Friday, June 30, 2017

Samuel Adams on the Incompatibility of Liberty and Vice

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"Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt."
~Samuel Adams, American patriot
As we run up to Independence Day, it is fitting to remember some sage advice from the American Founding Fathers, if for no other reason than to gauge how far we moderns have fallen from the ideals which motivated them, particularly in the realm of morals and virtue. While no one would argue that that the Founders were always paragons of Christian morality in their actions, it should be recognized, at least, that they understood the key role which public and private virtue plays in maintaining true liberty, and knew well that promotion or toleration of vice is supremely harmful to freedom.

The above quote is taken from an essay Samuel Adams wrote in The Advertiser in 1748. Following is the context of the quote which is particularly instructive:
"Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man. 
"We must not conclude merely upon a man's haranguing upon liberty, and using the charming sound, that he is fit to be trusted with the liberties of his country. It is not unfrequent to hear men declaim loudly upon liberty, who, if we may judge by the whole tenor of their actions, mean nothing else by it but their own liberty — to oppress without control or the restraint of laws all who are poorer or weaker than themselves. It is not, I say, unfrequent to see such instances, though at the same time I esteem it a justice due to my country to say that it is not without shining examples of the contrary kind — examples of men of a distinguished attachment to this same liberty I have been describing; whom no hopes could draw, no terrors could drive, from steadily pursuing, in their sphere, the true interests of their country; whose fidelity has been tried in the nicest and tenderest manner, and has been ever firm and unshaken.
"The sum of all is, if we would most truly enjoy this gift of Heaven, let us become a virtuous people: then we shall both deserve and enjoy it. While, on the other hand, if we are universally vicious and debauched in our manners, though the form of our Constitution carries the face of the most exalted freedom, we shall in reality be the most abject slaves."
Though Adams was as least partially inspired by his study of Roman history for his sentiments above, his words echo those of Saint Paul who says in his epistle to the Romans:
"Know you not, that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are whom you obey, whether it be of sin unto death, or of obedience unto justice?...For the wages of sin is death. But the grace of God, life everlasting, in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:16-23]"
We would do well to heed these warnings from history, lest by becoming slaves to our passions, we become literal slaves to a corrupt and heavy-handed state as well.

Adams's essay quoted above may be found in Wells: The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, page 22.

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