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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

John Adams believed that correct “policy and education” would be able to unite all the disparate elements to be found in the territory of the new United States, and that the new constitution was so perfectly designed that it would “unite their interests and affections”. He even went so far as to believe that this “uniformity of principles and sentiments”, of “wills and forces”, would result in “the greatest exertion of human understanding” and “the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen”. No wonder that his heart had “melted into reverence and awe” at the future he saw unfolding before him.

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28 April, 2008

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John Adams predicts a glorious future for America under the new constitution and is in “reverence and awe” at its future prospects (1787)

Read the full quote in context here.

In the conclusion to his 3 volume Defence of the Constitutions of the U.S. John Adams looks forward to the very great promise the new American republican experiment offers the world:

All nations, from the beginning, have been agitated by the same passions. The principles developed here will go a great way in explaining every phenomenon that occurs in the history of government. The vegetable and animal kingdoms, and those heavenly bodies whose existence and movements we are as yet only permitted faintly to perceive, do not appear to be governed by laws more uniform or certain than those which regulate the moral and political world. Nations move by unalterable rules; and education, discipline, and laws, make the greatest difference in their accomplishments, happiness, and perfection. It is the master artist alone who finishes his building, his picture, or his clock. The present actors on the stage have been too little prepared by their early views, and too much occupied with turbulent scenes, to do more than they have done. Impartial justice will confess that it is astonishing they have been able to do so much. It is for the young to make themselves masters of what their predecessors have been able to comprehend and accomplish but imperfectly. A prospect into futurity in America, is like contemplating the heavens through the telescopes of Herschell. Objects stupendous in their magnitudes and motions strike us from all quarters, and fill us with amazement! When we recollect that the wisdom or the folly, the virtue or the vice, the liberty or servitude, of those millions now beheld by us, only as Columbus saw these times in vision, are certainly to be influenced, perhaps decided, by the manners, examples, principles, and political institutions of the present generation, that mind must be hardened into stone that is not melted into reverence and awe.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

All nations, from the beginning, have been agitated by the same passions. The principles developed here will go a great way in explaining every phenomenon that occurs in the history of government. The vegetable and animal kingdoms, and those heavenly bodies whose existence and movements we are as yet only permitted faintly to perceive, do not appear to be governed by laws more uniform or certain than those which regulate the moral and political world. Nations move by unalterable rules; and education, discipline, and laws, make the greatest difference in their accomplishments, happiness, and perfection. It is the master artist alone who finishes his building, his picture, or his clock. The present actors on the stage have been too little prepared by their early views, and too much occupied with turbulent scenes, to do more than they have done. Impartial justice will confess that it is astonishing they have been able to do so much. It is for the young to make themselves masters of what their predecessors have been able to comprehend and accomplish but imperfectly.

A prospect into futurity in America, is like contemplating the heavens through the telescopes of Herschell. Objects stupendous in their magnitudes and motions strike us from all quarters, and fill us with amazement! When we recollect that the wisdom or the folly, the virtue or the vice, the liberty or servitude, of those millions now beheld by us, only as Columbus saw these times in vision, are certainly to be influenced, perhaps decided, by the manners, examples, principles, and political institutions of the present generation, that mind must be hardened into stone that is not melted into reverence and awe. With such affecting scenes before his eyes, is there, can there be, a young American indolent and incurious; surrendered up to dissipation and frivolity; vain of imitating the loosest manners of countries, which can never be made much better or much worse? A profligate American youth must be profligate indeed, and richly merits the scorn of all mankind.

The world has been too long abused with notions, that climate and soil decide the characters and political institutions of nations. The laws of Solon and the despotism of Mahomet have, at different times, prevailed at Athens; consuls, emperors, and pontiffs have ruled at Rome. Can there be desired a stronger proof, that policy and education are able to triumph over every disadvantage of climate? Mankind have been still more injured by insinuations, that a certain celestial virtue, more than human, has been necessary to preserve liberty. Happiness, whether in despotism or democracy, whether in slavery or liberty, can never be found without virtue. The best republics will be virtuous, and have been so; but we may hazard a conjecture, that the virtues have been the effect of the well ordered constitution, rather than the cause. And, perhaps, it would be impossible to prove that a republic cannot exist even among highwaymen, by setting one rogue to watch another; and the knaves themselves may in time be made honest men by the struggle.

It is now in our power to bring this work to a conclusion with unexpected dignity. In the course of the last summer, two authorities have appeared, greater than any that have been before quoted, in which the principles we have attempted to defend have been acknowledged.

The first is, an Ordinance of Congress, of the thirteenth of July, 1787, for the Government of the Territory of the United States, Northwest of the River Ohio.

The second is, the Report of the Convention at Philadelphia, of the seventeenth of September, 1787.

The former confederation of the United States was formed upon the model and example of all the confederacies, ancient and modern, in which the federal council was only a diplomatic body. Even the Lycian, which is thought to have been the best, was no more. The magnitude of territory, the population, the wealth and commerce, and especially the rapid growth of the United States, have shown such a government to be inadequate to their wants; and the new system, which seems admirably calculated to unite their interests and affections, and bring them to an uniformity of principles and sentiments, is equally well combined to unite their wills and forces as a single nation. A result of accommodation cannot be supposed to reach the ideas of perfection of any one; but the conception of such an idea, and the deliberate union of so great and various a people in such a plan, is, without all partiality or prejudice, if not the greatest exertion of human understanding, the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen. That it may be improved is not to be doubted, and provision is made for that purpose in the report itself. A people who could conceive, and can adopt it, we need not fear will be able to amend it, when, by experience, its inconveniences and imperfections shall be seen and felt.

[More works by John Adams (1735 – 1826)]