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Adams Unbound

  Government | Human Nature | Freedom of the Press | The Rights of Man


The Rights of Man

While Mary Wollstonecraft believed that humans were fundamentally good, and needed little government, John Adams took a darker view of human nature, and felt that the only way to ensure people received their due rights was through writing and enforcing laws.

Adams spell[ed] out... why he opposed all modern efforts at radical or revolutionary social change. As was his custom, Adams spent much of his time and energy hurling epithets without explaining the basis for his disagreement.

-- Historian Joseph Ellis

Can a declaration of rights have an immediate practical effect?
What is the relationship between human rights and good government?
Are laws needed to ensure that citizens get their rights?



Can a declaration of rights have an immediate practical effect?

Approved by the National Assembly in 1789, France's "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" outlines the citizen's rights and prevents a group or person from exercising authority without the nation's consent. John Adams' point is that declaring rights is very different from granting them in reality.

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
... But it is nevertheless to be presumed, that, the liberty of Frenchmen having been previously secured by the establishment of the Declaration of Rights ...
ADAMS:
How was Liberty secured by the declaration of Rights? No more than their Innocence and Obedience by the Decalogue, i.e., the ten Commandments. Besides there were not two Men in Fifty who believed in those Rights. There were in France twenty times as many who believed in the Kings divine Right.


What is the relationship between human rights and good government?

Mary Wollstonecraft was deeply religious and was often caught between the desire to see human rights implemented, and the belief that there is virtue in suffering. John Adams disagreed entirely. In his Thoughts on Government, he wrote that "the happiness of society is the end of government" and "the happiness of the individual is the end of man."

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
It is the pillars of a building, which indicate it's durability, and not the minor beams that are inserted through them, in order to rear the structure. The natural, civil, and political rights of man are the main pillars of all social happiness; and by the firm establishment of them, the freedom of men will be eternally secured.
ADAMS:
I would rather call the Natural, civil and political Rights of Man the foundations than the Pillars. If they are Pillars they must stand upon a firm foundation, Is a Declaration then a foundation? No more than a heap of Sand or a Pool of Water. They stand as firmly without a Declaration as with, if nothing more is done. Laws and Gardians of Laws must be made and Guardians to watch one another.


Are laws needed to ensure that citizens get their rights?

Once the French Revolution had begun, its leaders no longer had to stir the people up -- the momentum for change was in place. During and after the Reign of Terror, however, even leaders could not control the angry mob. As a young lawyer in Boston two decades earlier, John Adams had passionately condemned mob violence. He deeply felt that the mob assembled on the night of the Boston Massacre had been a serious threat to the rule of law -- as was the bloody revolution in France.

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
The cabinet had not sufficient discernment to perceive, that the people were now to be led, not driven; and the popular promoters of anarchy, to serve their private interest, availed themselves, unfortunately, but too well of this want of judgment.
ADAMS:
Nor had the Assembly discernment to perceive that the People were neither to be led nor driven.
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