Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Religious Views of Adams and Jefferson

An insightful question and comment to the first post of this blog asks what were the reigious views of Adams and Jefferson, and how that influenced their political theories. Anyone who is interested can look this up in a book called The Adams Jefferson Correspondence, edited by Cappon. I used it for a course once, and it has many fascinating discussions in it. I would have liked to have accessed it to explain their views, but it has mysteriously disppeared from my library. I probably loaned it to a student and never got it back. In short, towards the end of their lives (they died on the same day, July 4, 1826!), Adams thought that the two of them should explain their religious views to each other. If I remember correctly, Adams claimed he was a Unitarian, who believed in a Divinity and believed in some order in the universe. He thought that any political order should reflect this divine order in things.

As an example, Adams wrote to Abbe Mably in the 1780s asking the Abbe to write a moral and political catechism for the Constitution fo the United States. Adams thought that the Constitution was a Creed. Every Creed needs a Catechism that explains how to live up to the requirements of the Creed, and Mably was the man for writing such a catechism. I do not think, however, that the Catechism got written. Adams thought that without being supported by a moral culture, the American Constitution would not survive.

Jefferson, was some sort of traditional protestant as a young man, perhaps Episcopalian. As he aged, he seemed to become less and less a believer and certainly more cynical about organized religion. One of his last public statements is something to the effect that the American Republic would show once and for all that men could throw off the chains of monkish ignorance.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the excellent information and analysis. I am reasonably well-educated but had not heard of Abbe Mably (unless David McCullough wrote about him in the "John Adams" biography and I failed to retain it). It says something about American education that I am very familiar with Moms Mabley!
I find Adams' Creed/Catechism point to be quite interesting. It makes me consider that he had a much more static view of the Constitution that we do. Also it seems that the people, through Congress, are constantly writing the Catechism. It is as if Congress is a "Vatican Council" which meets in two-year chunks and continually adds to or deletes or modifies the Catechism. That analogy is clunky and inexact but is an attempt to put JA's concept into today's reality.
I am sure that Adams was sent to Harvard to become a Congregationalist Minister but quickly switched to law. I was very interested by your thumbnail sketch of his lifetime of devolving to Unitarianism and Jefferson's seeming lack of real interest in the Faith.
It made me wonder how many of our 43 Presidents have truly been men of lead a nation which proclaims In God We Trust. The only name that came to mind was Jimmy Carter (his failure I believe was due to his lack of scope: he tried to be President as if he was still the Governor of Georgia with 49 other states annexed...JPII is the classic 180-degree opposite as someone who grew into historical greatness far beyond what anyone would have envisioned from his work in a Diocese). Sadly I can think, immediately, of at least eight Presidents who were involved in sexual misconduct at times in their lives: Clinton, LBJ, JFK, IKE, FDR, Harding, Cleveland, Jefferson. But I am stumped to think of a President who seems deeply animated by Faith (I don't consider a Photo Op with Billy Graham at the annual Prayer Breakfast to be the standard!).
Sorry to ramble. This blog is fascinating.
PS I hope that a former student might read your blog and suddenly remember that your copy of the A-J Correspondence should be returned to you.
Finally, I completely agree with a broad application of JA's point: without a moral culture our "great experiment" will fail. Permit me one example. Our entire trial system is based on being confident that we shall hear truthful testimony from sworn witnesses...not because they fear prosecution for perjury but because they fear eternal damnation for "bearing false witness." That has significantly broken down, it seems to me, in the past 40 years or so. If "so help me God" has no more meaning than "Happy Holidays" we are lost!

10:06 AM  

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