John Adams was quite the visionary. On an evening in early July 1776, just hours after he helped hammer out America’s Declaration of Independence from what was then the greatest colonial, imperial, military, economic power on earth, he wrote a most remarkable note to his wife. Among other things, the Founding Father and future president predicted that Independence Day would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival…solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
Here we are, 235 years later, and many of us will attend a parade or take in a baseball game. In many cities, bells will toll. And wherever there are Americans, there will be illuminations—fireworks, as we call them nowadays. In Adams’ home state of Massachusetts. In the states that once left the Union and returned. On the far side of this vast continent. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Even where North America almost touches Asia.
It’s quite a spectacle, this transcontinental display of amateur pyrotechnics. Although I hate fireworks, I love the reason people light them on the Fourth, even if they’re unaware of what Adams wrote more than two centuries ago.
It’s worth noting that Adams did write a few other things about our independence that have nothing to do with fireworks.
For instance, he knew that what he helped write in the summer of 1776 was not just a declaration of independence, but also a declaration of war. “I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this declaration and support and defend these states.”
Yet he was confident that the 13 formerly British colonies hugging the Atlantic seaboard—a tiny sliver of territory in what was then the backwater of the world—would survive and thrive. “Through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means.”
Why did he have such confidence in his cause and his country? To be sure, he had the confidence that comes from knowing a cause is just, from being on the right side of history: As Adams well understood and deeply believed—he even put it in writing—all men are created equal; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights; the people confer legitimacy and defer powers to the government, not the other way around; concentrated, centralized government is an enemy of freedom.
But there was more to Adams’ optimism than the power of enlightenment and reason. He was confident about America’s future as an independent, self-governing people because he submitted his “hopes and fears to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable as the faith may be, I firmly believe.” Hence, he thought Independence Day should be “commemorated…by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.”
I know there are many who say Adams and other Founders were deists, believing in a creator that is distant and uninvolved in humanity, indeed believing man can reason his way through life.
But Adams’ words don’t sound like the words of a deist. They sound like the words of a man who understood that faith and reason are not enemies but rather equally important to a man’s—and a nation’s—development. After all, an “overruling Providence” is not distant or uninvolved.
We may pretend there is a wall separating church and state, but there isn’t. Any country where people vote at churches, where presidents attend annual prayer breakfasts, where legislative business opens with a chaplain’s prayer, where the chief magistrates enter their chambers to the refrain “God save the United States and this Honorable Court!” is not really secular.
These expressions of faith, these reminders of God—“unfashionable as they may be,” to paraphrase Adams—are not only beneficial; they bind America’s present to its past.
In the prologue to his edition of The Federalist Papers, Isaac Kramnick notes that many of the Founders believed “religion was a crucial support of government.”
The result is that church and state coexist in America’s public square. The danger of one co-opting the other is a subject for another essay; suffice it to say that after 235 years Americans have come to a consensus that they don’t want religion to control government (like the Islamic Republic of Iran) and they don’t want government to control religion (like the People’s Republic of China).
Although the Constitution and its amendments were vague on the dividing line between faith and government, the two grew up together, their roots overlapping and mingling in the same soil. As Tocqueville explained in the 1830s, “I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in religion—for who can search the human heart—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” He called religion the first of America’s “political institutions,” marveling at how it somehow facilitated freedom.
In short, Adams and his fellow Founders created a nation that embraces faith. George Washington invoked God at his inauguration; so did the devout Adams and deistic Jefferson; so did TR and his archenemy Wilson; so did Carter on the left and Reagan on the right; so did the taciturn elder Bush and his born-again son; so did Obama, who quoted from Paul’s epistles. All of them began their presidencies by putting a hand on the Bible—by custom and tradition, not by force of law.
Adams’ Independence Day letter reminds us that our nation began in much the same way.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.