Joe Biden & Donald Trump: John Adams on Keeping Politics in Perspective

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In my latest column over at the Catholic Herald, I shared one of my favorite quotes from Founding Father John Adams:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

Adams offered this thought in a 1780 letter to his wife Abigail, but I still find it helpful centuries later as a reminder to keep politics in its proper place — perhaps especially during elections and their aftermath. Here’s a bit of what I wrote about the quote in my column:

Perhaps relatively few of us are drawn to the study of statuary or porcelain, but Adams’s point remains a good one. The Founding Fathers saw themselves as crafting the sort of government that could protect our God-given rights without requiring each citizen to be intimately concerned with what went on in the nation’s capital — and especially without fearing that their rights and liberties would be under fire if one party or another found itself in the White House. Though they sorted themselves into parties, they all were partisans of liberty.

Not so today, when far too many prominent voices encourage us to view each decision or debate in Washington as either a victory or a catastrophe for humanity writ large.

Perhaps we might take a moment to keep this election in perspective. Our government can be important without being all-important. Our leaders can make a difference without being the difference between whether we are at peace or suffering from inner turmoil. Though the outcome of these elections will affect our lives, it need not ruin them.

It’s a reminder I offered as much for myself as anyone. I’m grateful to spend a lot of time thinking and writing about politics here at National Review, and I think it’s safe to say that most of us here — along with our dedicated readers — care a great deal about political outcomes. To say we should keep politics in its proper place doesn’t mean we should be disinterested or that we should lose faith in the ability of our system to promote justice and to safeguard liberty and natural rights. Voting matters, as do our leaders, and the results of elections make a difference in our lives in small and large ways.

But as we head into another four years of closely divided government, perhaps this reminder from Adams to prize many things more highly than politics will help us avoid some of the bitter division that has characterized the last four years of closely divided government.





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