A history lesson from John Adams
One of my favorite stories from America’s founding concerns John Adams and the highly unpopular cause he took up after the incident now known as the Boston Massacre.
It’s a story that speaks to Adams’ personal courage and to his unwavering conviction that communities must be governed by the rule of law, not by political passions, religious zealotry or whatever factional favoritism holds sway at the moment.
To briefly summarize: In March 1770, a dispute between a British soldier and a citizen escalated into a mob scene in which nine soldiers, then quartered in Boston, were surrounded by angry colonists who began peppering them with stones, sticks and pieces of ice. In the pandemonium, the soldiers opened fire, killing five civilians.
The citizenry, already inflamed by the Stamp Act and other perceived provocations, were outraged. Samuel Adams, John’s cousin, termed the shootings “bloody butchery.”
John Adams, the future president, was then a lawyer. When he was asked to represent the soldiers at trial, he agreed, even though he knew it would invite vilification from his countrymen — how dare he defend the loathed “lobster backs”? — and hurt his legal business.
Adams said he believed the men deserved a fair trial, which meant they would need competent counsel. It was, for him, a matter of standing up for the principle that either the law meant something, or it meant nothing.
No slacker at litigation, Adams saved the soldiers from the noose. Seven were acquitted; two were convicted of manslaughter and were branded on the thumb but not imprisoned. As the defender of these British “butchers,” he did suffer the scorn of his fellow citizens, as well as loss of income.
Yet, in his autumn years, looking back on a life of extraordinary achievement, Adams would reflect on that experience as “one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered to my country.”
That anecdote has been on my mind during the past week, after three Rowan County citizens joined in an ACLU lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the predominantly Christian prayers that routinely open county commission meetings. The prayer challenge, to put it mildly, is not a popular position to take in a conservative, Bible Belt county, especially when board members — or some of them — may feel emboldened by public support and recent electoral trends. The fact that a federal district court has held that such overtly sectarian invocations do, in fact, violate the Constitution apparently holds little sway if you’re inclined to see the ACLU as anti-religion (which it is not) or to believe that, even in the conduct of government business, an elected official’s fealty to a particular religion must trump any concerns among the constituents he or she serves.
One commissioner even went so far as to suggest the ACLU was simply doing this to raise money, which begs the obvious question: Then what are the three plaintiffs doing it for? The chance to be scorned and jeered by their fellow citizens? The chance to bask in hostile comments and online character assassination? To be blithely condemned to perdition and dismissed as ACLU dupes? Oh, yeah, people are standing in line to get a deal like that.
How easily we claim the high and righteous ground for ourselves while denying any such vantage of principle for those on the other side, especially when we believe the crowd is at our back, rather than snapping at our heels. However, this issue will not be settled by the amount of vitriol one side can spill, or by how many busloads of supporters pack into the commission chambers, or by the vote tallies from the last election. It will be decided by disinterested adjudicators of the law, sitting in the quiet sanctity of chambers far removed from the noisy throngs. Unless, of course, the board recognizes that if other governmental entities have somehow made reasonable accomodation in the prayer issue, perhaps it is possible here, as well.
Standing on principle, as Adams could tell us, can be lonely, thankless, soul-wearying work. It can put us at odds with neighbors and fellow citizens, invite attacks on our values and motives, perhaps even make us question our own resolve. Why not simply take the easy way out and go along to get along? That, after all, if what most of us do, in too many cases.
But as Adams also could tell us, eventually, the bedrock of principle and the rule of law win out, must win out, if we are to remain a functioning republic — which, of late, has seemed somewhat in question. The act vilified in one era is often recognized in another as a piece of necessary service, no matter how hostile the initial reaction it may provoke.
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.
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