A History Note: Some Founders Worried About Actors in Power

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

In a recent column, the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters bitterly accused Gov. Schwarzenegger of being an “amateur governor.” That shot at our movie star governor was fresh on my mind as I read Ira Stoll’s new biography, Samuel Adams: A Life.

Full disclosure: Stoll, a journalist and newspaper editor, is a friend. So I won’t go on and on about how great the book is. But I did want to relay one historical gem that Stoll unearthed in the journals of the Second Continental Congress. It’s a detail I had never encountered before, even through many years as a newspaper reporter who had to write often about the intersection of entertainment and politics.

Sam Adams — the Boston patriot, legislator and Founding Father — saw religion and morals as the foundations of liberty and happiness. Adams was delighted that the Congress, in 1778, had passed a resolution making that plain. But some in that Congress, Stoll reports, wanted to go further and ban people involved with the theater from federal office.

A resolution from the Congress read: “Whereas frequenting play houses and theatrical entertainments has a fatal tendency to divert the minds of the people from a due attention to the means necessary for the defence of their country, and the preservation of their liberties: Resolved, That any person holding an office under the United States, who shall act, promote, encourage or attend such plays, shall be deemed unworthy to hold such office, and shall be accordingly dismissed.”

One assumes they wouldn’t have thought any better of the movies than they did of the theater.

The resolution didn’t pass.

Think how history might have been different if it had.

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