Ambition, Self-Interest, & the Debauchment of Our Political Vocabulary

"Liberty Letters" with Steve Farrell
“Liberty Letters”
with Steve Farrell


When seeking solutions to the great political and moral test of our time in that Magnificent and Timeless Storehouse known as the American Founding Formula, with but a few notable exceptions, it is best to explore sources contemporary to that era. If not, beware the Revisionists! – men and women who have – for over a century now – debunked the motives, morals, principles, and faith of our Founding Fathers and the free government they gave us.

Among the tactics common among these truth-tellers: a debauchment of the vocabulary of the Founders.

Consider the word “ambition.” The Revisionists have successfully sold the idea, for instance, that George Washington (The Father of Our Country and 1st President) and John Adams (The “Voice” of the Declaration of Independence and our 2nd President) were obsessively ambitious. The sleight of hand: a modification of the truth via one word: “obsessively.” The implication? Whatever victory, accomplishment, and political contribution can be attached to either man is now tainted, if not wholly discredited, by an inordinate self-serving lust for position, prestige and power – and if present in these two key Founders, what does that say about the rest of them?

John Adams
John Adams

Yes, both men described themselves as ambitious; but according to what definition? In a letter dated April 27, 1777, John Adams reveals the kind of details the revisionists selectively ignore. He writes:

Ambition in a Republic, is a great Virtue, for it is nothing more than a Desire, to Serve the Public, to promote the Happiness of the People, to increase the Wealth, the Grandeur, and Prosperity of the Community. This, Ambition is but another Name for public Virtue, and public Spirit. But the Ambition which has Power for its object, which desires to increase the Wealth, the Grandeur, and the Glory of an Individual, at the Expense of the Community, is a very heinous Vice.

The closely related term, “self-interest”, is another hot item in the Revisionist Anti-American/Anti-Capitalist circuit. According to such professional prevaricators “self-interest” is that Great and Evil Pursuit of the Founders, of the Constitution they wrote, of the American Free Enterprise System they devised, and of every rich, greedy, narrow, self-centered advocate of these things today – when the truth is the Founders had an entirely different definition in mind when they spoke of self-interest as compatible, even needful in a free state. They were talking about what Adam Smith called “Enlightened Self-Interest,” or what Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1832 classic, “Democracy In America,” later called, “Interest Rightly Understood,” something he said was a “universal doctrine” known and praised among both “rich and poor” in America.

John Dickinson
John Dickinson

In 1788, John Dickinson writing in defense of the proposed American Constitution was thinking along this vein when he defined self-interest this way:

Humility and benevolence must take place of pride and overweening selfishness. Reason, rising above these mists, will then discover to us, that we cannot be true to ourselves, without being true to others – that to love our neighbors as ourselves, is to love ourselves in the best manner – that to give, is to gain – and, that we never consult our own happiness more effectually, than when we most endeavor to correspond with the divine designs, by communicating happiness, as much as we can, to our fellow creatures.

It was this sort of enlightened self-interest that inspired Benjamin Franklin, in a number of instances, not to pursue what might have been a profitable patent. In reference to his scientific article on lightening rods, Franklin reflects:

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin

These thoughts …if I were merely ambitious of acquiring some reputation in philosophy I ought to keep them by me till corrected and improved by time and farther experience. But since even short hints and imperfect experiments in any new branch of science, being communicated, have oftentimes a good effect, in exciting the attention of the ingenious to the subject, and so become the occasion of more exact disquisition and more complete discoveries; you are at liberty to communicate this paper to whom you please; it being of more importance that knowledge should increase than that your friend should be thought an accurate philosopher.

It was enlightened self-interest or interest rightly understood that explains Franklin’s conviction that science to be worthy of personal study ought to be of practical service to mankind.

Men of ambition, and, a constitutional and economic system that claims as an Inalienable Right, freedom from government interference in the pursuit of one’s self-interest, are evil? Not when we go to the source, not when we discuss it in the context the Founders meant.

And so I leave off where I began: when seeking solutions from the American Founding Philosophy, make sure it is truly the American Founding Philosophy that is being studied – otherwise we, all of us and each of us, may find ourselves unwittingly going along with, or what is worse, fighting against that great thing God hath wrought in this nation.

Go to the source.

Steve Farrell

Steve Farrell is the Founder and Editor In Chief of The Moral Liberal, one of the original pundits at (1999-2007), and the author of the highly praised inspirational novel, Dark Rose.