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Saturday, November 21, 2009


Written by: Rick Staggenborg, MD on Oct 27, 2009 7:43 AM PDT

This essay is dedicated to David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Edmund Morris. They are three historical scholars who are gifted with an ability to make the past come alive, so that we are not condemned to repeating our mistakes.

On July 4, 1776 there was jubilation in the streets at the announcement that the Continental Congress had voted to declare the independence from England of the America colonies. Not all were pleased, as there were many complacent, blind “patriots” and other Tories who were doing quite well under the authority and protection of the Crown. For the American revolutionaries, there was no doubt that they could no longer wait for their government to recognize their rights as citizens, for it was clear that they were not being represented in Parliament. No one was more pleased than John Adams, a reluctant convert to the cause, but a staunch opponent of the British government by that time. His decision had created a rift in his family, as his son was a loyal subject and officer of the Crown, but it had become clear to him that nothing was more important than liberty.

Unfortunately, Adams lacked faith in the ability of the American people to govern themselves. The shocking anger and violence in Boston that sparked the revolution had further fractionated his family, as he disapproved of the fiery rhetoric of his cousin Samuel. The son of a staid, conservative minister, he did not place his faith in the people but in those he considered the natural aristocracy. Above that, he placed his faith in the God of his father, a stern and demanding figure who clearly delineated right from wrong. He was certain that there was something wrong in America that required a radical solution, but his conservative nature prevented him from appreciating just how radical true democracy is.

This stubborn conservative and authoritarian streak plagued Adams through his political career. As a diplomat in Paris, he was considered self-righteous, priggish and too confident in the inerrancy of his judgment to be an effective negotiator on behalf of the American cause. He was more successful in the world of the financiers, successfully negotiating for the first loans to the aspiring nation. 

Later, when his hard work on behalf of the new nation was recognized with his election to the Presidency upon Washington’s retirement, he was derided by many as “His Pompousness” because of his excessive penchant for ceremony and his expectation of deference to political rank, including strongly arguing that the President should be given an aristocratic title, rather than a simple title indicating that he was a figure presiding as the first among equals. 

While all of this was disturbing to his rival Jefferson, it was the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts that made Jefferson his implacable enemy until both were old men and the Republic was threatened with Civil War. When Adams began to imprison those who merely disagreed with him, in the guise of maintaining order and security when war with France was being advocated by his own Party, the entire rationale for the Revolution seemed to have been forgotten, along with the First Amendment.

This crime against the Constitution was rectified by Jefferson once he was in office, but the lesson was forgotten by the 20th Century. In times of war, Madison’s warning of the peril it presents to freedom is invariably proven. From the imprisonment of former Presidential candidate Eugene Debs for protesting WWI to the internment of Japanese-Americans and Jewish Germans in WWII to the CIA abuses of the rights of Vietnam war protestors, we have been repeatedly warned that democracy cannot long survive in a state of perpetual war.

We are now engaged in the war to end all wars by ending our uncivil conflict and completing the Revolution together. This war cannot last forever, as that would undermine its aim of restoring democracy, according to Madison’s dictum. More importantly, with the survival of human society being threatened by war, global degradation, famine and disease, we have no time to lose. We have met the enemy and it is the fear that we cannot rule ourselves, as we must do for the sake of democracy and our mutual survival.

In the immortal words of David Crosby:

If I had ever been here before I would know just exactly what to do.
Don't you?
If I had ever been here before on another time around the wheel
I would probably know just how to deal
with all of you.

And I feel
like I've been here before.
like I've been here before.

And you know,
it makes me wonder
what's going on under the ground.

Do you know?
Don't you wonder?
What's going on down under you.

We have all been here before,
we have all been here before,
we have all been here before,
we have all been here before.

Rick Staggenborg, MD

From the cradle of modern democracy,
Boston, Massachusetts

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