- Published: 08 January 2012
To any who seek to condemn, if not to defame, The Founders for alleged mistakes, an appropriate answer would be the one hurled by Samuel Adams at detractors of "our ancestors" who proffered "excuses" for their errors (essay, Boston Gazette, 1771):
"But we want no excuse for any supposed mistakes of our ancestors. Let us first see it prov'd that they were mistakes. 'Till then we must hold ourselves obliged to them for sentiments transmitted to us so worthy of their character, and so important to our security: . . ." (Emphasis added.)
It is of interest to note here a remark of President John Quincy Adams in his First Inaugural Address, after reciting the felicitous situation of the American people under the Constitution's governmental system:
"To admit that this picture has its shades is but to say that it is still the condition of men upon earth. From evil--physical, moral, and political--it is not our claim to be exempt."
A particularly misleading and effective but most unfair and entirely unsound technique used in criticizing The Founders merits stressing here: comparison of their ideas and handiwork with a false standard of theoretical perfection--never existing in the world then, or before, or since; also unsoundly comparing their ideas and handiwork with developments of a later period instead of using the only sound comparison: what had been known in the Old World throughout history. The error and unsoundness involved in such false comparisons is too obvious to need more than mere mention in order to make clear the fallacy involved.
It is a tremendously important and never-ending problem for the self-governing American people to be not only adequately informed but ever alert and vigorously active in forestalling whenever possible, and combating whenever necessary, any and all threats to Individual Liberty and to its supporting system of constitutionally limited government. In this connection, it is essential to keep in mind that the greatest danger lies in the subtle and gradual, or piecemeal, approach of danger--by which the foundations are gradually eroded rather than by open and outright assault; accompanied by harsh attacks upon all who seek to alert the people to such danger whenever it threatens. This was stressed by Samuel Adams--always in the forefront, as a firebrand patriot, in the fight for Liberty and Independence, for the rights of Free Man through Freedom from Goverument-over-Man--in an essay published in 1771 in the Boston Gazette, signed "Candidus" (quoted exactly as in original text, including emphasis):
"If the liberties of America are ever compleatly ruined, of which in my opinion there is now the utmost danger, it will in all probability be the consequence of a mistaken notion of prudence, which leads men to acquiesce in measures of the most destructive tendency for the sake of present ease. When designs are form'd to rase the very foundation of a free government, those few who are to erect their grandeur and fortunes upon the general ruin, will employ every art to sooth the devoted people into a state of indolence, inattention and security, which is forever the fore-runner of slavery-- They are alarmed at nothing so much, as attempts to awaken the people to jealousy and watchfulness; and it has been an old game played over and over again, to hold up the men who would rouse their fellow citizens and countrymen to a sense of their real danger, and spirit them to the most zealous activity in the use of all proper means for the preservation of the public liberty, as 'pretended patriots,' 'intemperate politicians,' rash, hotheaded men, Incendiaries, wretched desperadoes, who, as was said of the best of men, would turn the world upside down, or have done it already."
These remarks pertained to internal dangers to Individual Liberty equally as much as to external dangers in that day, then involving potentially the values inherent in the approaching Twin Revolution of 1776 (discussed at pages 132-136, ante). These internal dangers to Individual Liberty are ever present, potentially or actually in greater or lesser degree, in every generation--from year to year and day to day. This 1771 warning by Samuel Adams constitutes also one of his most salutary admonitions to Posterity.