Think how remarkable, how rare, is our democratic republic

Tue, 07/03/2007 - 4:09pm
By: Letters to the ...

I have often wondered if our Founding Fathers could have ever dreamed of the county we are today. They were, for the most part, an idealistic bunch.

I think Benjamin Franklin would have an absolutely wonderful time in present day America. Of President George Washington’s opinions, I am not so sure.

“Based on what we now know about the military history of the American Revolution, if the British commanders had prosecuted the war more vigorously in its earliest stages, the Continental Army might very well have been destroyed at the start and the movement for American independence nipped in the bud. The signers of the Declaration would then have been hunted down, tried, and executed for treason, and American history would have flowed forward in a wholly different direction” (“Founding Brothers, The Revolutionary Generation,” Joseph J. Ellis).

It is hard to imagine what our country would be like had the revolution failed. Prior to the American Revolution, no country had been able to sustain a republican democracy for any period of time, and the ones that tried were mere city-states.

How remarkable that our fragile experiment was able to overpower monarchical dynasties and later totalitarian despotisms, endure massive internal strife and stare down the threat of communism. The American model is the preferred brand of government, with open markets, representative government and individual rights, around the globe.

Two centuries later, the issues in our present political state, including freedom of speech, open government, equal representation, etc., were the same worries of the Founding Fathers.

I can remember as a boy being struck by the electrical force of Patrick Henry’s words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” I realized, for the first time, the American Revolution was not all glossy depictions of the idealistic men sitting around tables, and you paid a dear price if you failed.

The fact that men would die for a collection of ideas never before in history put into practice shows a great deal of courage. Nathan Hale’s courageous words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” after the British placed the noose around his neck in 1776, embodies the spirit of sacrifice that begets freedom.

It took the boldness of leadership that George Washington provided to keep the fragile ideals bolted into the ground while the hurricane of discontent passed.

Read the damning words of Washington to officers in a time of crisis: “Can you then consent to be the only sufferers by this revolution, and retiring from the field, grow old in poverty, wretchedness and contempt? Can you consent to wade through the vile mire of dependency, and owe the miserable remnant of that life to charity, which has hitherto been spent in honor? If you can — GO — and carry with you the jest of tories and scorn of whigs — the ridicule, and what is worse, the pity of the world. Go, starve, and be forgotten!”

As John Adams later commented, the revolution was not about territory or the like. Instead, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations ... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution,” (letter to H. Niles, Feb. 13, 1818).

There was also a deep feeling of hypocrisy among some of the Founding Fathers. Yes, the Declaration of Independence did say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness: that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” but these words waned under the weight of slavery.

Patrick Henry wrote of slavery, “I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery,” (letter to Robert Pleasants, Jan. 18, 1773).

John Jay agreed, saying, “It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused,” (letter to R. Lushington, March 15, 1786).

The writings of the Founding Fathers also provide a cautionary tale of a good government being one that is closely watched. The writings are replete with suspicion of governmental power like Samuel Adams declaring, “The public cannot be too curious concerning the characters of public men,” (letter to James Warren, Nov. 4, 1775).

Alexander Hamilton stated, “A fondness for power is implanted, in most men, and it is natural to abuse it, when acquired,” (“The Farmer Refuted,” Feb. 23, 1775). In like mind, James Madison insisted, “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree,” (speech at the Constitutional Convention, July 11, 1787).

Thomas Jefferson urged, “A rigid economy of the public contributions and absolute interdiction of all useless expenses will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive,” (letter to Lafayette, 1823).

You can imagine Jefferson turning violently in grave at our current level of taxation.

Most importantly, the Founding Fathers knew the principles of liberty and democracy could erode over time. They knew it was vitally important to educate our citizens and to reintroduce the founding principles over time.

John Adams said, “Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom,” (“Defense of the Constitutions,” 1787).

Jefferson adds, “Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day,” (letter to Dupont de Nemours, April 24, 1816).

“A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader,” argued Samuel Adams (letter to James Warren, Feb. 12, 1779).

Noah Webster summed it up beautifully, saying, “Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country,” (“On the Education of Youth in America,” 1788).

The history of our nation does not seem to carry the importance it once did. Perhaps the Founding Fathers were correct.

Thomas Friedman describes in his book, “The World is Flat,” that massive technological forces are at work which will make nationalism obsolete. Indeed, as with the American Revolution, we are now treading on uncharted ground. I can do business in Russia, Germany or Thailand just as easily as I can in Marietta, Ga.

We will have to wait and see what becomes of our national identity. It is possible that many parts of the world will take on an American identity. It is also possible that our future generations will remove elements of our national identity in an effort to merge into the global economy.

We can pray that no matter what challenges lie ahead, we always proceed with Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness in mind, and we never lose the belief that government rules under the consent of the governed.

Remember independence, stay involved and stand for honesty and freedom.

Steve Brown

Peachtree City, Ga.

[Brown is the former mayor of Peachtree City.]

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