Considering John Adams’ writings on property rights, freedom and the constitution. The spelling of “defence” was the word type Adams used in his essay, “In Defence of the Constitution” from The Founders' Constitution, Volume 1, Chapter 16, Document 15.
The word “Constitution” seems to convey an outdated and irrelevant guide to American living. I used it for this blog because it’s the title of a short essay by John Adams, our second president, that defined a free and civilized society.
Adams wrote his defense of the Constitution because he worried how property and wealth would be treated in America. This topic remains relevant to all of us. He speculated that fear, habit, prejudice, religion or even principle in a developing nation would “restrain the poor from attacking the rich and the idle from usurping on the industrious.” Adams knew that despite disparities in wealth in colonial America, most people were prideful and responsible, and did not envy those with property. Rather, most citizens were motivated to work to achieve the wealth they desired.
With uncanny foresight more than 200 years ago, Adams described the breakdown of society over property ownership. He predicted a time when a popular movement would find the courage to try dividing all property among the people, and to create a sharing atmosphere under an “all for one and one for all” theme. He even foretold how this redistribution of wealth would occur: “Debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich and not at all on the others; and, at last a downright equal division of everything (would) be demanded, and voted.”
Today we’ve seen college loans exonerated, debts eliminated by bankruptcy, mortgages forgiven for those “forced” to buy property they couldn’t afford, and widespread abuse of disability retirements, unemployment benefits, and even farm insurance and crop subsidies. Many segments of society enjoy support they have not earned, which the government calls “entitlements.” I’m sure entitlements fit Adams’ notion of a way for those without property – or those who haven’t earned their way through work – to demand “their fair share.”
The most interesting part of Adams’ essay is his description of what will happen after property sharing becomes standard. “The idle, the vicious, the intemperate would rush into the utmost extravagance of debauchery, sell and spend all their share and then demand a new division of (property from) those who purchased from them.” In other words, those who lack initiative in acquiring and managing assets won’t change even after receiving their “fair share.” I see evidence of the same phenomenon in people who live beyond their means or off of others. They rarely become independent, self-supporting citizens. Meanwhile, those who live within their means, save money, and responsibly acquire property do so as a matter of principle unrelated to their station in life.
This last point by Adams depicts a sharp divide within our society that has become more evident with time. Over the past 100 years, we’ve seen abundant programs that seek to redistribute wealth. The instrument of distribution is government agencies that people now associate with free money. It’s common to view government support as “getting my fair share.” Many don’t pause while taking unearned government support . At best they might say, “Why not?” In turn, those who ask “why” are viewed as conservative or not progressive, the new label for “liberal.” Unfortunately, those receiving government subsidies come from all walks of life: farmers, fishermen, small businesses, medical personnel, educators, foreign countries, mega corporations, advocacy groups, and all sorts of under- and unemployed people. In addition, a growing force among the working class is unionized government employees in city, county, state and federal governments. These public employees not only run public-support programs but lobby to improve their support at rates consistent with those working independently of government. It’s no wonder the free society envisioned by founders like Adams has become a long-lost ideal for many of us.
Can we fix the notion that everyone should share equally the wealth our nation offers? Adams’ thoughts express an ideal merging freedom and self-sufficiency with strong religious overtones: “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it (property), anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.”
Consider the America of Adams’ experience: no income tax, few government workers, a loose federal militia, and some incentives to spur people to colonize new lands and create enterprise in a growing country. He was a visionary. And if you read the work of his contemporaries like Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Washington, they saw America through the same lens of freedom and enterprise. That vision embodied the original American dream: the opportunity to earn a share of our country’s wealth.
Can we fix the unwieldy American culture we’ve since fashioned? I’m not sure. I don’t know how you teach people to act responsibly, be industrious, live within their means and work to earn their share. Too many people – once fed, clothed and provided for – become acclimated and never change.
The only way to change is for everyone to create a culture of responsibility within our families regardless of what others do. Raise your kids to work, take responsibility for their actions, and help their family, friends and neighbors. That means mowing lawns, cleaning up, doing errands, taking out the garbage, and being assets to their families, neighborhood and community. Teach your kids that these are worthy, honorable activities, and that they must apply themselves, and respect authority figures, who are there to help them learn and improve. Make sure they know they are not entitled to anything except what they earn. And, most important, let them know they will make mistakes, but each failure is a learning experience that will make them stronger, more resilient and a vital part of the American dream.
When young people taste the satisfaction of earning a position in life and contributing to enterprises while developing a strong family, they will enjoy the freedom Adams envisioned. The confidence and fullness people feel by living responsibly isn’t linked to the amount of property or wealth they’ve earned. No, it’s tied to the fact they’ve earned it on their own by following principles that remain as simple as they were more than 200 years ago.
There’s a reason Adams and his peers were our Founding Fathers. Their wisdom remains valuable today. And much of it is embodied in our Constitution.
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