John Adams and Virtue: Making America

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the shared goal of every American. We all have a pretty good idea about what life and liberty mean, but what about pursuit of happiness? John Adams, our second president, understood how crucial this concept was to the American idea. Dinesh DSouza explains.


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 “…life, liberty and the pursuit of happinessis the shared goal of every American

The US Constitution was written to make it possible

We all have a pretty good idea about what life and liberty mean, but what about the last part of the phrasethe pursuit of happiness?

Thats a little harder to pin down

Lets give it a try.   

The 17th century English philosopher John Locke spoke narrowly of the rights to life, liberty and propertyThe Declaration of Independence widened the scope to something far grander, the quest for what Aristotle termed the true end of all human endeavorhappiness itself.

We think today of happiness in relativistic terms, something each person pursues in their own way. For example, in Shakespeares Hamlet Polonius advises Laertes, “To thine own self be true.” In other words, be yourself.

We hear this a lot today

To John Adams, Americas second president and a seminal figure in the creation of the country, this was bad advice

For Adams and the Founders generally, happiness was a modus vivendi, a way of living, expressed by how one conducted oneself, especially in public

Adams understood that people are an imperfect amalgam of the admirable and the abominable; thatbeing yourselfdoes not automatically lead to good character. Its more likely, in fact, to lead to self-absorption. The only way to attain a good character is, like everything else, to work at it.

The best way to do this, Adams contended, was literally to imagine a noble characterhere were talking about a character like a character in a playand then strive to become that character

Walk like that character, think like him, feel like him, act like himOver time, through the result of continual effort and the slow working of habit, one can become that person. Adams practiced what he preached. In this way, he became a public figure both incorruptible and unfailingly honestHe became the best version of himself.

This takes us back to the Foundersconception of happiness

They subscribed to the Aristotelian belief that genuine happiness is achieved whenthe activity of the soulis in perfect harmonywith virtue.”  None of the founders reflected on this idea more than John Adams.  

Not only did he want his own life to be defined by virtue, he also wanted the infant republic to be built on itWithout virtue, he believed, America could not succeed.

Today the termvirtueseems anachronistic, a notion from the past. But to Adams, Americas survival as a free country depended on it

The preservation of liberty,” he wrote, “depends on 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.”

In a monarchy, Adams noted, the people dont need virtue. They can beas vicious and foolish as they please because all political responsibility lies in the hands of the king and his retinueIn a republic, however, the people are the governmentSo, the virtue of the state is a reflection of the virtue of the people.

Given that human nature is deeply flawed, this created an obvious problem of which Adams was painfully aware

I have seen all along my life,” he observed, “such selfishness and littlenessthat I sometimes tremble to think that, altho we are engaged in the best cause that ever employed the Human Heartthe Prospect of success is doubtfulnot for Want of Power or of Wisdom but of Virtue.”

How could the new nation develop a virtuous citizenry? A devout Christian with enormous respect for the Jews and the Hebrew Bible, Adams certainly saw belief in God and fear of His judgment as indispensable. So was a proper education

But he did not think these were enough

A virtuous government would also be necessary. Heres where a clearly delineated, and easily understood constitution would be essential. And no one worked harder than Adams to create one.

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