Listening to John Adams: The true conception of liberty is far larger than mean-spirited conservative ideology

As debated by Adams and Jefferson, true "liberty" has nothing to do with today's right-wing talking points

Published April 8, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

John Adams; Thomas Jefferson   (Wikicommons)
John Adams; Thomas Jefferson (Wikicommons)

The sad conditions we face at this moment in our political life as a nation summon a particularly high-spirited parable from a couple of red-blooded Americans whose minds often turned on the fate of human liberty. It’s a parable that tests the proposition that one can find a liberal political conscience even in those illiberal, uncharitable, self-righteous politicians who masquerade as champions of the people.

In April 1817, precisely 200 years ago, 81-year-old former president John Adams wrote a marvelously candid letter to his onetime rival and successor as president, Thomas Jefferson. Adams was still getting hammered in print by a fellow New Englander whom George Washington had hired as secretary of state and Adams had fired, three years into his presidency, for political disloyalty and warmongering. The embittered Timothy Pickering refused to give Adams credit for any accomplishment, either as a committed Revolutionary or as chief executive. Adams returned the favor when he renewed his attacks on Jefferson’s legacy some years later.

“My loving and beloved Friend, Pickering, has been pleased to inform the World that I have ‘few Friends,’” the wry Adams told Jefferson. “I wanted to whip the rogue … till the blood come.” But, he continued, his true friends cautioned him that “nothing that such a Person could write would do me the least Injury.” Ironic, perhaps, that Adams was entirely comfortable, in 1800, with the Alien and Sedition Acts -- legislation passed amid a counter-revolutionary fervor -- which severely restricted freedom of the press and resulted in the imprisonment of editors who criticized the president in print. Ironic, too, that Jefferson, as president, actively tried to impeach a Supreme Court justice, simply for criticizing him from the bench.

They were politicians, through and through, though they’d mellowed somewhat as the years passed. Adams went on to tell Jefferson how he’d convinced himself that even one so mean-spirited as Pickering had to possess a conscience. Not that religion played any role, mind you. He didn’t quite know where to turn, but he refused to give up hope. Adams could not despise mankind, he wanted Jefferson to know, because all men were created equal in their combined qualities of reason and ridiculousness.

There were moments when Adams was prepared to go public with the message that he classed religion with the ridiculous: “I have been upon the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there was not Religion in it.’”

But then, he reconsidered.  If “indelible marks of Conscience” adhered even to the most egoistic of exalted political leaders, and he was convinced it did, then religion deserved some credit.

Adams went on to tell Jefferson that all the promises he’d ever heard, earthly and heavenly alike, left him feeling naught but “pitty” for his fellow creatures. Whether in the political forum or the pulpit, “Fears and Terrors appear to have produced an universal Credulity,” he wrote. In Adams’ judgment, humans succumbed to their fears to such a degree that they repeatedly settled for tyrannical rulers who exacted obedience and bowed before a religious authority that preached posthumous punishment so as to control parishioners’ day-to-day behavior.

Jefferson, for his part, backed up Adams on both scores.  

As for Pickering and the vengeful others who spoke ill of them, the sympathetic Virginian wrote quotably, “Were such things to be answered, our lives would be wasted in the filth of fendings and provings, instead of being employed in promoting the happiness and prosperity of our fellow citizens.” He also commiserated with Adams as another longtime critic of the miraculous in religion and the gullibility of those overburdened by their attachment to church dogma. And he agreed with Adams that “moral precepts, innate in man,” bolstered by the general principles laid down by religion, helped avert a human-produced hell.    

The Adams-Jefferson correspondence, especially that of their later years, stands as a reminder of two decisive truths about America's history as a nation: 1. The prevalence of character assassination as a feature of U.S. politics; and 2. The constancy of moral appeals to “the happiness and prosperity of our fellow citizens” (whether helped along by a nondenominational religious persuasion or not).

The parable of 1817 still retains its value in 2017, when it seems near impossible to justify whatever rationale self-identified conservatives in Congress use in proposing the abandonment of liberal-inspired programs that address the suffering of our citizens.  

While blaming “government” for social ills, no matter what their true cause, conservatives somehow convince people who would do better in a more equitably based society that they should hate nothing so much as equalizing legislative measures. Moneyed power-brokers with their hooks into members of Congress keep rewarding themselves while deceptive crumbs are thrown to everyone else. These same people, hypocritically spouting religious morality at every campaign stop, acquiesce to an irreligious chief executive who “makes deals” at the expense of morality. 

These are painful times. People are justly dispirited and confused. Graphs objectively displaying economic inequality are becoming ever more stretched and distended. In a modern republic, we all agree, the government does not abandon its duty to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” to borrow a phrase from the Constitution’s Preamble.  

But it does.  

Conservatives in Congress and in too many state legislatures make sure it does. Their love for “liberty” and “freedom” is legend: There’s a Republican Liberty Caucus, a House Liberty Caucus, and the most recent of newsworthy incarnations, the House Freedom Caucus. All of the Liberty caucuses oppose social spending. There’s Liberty University, but the political endorsements of both its founder and current president suggest less of an appreciation for the blessings of liberty than for a strict social order. Obey. There was even a Liberty Party in the U.S. in the 1840s. Its platform was slavery abolition, which makes the party name quite literal -- and quite different from conservatives' modern adaptation. 

Conservatives in Congress exploit the fear of undocumented workers with undocumented rhetoric. They again rail ad nauseam about infiltration by foreigners -- except those pulling strings in Moscow -- who threaten public security and the national economy. Of course, immigrants make America strong. They always have. They succeed bigly. But if you’re a conservative, you convince easily conned voters that immigration reform is amnesty, that it interferes with the promise of American liberty. When hysterical hatred of strangers ensues, you get, well, what we have now. The same goes for voter fraud. Conservatives make sure the longest lines are at minority community polling places -- to maximize liberty?

Barack Obama suffered more than John Adams ever did from the sensational statements of haters. And he let it go, which was very Christian. Republicans have railed ad nauseam in opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which they derisively call Obamacare. Now they only hope it “implodes,” as the cruel prophecy goes. All who refuse to take in the Republicans’ truth-mocking talking points understand that the goal of health care must be to cover as many people as possible and to put Big Insurance's and Big Pharma's profits second after the health of citizens. The real-world result would be to extend both life and liberty to many more millions.  

If the founders’ hallowed vocabulary actually matters, Republicans would not have played the hate and discredit game for all these years, while having no good ideas of their own.

The same truth-deniers in Congress who succeeded in convincing a conscience-damaged base that Obama was not really American, and a secret Muslim to boot, are always quick to tag progressive programs as socialist. They never actually define “socialist” -- otherwise, they would have to propose abolishing Medicare altogether, which would anger voters, which wouldn’t allow them to retain their sinister club’s power over the popular mind. Yet hear ye, hear ye -- irony heaped upon irony -- when stalwart Republicans are shown pie charts of the wealth distribution in two unidentified countries and they’re asked which they’d prefer to live in, a whopping 90 percent choose Sweden, with all its socialism, over the United States. (And 94 percent of Democrats went the same way.)

You heard that right. Americans want a society where liberty equals fairmindedness. Where relative social equality is operational, not an empty boast. Yet last November, they succumbed to a vapid con man and voted in billionaire rule.

Americans say they love democracy because it’s the perfection of political liberty, but it’s not liberty when the conservative candidate shouts at voters that they’re persecuted by a federal government that cares more about illegals than about them. Reagan’s apocryphal welfare queen in her fancy limousine was just the beginning of this hijacking of votes through cruel deceptions. Reagan believed his own stories. This new 70-year-old, the limp entertainer, doesn’t seem to know what to believe. Living moment to moment in a nightmare of his own creation, lacking apparent impulse control, he just seems to spew forth self-servingly, snicker and sneer. He orders others to pick up what he drops, as he moves on to the next moral outrage.

Voters were conned by promises and provocations, which were humorlessly prattled over the course of a year and delivered in pathetically simplistic form, à la, “You’ll be so tired of winning…” What will the future say of us? What would a John Adams, a Thomas Jefferson, have made of the present phenomenon? (We’re often asked.) That Americans are “enjoying” the liberty to be deceived?

The Adams persuasion commands us to believe that even the most conservative members of the GOP possess enough of a conscience to accept some of the facts when the facts show how many good Americans are getting hurt by their policies. The language of deception -- look the other way so you don’t see how we’re exploiting you -- should be embarrassing at some point to all but the most shamelessly dissimulating of corporation-protecting, so-called conservatives. (Don’t hold your breath for Ted Cruz.) After all, in private, they’re always telling Democratic colleagues what they can never say in public without revealing the con and losing it all.  

To the end of his days, Tim Pickering never wavered. He was simply a nasty guy. Today’s Republicans don’t seem to be big on apologizing either. With a moral compass like we’ve seen since Reagan, it’s no surprise that they’d oppose the Republican idea of health care as soon as Obama touched it -- whence it suddenly acquired its scary socialist tendencies.  

Can caring people do something to stop this? We can think of one way: Seize back the narrative. Wherever it’s spoken or written, reclaim "liberty" as it ought to be understood: an expansive, not restrictive, quality of life; a privilege shared by the great majority of citizens, with respect for minimum-wage laborers, for underpaid, under-provisioned public school teachers in our poorer communities; and respect for patriotic immigrants.  

Make it plain that the GOP is not at all in the business of expanding liberty, that they’re strictly in the business of making policies that allow their donors to hoard money. They keep wages down -- as union membership declines, income inequality rises. They ignore inequality of opportunity in public education. They ignore all that would help to rebuild the middle class. They trash the environment. They defraud voters when they gerrymander districts so as to win a majority of congressional seats with a minority of popular votes.  

Liberty is meant to be spread, not hoarded. It’s the government’s responsibility to make liberty available to those ordinarily deprived of it, “not to destroy individualism, but to protect it.” It was Franklin Roosevelt who said that.

Bernie Sanders has noted that more than half of all new income generated in this country goes to the top 1 percent. “You have got to think about the morality of that,” he said, pointing out that justice is denied amid “a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires, while at the same time America has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth. How can we? I want you to go into your hearts, how can we talk about morality, about justice, when we turn our backs on the children of our country?”

Sanders made those bold, searing remarks at -- did you guess -- Liberty University.

The “happiness and prosperity of our citizens” demands an apology from antisocial conservative politicians. Which won’t arrive until they become comfortably retired ex-GOP congressmen who continue to rest easy with a cushy government healthcare plan that our less privileged taxpaying citizens lack access to. That’s when conscience finally kicks in. George W. Bush paints portraits of soldiers now. Maybe that’s what old John Adams meant when he credited wrongheaded politicians with the capacity to recover a social conscience. 

By Nancy Isenberg

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By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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