Scandal, political unrest, uncertainty.
Henry Brooks Adams, an American journalist, was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams. His specialty was exposing political corruption in the late 19th century, and according to historian David McCullough, Henry believed the country was indeed, going to hell in a hand basket.
“They went at each other on the floor with fire tongs,” McCullough says speaking of Congress. “They grabbed the fire tongs off and came hammering each other.”
While many decry the combativeness and droning of the current Congress, as well as the lack of unifying action from the president, maybe we need to step back and reflect, not only on how far we’ve come, but on who we are as a country.
In an interview with 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer, McCullough does just that.
“I grew up in a Republican family. And the night of the ’48 election, I couldn’t stay awake. So the next morning I got up and my father was in the bathroom shaving. I said, ‘Dad, Dad, who won?’ And he said (grimacing) ‘Truman’ Like it was the end of the world. Well, 30-some years later, I was back home. And he was telling me all about how the world’s going to hell and the country’s going to hell, I’d heard this so much in my life. And then he paused and he said, ‘Too bad old Harry isn’t still in the White House.’ ”
While we complain about the barefaced political actions of groups masquerading as 501(c)(4), social welfare non-profits, McCullough cites the presidential election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
“Jefferson was paying a slander specialist, a journalist, to go after Adams, writing that he was mentally unbalanced. He was a hermaphrodite, all these things. [And] The Adams camp fired back, saying if Jefferson were elected, murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest would sweep the land.”
And yet, in spite of the slander, combativeness and corruption, McCullough reminds us that “We are an optimistic people by nature. And we’ve always had reason to be optimistic. We also have always had reason to think we’re a nation in decline. There’s nothing new about that.”
Reflecting on that July meeting in 1776 which began it all, McCullough transports us back to Independence Hall, where, despite the divisiveness and high emotion, a unifying spirit came in the voice of John Adams.
“The atmosphere was tense,” McCullough says. “It was very, very hot. It was summertime in Philadelphia. Flies biting through their silk stockings. This is on July second, not on July fourth. Nothing really happened on July 4th. That was the date that was on the document when it was printed.”
The document McCullough’s talking about is Jefferson’s great Declaration of Independence, but contrary to what many still believe, Jefferson never took part in actual debate. “Thomas Jefferson never stood up to say much of anything,” McCullough says. “When he spoke his voice was weak… He left that to others to do. Adams was short and stout. And cranky and abrasive. But honest. And courageous.”
It was John Adams who stood before this Second Continental Congress and delivered the words that would convert the faithless. Delivered during a thunderstorm, McCullough says, “an hour long, but carrying a short message… Adams insisted, now was the time. Now was the time.”
“Objects of the most stupendous magnitude,” Adams began.. “Measures which will effect the lives of millions — born and unborn — are now before us. We must expect a great expense of blood to obtain them, but we must always remember that a free constitution of civil government cannot be purchased at too dear a rate as there is nothing on this side of Jerusalem of greater importance to mankind.
“My worthy colleague from Pennsylvania has spoken with great ingenuity and eloquence. He has given you a grim prognostication of our national future. But where he foresees apocalypse, I see hope. I see a new nation ready to take its place in the world, not an empire, but a republic. And a republic of laws, not men!
“Gentlemen, we are in the very midst of revolution; the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of the world.
“How few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves and their children?
“I am not without apprehensions, gentlemen. But the end we have in sight is more than worth all the means. My belief says that the hour has come. My judgment approves this measure and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, all that I am and all I that I hope in this life, I am now ready to stake upon it.
“While I live, let me have a country. A free country!“
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
We need to attend to that Liberty, again. With the Middle East facing yet another tumultuous uprising; despite our own controversies and contentiousness, we need to honor and respect the liberties we continue to enjoy 237 years later.
Now is the time.