Saturday, February 09, 2008

Adams & Zaleucus Redux:

I'd like to thank Brandon at Sirius for the thoughtful discussion on my recent posts on the religious heterodoxy of Jefferson and Adams. He takes issue with my assertion that John Adams' praise of the preamble to the laws of Zaleucus in a publicly published book from America's Founding era was dangerously heterodox and could have gotten him into trouble with the orthodox as did Notes on the State of Virginia got Jefferson into trouble. Brandon writes:

Adams doesn't say that pagan Greco-Roman religion is "rational, intelligible, and eternal, for the real happiness of man in society, and throughout his duration"; he says that Zaleucus's preamble to his laws places religion, morals, and government on a philosophy which it serves as a basis that is "rational, intelligible, and eternal &c." But while the original context is pagan and Greco-Roman, it's unclear, in fact, that what Adams identifies as the content of Zaleucus's preamble would have been regarded by anyone as particularly pagan or Greco-Roman at all; the view argued for by Adams in the work from which the text comes, i.e., that government is subject to progressive improvement that successively uncovers the eternal principles of good government, is an extremely common one in the period. Read in that context it's fairly innocuous; one reads it naturally as simply saying that Zaleucus was one step closer to the ideal republic than his predecessors because he built his laws on eternally true principles, without, however, coming as close to that goal as his successors.

Brandon's reading may be right. And if so this accords with what I've argued before that America's Founders were more likely to make cautious religious arguments in their public writings and speeches, but detail their personal heterodox beliefs in their private writings. For instance, in his private letters to Jefferson, Adams makes clear that he equated the preamble to the laws of Zaleucus -- a set of laws supposedly revealed by Athena 600BC -- with Christianity. Indeed, he gave Zaleucus' preamble the highest complement he could: He equated it with Joseph Priestley's version of "Christianity," which was the version in which Adams himself personally believed; Priestley was the spiritual mentor to Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and others. As Adams wrote to Jefferson, Dec. 25, 1813:

The preamble to the laws of Zaleucus, which is all that remains, is as orthodox Christian theology as Priestley's, and Christian benevolence and forgiveness of injuries almost as clearly expressed.

That entire letter is worth a close read as Adams explicates his religious creed in detail. Among other things he notes the Christian Trinity is a "fabrication," that reason supersedes revelation, that the Bible is the best book, not because it is infallible but because it agrees with Adams' personal theology, and the Shastra, a Hindu treatise, is likewise "orthodox theology."

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