Tuesday, August 11, 2009

True in the Decisions of Youth

The year is 1757. George Washington is 25 years old and is engaged in the French-Indian War. Near Charlottesville, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter, has just died at age 49 at his home in Shadwell. Young Thomas is only 14 years old -- the third of ten children and the oldest son. While his father was not well educated, he made sure that Thomas received schooling and had books to read. With his father gone, what would he decide to do with his future? Years later, speaking of this time in his life, Jefferson wrote to his grandson:

“When I consider that at fourteen years of age the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on myself entirely, without a relative or a friend qualified to advise or guide me, and recollect the various sorts of bad company with which I associated from time to time, I am astonished that I did not turn off with some of them, and become as worthless to society as they were. From the circumstances of my position, I was often thrown into the society of horseracers, cardplayers, foxhunters, [as well as] scientific and professional men … and many a time have I asked myself … "Well, which of these kinds of reputation should I prefer--that of a horsejockey, a foxhunter, … or the honest advocate of my country's rights?"

Thomas made his choice to be an ‘advocate of his country’s rights’ … and pursued an education in Williamsburg. He bought many books. Under the guidance of Dr. William Small, who taught natural history, Jefferson discovered Bacon, Newton, and Locke, studied science and philosophy, bowed the fiddle, debated ethics, and polished his manners. Along with Professor Small, Jefferson also learned from another mentor, George Wythe. They quickened Thomas’ interests in the world, interests he would apply to a variety of subjects including weather, music, mathematics, paleontology, surveying, education, literature, physics, architecture, art, history, medicine, law, religion, government, and agriculture … they opened his mind.

After Dr. Small departed for England in 1764, Jefferson continued under Wythe. Commuting from Shadwell with bundles of books, Jefferson devoted five years to his study under Wythe and emerged in 1767 among the elite of the lawyers, a man of polished politeness, taste, and unblemished behavior. Thinking on what he learned in his twenty years at Williamsburg, an aging Jefferson described his personal experience there as "the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America." He had become a community leader, and would eventually take his role in the leadership and governance of his state and of our nation. Thomas Jefferson stood true in the decisions of youth.…

By: J. David Gowdy

See Colonial Williamsburg: http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/jeffart.cfm

Monday, July 20, 2009

True in the Crucible of Power

The year is 1783. The place is Newburgh, New York. After over six years of conflict and battles, the Revolutionary War is finally over. As a peace treaty is being negotiated in Paris with Great Britain, a perilous moment in the life of our new American democracy is occurring. Officers of the Continental Army are meeting to discuss their grievances and consider a possible revolt against Congress. They are angry over the failure of Congress to honor its promises to the army regarding salary, bounties and life pensions. The officers had heard that the American government was going broke and that they might not be compensated at all.

On March 10, 1783, an anonymous letter was circulated among the officers of Washington's camp. It addressed those complaints and called for a private meeting of officers to be held the next day, to consider possible military solutions to the government’s problems and its financial woes. When he learned of this, General Washington wisely forbade the officers from attending the unauthorized meeting. Instead, he suggested they meet a few days later at the regular meeting of his officers. Meanwhile, another anonymous letter was circulated, this time suggesting that Washington himself was sympathetic to their claims. Some of the officers wondered if Washington would lead them in another rebellion for their cause ….

And so, on March 15, 1783, Washington's upset and frustrated officers gathered in a church in Newburgh, effectively holding the fate of democracy in America in their hands. Unexpectedly, General Washington himself showed up. He was not entirely welcomed by his men, but nevertheless, spoke to them … He reminded them of their mutual sacrifices, and expressed gratitude for their “cheerful assistance and prompt obedience” while serving together in the war of independence. He pledged to help them obtain amends for their grievances. Then he firmly stated: “…let me [summon] you, in the name of our common country, … to express your utmost horror … of the man who wishes, under any [false] pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.” He closed by encouraging them to “patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings.”

This speech was not very well received by his men. The question of a military overthrow still hung in the balance. If Washington decided to join his men, he could march on Philadelphia and become King of America. As we know, such events had happened before in history. That, however, was the furthest thing from his mind. After a long silence, Washington took out a letter from a member of Congress explaining the financial difficulties of the government. After reading a portion of the letter with his eyes squinting at the small writing, Washington suddenly stopped. … His officers stared at him, wondering. Washington then reached into his coat pocket and took out a pair of reading glasses. Few of them knew he wore glasses, and were surprised. "Gentlemen," said Washington, "you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."

In that moment of unreserved honesty, Washington's men were deeply moved, even shamed, and many were quickly in tears, now looking with great affection at this aging man who had led them through so much. Washington read the remainder of the letter, then left without saying another word. … After a long silence, his officers then voted unanimously to submit to the rule of Congress. Thus, the civilian government was preserved -- and the young experiment of a republic in America continued on … George Washington stood true in the crucible of power.
By: J. David Gowdy

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Independence Now, Independence Forever

Written by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence stands as a timeless statement of human liberty, rights and equality. Adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the signers of the Declaration pledged to it their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Jefferson said, “The Declaration of Independence... [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man.”[1] The Declaration is America's first and foremost founding document. It sets forth our understanding of human rights based upon the principles of natural law, and the legitimate authority and purpose of government. The first three sentences constitute its most significant and oft-quoted words:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 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 the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams said (as quoted by Daniel Webster):

“But whatever may be our fate, be assured . . . that this Declaration will stand. It may cost treasure, and it may cost blood; but it will stand, and it will richly compensate for both. Through the thick and gloom of the present, I see the brightness of the future, as the sun in heaven. We shall make this a glorious, an immortal day. When we are in our graves, our children will honor it. They will celebrate it with thanksgiving, with festivity, with bonfires and illuminations. On its annual return they will shed tears, copious, gushing tears, not of subjection or of slavery, not of agony and distress, but of exultation, of gratitude, of joy. Sir, before God, I believe the hour is come. My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it; and I leave off as I begun, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration. It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment, Independence, now, and Independence for ever!”[2]

May we remember the Declaration and its immortal words as we celebrate this Independence Day.
By: J. David Gowdy
[1] Jefferson to Samuel Adams Wells, 1819, ME 15:200.
[2] The Works of Daniel Webster, 4th ed. (Boston, 1851), 1:133–36.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Importance of Civic Education

Just outside of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia stands a statue of Thomas Jefferson, sculpted by Moses Ezekiel, and “presented to the people” on May 25, 1910. When I first visited the University in May 2004, as I admired this great work of art, I noticed the inscription on the upper base of the statue which reads: “TO PERPETUATE THE TEACHINGS AND EXAMPLES OF THE FOUNDERS OF THE REPUBLIC.” I was profoundly impressed with the spirit and significance of this statement. I reflected upon it much, recorded it in my journal, and later decided that this testimonial should serve as basis for the Charter of The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute.

As conveyed by the words of this inscription, it is incumbent upon each of us to study and ponder America's Founding Documents and the writings and lives of our Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson said: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”[1] He also stated: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”[2] The diffusion of knowledge and an enlightened citizenry are essential elements required to maintain liberty.

We may ask, have we studied and learned the principles of the Constitution in the tradition of the Founding Fathers? Are the Constitution and principles of liberty expounded by the Founding Fathers being taught in our schools? Has their history been diluted? Abraham Lincoln stated: “Let it [reverence for the laws and Constitution] be taught in schools, seminaries and in colleges; let it be written in primers, in spelling books and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, enforced in courts of justice. In short, let it become the political religion of the nation.”[3] In his Inaugural Address on April 30, 1789, as our nation’s first President under the newly adopted Constitution, George Washington said: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”[4] Vigilance in learning and imparting liberty's knowledge is part of liberty's price.

By: J. David Gowdy
[1] Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816. ME 14:384.
[2] Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820. ME 15:278.
[3] Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings: 1832-1858, Don Fehrenbacher, ed. (Library of America, New York, 1989), pp. 32-33.
[4] Saxe Commins, ed., Basic Writings of George Washington (Random House, New York, 1948), p. 560.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Proper Role of Government

What are the proper ends of government? James Madison stated, “[T]he government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like the state governments, whose powers are more general.” Thomas Jefferson said, “What more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow citizens -- a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned” and, “If we can prevent government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of caring for them, they must become happy.”

“John Adams wrote, ‘Happiness of society is the end of government.’ George Washington stated, “The aggregate happiness of the society, which is best promoted by the practice of a virtuous policy, is, or ought to be, the end of all government ….” As revered in our past, industry, thrift and self-reliance must be upheld as crowning attributes to each generation. There were no "social programs" for the pilgrims or the pioneers. Thoreau said: “This government never of itself furthered any enterprise … [t]he character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished.”

Locke, in his “Essay the True End of Civil Government,” quotes Dragonetti on Virtue and Rewards, stating: "The science of the politician consists in fixing the true point of happiness and freedom. Those men would deserve the gratitude of ages, who should discover a mode of government that contained the greatest sum of individual happiness, with the least national expense." This, then is the great dilemma for citizens, representatives and leaders in all ages: how do we efficiently augment the well being and contentment of society, i.e., maximize societal well-being and happiness? Endless social programs have been devised, enacted and administered to this end. While there is no single solution or easy answer to all social ills, there is a formula proven in nature: "For whatsoever a man soweth, that also shall he reap." Thus, wisdom and virtue must fashion each seed sown by government.
By: J. David Gowdy

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Foundation of Public Virtue

" 'Tis substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free Government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?" George Washington (Farewell Address)

John Adams said, "Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” Self-government, or democracy, can only be perpetuated by the self-governed. Henry Ward Beecher said: "There is no liberty to men who know not how to govern themselves." Goethe stated: "What is the best government? -- That which teaches us to govern ourselves." Self-governance consists of self-regulation of our behavior and passions.

Virtue ennobles individual character and lifts society as a whole. Virtuous principles eschew prejudice and discrimination, confirming that: "all men are created equal." Virtue encompasses characteristics of good will, patience, tolerance, kindness, respect, humility, gratitude, courage, honor, industry, honesty, chastity and fidelity. These precepts serve as the foundation for individual and societal governance. William Cowper said: "When was public virtue to be found when private was not?" Public virtue, or society's goodness, may be measured then by totaling the virtuous characteristics of its individual citizens. In order to strengthen our nation, should we not diligently seek to fortify our private, and thus, our public virtue?

"[T]he foundations of our National policy . . . [should] be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality." George Washington (Inaugural Address)

By: J. David Gowdy

See: "Seven Principles of Liberty"

Monday, February 9, 2009

Abraham Lincoln on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: "A Word Fitly Spoken"

As we celebrate Lincoln's 200th Birthday on February 12th, let us reflect on his favorite quote: “... 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 the pursuit of Happiness.” Abraham Lincoln said: “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence” and “Let us revere the Declaration of Independence.”

Concerning the relationship of the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln wrote the following meditation on the Old Testament, Proverbs 25:11 – “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver”:

“[The prosperity of the United States] is not the result of accident. It has a philosophic cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of "Liberty to all" -- the principle that clears the path for all -- gives hope to all -- and, by consequence, enterprise and industry to all.

The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government and consequent prosperity. The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word "fitly spoken" which has proven an "apple of gold" to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple -- not the apple for the picture.

So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, bruised or broken …
That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.”
From Roy P. Blaser, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953), vol. iv, 168 (italics in original).
As Lincoln did throughout his life and Presidency, may we ever cherish the Declaration of Independence, and may its principles of liberty and equality ever be protected under our Constitution.
By: J. David Gowdy