquestionably determined to regain control of the colonies and considered the colonial militiamen to be traitors and therefore subject to execution. It took the better part of two months for the Congress to draft and unanimously adopt a Declaration of Independence, in which each delegate pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to the cause of liberty. Signing the Declaration was a deeply courageous act of faith and proof of the collective will necessary to move from winning liberty to creating a government reflecting the best of human ideals. Of all the signers, no one worked harder to build consensus than John Adams, and like all great statesmen he knew the value of compromise.

David McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and biographer, recognized that John Adams was a new type of man: an original American. He was the son of a farmer, studied law at Harvard College, practiced law on the court circuits, and maintained a farm in Braintree, Massachusetts. Mr. Adams, in addition to possessing great intelligence and a thirst for knowledge, was a passionate man whose love for his wife, Abigail, survives in hundreds of letters that passed between them. Only in America, where hard work and leadership were worth more than good breeding, could a man like John Adams rise from his humble origins to become one of the world’s great political figures. And only in America could a woman be a true partner to such a man.

History books are often not much fun to read, but John Adams is written with the passion of the subject himself as if Mr. McCullough somehow channeled President Adams’ spirit while researching and writing this book. His appreciation for Mr. Adams and the other delegates to the Continental Congress who sweated for weeks in Philadelphia as they argued about questions of slavery versus abolition, patriotism versus treason, negotiation versus war, Federalism versus states’ rights – divisive issues, all – shows in every sentence of this book. The men who defined the new nation and unique form of government came to understand that by every state giving up some autonomy in exchange for a strong central government, the whole would be much greater than the sum of the parts.

What is most fascinating about John Adams is how our nation continues to debate some of the same issues which threatened its formation in the first place. Slavery was critical to the plantation economies of the southern states and arguments over banning the practice sparked a long-running argument over states’ rights and Federalism. Modern politicians and political party machines keep this argument alive with the simplistic term “big government”, as if government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is a bad thing.

Unfortunately what has happened in the United States of America is that we have become mired in polarizing disputes and thus have no understanding of our core values. Is basic healthcare a human right? Should every child receive an education, and if so what do all children need to know? Are senior citizens entitled to Social Security and Medicare? Is every citizen entitled to housing? Food? Work? Should citizenship be granted to people who work hard and pay their taxes even if they were not born here? Do we deny food, medicine, education, sanitation to those who are not citizens? Do we strip Constitutionally-granted citizenship from children born here whose parents are in this country illegally? If we don’t support a war, should we be required to pay for it? Can government agencies commit murder in the name of national security? These are complicated questions requiring serious, thoughtful analysis. What we get instead are shallow soundbites , labels, and signs – “Conservative”, “Liberal”, “Country First”, “Change”, “Maverick”, “Tax and Spend”, “Peace Now”, “No New Taxes”, “Illegals Go Home”, “Learn English”, etc. – which serve only to keep the public angry and anxious.

If only the political parties and lobbyists would disappear so that citizens could come to a consensus about our values as a nation. By agreeing on values and where the federal government ends and the state governments begin, we might find direction and our congressmen and senators could legislate rather than playing political games in an effort to get re-elected. This is all wishful thinking, unfortunately. The political parties and lobbyists are stronger than ever now that corporations can “buy” elections by outspending the opposition. Even though we need those great minds now more than ever, it is probably a good thing that John Adams and his contemporaries are resting comfortably in their graves. I am afraid the ignorance and ugly partisan politics which keep us from taking care of our country would make the “founding brothers” wish they hadn’t bothered going to war against the English.

Copyright 2010, Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

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