Friday, July 13, 2012


Quotable: What Makes Amish People Different

This is from the transcript of the American Experience documentary The Amish:

Amish Man 5: I have to tell you a little story. There was a tour bus. Amish man got on and they asked him -- what's the difference between you and us? ... Well, he said how many of you have television? All the hands went up. He said, how many of you, if you have a family, think you'd be better off without television? Practically all the hands went up. He said how many of you are going to go home and get rid of it? No hands went up. He said that's the difference between you and the Amish. Because we will do it. If it's bad for the family, we will not have it.

See also: Anarchy, Technology, the Amish & Rumspringa

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012


John Adams on the Military Threat

John Adams was the second President of the United States but before that he was an attorney and an early supporter of independence for British colonies in America. On March 5, 1770, British troops killed five civilians on King Street in Boston in an incident now commonly known as the Boston Massacre. John Adams acted as defense counsel at the soldiers' civilian trial for murder in November, 1770. Adams succeeded in getting jury acquittals for six of the soldiers and conviction of two soldiers for the lesser-included offense of manslaughter. The two soldiers were sentenced to branding of the thumb in open court.

On the third anniversary of the massacre Adams wrote in his diary:
Judgment of death against those soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the quakers or witches anciently. As the evidence was, the verdict of the jury was exactly right. ... This, however, is no reason why the town should not call the action of that night a massacre; nor is it any argument in favor of the Governor or Minister who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest of proofs of the danger of standing armies. [emphasis added]
Adams was a supporter of militias composed of civilians called into service as needed, as opposed to standing armies. In the second year of the Revolutionary War he wrote the following in a letter to Brigadier General Samuel H. Parsons, who started his military career in Connecticut's colonial militia:
With regard to encouragements in money and in land for soldiers to enlist during the war, I have ever been in favor of it, as the best economy and the best policy, and I have no doubt that rewards in land will be given, after the war is over. But the majority are not of my mind for promising it now. I am the less anxious about it, for a reason which does not seem to have much weight however with the majority. Although it may cost us more, and we may put now and then a battle to hazard by the method we are in, yet we shall be less in danger of corruption and violence from a standing army, and our militia will acquire courage, experience, discipline, and hardiness in actual service.  [emphasis added]
In Adams' A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States (1787) he wrote:
Shall we conclude, from these melancholy observations, that human nature is incapable of liberty, that no honest equality can be preserved in society, and that such forcible causes are always at work as must reduce all men to a submission to despotism, monarchy, oligarchy, or aristocracy?

By no means. We have seen one of the first nations in Europe, possessed of ample and fertile territories at home and extensive dominions abroad, of a commerce with the whole world, immense wealth, and the greatest naval power which ever belonged to any nation, which has still preserved the power of the people by the equilibrium we are contending for, by the trial by jury, and by constantly refusing a standing army. [emphasis added]
A footnote to the above-cited passage and of uncertain provenance says: "Would that it had constantly been refused! A standing army is dangerous in any hands! Even if the people had preserved their share in the legislature, a standing army in their pay would be inexpedient and dangerous."

Finally, in a letter to Thomas McKean, dated June 21, 1812, Adams said:
The danger of our government is, that the General will be a man of more popularity than the President, and the army possess more power than Congress. The people should be apprised of this, and guard themselves against it. Nothing is more essential than to hold the civil authority decidedly superior to the military power.
Adams' particular fear about the popularity of generals seems not have been realized but unfortunately we have a Congress and Presidency that rarely say no to military funding requests, in peacetime or war. That's true even when it comes to illegal, undeclared wars waged on false pretenses such as the 2003 Iraq War. The civil authority all too often bows to the military.

See also: Quotable: The Military Threat to Liberty

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"The American Revolution and the Minority Myth"

In the 1980s I read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and I remember being surprised, yet credulous, when I read in chapter five: "John Adams had estimated a third opposed, a third in support, a third neutral." The estimate, according to Zinn, was in reference to colonial/American support for the Revolutionary War while it was ongoing or in its immediate aftermath. The claim can be found on page 77 of the hardcover, 20th anniversary edition of the book (HarperCollins, 1999). There are no annotations in the book and no primary source reference to Adams in the bibliography to chapter five so it is unclear what Zinn's source on Adams was.

Below you will find excerpts (notes omitted) from "The American Revolution and the Minority Myth" attributed to William F. Marina and purportedly published on January 1, 1975 in Modern Age. Marina does not cite Zinn but he does cite Herbert Aptheker as a "Marxist" historian who "exposed the myth, certainly in terms of the misreading of the letter of Adams." I make note of Marina's mention of Aptheker because a different work by Aptheker is the first source in Zinn's bibliography to chapter five.
THE AMERICAN PEOPLE are now in the midst of a great celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. It is tragic that this celebration is giving added emphasis in the mind of the general public to at least one myth which a few historians have tried without apparently great success to lay to rest. That failure says much about the present state of the academy in this country and the virtual breakdown of communications within and between important segments of the society.

The widespread, persistent, and dangerous myth to which I should like to call attention here is the notion that the American Revolution was carried out by only a minority of the people. The supposed source for such an estimate is John Adams. Among the many who have cited this view is Daniel Ellsberg, who called attention to "John Adams' [sic] well-known estimate that one third of the population in America supported the rebels, one third the British ... and one third were [sic] neutral." The history of this citation goes back to 1902, to George Sydney Fisher's, The True History of the American Revolution. It has been repeated countless times since then, in books, articles, and other media. Without attempting to give a comprehensive listing of citations since 1902, let me give just a few recent sources making this point, which will serve to demonstrate the persistence of the idea.

In 1971 it was mentioned by the colonial historian Darrett B. Rutman, the next year by Ellsberg, and, at a conference which I attended, by the conservative social critic Irving Kristol, as well as by Alistair Cooke in his "America" series on television, and the book of the same name, though Cooke changed the neutral third to one that did not "give a damn." In 1974 it was cited by Thomas H. Greene in his book on comparative social revolutions where he was in turn quoting Karl Deutsch; the next year several times by the columnist Sydney B. Harris, and, in the Bicentennial year in the excellent new study of the Revolution by Page Smith, which otherwise is a magnificent source to show the Revolution was a majority movement (he reconciles this by saying Adams was referring to the beginning of the Revolution). The above examples ought to be sufficient to make the point that this view is widespread and has considerable appeal to many intellectuals.

When any citation is offered for this "well known" estimate, it is to a letter which Adams wrote to James Lloyd, dated January, 1813 [sic; the letter is actually dated January, 1815 -VFPD]. A close examination of that letter should convince an intelligent reader that John Adams never said any such thing! It is clear that Adams, in point of fact, was writing about American opinion of the French Revolution [1789–1792 -VFPD] and the subsequent struggle between England and France which had a considerable impact on the United States in the 1790's during the period of his presidency from 1797 to 1801.
My own reading of John Adams' letter to James Lloyd is that Marina and Aptheker got it right, Zinn and the others got it wrong. In the work cited by Marina, The American Revolution, 1763-1783 (New York: International Publishers, 1960), Aptheker (pp. 53-54) does indeed refute the minority support reading of the Adams letter to Lloyd. Later, referring to an 1815 letter from Adams to Dr. Jedidiah Morse, Aptheker concludes:
[John Adams -VFPD] says nothing at all about indifference and neutrality; rather the inference from his letter would appear to be that he felt that (approximately) seventy percent of the American population favored the Revolutionary cause. ... My own view would go along with that kind of a reading of this Adams letter, and I agree with Professor Alden that a clear majority of the colonial population favored the revolutionary effort.
O1 May 2016 Addendum: In an August 31, 1813, letter to Thomas McKean, Adams writes:
You say that at the time of the Congress, in 1765, "The great mass of the people were zealous in the cause of America." "The great mass of the people" is an expression that deserves analysis ... Upon the whole, if we allow two thirds of the people to have been with us in the revolution, is not the allowance ample? Are not two thirds of the nation now with the administration? Divided we ever have been, and ever must be.

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