“Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people.”
On this day of our nation’s rockiest Presidential Inauguration, I turn my thoughts to John Adams.
“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.”
George Washington served as our first President for eight years, so popular he could have continued on forever, yet he established the precedent of two terms and a graceful hand-off to his Vice-President. Four years after the first Number Two became the second Number One, John Adams had a far more distasteful task: to turn over the reins of an office he fought for and desired to his bitterest opponent: Thomas Jefferson.
“The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.”
If John Adams had a seditious bone in his body, he might have scripted an early version of ‘45’s playbook. Thankfully for us, he did not. In 1801, conducting a peaceful transition of power between ideological opposites was truly revolutionary.
“Power always sincerely, conscientiously…believes itself right. Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views, beyond the comprehension of the weak.”
Among our Founding Fathers, John Adams cuts a peculiar figure. Short and stout, overbearing and righteous. (Adams bowed to Jefferson becoming President, but he did not attend the Inauguration and the two men remained bitter rivals. Adams’ last words are reported to be, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” when in fact, both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826.) Adams was unemotional, rational beyond bending, yet as devoted to his wife Abigail and their children as to his pursuit of freedom. One of the least wealthy Founding Fathers, John Adams lived a life of equality (he was an abolitionist who never owned slaves) even as his Federalist leanings and distrust of majority whim make him a potential poster child of today’s educated elite.
“Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”
Yet in the ribald election of 1800, wealthy, slave-owning Jefferson successfully portrayed himself as the champion of the little man. Perhaps the earliest example of American voters selecting a leader based on what he says, rather than what he does.
“Power must never be trusted without a check.”
So today, as Joe Biden becomes our 46th President despite ten weeks of false claims of election fraud, an attempted judicial coup, and violent sedition, let us give thanks to John Adams for his courage and humility. To turn power over to a rival because we are:
“A government of laws, and not of men.”