By John F. Di Leo
Every year for two centuries plus, the American people have celebrated the events of June and July, 1776… those fiery weeks when the Continental Congress debated changing their focus from improving our relationship with the King and Parliament who ruled them, to terminating that relationship once and for all.
On a broader scale, on Independence Day, we champion the Founding Fathers, those wise and courageous patriots who managed this transition, who won us our independence and set these United States on the course to greatness. In addition to celebrating these actions, it might also be worthwhile to ponder who these people were – what made America’s greatest generation so different from our own.
The Framers are clearly definable: The Framers are the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, those careful and principled organizers who spent the summer of 1787 designing our government. But they are just a small subset of the Founding Fathers to whom we owe our nation’s independence and success.
The Founding Fathers are less easy to define. A wide range of ages, the term arguably spans three generations or more, from young John Quincy Adams (his father’s secretary and traveling companion during his years as a diplomat) to the elderly Benjamin Franklin (already a worldwide household name at our nation’s founding, as an inventor and publisher). To be truly fair about it, in fact, the term shouldn’t properly be limited to males alone; we know from their lifelong correspondence that John Adams’ wife Abigail played as great a role as many of the elected delegates, as her husband’s most trusted and often wisest advisor.
We periodically think of revisiting an issue or two that our Framers left out of the Constitution; we debate the idea of calling a new Constitutional Convention to make it happen. But we always pull back. In 220 years, we have still never called a second Constitutional Convention, and some of us believe it’s because of a consciousness – deeply held, though unstated – that we could never again produce a convention of such caliber as we produced in the 1770s and 1780s. Why do you suppose that is? Why do most politicians today, however intelligent, committed, and successful, appear smaller, punier, when compared to our nation’s Founding Fathers? What made them so special?
A Classical Education
Our Founding Fathers did not attend the local government school. Some, like the Adamses, went to a local little red schoolhouse run by a private businessman or the local church. Others, like the Jeffersons, would visit a private tutor once or twice a week, returning home each time with a stack of books to read. And still others, like George Washington, had to virtually educate themselves.
None of these options involved the auditoriums, swimming pools, varsity sports, or chemistry labs that today’s schools boast. None of them involved an hour of formal P.E., another hour of earth science in which to learn the necessity of newspaper recycling and the hoax of global warming, or another hour of health class in which to be indoctrinated in the intricacies of reproductive rights and condom usage.
No, the founding generations learned to read and write, and to do practical math that would enable them to run a farm or a shop. They learned ancient history from Caesar and Plato, and political science from the Magna Carta. They studied cartography and celestial navigation to understand the geography of where they were, where they came from, and where they might be going.
It is often argued that this is a different and more complex age, that there’s more to know today, so we cannot fairly compare these days to those. But couldn’t that have been said of every age – that every year, there’s another year’s worth of information; every decade, another decade’s, and every century, another century’s. Can this be a legitimate reason to abandon the basics, as America’s teachers did so long ago?
Our Founding Fathers studied many of the same books, watched in the same plays, read the same poems, whether they were educated in school or at home, whether they came from New England or the deepest south. This common background enabled them to speak the same language, figuratively as well as literally, when debating the issues of the day or their countries’ goals for the future.
Not so today. The delegate from the Hispanic neighborhood in his bilingual school would never have been exposed to the Gallic Wars… the delegate from the African-American neighborhood would never have heard of the Magna Carta. And in the wealthy suburban district in which these issues might have been mentioned in class, once or twice in twelve years of schooling, the students would be forgiven for not having absorbed them, as there was a prom, a homecoming game, or a season finale of American Idol the night before.
Without a common education, it’s hard for a political body to find common ground.
Religion and Philosophy
Our Founding Fathers were religious in an age of great religious consciousness.
Today, too often, our religion is manifested in which building we drive to on Saturday or Sunday, and which parish name appears most often in our checkbooks and in the itemized deductions page of our 1040 forms.
But America’s Founding era occurred during the Enlightenment, and in America, of all places, the land to which so many rushed to be able to freely practice their beloved religious denominations, however unusual they may have seemed in their home countries.
Americans in those days were Lutherans from an Anglican home town, or Calvinists from a Catholic home town, or vice versa. There were dedicated practitioners of traditional denominations like Patrick Henry and John Witherspoon, and a few equally dedicated believers in a personal relationship with God that involved no church, like Thomas Jefferson.
Most important, though, was the fact that “religion” for them did not stop during the Recessional Hymn on Sunday as they left church, to be set aside until that moment a week later when the Entrance Hymn would begin. It was part and parcel of their personal philosophy; it determined their feelings about how to treat their neighbors and their business associates. Their religion helped them understand the nature of the free will of a free person, and helped them direct their energy towards establishing a government that would support the individual’s ability to live his life as a free citizen, as a productive and honorable member of society.
Today, our colleges separate religion class from philosophy; in those days, they were inextricably linked. Our Founders knew that morality is a God-given code, and that all we on earth believed and did ought to be guided by such a code. The Founders may have been scattered across dozens of denominations, but on this much they agreed: a republican government constituted by its citizens can have no hope of just and successful leadership unless those citizens share a moral commitment to building a civil society.
Commerce and Career
Perhaps the starkest difference between then and now is that the Founding generation didn’t have career politicians. The concept simply didn’t exist.
Today, we have hundreds of thousands of politicians, people who apprenticed themselves to a politician as high school pages and college interns, then won a position on the Congressman’s staff upon graduation from college, then rose to chief of staff in the office, so that when the Congressman finally retired or was indicted – or both – this well-qualified and long-groomed successor would be ready to step into the office himself.
We have people who have never had a private sector job at all… or whose private sector jobs were so short-lived they had no chance to affect their political demeanor at all. Dick Gebhardt, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden… the list of people who have risen to the very pinnacle of American politics without ever having experienced the life of a constituent is terrifying. Can you call it representation if you know nothing of the lives of the people you claim to represent?
Our Founders tended to have more than one career simultaneously. Washington was a surveyor, a military officer, a farmer, and an import/export merchant. Adams started as a teacher, then made a living as both lawyer and farmer. John Witherspoon was both a minister and a college president. Patrick Henry might hear cases as a judge, riding circuit, or he might stay closer to home, arguing cases as a lawyer in someone else’s court. If it took two careers to earn a living and support your family, you did so. The Founders didn’t raise up picket signs to denounce an unfair society; they just went out and got (or created) a second job. Or a third.
Both this work ethic and the specific and diverse private sector experiences shared by our Founders can be seen to have driven their choices throughout the founding era. They didn’t fear independence from the Mother Country, Great Britain… then the greatest nation on earth. No, our Founders came to the realization that America was ready to fly out of the nest, that our country was at last ready to succeed on its own.
While our distant German-English king, George III, imagined us to be dependent children biting the generous hand that fed them from across the Pond, no such dependency mindset really existed in America by the mid 18th century. Our Founders were confident that America would rise to the challenge, that every individual American would work hard, and by so doing, would make this American experiment succeed as well.
The Greatest Generation
We owe so much to our Founding Fathers… not only the famous ones like Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams, but to the ones forgotten by our schoolteachers and almost completely left out of our modern American education.
Gouverneur Morris, who organized the Constitution into its final, magnificent form. Robert Morris, who literally went bankrupt funding Washington’s army – he didn’t give from his surplus, he gave it all. Henry Knox, who managed the herculean feat of transporting the guns of Ticonderoga to Boston in time to win the Battle of Dorchester Heights. George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and therefore father of our nation’s Bill of Rights. John Jay, contributor to the Federalist Papers and negotiator of the peace with England that averted a war we could not have won.
There is a line of thought among some historians that the march of time is a force of its own, that people don’t matter, that countries rise and fall without dependence on individuals. They maintain that there was a time for one country to settle another, then a time for that country to break off, much like the way that an animal leaves the litter when its mother deems it old enough, regardless of who the players may be at the time. It’s all just a dialectic to them. Such historians have never truly studied the American experience.
We know that America’s founding was a miracle, one blessed by Providence at a time when all the right people were present – the authors, the diplomats, the military minds, the political philosophers, the economists – all the right people were ready to rise to the occasion; it would never have worked without them. There is not just one “indispensible man;” there were dozens, at least… each one indispensible in his own way.
As we celebrate our Independence Day, this year and every year, we must celebrate the wisdom of these thousands of Founding Fathers, these honorable and principled stewards, to whom the voters entrusted the clay of a single coast, and who then built from that clay a body of work that was to become the greatest nation on God’s green earth.
Copyright 2011 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. His columns appear frequently in Illinois Review.
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