John Adams is a favourite historical figure of mine.
He was the first Vice President of the United States of America, its second President. One of the “founding fathers” as the Yanks are so fond of calling that diverse group of men who created that future superpower.
David McCullough’s astoundingly good biography of the man (and the subsequent HBO mini-series based off the same, with Adams played by Paul Giametti) brought it home to me.
Here was a man, an intelligent rational individual, a Lawyer, a husband and a father.
And this man risked everything, not just his reputation, his wealth or his life, but the lives of his wife, his children, his countrymen. He risked disease in the meetings of the Constitutional Convention. He crossed the Atlantic several times when such a venture carried a very large risk of anonymous death in a black ocean. He walked through Spain and France on foot, nearly died of illness on a diplomatic endeavour in the Netherlands. He went years without seeing his loved ones, missed his sons growing up. He communicated with his great love only by the written word for a staggeringly large portion of their lives together.
Why did he do it? Why did he risk so much, suffer so much?
What is it about democracy that makes mankind do these things?
I fix on John Adams because of McCullough’s account, a book that got me seriously thinking on matters of national pride and democracy and the lengths we should be willing to go, not just to preserve them, but to have them in the first place. Adam’s never wavered. He went through all that pain, suffered the stinging absence that only distance from loved ones can cause, and he made that sacrifice gladly, that the world should see that “all men are created equal, with certain unalienable rights.”
So, why? Why did John Adams and the rest of his compatriots do it? Why did the French? Why did Tone and Fitzgerald and Pearse and Connolly and Collins and De Valera and Mulcahy? Why did Ghandi? Why did King? Why are Tunisians doing it? Why are Egyptians and Libyans right now?
Mankind likes its liberty, even if they have never had it before. It is that insidious and brilliant a concept, that people can want it for themselves even if they have never had any direct experience of it.
The individual elements of our species, from Cairo to Washington, like having their voices heard. We like picking our leaders, knowing that the contest is fair. We rise and rise and rise again, until we have that system. We will fight for it, kill for it, and in the most extreme occasions, die for it, just so others might have it. And when we get, we bitch and moan, we complain about the workings, we complain about who gets picked, we complain about the length of time until we get to pick again.
But we have it. We have the thing that John Adam’s spent his life creating and protecting, the thing that was so alien back then it had to be defended by powder and steel, that today is seen as the natural order, the thing that is the benchmark for everyone else.
We vote, together, we put the numbers on that slip of paper, and a government is created. Of the people, by the people, for the people as Lincoln so eloquently put it. The trick is the last part, but that’s largely up to the voters and who we pick isn’t it?
We are blessed, the people of this island. Our grandfathers and grandmothers shed blood for the right. The sentimentality of that sentence does not take away from its reality. As the commemoration of Irish revolutionary dead in Dublin proclaims, in their voice:
“O Generation of freedom, remember us,
The generation of the vision”
We have received that gift, from them, for all their faults and prejudices, for all our faults and prejudices. We have taken that gift. We have sometimes abused it. We have rejected it. We have scoffed at it, we take it for granted. We occasionally ignore it, we question its usefulness.
But it is a gift that we can all treasure at heart, that most glorious and noble of things, the words everyone of us can say “I have a voice and I can, and will, use it.” Regardless of the current state of affairs in this country, on this planet, that is something that has not, and cannot except by the total and enduring destruction of this nation, be taken away.
If you have not voted yet, turn off your computer and do so now. For humanity, for your country, for those dead generations, and most importantly, for yourself. John Adams would be proud.
Some words of Adams’ son, also named John, also a US President, strike me every time I read them:
“Posterity: You will never know how much we sacrificed to gain your freedom. I hope that you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I will repent in heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.”