Tuesday, July 25, 2006

John Adams on Thanksgiving Proclamations:

This may surprise some folks. It's well known that Washington, Adams, and Madison issued Thanksgiving proclamations (to a generic God), while Jefferson refused. And Madison, in his Detached Memoranda seemed to indicate it's improper for the federal government to do this (thus giving support to the notion that Founding-era practice is not dispositive, that indeed, it's entirely possible to raise a constitutional ideal one minute, then break it the next).

Before seeing this quotation in James H. Hutson's fine book, I didn't know that Adams too regretted issuing the Thanksgiving Proclamation. His words are quite interesting:

The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, & & &, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicon prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them "Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President." This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.

John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812. Old Family Letters, 392-93; taken from Hutson's The Founders on Religion, 101-02.


Tom Van Dyke said...

This explicitly illustrates the problem is the "Presbyterian" part, sectarian, which is the "church" they had in mind in "separation of church and state," and not the Thanksgiving part.

As some Christians err claiming the Founding for their religion, so too agnostics err in claiming the philosophy of the Founding for empiricism.

I mean, Nietzsche hadn't even killed God yet...

Jim Babka said...

Yes, this looks like more a political regret than a philosophical/theological regret.

Brian Tubbs said...

I see we agree on at least one thing...you too like James Hutson's book The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations.

Adams' quote here reveals the real problem that the Founders faced. Whenever a public figure, particularly a President, would wade into religion - however broadly and generally, the risk was that it would contribute to denominational rivalry.

Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and many other Founders had to tread very delicately in this arena - so delicately in fact that Adams and Jefferson had their fill of it. The vicious politics of denominationalism so infuriated them that they were turned off to organized religion. Their writings make that very clear. Washington was able to remain above the religious fray.

But I would urge all readers here to NOT make the mistake that I feel Jon and others do, and that is to conclude that that these Founders wanted a government completely neutral on religion.

It was John Adams, after all, who said: "Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

And Adams who wrote Jefferson in 1817, saying: "Without Religion, this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell."

-Brian Tubbs http://americanfounding.blogspot.com

Jonathan said...

Well. I would agree that they thought some religion was better than no religion. But they also thought that all religions, even the Pagan ones, basically taught the same truth as Christianity and were thus valid ways to God.

AND they believed that Atheists possessed full and equal rights of conscience.

Brian Tubbs said...

"Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers." --John Jay, first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and co-author of The Federalist Papers.

Now, I'm not suggesting that Mr. Jay here was expressing official U.S. government policy, but you can't marginalize him as a third-rate Founder or contend that his view was that of a small minority.

Moreoever, it was John Adams, a man you routinely cite as a Deist / Unitarian, who considered a "veneration for the religion of a people who...call themselves Christian" and a "decent respect for Christianity" to be among his "best recommendations for public service." This was from his Inaugural Address, and note that he singularly emphasized Christianity over all other religions.

***By the way, both of these quotes can be found in our mutually appreciated book by James Hutson. :-)

-Brian Tubbs

And it was John Adams, one of the