Faith of the Founders #4: Adams’ God-Acknowledging Inaugural
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The “Faith of the Founders” blog series is a multi-part, multi-year, bite-size, fact-focused attempt to unpack the profound and ubiquitous role of faith in the American Founding. You can read all the individual articles here.
The 1796 election was one for the history books. The new nation was on edge, uncertain how the first transfer of power would go. George Washington had faithfully served the nation for many decades. In more ways than one, his gravitas and personal charisma were what had held the nation together against all odds. While he could have easily won a third term, Washington instead opted to bow out after just two—thereby establishing a precedent that was followed by every other President (excluding Franklin D. Roosevelt), and was later codified in the 22nd Amendment.
The results were the election of two Revolutionary giants: Vice President John Adams to the presidency, and former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to the vice presidency.
When the electoral college vote was ratified in the Senate (ironically, by Adams himself, who as Vice President presided over its proceedings), the Senate journal records the following reflection after announcing Adams as President, and Thomas Jefferson as Vice President:
And may the Sovereign of the Universe, the ordainer of civil government on earth, for the preservation of liberty, justice, and peace, among men; enable both to discharge the duties of these offices conformably to the constitution of the United States, with conscientious diligence, punctuality, and perseverance…
When the results of the election were announced, his wife, Abigail Adams, wrote to him in biblically-dense language, specifically referencing the story of King Solomon succeeding King David, the founder of the Davidic dynasty (as Adams had succeeded Washington, who was akin to America’s “David”):
You have this day to declare yourself head of a nation. And now O Lord my God thou hast made thy servant ruler over the people. Give unto him an understanding heart, that he may know how to go out, and come in before this great people, that he may discern between good and bad, for who is able to judge this, thy so great People? were the words of a royal sovereign [Solomon], and not less applicable to him who is invested with the Chief Magistracy [presidency] of a nation, though he wear not a crown, or the robes of royalty. [1 Kings 3:1-15]
Adams’ election took place during a tense time for the new nation. Relations with France were bad and getting worse. War was on the horizon—one that could potentially destroy the new nation. Abigail wrote of her prayers for her husband on this count:
My thoughts, and my meditations are with you, though personally absent, and my petitions to Heaven are that the things which make for peace, may not be hidden from your eyes. My feelings are not those of pride, or ostentation upon the occasion. They are solemnized by a sense of the obligations, the important trusts and numerous duties connected with it. That you may be enabled to discharge them with honor to yourself, with justice and impartiality to your country, and with satisfaction to this Great People [1 Kings 3:9] shall be the daily prayer of your
In the midst of the business leading up to his inaugural, Adams found time to respond to a letter from his daughter, Abigail Adams Smith. Therein, he not only shows himself an enthusiastic advocate of female education (contrary to many of the lies about the Founders), but stridently exhorts her to learn and follow the moral and religious principles he had advocated all his life, including as President:
In your solitary hours, my dear daughter, you will have a delightful opportunity of attending to the education of your children, to give them a taste and attachment to study, and to books. A taste for science and literature, added to a turn for business, never can fail of success in life. Without learning, nothing very great can ever be accomplished in the way of business. But not only a thirst for knowledge should be excited, and a taste for letters be cultivated, but prudence, patience, justice, temperance, resolution, modesty, and self-cultivation, should be recommended to them as early as possible. The command of their passions, the restraint of their appetites, reverence for superiors, especially parents, a veneration for religion, morals, and good conduct.
On February 24, Adams wrote Abigail (his wife) that the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia (then the location of the national capital) “have voted me the front pew in their church for my family. It is an elegant new building and the pew is large.” Adams had accepted the kind offer.
Finally, the day came on March 4. Before a joint session of the House and Senate, Adams took the oath of office in the presence of now former President George Washington. Reflecting on the rigors of his new office, he wrote the next day to Abigail, playfully reflecting that “He [Washington] seemed to me to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him think ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be happiest.’”
Adams inaugural contained multiple references to God, as well as the role of religion in American society. For example, he spoke of academic institutions as places which would inculcate both knowledge and religious values, and of Christianity as the great cultural glue of the new nation:
[I]f a love of virtuous men of all parties and denominations; if a love of science and letters and a wish to patronize every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges, universities, academies, and every institution for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, the profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence, which is the angel of destruction to elective governments…and, with humble reverence, I feel it to be my duty to add, if a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service, can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effect.
Adams ended his address as Washington had done (at his first), namely by acknowledging the Divine:
And may that Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty, continue His blessing upon this nation and its Government and give it all possible success and duration consistent with the ends of His providence.