Founding Father John Adams: the Conservative as Revolutionary.
John Adams' "On Canon and Feudal Law", is a short essay which only makes sense at all when put in context. In as few and simple words as possible I will do that here.
First, Adams is a conservative and British-ruled American subject. Conservatives seek to conserve what is good in the tradition. (As we will see, how Adams conserves is very different from our modern idea of how a conservative works.)
Second, Adams suggests a radical conservative change by placing it in the existing tradition. Adams says his reform is the mainstream of the Puritan impulse. (Whether his idea is the Puritan mainsteam or not we can't say!)
Third, and most historically, Adams is protesting the Stamp Act, which taxed the use of paper in the Americas. He protests this because he says it limits freedom. Here's some historical context on the act, which (as part of the early British persecution of the Americas) was soon revoked.
But the Stamp Act is just a pretext, really, for a discussion of the difference between law in America and law in Europe. A young Adams here makes a stark (and questionable) distinction between the American and the European legal systems.
In a nutshell:
European law, Adams says, is illiberal and oppressive, conducive to tyranny, because it keeps people poor, socially trapped and ignorant; by contrast, American law is liberal and free and anti-tyranny, because it enables people to become rich, socially mobile, and educated.Adams describes how the rich are expected to fund education, along with the poor. (Nowhere does he suggest that this funding ought be done by governments, as per the progressive income tax.)
The most interesting things about this short essay are the noble and elevated diction, which can be read aloud well, and the historicity. I'll discuss briefly Adams (to my mind faulty) historicism.
Adams tells American history as the progress from barbarism to civilization. He evokes Rousseau as an examplar of liberation. By describing Roman civilization as tyrannical, he can picture American society as free. This simplistic historicism gives Americans a reassuring narrative of progress and meaning, from Roman tyranny to American liberty. But does the picture play out as Adams says?
It need be said that Adams was a young working lawyer when he wrote this, and new to political practice. I think he can be forgiven his unsophisticated historicism and the unmeaning errors in his little historical fables. But the radical suggestion, that educating the masses and freeing government and education from the historical burdens of law, has remained exciting and liberating to this day.
Most exceptionally, Adams is that most rare of creatures: the conservative playing at revolutionary!
We imagine conservatives are not open to change; this is false. Conservatives are open to progress, to beneficial change. It is only frivolous, meaningless, baseless change that conservatives steadfastly oppose.
Therefore, because it presents conservatism as it really is, and because it depicts freedom so well, it to this day remains well worth a read.