Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Facts: Stubborn, Bothersome, Necessary

“Facts are stubborn things,” future president John Adams said in court. The occasion for Adams’ observation is noteworthy, because Adams had taken the highly unpopular, personally dangerous task of defending Capt. Thomas Preston and eight British soldiers accused of shooting and killing five colonial Boston citizens in what became known as the Boston Massacre. Passions were at a boil.

Adams successfully defended Preston (acquitted) and the soldiers (six acquitted, two sentenced for manslaughter as opposed to murder, which would have meant a death sentence). In his summation, Adams averred to the primacy of facts over political passions:

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Much later in life, Adams was justifiably proud of his bravery in standing for truth to prevail against the passions of the day:

The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.

It cannot be lost that this key Founding Father called it one of the best pieces of service he ever rendered his country. Adams could see the greater victory for his country beyond the temporary victory for the British occupying force of Boston — a victory for truth, for acts and evidence, and for justice.

When Adams signed the Declaration of Independence, which famously recognized as self-evident truths that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” — he could do so secure in the knowledge that his actions defending Preston and the soldiers already had demonstrated that belief.

Politically expedient ‘truth’

It is an incalculable shame that Adams’ country has of late abandoned his example. Far too often, the dictates of passion and the pursuit of the political win today trample the dispassionate concern for truth.

North Carolina news is replete with examples: a documented 18 years’ of phony courses to keep student-athletes academically eligible to compete for UNC-Chapel Hill, allegations of a bipartisan “anything-goes attitude toward noncitizen voting” in this state, documents and statements concerning outgoing U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s family profiting from federal stimulus funds, on and on.

Over the years, going back to my time studying higher education for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, I watched the disturbing march of win-by-any-means-necessary relativism. With people convinced of the morality of the cause du jour, stubborn facts were smothered, “hate crimes” were faked, even the painfully obvious objective facts about gravity could be — as physicist Alan Sokal memorably demonstrated — sacrificed for the allure of “transgressive” theory.

This sad regression was egged on by academic theorists peddling philosophical justifications for lying, highfalutin nonsense ready to be seized upon by eager blockheads in the political class. Their efforts helped supplant in their acolytes’ minds the distasteful notion of outright dishonesty with the happier and far more convenient and self-serving notion that dishonesty for “good” was a greater honesty. (There is a reliance on euphemism and clever turns of phrase because the public at large still tends to find lying to be, well, lying.)

“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn showed great evils that have been perpetrated against the world by those who were convinced of the justice of their cause by “social theory.”

We need a return to the “disinterest” of John Adams to see truth set above the passions of the day. It would be one of the best true social goods we could manifest.

Jon Sanders is director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation.