Adams and the General Principles of Christianity
Posted by sbh on Saturday, 8 May 2010
Did John Adams write:
The general principles upon which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principals of Christianity… I will avow that I believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God
No, not really. This is a patchwork of three phrases taken from a letter (28 June 1813) to Thomas Jefferson juxtaposed to give a misleading impression of Adams’ meaning:
The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were …
… the general principles of Christianity …
I will avow, that I … believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God….
The omissions here are easily significant enough to give this extract the red designation.
Understanding this passage involves going back to the year 1798, when John Adams was president of the United States. While the nation attempted to maintain neutrality in the ongoing war between Great Britain and revolutionary France, the French started seizing American vessels, leading to an undeclared war. It was in this context that a group of young men from Philadelphia wrote to Adams to express their support for his actions:
The youth of the American nation will claim some share of the difficulty, danger, and glory of its defense; and although we do not hold ourselves competent to form an opinion respecting the tendency of every measure, yet we have no hesitation in declaring that we place the most entire confidence in your wisdom, integrity, and patriotism; that we regard our liberty and independence as the richest portion given to us by our ancestors; that we perceive no difference between the illegal and oppressive measures of one government and the insolent attempts now made to usurp our rights by another; that as our ancestors have magnanimously resisted the encroachments of the one, we will no less vigorously oppose the attacks of the other; that at the call of our country we will assemble with promptitude, obey the orders of the constituted authorities with alacrity, and on every occasion act with all the exertion of which we are capable; and for this we pledge ourselves to you, to our country, and to the world.
John Adams returned a polite reply, in which he ventured to give some paternal advice:
It would neither be consistent with my character, nor yours, on this occasion, to read lessons to gentlemen of your education, conduct, and character; if, however, I might be indulged the privilege of a father, I should with the tenderest affection recommend to your serious and constant consideration, that science and morals are the great pillars on which this country has been raised to its present population, opulence, and prosperity, and that these alone can advance, support, and preserve it.
Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity, or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction, that, after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit, in general, to be transmitted to your posterity, than those you have received from your ancestors.
Thomas Jefferson was then vice-president under Adams, and he favored policies entirely at odds with his. Something about this seemed to sum up for him a basic difference between the Federalists’ view and his own, and years later (on 15 June 1813) he wrote to Adams about it:
One of the questions, you know, on which our parties took different sides, was on the improvability of the human mind in science, in ethics, in government, etc. Those who advocated reformation of institutions, pari passu with the progress of science, maintained that no definite limits could be assigned to that progress. The enemies of reform, on the other hand, denied improvement, and advocated steady adherence to the principles, practices and institutions of our fathers, which they represented as the consummation of wisdom, and acme of excellence, beyond which the human mind could never advance. Although in the passage of your answer alluded to, you expressly disclaim the wish to influence the freedom of inquiry, you predict that that will produce nothing more worthy of transmission to posterity than the principles, institutions and systems of education received from their ancestors.
Adams, in his reply (28 June 1813), disclaims any such general application of his words. He limits the “principles … received from their ancestors” to two areas: “the general principles of Christianity … and the general principles of English and American liberty”. What did he mean by “the general principles of Christianity”? He doesn’t spell them out in the letter, but they are principles held in common by a diverse range of beliefs, including “Roman Catholics, … Presbyterians, Methodists, … Universalists, … Deists and Atheists ….” In other words, Adams had in mind the common system of morals held by all humankind throughout history. And far from giving it the unique status implied by the patchwork quotation, he couples “the general principles of Christianity” throughout with “the general principles of English and American liberty”.
Here is what Adams wrote to Jefferson, with the selected passages in bold:
Now, compare the paragraph in the answer with the paragraph in the address, as both are quoted above, and see if we can find the extent and the limits of the meaning of both.
Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.” Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.
Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.
If the passage as given above can really be considered a fair summary of the entire passage, then so can this version, emphasizing the other elements Adams gave as the “general principles on which the fathers achieved independence”:
The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were … the general principles of English and American liberty … I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that … those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system.
Obviously neither version is a fair representation of the original. Each leaves out one essential element in the original mix so that even though these extracts are made up of Adams’ own words, the overall quotation (particularly sans ellipses) is as dishonest as the Patrick Henry “religionists” misattribution or the Washington “impossible to govern without the Bible” concoction. One of the sites given above promotes all three of these fake quotations, and has the gall to attempt to justify them as follows:
And yes, there are the detractors who would say that the quotes are wrong or taken out of context. That will be argued for generations. But to deny that faith has played an integral part in this nation’s history is simply to show an ignorance of that very history.
Nice distraction—and typical of many who manufacture and distribute these counterfeit wares. Ideology trumps fact—and who can really know the truth about the past? Actually, it is not all that difficult to run down a quotation to its source—it just takes time and effort. Nothing about these fakes “will be argued for generations”—unless by ideologues who choose to stubbornly ignore the facts. As Adams went on to observe to Jefferson
I might have flattered myself that my sentiments were sufficiently known to have protected me against suspicions of narrow thoughts, contracted sentiments, bigoted, enthusiastic, or superstitious principles, civil, political, philosophical, or ecclesiastical.
1798 Exchange between Adams and Philadelphia Young Men (Anonymous and John Adams)
Letter to Adams (15 June 1813) (Thomas Jefferson)
Letter to Jefferson (28 June 1813) (John Adams)