Thursday, July 26, 2012

John and Abigail Adams on Women's Rights


In the months leading up to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, who was a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and his wife Abigail Adams, who was at their home in Braintree, Massachusetts, engaged in a lively correspondence about men, women, liberty, and equal rights... 

Abigail to John, March 31, 1776
“…I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Equally Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us….

I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.” 

John to Abigail, April 14, 1776
“…As to Declarations of Independency, be patient…. As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colleges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented.—This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.

Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Although they are in Full force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight….”

Abigail to John, May 7, 1776
“…I cannot say I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken—and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without [violence] throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet—

"Charm by accepting, by submitting sway Yet have our Humor most when we obey." 

(The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, ed. L.H. Butterfield et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 121-123, 127) (Spelling Modernized).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Benjamin Franklin on Welfare


“…I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means.—I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer. There is no country in the world [but England] where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals to receive them when they are sick or lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many alms-houses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor. Under all these obligations, are our poor modest, humble, and thankful; and do they use their best endeavours to maintain themselves, and lighten our shoulders of this burthen?—On the contrary, I affirm that there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent. The day you passed that act, you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving them a dependence on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health, for support in age or sickness. In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty. Repeal that law, and you will soon see a change in their manners. St. Monday, and St. Tuesday, will cease to be holidays. SIX days shalt thou labour, though one of the old commandments long treated as out of date, will again be looked upon as a respectable precept; industry will increase, and with it plenty among the lower people; their circumstances will mend, and more will be done for their happiness by inuring them to provide for themselves, than could be done by dividing all your estates among them.”

(Benjamin Franklin, "On the Price of Corn and the Management of the Poor" (1766), Writings (New York: Library of America, 1987), 587-88).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Declaration of Independence: An Expression of the American Mind

In early May, 1776, Congressman John Adams saw daily signs everywhere that the movement toward independence “rolls in upon Us . . . like a Torrent.”  Within the halls of Congress, a great debate was conducted over a resolution calling on the colonies to “adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general.” 

            The resolution was adopted on May 15, but not before Adams drafted a preamble that unequivocally asserted that the people were sovereign and governed themselves by their own consent within their respective colonies.  The preamble thereby essentially declared independence from Great Britain.  Adams wrote:

It is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said Crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order as well as for the defense of their lives, liberties and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies.

Adams exultantly wrote to his wife, Abigail, to share the news and declared that the May 15 resolution was in fact “a total absolute Independence” of America and a “compleat Separation” from Britain. 

            On that same day, in Williamsburg, Virginia, the delegates to the Fifth Virginia Convention (the governing body after the hated Lord Dunmore fled the previous year).  It instructed its delegates in Philadelphia to “be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the crown or parliament of Great Britain.”  The Convention then proceeded to draft a declaration of rights and a constitution.  Patrick Henry, James Madison, and George Mason were among the notables appointed to the committee to draft the declaration of rights. 

    The first section of the Virginia Declaration of Rights read, “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights.”  This revolutionary statement of the universal rights of mankind was rooted in the political philosophy of John Locke in his Second Treastise of Government.  Locke also wrote about social compact theory that stated government is a social contract among the sovereign people to create a government to protect their natural, inalienable rights.  Some slaveholders rightly feared that the above statement would mean the liberty of all humans, including their slaves, so forced the inclusion of the statement “when they enter into a state of society” to protect their infernal institution.  The delegates embraced social compact theory by averring: “They cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”  

By June 7, Virginia delegate, Richard Henry Lee, offered a resolution in Congress that, “These United Colonies, are, and of right, ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” 

Thomas Jefferson was appointed to the committee to draft the Declaration and took up his pen.  He did not have his copy of Locke’s Second Treatise with him but the Virginia Declaration of Rights was printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 12 and heavily influenced Jefferson’s writing.  By July 4, the Declaration was adopted with revisions and stated the principles of universal natural right and government by the people’s consent:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness . – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

On May 8, 1825, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Henry Lee, reflecting on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence after nearly fifty years.  Jefferson explained that he had not been trying to discover new principles or arguments about liberty, but to “place before mankind the common sense of the subject.”  Jefferson freely admitted that his ideas did not significantly differ from the arguments of the 1760s and 1770s for the principles of liberty and republican self-government by the consent of the governed.  “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind,” Jefferson wrote poetically.  He also acknowledged his debt to classical authors and those of the British Enlightenment regarding republican government, natural law, and natural right.  “All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” 

Jefferson’s accomplishment was to declare the moral principles of the American creed that created a natural rights republic in which all people were endowed by their Creator, not government, with their rights, and republican government, based upon the people’s consent, was created for the very purpose of protecting those rights.  The Fourth of July is a proper occasion to remember and celebrate those principles deeply embedded in the American character. 

By: Tony Williams, WJMI Program Director

Sunday, July 1, 2012

We hold these truths to be self-evident...


The formal resolution declaring political independence from Great Britain had been submitted to the Continental Congress on June 7th by Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia. It read: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”  On Monday, July 1, 1776, Lee’s resolution was debated by Congress. Throughout that day and into the evening the bold supporters of American independence, led by the eloquence of John Adams, a delegate from Massachusetts, argued for severing the colonies’ ties with their mother country, England. The opposition was led by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and was supported primarily by delegates from New York and South Carolina.  Adams carried the day, and on Tuesday, July 2nd the solemn vote was taken in the affirmative.  Acknowledging that the delegates were in fact committing treason against the King of England, Benjamin Franklin remarked: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”[1]  

On the day the Declaration was actually signed by all of the delegates (August 2, 1776), they pondered the gravity of their act. Thirty five years later, Benjamin Rush recounted this fact to John Adams: “… scarcely a word was said of the solicitude and labors and fears and sorrows and sleepless nights of the men who projected, proposed, defended, and subscribed the Declaration of Independence. … Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants? . . ."[2] What had finally moved these men to pass this dangerous accord?  In the same letter, Benjamin Rush also asked Adams. “Do you recollect your memorable speech upon the day on which the vote was taken?”  According to Daniel Webster, on the day of the great debate before the vote was taken in Congress, John Adams (who was not known as a great orator), stood and eloquently declared:

Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my heart and hand to this vote.  It is true, indeed, that in the beginning we aimed not at independence.  But there's a Divinity which shapes our ends. . . . Why then should we defer the Declaration? . . . You and I, indeed, may rue it.  We may not live to the time when this Declaration may be made good.  We may die; die colonists, die slaves; die it may be, ignominiously and on the scaffold.  Be it so, be it so.  If it be the pleasure of Heaven that my country shall require the poor offering of my life, the victim shall be ready. . . . But while I do live, let me have a country, or at least the hope of a country, and that a free country.

But whatever may be our fate, be assured . . . that this Declaration will stand.  It may cost treasure, and it may cost blood; but it will stand, and it will richly compensate for both.  Through the thick and gloom of the present, I see the brightness of the future, as the sun in heaven.  We shall make this a glorious, an immortal day.   When we are in our graves, our children will honor it. They will celebrate it with thanksgiving, with festivity, with bonfires and illuminations.  On its annual return they will shed tears, copious, gushing tears, not of subjection or of slavery, not of agony and distress, but of exultation, of gratitude, of joy.  Sir, before God, I believe the hour is come.  My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it; and I leave off as I begun, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration.  It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment, Independence, now, and Independence for ever![3]

The delegates passed the resolution.  Late that same night, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail with respect to the events of that day:  “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”[4]  On the morning of July 5th, copies of the Declaration were dispatched by members of Congress to various assemblies, conventions, and committees of safety as well as to the commanders of Continental troops.

On Monday, July 8, 1776, the first public reading of the newly printed Declaration (one of two hundred John Dunlap broadsides) was celebrated and church bells were rung throughout Philadelphia.  At that time, the Liberty Bell hung in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House.  It was commissioned from the London firm of Lester & Pack in 1752, and was cast with an inscription from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto the habitants thereof.”  While there is no contemporary account of the Liberty Bell ringing, most historians believe it was one of the bells rung that day.   On July 9th, General George Washington, who was then stationed in Brooklyn Heights with the Continental Army in preparation for the Battle of New York, had several brigades drawn up at 6:00 p.m. in the evening to hear it read aloud.[5]  Its enduring words still ring familiar and true in our day.

           The Declaration of Independence stands as a timeless statement of human liberty, rights and equalityThe signers of the Declaration pledged to it their “lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.”  Jefferson said, “The Declaration of Independence... [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man.”[6]  The Declaration is America's first and foremost founding document.  It sets forth our understanding of human rights based upon the principles of natural law, and the legitimate authority and purpose of government. It is, as Abraham Lincoln wrote, the "apple of gold in the frame of silver..." (Proverbs 25:11).


[1] Ben Franklin Laughing, P. M. Zall, ed., (University of California Press,1980), p. 154.
[2] Letter of Benjamin Rush to John Adams, July 20, 1811 (reflecting on the July 4th celebration that year).
[3] The Works of Daniel Webster, 4th ed. (Boston, 1851), 1:133–36.
[4] John Adams to Abigail Adams, The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, (Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 142.
[5] Malone, et. al. The Story of the Declaration of Independence, p. 82.
[6] Jefferson to Samuel Adams Wells, 1819, ME 15:200.