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Remembering John Adams

March 17, 2008

Despite being "virtually an asterisk in history books today," in one writer's words, John Adams is the subject of a new $100 million HBO miniseries. Given his leading role in America's Revolution and the beginnings of Constitutional government, Adams deserves the renewed attention. John Adams wrote a Stamp Act protest that became a model for other protests. He outlined principles of liberty for Americans on the cusp of independence. He helped write the May10, 1776 resolutions declaring America independent, and defended the Declaration of Independence before Congress. He composed most of the Massachusetts Constitution (the oldest still in use in the world), acclaimed for its bill of rights. A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States was often cited in the Constitutional Convention.

Given John Adams' importance in establishing our country as a beacon of liberty (though as our second President, he did not fully live up to the principles he argued for), we should remember his insights, particularly his advocacy of the rights, or property, that is the content of our liberty, and whose defense is the central reason our government was instituted.

"[L]iberties are not the grants of princes and parliaments, but original rights … truth, liberty, justice, and benevolence, are its everlasting basis … "

"[I]n a free state, every man…ought to be his own governor … "

"[N]othing is so terrible…as the loss of their liberties."

"[L]iberty is [government's] end, its use, its designation, drift, and scope … "

"In order to have this liberty, it is requisite the government be so constituted, as that one citizen need not be afraid of another citizen."

"The end of…government is to…furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquility, their natural rights and the blessings of life…"

"[People have] rights … antecedent to all earthly governments — rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws — rights derived from the Great Legislator of the universe."

"[T]o be commanded we do not consent … "

"All men…have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting their property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness."

"[T]he happiness of society is the end of government … the happiness of the individual is the end of man."

"Each individual of the society has a right to be protected…in the enjoyment of his life, liberty, and property … no part of the property of any individual can, with justice, be taken from him, or applied to public uses, without his own consent … "

"The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If 'Thou shalt not covet' and 'Thou shalt not steal' were not commandments of heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free."

"Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist."

"[A] more equal liberty than has prevailed in other parts of the earth must be established in America."

"[L]iberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker."

"[T]he jaws of power are always opened to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing … "

"[N]ip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people."

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

"[Government] … should be … for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties … "

"Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class … "

"Be not … wheedled out of your liberty by any pretenses of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery, and cowardice."

"[W]e 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."

John Adams, because he recognized that "an enemy to liberty [is] an enemy to human nature," wrote that "It has ever been my hobby-horse to see rising in America an empire of liberty." Reflecting the central importance of liberty, Adams called the debate over the Declaration of Independence "the greatest question … which ever was debated in America; and a greater perhaps never was, nor will be, decided among men." Thomas Jefferson described his defense of it to Congress as "with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats." Delegate Richard Stockton called him "the Atlas … the man to whom the country is most indebted … who sustained the debate, and by the force of his reasoning demonstrated not only the justice, but the expediency of the measure."

Adams also saw the importance of America's revolution for the world: "Objects of the most stupendous magnitude and measure in which the lives and liberties of millions yet unborn are intimately interested, are now before us. We are in the very midst of a revolution the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of nations." And he made it clear why founding America on liberty was so monumental: "Her cause is that of all nations and all men, and it needs nothing but to be explained and approved." In a world where we have often forgotten that cause, let us remember with John Adams that liberty is both America's rationale and its greatness and that, as it is always under threat, liberty must be vigorously asserted and defended.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send him mail. See his Mises.org archive. See his blog archive.

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