“There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty. And this public Passion must be Superiour to all private Passions.”
The man who would become America’s second president wrote those words in 1775 after the British Parliament declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. Adams was commenting on the quality of personal virtue and how it was absolutely essential if the colonies were to successfully stand up to Great Britain.
Thomas E. Ricks writes about Adams as well George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – the first four presidents of the United States – in his most recent book with the self-explanatory title: “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.”
Ricks explains how “John Adams aspired to be the Cicero of his time – that is, the key political figure in late-eighteenth-century America.” Adams himself noted how Cicero, the famous statesman and orator, taught Romans “to prefer that which is honest before that which is popular.”
As I read Ricks’ insightful book recently, I could not help but compare his description of the initial presidents’ principles with the events of modern times. Many of today’s self-described “rebels” fight for what they call “individual liberties,” often brandishing the Gadsden flag with its “Don’t tread on me” message. Yet, do they truly understand how the founding fathers placed the “public good” over “private passions”?
Consider the “small but unruly mob [that] used profanity and intimidation tactics” against Cheshire school officials and legislators at an Aug. 25 public meeting. As my CTNewsJunkie colleague Terry Cowgill described it, “The goon squad eventually turned its anger toward Gov. Ned Lamont, who was also present.”
This was hardly the only local school meeting in Connecticut that has been disrupted by disorderly anti-mask protesters, which I believe the founding fathers would have found counterproductive to a working republic. By all means, these “anti-mask rebels” should exercise their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly, but there’s a reason the First Amendment also includes the word “peaceably” as it describes these rights.
And then there is the anti-vaccination faction, represented explicitly by Jennifer Semrow, a registered nurse from Middletown who refuses the required COVID-19 vaccination for employees of long-term care facilities. She attended a rally in Hartford on Aug. 28 wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with this quote from Thomas Jefferson: “When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.”
Problem is, Jefferson never wrote these words. Nor did he write the even less incendiary words from which this alleged Jeffersonian quote was derived: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” The founding fathers believed in resistance, when appropriate – the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War immediately come to mind – but they placed the greatest value on personal virtue, especially as expressed through the common good.
Such personal virtue was exactly what the Revolutionary troops exhibited when General George Washington mandated inoculation against smallpox in 1777. Said Washington: “We should have more to dread from [smallpox], than from the Sword of the Enemy.” Consequently, “Variola (smallpox) raged throughout the war, devastating the Native American population and slaves who had chosen to fight for the British in exchange for freedom. Yet the isolated infections that sprung up among Continental regulars during the southern campaign failed to incapacitate a single regiment.”
As author Ricks writes, “[F]or the Revolutionary generation, virtue was the essential element of public life. … It meant putting the common good before one’s own interests. Virtue, writes historian Joyce Appleby, was the ‘lynchpin’ of public life – that is, the fastener that held the structure together.”
I fear the lynchpin is coming loose – if it isn’t already unfastened. And I think George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would be supremely disappointed.
Barth Keck is entering his 31st year as an English teacher and his 16th year as assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language and Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or Regional School District 17.