14 July, 2008

Good Advice from two Founders

Benjamin Rush writing to John Adams in retirement:

“I shall continue to believe that ‘great men’ are a lie. And that there is very little difference in that superstition which leads us to believe in what the world calls ‘great men’ and in that which leads us to believe in witches and conjurers”

Adams responded:

“The feasts and funerals in honor of Washington is as corrupt a system as that by which saints were canonized and cardinals, popes and whole hierarchical systems created.” (He writes later that Washington would be offended by the pilgrimages to Mt Vernon)

He also said, “It has become fashionable to call me “The Venerable”. It makes me think of the venerable Bede…or the venerable Savannarola…..Don’t call me ‘Godlike Adams’, ‘The Father of his Country', ‘The Founder of the American Republic’, or the 'Founder of the American Empire'. These titles belong to no man, but to the American people in general".

Adams believed that the ‘deification’ of the revolutionary leaders was transforming the true story of the American Revolution into a melodramatic romance: “It is a common observation in Europe that nothing is so false as modern history….except American modern history”.

In the Adams formulation, the true history was about chance, contingency, unintended consequences, about political leaders who were often improvising on the edge of catastrophe. Events, not men, were in the saddle, and all founders were imperfect men rather than gods come down from Mount Olympus. “It was patched and piebald then", he wrote, “as it is now, ever was, and ever will be, world without end.”

When one man tried to congratulate him for belonging to a truly heroic generation, Adams felt obliged to correct him: “I ought not to object to your reverence for your fathers, meaning those concerned with the direction of public affairs”, he cautioned. “but to tell you a very great secret, as far as I am capable of comparing the merit of different periods, I have no reason to believe that we were better than you are.”

Quoted from, American Creation: The Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic
by Joseph J. Ellis
Top: Benjamin Rush, unknown painter
Bottom: John Adams by Gilbert

1 comment:

Paul Burleson said...


I'm a first time commenter. This is an excellent post as are all of yours I've just gone back and read.

But I have to say, while I'm late in coming to it, your series on Elders, which I've just read, is one of the finest I've ever read and I've been reading as a pastor for over fifty years.

I have several folders full of research material from others on every imaginable subject of theology and your series is going to the top of the list of my folder on 'THE CHURCH.' Outstanding. Thanks..and forgive any moving away from the present post. Keep up the great scriptural insights.

By the way, I've served as the lead teaching Elder [our term] for five years at one church and one of seven Elders at another church for seven years and the single senior pastor of churches for over forty years. I'm not unfamiliar with the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all.

Again, thanks for this post. It's needed.