In the United States we often look up to our founding fathers with a respect that you don’t always see in other countries. In fact, the one thing most Americans agree on is that the founders were great men -- then it all goes wrong from there. Not always of course, Americans pulling together have undoubtedly accomplished great things. But to tackle at least one of the elephants in the room: the Civil War was definitely not a high point in U.S. history. It was the mother of all pyrrhic victories if there ever was one, with approximately 625,000 self-inflicted deaths. That's over 50% higher than the American casualties of World War II -- and therein lies the elephant: it seems the enemy within is always the toughest foe.
Which is why our founding fathers must have had their fair share of existentialist dilemmas. Fighting a tyrannical government requires a well-armed militia -- until the tyrannical government is defeated. Then all of a sudden you are the government of a well-armed militia with an itchy trigger finger.
Our second president and founding father John Adams tackled the militia dilemma this way: “Never judge a king until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” I’m kidding, of course. He might as well have said that, but what he actually said was, “To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, countries or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws.” (From “A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States 475 (1787-1788)”)
As if that table-turning moment wasn’t enough for John Adams, the matter of God and King -- sorry, God and Country -- must have caused some heavy soul-searching for him. The original U.S. Constitution only had one reference to religion, and it was a limiting one at that [Article 6]: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Even 100 years later, the original Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the words “under God”. That was inserted in 1954 by Animal Farm’s Napoleon. But in the pig’s defense: why on earth would our founding fathers, surely God-fearing men themselves, go through such trouble to keep God and religion out of the Constitution? Enter stage yet another foul-smelling animal: a doctrine known as The Divine Right of Kings.
In the 1500’s, over three hundred Protestants were burnt at the stake in England under "Bloody Mary" -- a Catholic-based persecution of Protestants, essentially because God told Queen Mary he was cool with it. When Thomas Wyatt the younger instigated what became known as Wyatt's rebellion, John Ponet, the highest-ranking ecclesiastic among those escaping persecution, allegedly participated in the uprising. He escaped after the rebellion's defeat, and subsequently published A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power. According to John Adams, Ponet's work contained "all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke", including the idea of a three-branched government.
And there it was, humanity’s first notion of an accountable government had been conceived. The proverbial over-the-head light bulb had switched on for great thinkers, starting with Mr. Age of Enlightenment himself, John Locke. Opposition to the Divine Right of Kings spread like lit gunpowder, from John Milton’s The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates to Locke's Essay Concerning The True Original Extent, and End of Civil-Government. But the mother of all declarations against tyranny, divine or otherwise, was finally written by one Thomas Jefferson and his lesser-known collaborator, John Adams. Jefferson and Adams were indeed God-respecting men; but they left us with no doubt that what they did not respect was the idea of men governing with claims to God’s will.
Four score and seven years later, Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg Address, did in fact say “this nation, under God”. But he also made certain that those same words were immediately followed by words that could have just as well been written by Jefferson and Adams: “a government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Yes, we may not like the people, sometimes. OK, who am I kidding, most of the time. In the words of Helmut Schmidt, (West) Germany’s Chancellor during the late 70’s: “The Americans are what they are, but they are the only Americans we have.” I will trust imperfect Americans to govern over me, even if I don’t always agree with them. But I will line up behind enlightened men in revolution against tyranny, if our leader or leaders one day declare they’re on a mission from God (with all due respect to Jake and Elwood Blues).
“The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles?”
- John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, June 20, 1815
I know it will give great offense to the clergy, but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.
- Thomas Jefferson