Friday, August 22, 2008

John Adams versus the Quakers

Recently I have been watching the excellent John Adams (HBO Miniseries). I am enjoying it as much as I enjoyed reading the book (John Adams by David McCullough) on which the series was based.

John Adams famously had a dispute with a Quaker named John Dickinson over the issue of whether it was wise for the American colonies to declare independence from England. Dickinson favored a cautious course of negotiation that he thought would avoid war. He said he could not endorse a declaration of independence that would surely result in British retaliation and armed conflict from one end of the colonies to the other. Adams acknowledged that war would inevitably follow a declaration of independence, but his passion for freedom and justice made such a conflict, in his mind, justifiable. Indeed, Adams argued that in the face of British injustices, a declaration of independence was morally obligatory; if such a declaration resulted in war, then the war also was morally obligatory.

It is common, when one reads about history, to ask oneself where one would have stood in the sort of controversy between Adams and the pacifist Quakers of Pennsylvania. (Not all Quakers, of course, were pacifists. Some fought in the war for independence, just as some fought in the American civil war.) In this particular instance, no sooner do I ask the question, then I know exactly what my answer would be, given my current beliefs. I would have been firmly with the Quaker Dickinson and opposed to those in favor of taking the risk of a bloody war. Even knowing everything I now now, from a 21st century perspective, about the consequences, I would be opposed to a declaration of independence that would result in war.

The American war of independence was bloody and brutal. It is impossible for me to see the result, independence from the British, as being anything near worth the horrible price of bloodshed that was paid. In gaining independence, the newly independent Americans went on to be every bit as savage and unjust as they had been while they were British colonists. Slavery continued unabated. Wars against the native Americans continued and even increased. Independence changed almost nothing. Moreover, it would surely have come about on its own anyway, just as it did for Canada. The British were far less interested in the Americas than they were in their only colonies, the ones in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. America was small potatoes in the British Empire.

Given my current way of thinking, I would have opposed the war of independence, and even the declaration of independence that, as all rightly saw, was sure to result in that war. There has not been a single war or conflict that the United States of America has participated in since 1776 that I would have endorsed, given how I now view the world. I would, of course, have been in the minority most of the time, for the United States has long been addicted to violent solutions to problems that might have been solved peacefully.

What is not clear to me is whether I always would have had the courage of my convictions. I can only hope that in the years I have before me, I will not falter.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for that very interesting perspective. The repercussions - or lack of them run riot. European relations - Anglo/French/Spanish relations, quite apart from UK/US - or perhaps, if you were judge no US at all. British territory along with Canada

Sasha said...

Hi, I found your post after seeing the first episode of that miniseries - I was intrigued by some comments John Adam's character says in the show about equality which made me wonder if he were a Quaker (I know so little about famous Quakers!).

But your post made me think - does your theoretical rejection of past wars (i.e. if you were alive at the time) include the US Civil War?

It is interesting to me that many people would say wars can be justified - which is how the untrue justification of the current Iraq war came about (i.e., the popular conviction was cynically misused to garner support). I agree about the brutality of war -and of daily life - in many historical times and many places even now. But savagery goes on without war, too. How would be work out if any violent resistance was the best option?

Dayamati said...

Sasha asks whether John Adams was a Quaker. John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, were Unitarians. Of the first six presidents, four were Anglicans (or Episcoplians) as they tend to be called in the United States. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were all affliliated with the Episcopalian Church, although Jefferson is often said to have preferred not to be described as having any denominational affliliation. After the Adams family, only two other Unitarians became president: Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft. The only two Quaker presidents were Herbert Hoover and Richard M. Nixon.

Sasha also asked whether my theoretical rejection of past wars would include the US Civil War. Yes. If I had lived then with the values I hold today, I would have been strongly opposed to that war. The main issue was whether any states in the United States had a right to stop being part of the United States. I believe they do, so I would not have been in favor of declaring war on the Confederacy to prevent them from leaving the United States. While strongly opposed to the institution of slavery, I think it makes little sense to fight wars and destroy property to bring the institution to an end.

Anonymous said...

Who really likes war? The point is we need to kiss the American ground that we are walking on. Where others in the world live in the cesspools of Communism we are surely lucky to breathe the air of liberty! Thank you John Adams for your ever faithful drive for the cause. The miniseries was eloquently done!

Richard Hayes said...

I'm not sure what good comes of kissing any ground, aside from getting dirt on one's lips. Different people have different priorities. I guess my perspective is that freedom is vastly overrated and is rarely worth violence done to achieve it or preserve it.