On the evening of April 26, 1777, John Adams sat down at his desk to write one of his innumerable letters to his wife, Abigail. By the time he wrote this letter, the initial euphoria of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and the evacuation of the British troops from Boston the year prior had long since passed. The British forces under the command of the Howe brothers had taken New York and had driven a wedge between the northern and southern states, effectively dividing the country in half. Washington and the Continental Army were on the ropes. Persistently short of men, supplies, and money, there was little, if anything, they could do to stop the British from advancing into the heart of the country. Before the end of the year, the de facto capital of the United States, Philadelphia, would be occupied by British troops, and the very existence of the new nation would be called into question. It was one of the darkest and most challenging moments of the American Revolution, and the purpose of Adams’ letter was to inquire about the troops promised by Massachusetts for Washington’s spring campaign, who had not yet arrived. Hope for a swift resolution to the nation’s status as an independent country was gone, and if there was any light at the end of the tunnel, it was so faint as to be imperceptible to the naked eye.
For many of us working in academia, especially here in California, we can empathize with Mr. Adams at this particularly low point in his life. Over the last several years, we have seen Critical Race Theory (CRT) sweep across our educational institutions with a vengeance that would have been the envy of the British Empire. No concept or idea, no matter how sacred or revered, has been able to withstand it. Even the First Amendment, with its guarantees of freedom of speech and the like, has been unable to stand against CRT’s onslaught. Freedom of speech on today’s college campuses is nothing more than a relic of an earlier time designed to support a white supremacist patriarchy, one which must be rooted out and destroyed, lest it be used to extinguish the one great truth. And that truth is that race is the only motivation for everything we do, everything we say, and everything we are. Unless we are willing to use fire and sword to purge our institutions of the evils of “systemic racism,” we are the enemy who must ourselves be purged. We are watching the once familiar landscape of our noble profession burn, and no corner is spared. No quarter is given. My own discipline of history may have been one of the first casualties in this conflict, but it will not be the last. Even now, we see the sciences and mathematics, once thought to be unassailable bastions of objective truth, twisted to the service of social justice and “anti-racism,” or be destroyed. Like John Adams in his letter, we lament the lack of resources to push back against the enemy and retake the field. As he said, “I am more sick and ashamed of my own countrymen than ever I was before. The spleen, the vapours, the dismals, the horrors, seem to have seized our whole state.”
But even in the midst of this dark night of the soul, Adams refused to completely surrender to the gloom. As he put it, “More wrath than terror has seized me. I am very mad.”
Indeed, in 1778, Adams and his sons set sail for France to aid Benjamin Franklin in convincing the French to support America’s independence. From there, Adams would move on to the Netherlands to secure millions of dollars in aid for the cause. He proved to be relentless in his pursuit of American liberty, and even after independence was secured and recognized by the British government in 1783, he spent much of the next two decades making sure that it would not be lost through Americans’ own ignorance or incompetence. He worked on the Massachusetts state constitution, which would later serve as a model for the entire United States. He advocated for the separation of powers to prevent tyranny. He even served for eight years in “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived,” the vice presidency, because of his devotion to make the country work so that his sacrifices would not have been in vain. And he was not the only one. Entire generations of Americans sacrificed, bled, and died to ensure the liberties and freedoms that we today seem to so blithely toss into the dustbin of history, all in the name of CRT.
At the end of his April 26 letter, Adams called out to future generations of Americans, “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom!” I think he is talking to us right here and now. The present generation is being called on once again to protect and preserve the liberties and ideals that earlier generations spent their lives defending. We might be outnumbered and outgunned like the patriots of old, but I pray to God that we are as committed and as brave also. Adams spent his life in the service of his country. Can we do anything less? Will we let ideas like freedom of speech and academic freedom pass into memory because we were too afraid to speak up? We have to move beyond the fear and the darkness that has been created by the anathema of CRT and cancel culture. We need to speak up in defense of the principles that we know are right and true for ourselves and our students, even if we risk being marginalized at work or ostracized by our more “enlightened” colleagues. It is a small price to pay compared to what others have done. We have to be brave enough to risk being “canceled” by our colleagues for speaking the truth. Adams was canceled multiple times during his career, beginning in 1770, when he defended British soldiers accused of murder during the Boston Massacre. In the process, he established the American judicial principles of fair trials and a defense for all. We have to be smart enough and articulate enough to persuade those we can to become our allies. Adams was not a soldier. He didn’t fight on the battlefield. Instead, he spent the revolution proselytizing on behalf of the new nation, winning converts both at home and abroad. Finally, we need to have the fortitude to see this fight through to the end. In April 1777, there were still four and a half years of bloody, violent confrontation ahead, and even after that ended, another two years to negotiate peace. The American Revolution was a marathon, not a sprint. Adams understood that, which is probably why he was so frustrated by those who were ready to give up after every setback.
If we can’t do these things as well, Adams has something to say about that, too. After telling future generations that we would never know what it cost his generation to preserve our freedom, he finishes off his letter to Abigail with a warning: “I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.” Personally, I don’t want to face a wrathful John Adams when I get to heaven. He wrote that letter as he faced the beginning of a long, dark night in the American Revolution, which had only just started in 1777. Now, in 2021, we face our own dark night of CRT, and if we ever want to see the light of day again, we’d better get to work.