This summer, I've been re-reading John Adams, the brilliant biography by Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough. This time, I've found refuge and relief from the current idiocy coming out of Washington. I commend the book to all of you who may be having similar thoughts about current events. It will do wonders to calm your troubled hearts in the tumult of opinions and the war of words.
The founders, while they attempted to set up a government intentionally designed to separate and divide power into three branches and were wary of the Constitution's broad definitions, nevertheless trusted in the moral compass of the people to guide themselves. They believed the majority would ultimately get it right, and made it possible to self-correct errors in judgment. The representative republic was to be "renewable" every two years in electing every single member of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate to make it unalterably responsive to the will of the people.
It was the people, the majority of Americans, in whom the founders believed and in whom they reposed all the power of the government. If the people abdicated that power through indifference or wickedness, then even the founders could not help them.
The first inhabitants of this continent, the Jaredites, were warned
And the Lord would not suffer that they should stop beyond the sea in the wilderness, but he would that they should come forth even unto the land of promise, which was choice above all other lands, which the Lord God had preserved for a righteous people.And he had sworn in his wrath unto the brother of Jared, that whoso should possess this land of promise, from that time henceforth and forever, should serve him, the true and only God, or they should be swept off when the fulness of his wrath should come upon them.
And now, we can behold the decrees of God concerning this land, that it is a land of promise; and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall serve God, or they shall be swept off when the fulness of his wrath shall come upon them. And the fulness of his wrath cometh upon them when they are ripened in iniquity.
For behold, this is a land which is choice above all other lands; wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God or shall be swept off; for it is the everlasting decree of God. And it is not until the fulness of iniquity among the children of the land, that they are swept off.
And this cometh unto you, O ye Gentiles, that ye may know the decrees of God — that ye may repent, and not continue in your iniquities until the fulness come, that ye may not bring down the fulness of the wrath of God upon you as the inhabitants of the land have hitherto done.
Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ, who hath been manifested by the things which we have written. (Ether 2:8-12).
Personal Righteousness of Founders
Allow me this one snippet from David McCullough, recalling the righteous influence of one man, John Adams, on the Continental Congress debate advocating independence:
To Jefferson, Adams was "not graceful nor elegant, nor remarkably fluent," but spoke "with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats." Recalling the moment long afterward, Adams would say he had been carried out of himself, " 'carried out in spirit,' as enthusiastic preachers sometimes express themselves." To Richard Stockton, one of the delegates from New Jersey, Adams was "the Atlas" of the hour, "the man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independency. . . He it was who sustained the debate, and by the force of his reasoning demonstrated not only the justice, but the expediency of the measure."
George Washington was not a great military leader by all accounts. In fact, he was a poor soldier. Like Adams and Jefferson he thought of himself first and foremost as a farmer. To a man they all longed to be free of the burden of governance and to return to the farm. But he was a leader with rare skills and talents who inspired others to greater heights in the depths of their despair. His gifts, like those of Adams, relied upon his personal righteousness.
Yes, Jefferson owned slaves, and so did Washington, a common practice among Virginians who harvested many hundreds of acres. Adams abhorred the practice as a "northerner" from Massachusetts, and it was a topic both men avoided in their extensive correspondence. The founders purposefully left untouched and unaddressed the issue of slavery. It festered and cankered from within America for almost a hundred years thereafter.
Later there was a long lapse of communication between Adams and Jefferson. While he served as Vice-President under Adams, Jefferson avoided him altogether because of political differences. Jefferson eventually prevailed in the next election and succeeded Adams in the presidency.
It would take a Civil War to work out the differences between slaves and their masters, and it is impossible now to impose our twenty-first century judgments on those conditions. Even later, before the Civil War began, the slavery issue was front burner hot in Missouri when the Mormons who favored abolition moved in with majority-threatening numbers. We all know how that chapter in Mormon history ended.
"They govern themselves"
The fundamental premise of the founders seems to be the same as Joseph Smith, when he famously said, "I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves." (John Taylor first told the story in November 1851, in the Millennial Star 13:22, 339, then later in JD 10:49).
Concerning government: Some years ago, in Nauvoo, a gentleman in my hearing, a member of the Legislature, asked Joseph Smith how it was that he was enabled to govern so many people, and to preserve such perfect order; remarking at the same time that it was impossible for them to do it anywhere else. Mr. Smith remarked that it was very easy to do that. "How?" responded the gentleman; "to us it is very difficult." Mr. Smith replied, "I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves."
The American "experiment" in self-government has always been a rollicking rough ride since its inception. It has never been easy, nor has it ever been free of controversy and strife. In fact, one of the most interesting parts of McCullough's book documents the scathing attacks against both Adams and Jefferson, when they opposed one another in the nomination for the presidency when Washington retired in 1800. I'll save that piece for a later post.
Joseph Smith, candidate for U.S. President
From his "temple prison" while incarcerated in Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith wrote a long epistle to the Church members who themselves were suffering. Parts of the letter are canonized as Sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants. But even before that epistle, here is what Joseph Smith believed about the Constitution and man's futile attempts to rise to the standards of righteousness it imposed:
The Constitution of our country formed by the Fathers of liberty. Peace and good order in society. Love to God, and good will to man. All good and wholesome laws, virtue and truth above all things, and aristarchy, live forever! But woe to tyrants, mobs, aristocracy, anarchy, and toryism, and all those who invent or seek our unrighteous and vexatious law suits, under the pretext and color of law, or office, either religious or political. Exalt the standard of Democracy! Down with that of priestcraft, and let all the people say Amen! that the blood of our fathers may not cry from the ground against us. Sacred is the memory of that blood which bought for us our liberty. (TPJS, 117).
Here is a principle also, which we are bound to be exercised with, that is, in common with all men, such as governments, and laws, and regulations in the civil concerns of life. This principle guarantees to all parties, sects, and denominations, and classes of religion, equal, coherent, and indefeasible rights; they are things that pertain to this life; therefore all are alike interested; they make our responsibilities one towards another in matters of corruptible things, while the former principles do not destroy the latter, but bind us stronger, and make our responsibilities not only one to another, but unto God also. Hence we say, that the Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner; it is to all those who are privileged with the sweets of liberty, like the cooling shades and refreshing waters of a great rock in a thirsty and weary land. It is like a great tree under whose branches men from every clime can be shielded from the burning rays of the sun.
We, brethren, are deprived of the protection of its glorious principles, by the cruelty of the cruel, by those who only look for the time being, for pasturage like the beasts of the field, only to fill themselves; and forget that the "Mormons," as well as the Presbyterians, and those of every other class and description, have equal rights to partake of the fruits of the great tree of our national liberty. But notwithstanding we see what we see, and feel what we feel, and know what we know, yet that fruit is no less precious and delicious to our taste; we cannot be weaned from the milk, neither can we be driven from the breast; neither will we deny our religion because of the hand of oppression; but we will hold on until death.
We say that God is true; that the Constitution of the United States is true; that the Bible is true; that the Book of Mormon is true; that the Book of Covenants is true; that Christ is true; that the ministering angels sent forth from God are true, and that we know that we have an house not made with hands eternal in the heavens, whose builder and maker is God; a consolation which our oppressors cannot feel, when fortune, or fate, shall lay its iron hand on them as it has on us. Now, we ask, what is man? Remember, brethren, that time and chance happen to all men. (TPJS, 147-8).
It is one of the first principles of my life, and one that I have cultivated from my childhood, having been taught it by my father, to allow every one the liberty of conscience. I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth. In my feelings I am always ready to die for the protection of the weak and oppressed in their just rights. The only fault I find with the Constitution is, it is not broad enough to cover the whole ground.
Although it provides that all men shall enjoy religious freedom, yet it does not provide the manner by which that freedom can be preserved, nor for the punishment of Government officers who refuse to protect the people in their religious rights, or punish those mobs, states, or communities who interfere with the rights of the people on account of their religion. Its sentiments are good, but it provides no means of enforcing them. It has but this one fault. Under its provision, a man or a people who are able to protect themselves can get along well enough; but those who have the misfortune to be weak or unpopular are left to the merciless rage of popular fury.
The Constitution should contain a provision that every officer of the Government who should neglect or refuse to extend the protection guaranteed in the Constitution should be subject to capital punishment; and then the president of the United States would not say, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you," a governor issue exterminating orders, or judges say, "The men ought to have the protection of law, but it won't please the mob; the men must die, anyhow, to satisfy the clamor of the rabble; they must be hung, or Missouri be damned to all eternity." Executive writs could be issued when they ought to be, and not be made instruments of cruelty to oppress the innocent, and persecute men whose religion is unpopular. (TPJS, 326-7).
Powers not delegated to the states or reserved from the states are constitutional. The Constitution acknowledges that the people have all power not reserved to itself. I. . . comprehend heaven, earth and hell, to bring forth knowledge that shall cover up all lawyers, doctors and other big bodies. This is the doctrine of the Constitution, so help me God. The Constitution is not law to us, but it makes provision for us whereby we can make laws. Where it provides that no one shall be hindered from worshiping God according to his own conscience, is a law. No legislature can enact a law to prohibit it. The Constitution provides to regulate bodies of men and not individuals. (TPJS, 279).
As a Church and a people it behooves us to be wise, and to seek to know the will of God, and then be willing to do it; for "blessed is he that heareth the word of the Lord, and keepeth it," say the Scriptures. "Watch and pray always," says our Savior, "that ye may be accounted worthy to escape the things that are to come on the earth, and to stand before the Son of Man." If Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and the children of Israel, and all God's people were saved by keeping the commandments of God, we, if saved at all, shall be saved upon the same principle. As God governed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as families, and the children of Israel as a nation; so we, as a Church, must be under His guidance if we are prospered, preserved and sustained. Our only confidence can be in God; our only wisdom obtained from Him; and He alone must be our protector and safeguard, spiritually and temporally, or we fall.
We have been chastened by the hand of God heretofore for not obeying His commands, although we never violated any human law, or transgressed any human precept; yet we have treated lightly His commands, and departed from His ordinances, and the Lord has chastened us sore, and we have felt His arm and kissed the rod; let us be wise in time to come and ever remember that "to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." (TPJS, 253).
On the day he died in Carthage Jail, Joseph Smith said:
Thursday, A.M. — June 27, 1844. —
Said Joseph, "Our lives have already become jeopardized by revealing the wicked and bloodthirsty purposes of our enemies; and for the future we must cease to do so. All we have said about them is truth, but it is not always wise to relate all the truth. Even Jesus, the Son of God, had to refrain from doing so, and had to restrain His feelings many times for the safety of Himself and His followers, and had to conceal the righteous purposes of His heart in relation to many things pertaining to His Father's kingdom. When still a boy He had all the intelligence necessary to enable Him to rule and govern the kingdom of the Jews, and could reason with the wisest and most profound doctors of law and divinity, and make their theories and practice to appear like folly compared with the wisdom He possessed; but He was a boy only, and lacked physical strength even to defend His own person; and was subject to cold, to hunger and to death. So it is with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; we have the revelation of Jesus, and the knowledge within us is sufficient to organize a righteous government upon the earth, and to give universal peace to all mankind, if they would receive it, but we lack the physical strength, as did our Savior when a child, to defend our principles, and we have of necessity to be afflicted, persecuted and smitten, and to bear it patiently until Jacob is of age, then he will take care of himself." (TPJS, 392).
And so we return to the original premise -- can we govern ourselves a little longer based upon the principles of personal righteousness and reliance upon God? Time will tell. . .
When Egypt was under the superintendence of Joseph it prospered, because he was taught of God; when they oppressed the Israelites, destruction came upon them. When the children of Israel were chosen with Moses at their head, they were to be a peculiar people, among whom God should place His name; their motto was: "The Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our Judge; the Lord is our King; and He shall reign over us." While in this state they might truly say, "Happy is that people, whose God is the Lord." Their government was a theocracy; they had God to make their laws, and men chosen by Him to administer them; He was their God, and they were His people. Moses received the word of the Lord from God Himself; he was the mouth of God to Aaron, and Aaron taught the people, in both civil and ecclesiastical affairs; they were both one, there was no distinction; so will it be when the purposes of God shall be accomplished: when "the Lord shall be King over the whole earth" and "Jerusalem His throne." "The law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."
Universal Peace to Come from God
This is the only thing that can bring about the "restitution of all things spoken of by all the holy Prophets since the world was" — "the dispensation of the fullness of times, when God shall gather together all things in one." Other attempts to promote universal peace and happiness in the human family have proved abortive; every effort has failed; every plan and design has fallen to the ground; it needs the wisdom of God, the intelligence of God, and the power of God to accomplish this. The world has had a fair trial for six thousand years; the Lord will try the seventh thousand Himself; "He whose right it is, will possess the kingdom, and reign until He has put all things under His feet;" iniquity will hide its hoary head, Satan will be bound, and the works of darkness destroyed; righteousness will be put to the line, and judgment to the plummet, and "he that fears the Lord will alone be exalted in that day." To bring about this state of things, there must of necessity be great confusion among the nations of the earth; "distress of nations with perplexity." Am I asked what is the cause of the present distress? I would answer, "Shall there be evil in a city and the Lord hath not done it?"
Earth Now Groaning Under Corruption
The earth is groaning under corruption, oppression, tyranny and bloodshed; and God is coming out of His hiding place, as He said He would do, to vex the nations of the earth. Daniel, in his vision, saw convulsion upon convulsion; he "beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of Days did sit;" and one was brought before him like unto the Son of Man; and all nations, kindred, tongues, and peoples, did serve and obey Him. It is for us to be righteous, that we may be wise and understand; for none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand, and they that turn many to righteousness shall shine as the stars for ever and ever. (TPJS, 252-3).