The Higher Purpose of Statesmanship

The Higher Purpose of Statesmanship


In a letter to his wife, John Adams envisions the sort of society which it is the duty of a statesman to procure and secure: a society in which his children can pursue the arts, and reflect upon the universal truths of the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, rather than engaging in politics and in war. As Larry P. Arnn explains, the true merit of statesmanship lies in protecting the articulation of these principles.

The following video is a clip from Lecture 1 of Hillsdale’s Online Course: “Great Books 101,” featuring Larry P. Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and John J. Miller, director of the Dow Journalism Program. 

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Larry P. Arnn-

In [a] letter to Abigail, May the 12th, 1780, Adams describes his own life as harassed and he misses his wife and he misses his son, there's some stuff he wants her to send him [be]cause he doesn't have it and he needs it. He doesn't speak French, which is the language of diplomacy at that time so he doesn't have anybody to talk to. And he walks around and he looks at things and he goes in several of the palaces and the palaces are all a kind of microcosm of the point that we have to make today because each one of these palaces…(some of them still stand in Paris, some of them don't), they are tremendous achievements and they're built out of two things. One is some powerful person won some great victory in politics and the other is that powerful person had the taste or the good fortune to hire some great architect to design these things and make them beautiful. And both of those things were necessary to produce these great things that Adams walks around and looks at.

And he says…to his wife, he writes, “I could fill volumes with descriptions of temples and palaces, painting, sculptures, tapestries, porcelain if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The science of government, it is my duty to study more than all the other studies. The art of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place, indeed to exclude…in a manner, all the other arts.” He doesn't have time to look at these great works of art, he says, writes to his wife. You can tell he regrets it. And master them because duty calls. There's a revolution and he's there to represent it and he's not done. You can tell when he says, what he says he has to spend all his spare time doing is studying, because if he doesn't study and get it right, he won't be able to serve in the urgent time in which he lives.

Then he writes this: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study painting, poetry, mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children, he means his grandsons, the right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” Can you see there's a kind of an ascent going on there? [It is] from the urgent to the final. He's [going to] make a revolution and be a statesman. But what he's going to protect is something beyond the work of the statesman. The work of the statesman is for something. In the document that Adams caused to [be] written, that something is named to be the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God and knowledge of those laws such as is available in the great poets. It is a very desirable thing, the most desirable thing.