Wednesday, October 27, 2010

John Adams Says Happiness is the Purpose of Government and the Individual

John AdamsA while ago I was in a discussion about politics that set me off researching the opinions of the founding fathers on the basic purpose of government. A lot of things are thrown out there these days about what our founding fathers thought, and a lot of it .... is wrong. There are a lot of misplaced quotes, over-generalizations, and misunderstandings of the role of philosophy and religion among the men that drafted our constitution and started the United States of America.

In any case, I happened on this letter written by John Adams to a friend that asked him to draft a model of government that could be used. It's a fascinating letter because Adams outlines his basic principles of a federal government with a judicial, legislative, and executive department set in place with checks and balances..... which is of course the model of government that we still live in. That was all fascinating to read, but some of his less expected comments really caught my eye. For instance: 
We ought to consider what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.
 Wow.... now that is interesting. He says happiness is our purpose as individuals and a happy society is the purpose of government.

Do you think this is a philosophical idea that our society is based on? I'd say so. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are at the core of our country. That is nice enough, I mean, I'm quite happy to be happy.... but I do think that as a Christian happiness should not be my purpose or pursuit. A government that allows happiness is a blessing, but is it possible that a government to whom happiness is a priority can trample on other things that are MORE important to us believers?

To Mr. Adam's credit, he may define happiness a little differently than we do:
All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this.... If there is a form of government, then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?
 Interesting, huh. Happiness consists in virtue, which I take to mean morality. Generally these days we don't link happiness and good morals, but I appreciate the wisdom of this coming from Adams.

A few other things struck me as well, although they're pretty unrelated to the whole happiness thing. Adams advocates for yearly elections of the highest officials in the nation, for "Where annual elections end, there slavery begins." Well.... so much for that. Hah! He is absolutely for public education:

Laws for liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.
Libertarians will like his definition of the responsibilities of the federal government:
If a continental constitution should be formed, it should be a congress, containing a fair and adequate representation of the colonies, and its authority should sacredly be confined to those cases, namely, war, trade, disputes between colony and colony, the post-office, and the unappropriated lands of the crown, as they used to be called.
Interesting, right? John Adams fascinates me and I loved the TV series that came out where Paul Giamatti played him and Laura Linney was Abigail Adams.  Since reading this letter I've done a bit of thinking about the implications of a society built on the pursuit of happiness. I can recognize how it benefits the individual, but what does it mean for us as believers, and before God, and for the morality of society as a whole? Something in me says that this pursuit of happiness is a rather empty goal, and I think about that book Amusing Ourselves to Death that I reviewed a while back. Are we now in America able to entertain ourselves into passive "happiness" more so now than ever before? Now that we've reached this point doesn't it seem empty and shallow, rather like C.S. Lewis's children playing with mud-pies in the slums when there's a holiday at the beach to be had?

All quotes from :
Adams, John. Philadelphia: Pamphlet printed by John Dunlap, 1776. Boston: re-printed by John Gill, in Queen-Street, 1776.

1 comment:

Togenberg said...

Very interesting!

I also just loved the movie with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney