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Psalm 78
. . . we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done. .
so the next generation would know them . . . and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mr. and Mrs. Adams on Human Nature and Government

John Adams wrote in his journal in the early 1770s,
"Government is nothing more than the combined force of society, or the united power of the multitude, for the peace, order, safety, good and happiness of the people...There is no king or queen bee distinguished from all the others, by size or figure or beauty and variety of colors, in the human hive. No man has yet produced any revelation from heaven in his favor, any divine communication to govern his fellow men. Nature throws us all into the world equal and alike...

The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved...

Ambition is one of the more ungovernable passions of the human heart. The love of power is insatiable and uncontrollable...

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty."

His wife Abigail wrote to him in 1775,
"I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or few is ever grasping. The great fish swallow up the small and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances."
(As quoted in John Adams by David McCullough, 2001, p. 69-70 and p. 101.)


Louisiana Laura said...

A seriously appropriate exerpt for this current climate. Thanks for the post, inspiration to read such good books. HOpe you're feeling well!

Sharon said...

Hi Amy,

I find this part of the quote of particular interest: "No man has yet produced any revelation from heaven in his favor, any divine communication to govern his fellow men."

As you know, I am still studying through the books of Moses with BSF. (We go back for our last term next Wednesday.) Surely Moses is one person of whom it could be said that there was "divine communication" in favour of him leading his fellow men. Exodus 3 recounts Moses' calling by God for a particular task in leading people, in particular Exod 3:10: "So now go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt." Surely by anyone's standard leading 600,000 men plus women and children and hangers-on out of one nation (on foot!) into another demands a particular position of governmental power.

Later, the Israelites asked that Moses would meet with God apart from them and be an intermediary between them and God (Exodus 20:19). This position of intermediary was definitely in line with God's promises to Moses, for example in Exod 19:9: "The LORD said to Moses, "I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you."..." I think it would be reasonable to say that God not only appointed Moses as leader of the Israelites, He also took steps to ensure that His divine appointment would be recognised, acknowledged and adhered to.

Then when Moses' (and then also Aaron's) leadership was challenged, as recorded in Numbers 12 and Numbers 16 & 17, God made it clear in no uncertain terms that His choice of leader - His choice alone - was to hold governmental and/or priestly power over the people.

Sharon said...

(cont from previous comment)

There were other people who were God-ordained leaders of nations. The first two kings of Israel, Saul and David, were divinely appointed. 1 Samuel 8 records how the Israelite people demanded that God would give them a king, and God agreed to their demands (see 1 Samuel 8:19-22 especially). 1 Samuel 9:17 records, "When Samuel caught sight of Saul, the LORD said to him, "This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people."" Samuel annointed Saul at God's direct instruction (1 Samuel 10). It was only later (1 Samuel 11:12-15) that the people of Israel had an opportunity to ratify God's sovereign choice of their leader.

Then, because of Saul's wicked presumption in offering sacrifices to the LORD, a task not in his God-given job description, God took away His favour from upon Saul. God chose David to be king, and Samuel anointed David following God's precise instructions. It was many years later that David came into his kingship officially, but from the time of his anointing, David was the chosen king of Israel in God's eyes, if not in those of Saul or the people. (See 1 Samuel 13, 15, 16:1-13 and following chapters.)

Sharon said...

(cont from previous comments)

It is clear from all these passages that God does indeed appoint and anoint particular people for government leadership positions, or at least He has done so in the past. So I do not agree with Adams. (I find it particularly ironic that John Adam's wife was named Abigail, so I would have hoped that they would be familiar with the story of King David, if not the others.) Adams was one of the US presidents, right? Please forgive my lack of knowledge of US history.

Not knowing the context of this journal entry, it is hard to know whether Adams was presuming that God no longer acts (in these post-cross "last days") to choose national leaders in the way that He did in the past, or if Adams believed God never did, or only did with Israel. Perhaps you can hazard a more educated guess.) Even if I presume Adams held the first belief, I think this is a wrong stance. Paul wrote of a gift of leadership that is bestowed by God's grace in Romans 12, in particular where he wrote, "We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is ... leadership, let him govern diligently..." (from Romans 12:6-8). By God's grace, some people are specially gifted for governance. And God does not gift people for a task if He does not expect them to carry out that task. So by gifting certain people for governance, He is showing His divine favour for their leadership, in my opinion.

Furthermore, Paul wrote on the subject of general (non-Christian) governance in Romans 13:1-7. In the first verse, he wrote, "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.". Paul's opinion on the matter could not be clearer. All human authorities, whether godly or ungodly in their administration of their duties, are established by God.

Perhaps, as in the case of Saul's oft-times despotic rule, we may see that God is visiting judgement upon us by His choice of leader over our nation(s). Then again, we shouldn't be too quick to assume that God is merely giving us what we deserve. It is certain that God plans to use our trials under ungodly leaders (and even under the most God-fearing leaders) as one way He brings us to maturity in Christ. As Paul had written earlier in his letter to the Romans, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified."

I hope you don't mind the length of this comment string, Amy. I wouldn't dare write so much on anyone else's blog, you know!

~ Sharon

Sharon said...

Hi Amy,

Your post gave me a lot to think about while the kids watched VegieTales. Here's a post I have written in response:

May God bless you as He uses you to keep my mind and heart focussed on Him and His Kingly rule.

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

Well! Adams struck a chord with you!

Let me fill you in on a little context about John Adams and American history. First, John Adams was actually a devoted Christian man and he and his wife Abigail held their Christian faith very dear to them. They lived near Boston in the 1700s, descended from Puritans, and most modern people would be uncomfortable, if anything, with the way that Adams felt that God was purposing for America to be independent. In fact, he wrote after the motion for independence was passed that it only came about by divine providence. In other words, Adams was outspoken about his belief that God has a hand in human affairs.

I seriously doubt that Adams would dispute God's specific call upon Israel and perhaps erred by generalizing too much in this quote. When I first read it I, too, thought of this objection. And, we'll keep in mind that it was written in his journal, private thoughts not polished for publication. Yes, you're right that God has established all authority, but He also paradoxically holds nations accountable for their wickedness even has He ordains it (Assyria is a great example of this).

I'm not an expert on the Classics in regard to the formation of government, but I know that Adams drew on these thoughts combined with his understanding of human nature, which was grounded in a Biblical view. That is, Adams understood that man is at heart a sinner, that power is difficult hold with humility, and that every leader should be accountable to those he leads.

I posted these quotes most of all because of what they observed about human nature. Liberty is always in peril in two ways--those in leadership inevitably decide that they can make better decisions than the people they govern (for instance, they decide parents can't be trusted to educate their children or that religious instruction is unacceptable) and the people themselves prefer to trade their own liberty for comforts provided by the government.

Sharon said...

Thank you for giving me some more of the historical context, Amy. I did realise that context made a difference, and was presuming that Adams was a Christian, but just felt like responding to that particular line. I guess your response illustrates the dangers of letting selected "sound byte quotes" control our voting choices in the different democracies that we each live in today.

My response has to be understood from the POV of someone born and raised within the British Commonwealth. Our head of state is still the Queen, represented by the Governor General (an Australia appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the elected parliament), who ratifies any new laws - or not. I'm personally quite content for Australia to remain a Commonwealth country, as well.

Australia was initially settled by the English as a penal colony (a place to send all those delinquents who were overcrowding the jails in England, and of course soldiers to oversee the convicts), so our national identity is very different from that of Americans, whose first settlers came not because they were in chains, but to escape chains and maintain religious freedoms. Although perhaps our countries do have some similarities in how the indigenous peoples of the land were treated by the settlers who took over their land. (Please accept my apologies if any of the language I am using is inflammatory from your perspective. I know that can be a problem when we are writing from two different cultures.)

Considering the context of the Adams quote, and if we revisit the case of King Saul, it is clear that God knew of the dangers of appointing a king who would match the people's distorted desires (see 1 Samuel 8:10-18). Yet, God handed the people over to their folly. When the many kings of Israel refused to worship Him in the succeeding generations (and the majority of Judah's kings as well), God's wrath burned, though the fullness of His punishment (the exiles) was held off for generations. This is an obvious instance of God's mercy. Yet, for Israelites who were alive in these times of almost-nation-wide apostacy, it may not have been seen as mercy. In holding off punishment of the kings and the nation as a whole, the people who were being abused by the kings and priests (eg, widows) did not see God's justice meted out in their lifetimes. I guess the same dichotomy of mercy and apparent injustice is true today, as we yearn for Jesus' return when He will be revealed to all people as the King of kings and Lord of lords - and ultimately judge the living and the dead.

The problem for all of us, whether we see our earthly leaders as divinely appointed or not, is the same as God warned the Israelites (1 Samuel 8:17b-18): "you yourselves will become [the king's] slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day." Whether our leaders are kings born into a divinely appointed sovereign family line, or politicians voted in through some human-designed "democratic" process; whether our nation was born from a recent revolution or from millenia of invasion and immigration; whether our leaders live on our continent or another far away: we will always be slaves to our national leaders. That is, we will be slaves if we let ourselves be slaves.

There is another option. Rather than be slaves to sin and the desires of men (including our own sinful desires), we can be slaves to righteousness, under God who is Sovereign with a capital S! As Paul wrote in Romans 6:16, "Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?"

~ Sharon

Once again, a very long comment. I am enjoying this discussion - I hope I'm not being too insistent!

Mrs. Edwards said...

Thanks for engaging so fully with this! I appreciate your thoughts so much. I wrote a bit over on your blog and you'll notice from my final paragraphs that I'm feeling unqualified to say much more. John Adams' education, breadth of knowledge, and ability was so superior to my own that all I can hope to do is learn from him and be inspired to keep learning!

As I said in your comment section:
Finally, one last thought. We are all a product of our age, like it or not. (Our only hope for transcendence lies in the study of Scripture, which transcends cultures and ages.) In that, reading about John Adams is incredibly humbling. There is really nothing that I can say to truly comment on his words, for I'm unqualified to do so. It surely reflects my generation that I'm willing to spill so much cyber-ink opining on subjects beyond my expertise. That is, Adams read the classics in their original languages. He carried around poems by Milton and Shakespeare to read in his down time. He knew thoroughly the writings of John Locke and others about government. I cannot do these things. I read Milton and Shakespeare with effort. He was educated in the law. He wrote the constitution of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, the oldest constitution still in use today. He applied his knowledge and experience in the nature of man and politics and government toward the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

My education--and ability--fails me, but like most of my generation, it hasn't kept me from forming opinions. Reading Adams reminds me that this is a frightful thing, not just for myself, but for our age. Finally, it humbles me to realize that my high ideals of "Veritas at Home" and imparting a classical education to my children are really just child's play.

Sharon said...

You are right, and these are all true for me also. So perhaps we had better leave this conversation here? I have thoroughly enjoyed it, Amy. Thanks!

~ Sharon

PS Goodnight.

Mrs. Edwards said...

For the record I must say that my comments above about John Adams' faith were based upon my readings of the early part of his life. As I read further, I can't be sure that he was truly a regenerated Christian, and from what I can tell the record is mixed on his doctrinal views and how they evolved over the course of his life. So, let me limit myself to saying that he was from a Puritan heritage, a congregational Protestant, and that this appears to have shaped his worldview. As for his personal salvation, I should not have sounded so certain.

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