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Timeless Wisdom: ‘But Above All Things,’ Fatherly Advice From John Adams

One of my favorite Founders is John Adams. In my opinion, he wasn’t only the most intellectually brilliant of the Founders, but the most insightful. He had both great knowledge, and great wisdom. He didn’t look at the world through rose-colored glasses. And yet, he wasn’t a cynic—despite the fact that he had understandable reasons to be one.

Adams was extremely well-read, particularly in history. He was fluent in several languages, most notably Latin, and could read the Greek and Roman classics in their original languages. When confronting the challenges necessarily associated with establishing the independence of a country, and establishing its founding institutions, he invariably looked to history as a guide, and could cite numerous examples from multiple nations as examples for emulation or avoidance.

But one of the things that most attracted me to him was how he wrote to his children, in particular his oldest son, John Quincy Adams, who would go on to become a congressman, secretary of state, and president of the United States (among other things). Adams took John Quincy with him when he went to Europe as America’s minister to France in 1778. The reasons were perhaps best expressed by his mother, Abigail Adams, in one of her first letters to the 10-year-old boy upon his arrival in Paris: “Improve your understanding for acquiring useful knowledge and virtue, such as will render you an ornament to society, an Honor to your Country, and a Blessing to your parents.” Being part of the Adams family meant public service was all but a given.

One of my favorite letters from Adams to his son was written in 1782. The father was in Amsterdam, and the son was in St. Petersburg, working as the secretary to the American ambassador in Russia. Adams first commended his son on more practical matters:

“I am well pleased with your learning German for many Reasons, and principally because I am told that Science and Literature flourish more at present in Germany than anywhere. A Variety of Languages will do no harm unless you should get a habit of attending more to Words than Things.”

Ensuring his son was a polyglot was important to Adams, for it would not only enable him to be a better diplomat, but a better reader of classic texts—the preeminent source of his and many of the Founders’ own education. But, as he emphasized to John Quincy, the purpose of language is to describe things, and thus better understand reality, and that was to be his focus.

But the second (and final) paragraph is where the real gold is:

“But, my dear Boy, above all Things, preserve your Innocence, and a pure Conscience. Your morals are of more importance, both to yourself and the World than all Languages and all Sciences. The least Stain upon your Character will do more harm to your Happiness than all Accomplishments will do it good.”

Here we have the essence of John Adams in his understanding of the primacy of the moral over the practical and the expedient. As he knew a free republic required a moral foundation to survive, so he knew the same truth applied to individuals. Indeed, in numerous places, both he and Abigail taught John Quincy that not only were morals essential to happiness, but that he would be accountable to God for his behavior in this life.

Indeed, anyone who engages in self-reflection knows this to be true. As Benjamin Franklin said in the 1741 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac, “a good conscience is a continual Christmas.” Doing what we know to be right is essential to a healthy sense of self-worth and confidence. A divided conscience is a pathway to insecurity, angst, and deep unhappiness. Despite our struggle to attain it, we are wired to seek the good.

And what a lesson for all of us to consider, particularly in an age when our education system has been overtaken by a technocratic and economic view, as if the primary and essential purpose of training was to make children merely economically productive, rather than training them in virtue! It’s no wonder depression and anxiety are at record levels among the young.

But as John Adams knew—and as he taught his son in this, one of his best pieces of fatherly advice—morals are far more important to happiness than productivity, both in this life, and the next.

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